Whether it’s the ousting of the house speaker and his heir apparent, or witnessing Paul Ryan have to beg the Freedom Caucus to let him have the job, even Republicans agree that the process is almost hopelessly broken. It’s not too different from the dysfunctional Confederate States of America that lost the Civil War.
When I research material to teach about the Civil War, I find numerous historians, especially Southern historians, so eager to assign blame to losing the conflict on a few generals. It was George Pickett and his doomed charge at Gettysburg, or it was Braxton Bragg losing Chattanooga. It could be Joe Johnston, or John Bell Hood, letting the North take Atlanta. Some even blame James Longstreet for not winning the second day of Gettysburg, or Jeb Stuart’s cavalry failing to support Robert E. Lee.
What most do is overlook the huge errors made by the dysfunctional government the Confederate States of America constructed, which doomed any sort of military effort in the field.
Charles Flato writes of President Jefferson Davis’ regime:
“Davis’ biggest problem was that the kind of government the Southerners wanted was not the kind that could win a long war. The Confederacy believe in states’ rights — the right of each state to decide things for itself. Davis saw that only a strong central government could carry on the war. And when he tried to get and use the power he needed, he was bitterly criticized.
“The Confederate Congress gave Davis more trouble than the Congress in Washington gave Lincoln. Often it seemed more interested in making war on Davis than in making war on the North. Almost all of its members carried horsewhips and heavy canes, and many were armed with guns and bowie knives. During stormy meetings they would wave these in the air, shouting angrily at one another. But they saved their bitterest words for President Davis.”
The Confederacy wasn’t even a system of states’ rights. It was this mentality that each and every rebellious legislator was a king and knew better than anyone else.
Every other legislator was an opponent standing in the way. In this environment it was hard for the South to mount an effective political resistance to an organized government in the North. Without the CSA’s luck in getting a better crop of generals, the war would have been over in a much shorter time frame.
David Brooks of the New York Times recognized that today’s legislators aren’t destroying the Confederacy from within. They’re undermining the conservative ideology they claim to support in order to further their own ambitions. He writes:
“By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible.
“Conservatives of this disposition can be dull, but they know how to nurture and run institutions. They also see the nation as one organic whole. Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.
“But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.”
Even if Paul Ryan becomes speaker of the house, there’s no guarantee he could lead, any more than Jefferson Davis could control his own rebellious legislators in the Confederacy.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College. He may be reached at [email protected]