Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Bernie Revolution Really Isn't

James M. McPherson

"And sometimes the old, against all the warnings of better judgment, wait with the young and hopeful, their tired, winter eyes turned heavenward to seek."
--Grace Metalious

Revolution is an emotive word.  At it's heart is the notion of the new and, ordinarily, but not always, change.

When the South seceded from the union, that was revolution aimed at resisting change, at standing solidly in a past of slavery and "states' rights."

When Abraham Lincoln resisted that revolution by the Southern states, he launched what James M. McPherson aptly described as "The Second American Revolution," a profound change in this nation, which is evident in the change in the very way people thought of this nation: They stopped saying "The United States are..." and forever more said, "The United States is."

I often wondered, as a child, why "union" was such an important "cause."  The idea of keeping the union together seemed like a nice idea, but hardly an idea which would cause so many men to be willing to lay down their lives. After all, all the South was asking for was a divorce, and if people in a union decide it's not working, how can that union be forced upon the unwilling?

Old Man

Lincoln, of course, was motivated by what he saw in Europe, the constant warring of nation states, and he was determined the United States would not dissolve into that condition, that this nation would be one united continental nation, not a bunch of warring nations. 

Later of course, Lincoln recognized that events controlled him rather than his controlling events, and the liberation of the slaves, the powerful cause of emancipation had become even more important than the cause of union, so he was unwilling to accept union without emancipation.  As he so precisely and elegantly said in his second Inaugural address, nobody wanted war, nobody anticipated the war would become as huge and terrible as it became, but, ultimately, it arose and was sustained by the issue of slavery. 

So the war became a revolution against that peculiar institution, that status quo, which could only be sustained by ongoing racism, hate, cruelty and injustice, that system which allowed the fruits of labor to be wrung out of the efforts on one race to the benefit, not of the worker doing the labor but of the master exploiting that labor. 
He couldn't wait for incremental change

Now comes Bernie Sanders who is urging what he claims is a third American revolution, which proposes the fruits of labor belong to those who do the work, not to those who manipulate the workers, who game the system and who sit in their 21st century gated communities, separated from the workers in the field, much as the plantation owners were separated, looking out over the fields of Tara where the slaves bent down to pick cotton, singing "Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot."

Sometimes, we need the perspective of history to see what is happening in front of us today, to gain an eagle eye's view (or maybe a drone eye's view) from the eye in the sky.  
Suffragette who refused to wait for the vote

McPherson in his last paragraph of his wonderful 2008 book, "Tried by War" about Lincoln as commander in chief, writes:
"The crisis of the 1860's represented a far greater threat to the survival of the United States than did World War I, World War II, Communism in the 1950's, or terrorism today. Yet compared with the draconian enforcement of espionage and sedition laws in World War I, the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940's McCarthyism in the 1950's, or the National Security State of our own time, the infringement of civil liberties from 1861 to 1865 seems mild indeed. And the problem of Reconstruction after the Civil War was not that the federal government exercised too much power bu that it did not exercise enough."
Older than Lincoln was when elected President

Today, Bernie Sanders urges a stronger role for the federal government, providing a government option for Medicare for All for those who want it, breaking up the too big to fail banks, providing free college as we once provided free high school education.  That is called socialism and revolution and denounced as fantasy by the New York Times and the Daily News. 

Because he has not issued detailed plans for academics like Paul Krugman to read, judge and contain, he is denounced as a demagogue who panders to class animosities. 

It is true, the President must have command of the details of the working of government and Lincoln made many compromises along the way, but on critical issues, Lincoln was every bit as intransigent as Sanders. Lincoln was offered the release of prisoners of war moldering in Andersonville and other Southern prison camps but he refused because the South refused to release negro Union soldiers who they considered slaves. Lincoln refused to accept peace offers in 1864 because it would have meant slavery would have not been abolished.  He had, finally, identified the big issue and refused to compromise on that.

Many had argued, and Lincoln himself once believed, slavery would eventually wilt and die on the vine of incremental change. By 1940, Lincoln believed, there would be no more slaves in the South because of economic forces and technological innovation.  But Lincoln eventually appreciated, as Martin Luther King did later, the fierce urgency of now. 

Secretary Clinton argues for working within the system, accomplishing step by step, little by little, what can be accomplished. 
Not a fan of incrementalism

That was the same approach wise men urged upon LBJ in approaching Civil Rights.  But, ultimately, LBJ was persuaded to push for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts and that cost the Democrats the South, as the entire South left the Democratic Party and become Republicans almost overnight. Was that not a revolution?

I have been counseled by wise men, all of them over 60 years of age, to be smarter than those 20 somethings who are been so aroused by Bernie Sanders. To look at what is possible and to consider the way Barny Frank and Paul Krugman and other progressives have dismissed Bernie as as demagogue and a fantasist. 

An old guy, semi revolutionary

But sometimes change has to be led by old men, who can remember how real change happens in the real world.  Sometimes it is the old, who turned their tired, weather beaten eyes to the sky and though they should know better, hope with the young for a new, impossible Spring.

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