‘Progress’ and the Union

Note: This post has been revised since it was originally posted at 1:33 a.m. (Pacific Standard time) to improve its clarity and to make minor corrections. The publication time has been altered accordingly.

In ridiculing my view that the United States should dissolve, a friend on Facebook pointed to something he called “progress,” which he apparently viewed as impossible or at least severely hampered in the absence of the Union. It’s not really clear to me what he means by progress, but my old favorite professor at California State University, East Bay, argued that he would not have been hired as a professor in the 1960’s, due to his race. And of course, there have been all the expansions of civil rights, suffrage first for all men in the wake of the Civil War, then some decades later, suffrage for women, and still some decades after that, the progress of the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

It is not only the prospect that a surviving Confederacy would have stood in the way of these achievements, but that it would likely be an environmental hellhole that, in many eyes, rationalizes the Union. But such notions of progress must be taken in context, and the counterfactual case—that is, the case of what would have happened had the Confederacy been successful in asserting independence—must also be considered in any evaluation of ‘progress’ associated with the Union’s hegemony.

This is not simply about the possibility that an enhanced view of states’ rights might ease the path for marijuana legalization against a seemingly intransigent federal Department of Justice, or that secession might undermine U.S. imperialism, or more dubiously, that states could be free to set their own immigration policies.[1] This is also about a polarization that seems particularly marked in current political discourse, in which some refuse to accept Barack Obama’s eligibility for the presidency, which in light of 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s Panama Canal Zone birth,[2] and the improbability that anything like the fuss over origins would have arisen had the white Republican candidate been elected, must be regarded as racist. It is about a polarization in which some continue to reject science particularly on matters such as evolution and climate change, in part due to religious and economic interest, and apparently in part simply because an academic “elite” insists upon their factuality. It is about a polarization that, ritualistic filibuster reform threats notwithstanding, has led to a severe political crisis[3] which challenges assumptions about the governability of the United States.

Further, it is about a country, whose “best days,” assuming that a military adventurism (and imperialism) that has been an ongoing project of the U.S. since the country’s founding can ever be regarded as a good thing,[4] no longer lie ahead,[5] and which is about to “plunge” over a “fiscal cliff” over disagreements over spending and taxation,[6] while unemployment and especially long-term unemployment remain disastrously high.[7] It is about a country, where the terms of debate over sexuality and sexuality education have changed little since the Industrial Revolution; where politicians can still blame pregnancy resulting from rape on the victim, call it “legitimate rape,” and when that doesn’t fly, prioritize a zygote over the woman that carries it;[8] and where access to contraception—yes, in 2012—is still a campaign issue.[9] It would seem that “progress,” as my friend and as my former professor see it, has been accompanied by something else entirely.

I’m reading an old book by C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite.[10] I picked it up to better understand a chapter in one of my old textbooks that I cite pretty often,[11] and while it certainly accomplishes that, it is also a surprisingly useful snapshot of the upper classes of the 1950’s. Mills documents at length a tension between established wealthy upper class families (“old money”) and the nouveau riche, a bourgeois class whose members have profited largely from the Industrial Revolution and development since. Mills goes into detail about a dichotomy which Bill McKibben writes about briefly in Deep Economy between a wealthy class that is in proximity to and acknowledges a responsibility to the rest of society and the hyperindividualist recently—since the Industrial Revolution—rich which is solely focused on increasing its own wealth. McKibben’s work is relevant here also because McKibben argues for a localized society, a society which Mills illustrates came to be seen as inconsequential. We no longer take pride in our local communities, but rather what we can achieve on a national or international scale, and the resulting “efficiencies of scale” have led to higher unemployment[12] and thus increased leverage for employers over workers. President Obama is on the wrong side of all of this: While he bargains away the social safety net, he also participates in a TransPacific Partnership negotiation that, in the name of so-called “free trade,” reportedly would undermine any country’s right to establish labor or environmental protections.[13] So the “progress” that some perceive is accompanied not only by relentless pressure from social conservatives who would return women to the status of reproductive chattel, but by the neoliberal ideology shared by capitalist libertarians and functionalist conservatives (the latter category including most “mainstream” Democrats) that would reduce workers to the worst conditions of the Industrial Revolution, because the power elites no longer perceive any duty to the majority of the electorate—other than to obtain their votes.[14]

Fig. 1. 2012 election results by county (blue=Obama, red=Romney).

Fig. 2. 2012 election results, adjusted to weight by population.

