Stalemate in Washington: The Debt-Ceiling Fight Vs. the Civil War

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As members of Congress remain deadlocked in a fiscal impasse of historic proportion, similarities to 1861 abound

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For the president, the potential catastrophe loomed as "such a far-fetched proposition as to be almost existentially impossible." Voters from across ideological and geographical lines deluged Congress with letters and petitions urging compromise. "People were starting to grasp the potential costs -- the literal costs" of not reaching one.

Nope, we're not talking about this weekend in Washington. It just feels a lot like the atmosphere on the eve of the Civil War as vividly described in Adam Goodheart's new book 1861.

The similarities to today's apocalypse-almost-now moment are striking, and underscore that the debt ceiling debate now gridlocking the nation's capital is about far more than economic policy. On the 150th anniversary of the war that pitted American against American, we seem to be spoiling to secede from our "more perfect union" again.

As on the eve of the Civil War, there's the same weirdly passive sense of incredulity among political leaders. They seem to have been politically paralyzed into onlooker status as the nation teeters slowly towards a disaster that all agree will be cataclysmic but no one seems able to avert.

"Everyone says it's going to be worked out," Rep. Pete King, a New York Republican who has a history of working across the aisle, said this week. "But I don't see how it's going to be worked out."

In his book about the prelude to the conflict that nearly tore the United States asunder, Goodheart notes that Abraham Lincoln saw it as a question of maintaining a social contract. "It presents the question, whether discontented individuals too few in numbers to control administration," Lincoln wrote in July, 1861, "can break up their government."

Sound familiar? Eerily, as in the earlier conflict, there is even an especially pugilistic nest of belligerents in South Carolina.

The big question is why Americans are on the edge of such a scary precipice today. After all, at the heart of the Civil War was a great conflict over human bondage. By comparison, today's debate between the Democrats and tea party Republicans seems, picayune. We're going to trigger armageddon over matters of financial housekeeping?

But this debate is not just about the budget. Underneath the questions of taxing and spending are deep resentments and fears spawned by the end of the industrial age. In another literary work inspired by the anniversary of the Civil War, Insurgents, playwright Lucy Thurber provocatively compares the plight of displaced blue collar workers (whom she depicts literally clinging to their Bibles and their guns) to that of 19th century slaves.

It may be a bridge too far, but Thurber seems to be onto something that explains the strange intensity of our national debate over fiscal priorities.

As on the eve of the Civil War, there are Americans on both sides who feel that a way of life is at stake -- be they retirees who are counting on generous pensions or young people who don't see the employment opportunities that the generation before them had or homeowners who have seen their American Dream turn into an anchor that has pulled them deep under water. And then there are the figures on widening income disparity that suggest a country increasingly made up of a new plantation class, living large while most Americans are saddled with longer hours, less secure jobs and diminished (if any) health benefits.

In 1861, Lincoln wrote Congress that the Civil War was "a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men . . . to afford all an unfettered start and fair chance in the race of life."

Seems that we're still trying to achieve that goal. But as the Civil War should have taught us, we only have a chance if we work at it together.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Kathy Kiely is managing editor of politics at National Journal.

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