The American Republic From Melting Pot to Cage Fight

The human universe, we are told by optimists on the editorial pages, is contracting into a gray and insipid doughball, pasted over with brightly-colored labels advertising the only ethnic rivalries that persist--the struggles between Nissan and Daimler, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Walmart and Costco.   Unfortunately, there are people around the world who do not read the Wall Street Journal, and some of them are hurling themselves into the bloody conflicts that regularly dominate the headlines.  In the 1990s,  the election of Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu predictably intensified the struggle between Arabs and their Israeli neighbors who are mostly immigrants or children of immigrants.   In succeeding decades, the world has been shaken by a Third World invasion of Europe that had been scripted by  Jean Raspail in  Camp of the Saints, tribal and religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians, Muslims and Jews, and Muslims and African animists.

Even here in the formerly white bread USSA, BLM thugs have broadened their attack, once confined to European Americans, to Latin American immigrants , whom they are telling to go home.  I don't suppose they have heard the proverb about the sauce fit for the Mexican goose that would also fit the African American gander.

It is a simple fact, so obvious that it should not need stating, but it does:  All ethnic conflict is the result of migration, whether of Albanians into Kosovo, Anglo-Saxons into the Indian lands of North America, the forced migration of Africans to the United States, or the comparatively recent (18th century and earlier) invasion of Tutsis into Hutuland.  Ethnic diversity almost always means ethnic conflict, which can be resolved by genocide (the solution devised by the English for the Tasmanian question), subjugation (the Norman Conquest of the Anglo-Saxons and of the Irish comes to mind), and absorption (the fate of most North European ethnic groups in the United States) or some gruesome combination. Where are the Celts of yesteryear?

America, as we know, is an exception to every rule.  Here, all the various ethnicities have blended into a harmonious multi-ethnic nationality that defines itself neither by blood nor religion.  We are, as one Canadian immigrant who spent his life making trouble for his adopted homeland puts it, “a propositional nation.”  Dick Neuhaus must have been right.  Ask Robert E. Lee.  Ask W.E.B. Dubois.  Ask Davie Crockett or Jesse Jackson or Abe Foxman.  Ask Geronimo.  

The reality of American life is that this nation has been dominated by ethnic conflicts throughout its history--some of them carried out openly in the form of Indian wars and race riots, others more covertly as in the repeated attempts to keep Catholic immigrants in their place.  Inevitably, both political parties have used ethnic tensions as a motive force for building coalitions and holding power.

In the 1850’s and 1860’s the Know-Nothings and their successors, the Republicans, wanted to unify the country against largely Catholic immigrants--and Southern trinitarian Christians-- on the basis of ethnicity and religion, just as today the Republican strategy is to bind future generations of Mexicans, on the basis of class and economic interest, and use them as a counter-weight to African Americans who vote Democrat.

The ethnic focus of the two political parties became very sharp in the years after the War between the States.  The Republicans were the party of the Union, that is, the GOP represented the members of the non-Southern Middle Classes who were Protestant and Anglo (or also, after a time, highly assimilated Germans and Scandinavians).  After the end of Reconstruction, blacks hardly counted politically, because they had so little money and even less opportunity to vote, but they were, nonetheless, clients of the GOP, much as they are clients of the Democrats today.

The Democrats were stigmatized as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” that is, as a coalition of Southern Wasps and wine-bibbing and whiskey-swilling immigrants from Catholic Ireland, Italy, Poland, Hungary.  The coalition also included comparatively small numbers of Orthodox Greeks and Slavs and some Protestant ethnicities, but the lines were fairly clearly drawn.  Midwestern WASPS, whose ancestors had once looked toward the South and to the party of Jefferson, were staunchly Republican, while Southern WASPS whose families had been Whigs and unionists became yellowdog Democrats.  

The Democratic Party, outside the South, was the party of excluded minorities and “forgotten men.”  Finnish socialists voted Democrat, when there was no Marxist candidate running, and Southern and Eastern European ethnics supported the party of minorities against the WASPS who went to Yale and owned the country.  The Democrats’ strategy was clear: to co-opt each arriving immigrant group by providing favors, organizing their neighborhoods, and getting out the vote.  The same strategy almost gave them Florida  and the White House in the 2000 election.  The Republicans, on the other hand, relied on the farmers and the business classes and hoped, gradually, to convert the more assimilable ethnics, as they bought property and made money, to the bourgeois values of the GOP.  

