By: Bob Burnett
The first Civil War was precipitated by a dispute regarding slavery and states' rights. It was inflamed by volatile rhetoric and widespread use of guns.
The looming civil war reincarnates the debate about states' rights. Immediately after President Obama signed Healthcare Reform into law, several state Attorney Generals filed lawsuits arguing the Federal government violated the Constitution.
Rather than slavery, the new civil war is being waged over the necessity to guarantee human rights for all Americans - whether or not every citizen deserves healthcare. Many Republicans feel this is not a legitimate use of government power, that it infringes on the sacred "free market."
In the run up to the first Civil War, passions were inflamed by fiery rhetoric from secessionist politicians such as Jefferson Davis. The impending civil war is being fed by mass-media personalities, such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who routinely feed their listeners blatant falsehoods. The success of these demagogues was revealed in a March 23rd Louis Harris poll of Republicans: 67 percent "believe that Obama is a socialist." 57 percent "believe that Obama is a Muslim." 45 percent believe that Obama "was not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president." 38 percent of Republicans say the President is "doing many of the things that Hitler did." And, 24 percent believe Obama "may be the Antichrist."
Coupled with these skewed beliefs is increasingly strident rhetoric from Republican leaders. House minority leader John Boehner compared healthcare reform to "Armageddon" and declared the GOP to the Party of "Hell no." This refrain was picked up Senator John McCain and former Governor Sarah Palin, who added, "Freedom is a god-given right worth fighting for."
There's little doubt that the use of inflammatory language has increased the ratings of the Fox News Channel, which is now the highest rated cable channel, and "the highest rated basic channel in primetime." Fox commentators such as Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly regularly contend the US "is headed into socialism" and compare President Obama to Hitler. On March 23rd, prominent conservative David Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, appearing on ABC Nightline observed, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we're discovering we work for Fox."
Beck and his new Fox News associate, Sarah Palin, have appropriated the rhetoric used by the Militia movement, language that suggests violence may be required to "save" America. Since Barack Obama became President there has been an unprecedented run on guns fomented by a right-wing rumor that Obama was going to restrict gun ownership. As documented in the Spring Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center, there has also been an explosive growth of hate and militia groups. "An astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009 - a 244% jump." (On March 29th, nine members of one of these groups the Hutaree were charged with conspiring to kill police officers.)
The Republican Party's embrace of militant extremism follows a grim logic. The GOP is losing members; a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that only 24 percent of respondents self-identified as Republicans - versus 34 percent for Democrats and 38 percent for Independents. Grasping for support, the GOP has abandoned traditional conservative ideology and allowed its message to be highjacked.
Unfortunately, the Republican Party lacks a leader with the gravitas to speak out against the escalating violence of its supporters. Elected Republicans such a Boehner, McCain, McConnell, and Steele are much less influential than are conservative media figures such as Beck, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Palin. As a result, as Fox News becomes even more outrageous, and violence against Democrats escalates, GOP leaders either claim to be powerless to stop it or argue the mainstream media has exaggerated the problem.
Meanwhile, a second civil war is brewing. Considering the volatile mixture of inflammatory rhetoric, weapons usage, and growth of militia groups, it appears likely there will be a tragic event: an assault on a Democratic politician, the burning of a congressional office, or another bombing of a Federal office building.
In 1860, the onset of the Civil War could have been averted. Dispassionate observers saw that the Confederacy did not have the resources required to defeat the Union. In 2010, the impending Civil War should be averted. Right-wing zealots are a minority and do not have the resources to commandeer America. Nonetheless, they can cause needless bloodshed.
What will it take for voices of reason to rise up within the Republican Party? How long will it be before a major Republican leader speaks out against domestic terrorism and urges the GOP to return to reason and reconciliation?