There is a touch of irony in the fact that Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has opened in wide release just as the “movement” for secession has become the talk of the day. Spielberg’s film, though flawed in the usual Spielberg ways of overdoing a good thing, is a reminder of that time in the country’s past when the opposition to a president, albeit on a much larger scale, was not unlike the antipathy that is being expressed for the nation’s current one.
I do not mean to exaggerate the significance of the petitions that are currently getting thousands of signatures in states that comprised the old confederacy. Then was then, and now is now. And history won’t even assign a footnote to reference the 2012 secession petitions, while the secessions that led to the Civil War will continue to be noted for as long as the country exists.
But just to put matters in perspective, let’s remember what the Civil War was all about. Broadly stated, it was an attempt by the southern states to preserve their economic system under the guise of states’ rights. That system was built around slave labor, which was as much a cultural phenomenon as it was a racial attitude.
Thus, when its continued viability, if not existence, was threatened by the election of a president who was believed to favor the abolition of the institution, secession was deemed the better alternative. At the time, the country was still developing its geographic boundaries even as it was continuing to struggle over the slavery question.
But with the election of a presumed abolitionist as the nation’s sixteenth president, the threat to the continued legality of slavery pushed the southern states to seek secession. The four-year war that followed was the result, with the Emancipation Proclamation and, ultimately, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment ending the legality of slavery throughout the United States.
Spielberg’s film focuses on Lincoln’s resolve to get the Amendment passed by the House of Representatives (it had previously been passed by the Senate), before the war ended. (His belief, very probably correct, was that it would face much more resistance once the secessionist states had given up the fight.)
Watching Spielberg’s depiction of the machinations that Lincoln successfully orchestrated (against the nearly unanimous advice from his political allies to forego the fight) calls to mind the current president’s decision to push for passage of health care reform. The two acts may not be morally comparable, but the amount of opposition, and the intensity of that opposition, certainly was.
But legitimate comparisons aside, the antipathy to the re-election of Barack Obama that the current secession petitions evidence would be mildly alarming were it not viewed in perspective. The anti-Obama sentiment is not new. It’s just that until he was re-elected, the hope of those ardently opposed to his presidency was that he could be limited to one term and that whatever damage he had done in that one term (the “socialistic” Affordable Care Act being at the top of the list) could be reversed, either by executive fiat or by legislative repeal.
But now that Obama has been re-elected (and by a relatively substantial margin), all hope for a return to the pre-Obama version of the country has vanished, and the options are limited to these: living with it (not acceptable for the most virulently anti-Obama), seeking his impeachment (certainly worth considering, but hard to envision without a bona fide scandal of Monica Lewinsky proportions); or secession. (Assassination might also be an option in the minds of a few fanatics, but unlike Lincoln’s time, the president is presumably pretty well protected from such risk now.)
The idea of secession appears most pronounced in the deeply red states of the south: i.e., the states of the Confederacy. And that fact has led some to posit that racism—pure, simple, unadulterated hatred of a black man—is behind it. And to an extent, that may well be the case. The country has come a long way from the rampant racism that existed in Lincoln’s day, but only a fool would claim that remnants of it do not persist, especially in rural parts of the south.
But the more dominant impetus behind the secession petitions is probably nothing more than the misguided belief that a second Obama administration will lead the country on an inexorable path to European socialism, which, for the far right, especially those of the tea party persuasion, is the equivalent of Stalinist communism.
This belief is belied by Obama’s performance in his first term, if not by his basic centrist approach to just about every issue he has had to address since he came on the public stage. In fact, even as thousands on the right are signing secession petitions, many more on the left (witness the immediate exhortations from the MSNBC flock of pundits) are trying to pull Obama away from those centrist leanings.
The likes of Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz are talking about “keeping Obama’s feet to the fire,” implicitly suggesting in such rallying cries the fear that he will once again “go soft” on them and their causes, as he did two years ago when he feebly sought to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy before caving on the issue.
Obama may have grand designs for his second term, but they won’t be all that different from those he espoused and sought in his first. Primarily, he will seek ways to stimulate the economy. He’ll want to leave office with unemployment down below six percent, which may be doable, if he can overcome another four years of Republican obstructionism.
He’ll also want to cut the deficit and put in place a debt reduction plan that will very probably be as painful for his constituents as it will for his opponents. Beyond those goals, anything else he attempts will be problematic, since second presidential terms are rarely as successful as firsts and since Obama will continue to have a Republican House and a filibuster-inclined Senate to deal with.
Thus, while the secession “movement” may continue, it isn’t warranted.