The American Splitting Experiment

Lincoln Railsplitter


In The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Rick Perlstein splits Americans of that recent period into two “tribes.”

One comprised the suspicious circles, which had once been small, but now were exceptionally broad, who considered the self-evident lesson of the 1960s and the low, dishonest war that defined the decade to be the imperative to question authority, unsettle ossified norms, and expose dissembling leaders.

The other tribe “found another lesson to be self-evident: never break faith with God’s chosen nation.”

In his now classic 1931 work, The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America 1865-1895Lewis Mumford split Americans into short-sighted opportunists and those few artists and intellectuals with integrity.

Living itself in post-Civil War America was an uphill job; living well, living with integrity, living for the sake of ideas—these things required exceptional stamina and intellectual hardihood.

Make no doubt of it: those who stayed behind needed either a double thickness of skin, or they needed the narrow convictions and the faith in the immediate activities of the country that the industrialist exhibited. Failing such toughness, most of them were forced to retreat into a private world that received little sustenance from the community immediately around them. How could they do otherwise? Conjure up the sordid parade of cut-throats, business gamblers, political mercenaries, short-sighted industrialists, sporting dandies, and demagogic religious preachers who claimed the spotlight during this period.

In my pre-Reagan and hardly brown (!), Baby Boom American youth there was a split—or pitched battle—between those (liberal students) who called upon America—the government and society—to live up to its ideals, and those (in the business and white working classes) who felt their ideals and self interests threatened by this call. The latters’ ideal was the “American Dream”: economic prosperity (in the sense of more and more money and things) and the opportunity for subsequent generations to enjoy more of this prosperity than their parents had. (I.e. growth in GNP and in real wages.) As for the liberal students, as Abraham Lincoln had long before them, they resurrected the Declaration of Independence as a, or the, seminal text. And thus they privileged the idea that all Americans were created equal. And thus it was not just that “I” should be able to make more money than my parents; every American should have an equal chance at happiness and, at an extreme, the opportunity to define “happiness” as he or she wished.

A point to stress in 2015 is that—even as they were being spied on by the police and FBI and denounced as radicals—the young idealists not only challenged but also underestimated the staying power of their adversaries. This included underestimating the large part of the American political and economic tradition that has little to do with egalitarianism and a great deal to do with a large-landholding and money-holding few getting—and continuing to get—the many landless (enslaved and “free”) to help them make, not an egalitarian democracy, but a republic. A republic in which the interests of property come first, in which happiness itself has come to be defined as having to do with how much money you are making. (Or, secondarily, as being able to purchase the products and services that are making the rich rich.)

We might now take heart in the possibility that this underestimating may be coming to an end (however temporary this end may prove). In 1969 I was disciplined by my ninth-grade civics teacher for calling the class’s attention to student leader Tom Hayden’s Rebellion and Repression. In my son’s ninth-grade history class, he is being taught some version of the money-dominated view of American history; taught that our glorious revolution was fought for and chiefly benefited the fortunate few on the tops of the various colonial heaps.

On my own, I encounter any number of books—Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years and William Hogeland’s Founding Finance come quickly to mind—that detail the class warfare (broadly defined) that lies near the heart—or that is the heart—of the “American experiment.” For example, from Hogeland:

Each [Revolutionary War] general received $10,000 worth of bonds. Average family income at the time was under $200 per year. The founding American military officer class suddenly became wealthy gentlemen, investors, creditors of the United States, linked to federal purposes. . . . Only officers’ pay was at issue—not the soldiers’. The men got only $200-300 in bonds. . . . Addressing real back pay for the men was put off until the final settlement among the states and Congress. That ended up meaning never.


When times are bad, intellectuals find comfort in the idea that human history is, or could be, cyclical. And so we may now note that some of the most corrupt and dispiriting phases of American history have been followed by more progressive, split-mending periods. (When the powers-that-are realize that they need “the people” to fight their wars, operate and program their machines, buy their products and services, pay their rents?)


— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor


cartoonists imageCredits & Links

Rail-splitting cartoon image from masthead of a pro-Lincoln presidential campaign newspaper: The Railsplitter, 1860. From the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

Lewis Mumford, The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865-1895 (Dover Publications, 1971). Reissue of a book first published in 1931. Mumford was, among other things, the long-time architecture critic for The New Yorker.

Tom Hayden, Rebellion and Repression: Testimony by Tom Hayden before the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (World Publishing Company, 1969).

Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America–The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (Vintage, 2013). I note Charles C. Mann’s telling description in his review of the book for the New York Times: “a group portrait in tones of greed, desperation and brutality.”

William Hogeland, Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation (University of Texas Press, 2012).

Related Montaigbakhtinian pieces: Dear Ms. Shednails and Dichotomizing.

“Don’t Touch My Artists” photograph, above right, is by Liza Bear and from a January 10, 2015 “Je Suis Charlie” rally in New York. It illustrated an excellent commentary, Editors, not terrorists, killed U.S. political cartoonists (Ted Rall, The Villager, January 22, 2015). Rall writes:

Gunmen could never kill four political cartoonists in an American newspaper office because no paper in the U.S. employs two, much less four, staff political cartoonists — the number who died on Jan. 7 in Paris. . . . American editors and publishers have never been as willing to publish satire, whether in pictures or in words, as their European counterparts. But things have gone from bad to apocalyptic in the last 30 years. . . . Most media outlets are owned by corporations, not private owners. Publicly traded companies are risk-averse. Executives prefer to publish boring/safe content that won’t generate complaints from advertisers or shareholders, much less force them to hire extra security guards. . . . The next time you hear editors pretending to stand up for freedom of expression, ask them if they employ a cartoonist.

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The American Splitting Experiment

One comment

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo

    Eaton here is sifting the ashes of what Barack Obama called “Baby-Boomer psychodrama.” As a Boomer myself, I find the exercise intriguing. But the idea of the two tribes, though appealing, strikes me as simplistic. Of course we remember when New York hard hats attacked war protesters with hammers and crowbars, doing real harm. But that happened just once. I was a student at the University of California Santa Barbara when some war protesters burned down the Bank of America. A UCSB student was shot and killed by police when, ironically, he was trying to put out the fire. (The police later claimed that the shooting was accidental–sound familiar?) Many people in that era, myself among them, came around slowly to an understanding–and a critique–of the war and our government. I was studying Chaucer in the UCSB library when students marched through shouting “Shut it down!” I made the obvious connection with the Nun’s Priest’s Tale:
    Certes he Jakke Straw, and his meinie,
    Ne maden never shoutés half so shrill,
    When that they wolden any Fleming kill,
    As thilké day was made upon the fox.
    Jack Straw led a revolt of the emerging middle class against the brutal and stupid English aristocracy. It was called the Peasant’s Revolt, because the winners, the aristocracy, considered anyone beneath them in the social order a churl. But there were clerics and millers and joiners among the rebels–in fact, the same classes of people who joined Chaucer on his pilgrimage to Canterbury.

    One of the enduring myths of the Viet Nam era is that returning veterans were shunned as “baby killers” by the American people. It’s true that there were not any parades for our victorious heroes, but that was because there was no victory, nothing to celebrate; but Americans, as always, supported the troops. The people had been told that if one domino fell (South Viet Nam being the critical domino), then a long line of dominoes would topple throughout Southeast Asia, which is why it was necessary for 50,000 Americans to die in Viet Nam. But then the same people who had presented the “domino theory” said that we could have “peace with honor” in Viet Nam. It made no fucking sense, but the war-weary Great Muddle Class of the United States accepted whatever flimsy rationale they were handed and overwhelmingly re-elected Tricky Dick.

    In the current polarized state of American politics, it is again appealing to think of two tribes; but it is still the Great Muddle Class that decides elections and the fate of the world. We had Occupy Wall Street v. Bloomberg and the NYPD, and the latter won. The country “moved on,” as we like to say. The Oracle of Omaha himself has said that we have suffered through three decades of class warfare, in which his class successfully waged war against the 99 percent. We have the data, which is irrefutable but is simply ignored, that the upper ten percent over the past 30 years have gone from having a very healthy 34 percent of all income to now having 50 percent of all income–and they aren’t done yet. In the same period, productivity of American workers skyrocketed, yet wages stagnated. So the change in percent of earned income (we aren’t even talking about unearned income, nearly all of which goes to the top ten percent) wasn’t the result of the laziness and incompetence of American workers nor the sudden virtue and hyper-competence of the ten percent; rather, it came about through the seizure of the levers of political power. To be fair, the upper classes were handed that power by the Muddle Class, and, as we saw in November’s midterms, the Muddle Class was glad to hand the upper class even more power. When Obama proposed that the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, Paul Ryan responded that this was merely “envy economics.” Since the Muddle Class has still not caught on to the Big Lie that “trickle-down economics” is really “trickle-up economics,” the Republicans can go on banging their class-warfare drum.

    We now hear Republicans co-opting the “income inequality” theme. When they offer ways to fix it, we will hear more of the same: work hard, play by the rules, and you, too, can share the American Dream. It reminds me of the lottery slogan: You Can’t Win It If You’re Not In It. You COULD win the lottery. But you won’t.


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