The rightward shift in political discourse, enabled by the Democratic Party’s “southern strategy,” a strategy that yielded no electoral votes for Obama in the 2012 election,[15] that has betrayed workers, the middle class, and the environment, and soft-pedaled reproductive rights, has accompanied the increased purchase of political influence by corporations,[16] and yet has done nothing to appease whites, particularly in the South and Appalachia,[17] who bizarrely but routinely vote against their own interests and in favor of wealthy interests out of resentment against advances made by women and people of color.[18] Rather, it has been the Republican Party’s racist “southern strategy,” inaugurated by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, and its resistance to urban reality which lends a profoundly geographic hue to the prevailing polarization,[19] that keeps us stuck, suggesting that the Civil War has resolved only that the Union would remain intact.[20]

It is harder to argue that this country has made “progress” against slavery when so many of us are in prison, due in large part to an irrational war on drugs, due also in large part to the inadequacies of the social safety net, but also due in large part to policies which, intentionally or not, criminalize poverty and being of color.[21] Indeed, Angela Davis traces a path from slavery through lynching to prison and the death penalty.[22] It is harder to argue that women have made progress when so many now pull double-duty working both as housewives and in largely low-paying jobs that are now required because men no longer earn enough to support families, when caring work—that largely falls to women—continues to be devalued,[23] and when decades of increasing political participation still yield comments about “legitimate rape.” It is harder to argue that workers have made progress when labor unions are now so weak, yet remain the subjects of political attacks, when living standards are so low, when employment is so insecure, when the gap between rich and poor is expanding, and when upward mobility is so limited.[24] It is harder to argue that this country has made any progress at all when politicians compete principally for conservative rather than for progressive votes.

Yet I’m the one being taken for a fool. The simple facts are that there are profound and irreconcilable differences in social attitudes between the right and left, largely along the lines suggested by George Lakoff,[25] between those who recognize we are in this together and those who entertain individualist fantasies, that are, even when not acknowledged to be, in some way authoritarian; that there is an imperfect but perceptible geographic component to the distribution of these social attitudes; that a distance between the elite and ordinary people serves elite rather than ordinary interests; that this distance arises from the size of the country; that the United States exercises a disproportionate and often violent influence over the world; and the rest of the world has little say in imperialist U.S. policy. For all these reasons, a break-up of the United States is urgently needed.


  1. 2012 election results by county.[26]
  2. 2012 election results, adjusted to weight by population.[27]
    1. [1]Conor Friedersdorf, “The Past Is Gone: Why Liberals Should Rethink States’ Rights,” Atlantic, December 12, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/12/time-for-liberals-to-rethink-states-rights/266157/; G. Pascal Zachary, “The Will to Secede,” In These Times, December 17, 2012, http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/14283/the_will_to_secede
    2. [2]Carl Hulse, “McCain’s Canal Zone Birth Prompts Queries About Whether That Rules Him Out,” New York Times, February 28, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/28/us/politics/28mccain.html
    3. [3]Sharon Begley, “Why Scientists Are Losing the Public-Relations War,” Newsweek, March 17, 2010, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/03/17/their-own-worst-enemies.html; Kevin Drum, “Nullification Makes a Comeback,” Mother Jones, December 30, 2011, http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/12/nullification-makes-comeback; Kevin Drum, “Are Republicans Really Anti-Science?” Mother Jones, April 5, 2012, http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2012/04/are-republicans-really-anti-science; Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Jonathan Haidt and Marc J. Hetherington, “Look How Far We’ve Come Apart,” New York Times, September 17, 2012, http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/17/look-how-far-weve-come-apart/; Ezra Klein, “Could This Be End of the Filibuster?” Bloomberg, November 7, 2012, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-07/could-this-be-end-of-evil-filibuster-.html; Steve Kornacki, “The false hope of filibuster reform,” Salon, November 27, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/11/27/the_false_hope_of_filibuster_reform/; David Lightman, “Congress isn’t just stalemated, it’s broken, experts say,” McClatchy, May 22, 2012, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/05/22/149696/congress-isnt-just-stalemated.html; Mark Lilla, “The Great Disconnect,” review of I Am the Change, by Charles R. Kesler, New York Times, September 27, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/30/books/review/the-great-disconnect.html; Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem,” Washington Post, April 27, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/lets-just-say-it-the-republicans-are-the-problem/2012/04/27/gIQAxCVUlT_story.html; Jacob Weisberg, “Are Republicans losing their grip on reality?” Slate, May 20, 2011, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_big_idea/2011/05/fantasy_island.html
    4. [4]Roger Lee, “United States Military History,” The History Guy, http://www.historyguy.com/american_military_history.html
    5. [5]Ullrich Fichtner, Hans Hoyng, Marc Hujer, and Gregor Peter Schmitz, “Divided States of America: Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation,” Spiegel, November 5, 2012, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/divided-states-of-america-notes-on-the-decline-of-a-great-nation-a-865295.html; Steve Fraser, “The Archeology of Decline: Debtpocalypse and the Hollowing Out of America,” TomDispatch, December 2, 2012, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175623/tomgram%3A_steve_fraser%2C_the_national_museum_of_industrial_homicide/
    6. [6]Jared Bernstein, “Over the “fiscal cliff” we go!” