The importance of studying history is not just to know what happened in the past, but also to contextualize and understand the present. Because the United States of 2018 is a culmination of economic and political forces set in motion many decades before, an understanding of pre-Civil War America can inform our perspective on today’s political scene.
I think this country is at a dangerous inflection point, much like the 1850s – which led to the Civil War. The conditions that existed in the lead-up to the Civil War were the result of historical forces at the beginning of the 19th century that are obvious in hindsight but nobody would have predicted then. In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States and set in motion a set of circumstances that would make the Civil War inevitable.
By the 1850s the United States could no longer punt on the issue of the expansion of slavery. The question was purely economic: Do you allow the Southern planter class to continue to expand its feudal plantation system and political hegemony over America, or does America’s expanding manufacturing and mining sectors assert themselves and embrace their capitalist destiny?
Don’t misunderstand. The issue was slavery but not us. For the overwhelming number of white Americans, both leadership and average citizens, the condition and welfare of enslaved blacks was never a political or moral priority. We were fodder for both sides in this economic/political death match.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 literally changed the color of America, and the social movements of the 1960s permanently transformed the culture. Then globalization and revolutions in technology forever changed the structure of the economy and the nature of work.
The United States has undergone a paradigm shift, precipitated by the cumulative effect of all these changes. While not all of these changes have universally benefited the black community, the America of 2018 is structurally preferable for blacks to the America of 1958. But that has not been true for a huge swath of white America. In 2018 America, being white doesn’t pay as well as it used to.
In 1849, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun extolled the cultural and political benefits of whiteness in America in terms that eerily reverberate today. In “Black Reconstruction” (1935), W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of the psychological and economic “wages of whiteness.” Donald Trump is not an apparition or anomaly but the manifestation of the resistance to all these cultural changes. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” in 2018 echoes 19th century Southern slaveholders and white supremacists saying, “We need to maintain our way of life.”
In moments of political struggle like this, it’s important to consider the emotional make-up of the participants.
The forces of change and reform (the good guys) always believe history is on their side. The forces of reaction (the bad guys) have rationalized that they are morally superior and deserve their privilege. A critical difference between them is the bad guys bring much more intensity to these fights than the good guys do. This is because the good guys have no concrete idea of what victory means, but the bad guys know what they lose if defeated. The result is the bad guys will do anything and everything in their power to prevail. They will always be cruel, vicious, unprincipled adversaries.
So how do the good guys win? They have to have greater moral capacity, but that doesn’t mean what you think. It’s not, “We need to be better than them” or “when they go low, we go high.” Greater moral capacity is the will to do whatever is required to defeat evil. It means rejecting the moral fallacy that “the ends don’t justify means” because, in realty, it’s only the end that can justify the means.
The ultimate moral question is always: What are you prepared to do to save who and what you love?
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association.