Both strategies were successful up to the point of stalemate until Franklin Roosevelt made the big break-through of co-opting blacks by promising--and delivering--more goodies than the Republicans had done in over 50 years.  This naturally introduced a strain into the Southern tier of the Democracy, but so long as white politicians maintained political and social control, they could afford to go along to get along.  

It was Hubert Humphrey who unraveled the skein: He could not resist the temptation to pull just that one thread, by insisting on an anti-segregation plank in the 1948 Democratic platform.  The result was the insurgency of the Dixiecrats, who failed to kick Harry Truman out of the White House, though in the long run, Humphrey’s brilliant maneuver ensured that in the South the Democratic Party would become the Black party and the Republicans would take over the White Vote.

The effect on the South was tremendous.  Politically active Southerners who had always defined themselves by their contempt for Yankee WASPS, were suddenly forced to make common cause first with Eisenhower, then with the Goldwaterites, and they finally ended up selling their futures entirely to Ronald Reagan.  They could no longer think of themselves as Southern first, because Southern also meant the race-obsessed Marxists of the Democratic Party.  So in reconciling themselves to New England and the Midwest, they became generically American--which is why Southern Republicans could never, by and large, be counted on to defend the Confederate flag.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

7 Responses

  1. Clif McGhar says:

    Great article and analysis of how we got to where we are politically and culturally.

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    I wonder if things might have turned out differently if the South could have developed a real and enduring regional political party, or if it would have mattered in the long run anyway.

  3. Clyde Wilson says:

    Mr. Wilson, you make a good point. Suppose Southerners kicked out of the Democrats had the leadership to have formed a Southern party. It could well have saved the South—and the U.S. by being a balance between the parties. But politicians found it too easy to keep their place by changing parties. So we have no Southerners in Congress or governorships–just carbon copy Republicans without knowledge or integrity

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    A Southern party would have been a great influence for good. Practical politicians, even if they have a core of decency, have to deal with the reality in which they live. When Strom went Republican, I am not at all sure that he had the option of reviving the Dixiecrat label, much less of helping his state. The same might be said of John Connally, famous described–after he joined the GOP after Watergate–as the only rat who ever joined a sinking ship. SC Republicans, as Prof. Wilson knows, were a rum lot. I knew several of them, including our family dentist the future governor Edwards. What I learned from several senior Republicans was their preference for a small party in SC, which, when the GOP took the White House, meant a lot of patronage to a select number of people. Unfortunately, political leaders are an artist’s conception of the national character, hence people like Jack Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump are a kind of dream-fulfillment of a large part of the populace. It’s a grisly thought, but Joseph de Maistre was quite right: Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.

  5. William Shofner says:

    De Maistre and Fleming are right: Every country gets the government it deserves. That said, I stand by another continental thinker, G.K. Chesterton, and his view of those who run these governments: It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged.

  6. Joshua Teske says:

    An interesting, if somewhat trivial observation, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut (as well as KFC) are owned, last I checked, by the same parent corporation, Yum Brands. That itself, is a comment on the options we have in these so called rivalries – unless the point is we are left to choose between insipid, imitation Mexican and insipid, imitation Italian food, neither of which are very good for us.

    All joking aside, this piece helped me greatly to understand how Democrats became Republicans – something that always been rather opaque to me.

  7. Michael Strenk says:

    When I worked in the beer industry, as a salesman, in the early nineties, I became aware of the fact of the incestuous relationships among all of the popular brands in the U.S. Now they are all owned, including most of the popular brands in every country of the world, by Interbrew, which was, I believe, a Belgian company to begin with, which was strange given Belgians’ extreme patriotic attachment to its various and multitudinous regional, originally monastic, brews. Now, more fittingly, Interbrew is listed as being registered in the Netherlands. Who Owns America, indeed! The real question is who owns all of the beer…and food. Pilsner Urquell famously, on serious reflection, refused to be acquired by Western interests in the 90’s. I don’t know if this still holds true but I hope so. When I was in Bulgaria in ’90 there were several good brands of beer. When I went back in the early 2000’s the brands were there, but they were all the same crap, all made by Interbrew. Originally Interbrew acquired Anheuser-Bush but now it is listed as a subsidiary of AB. The oligarchic shenanigans are endless.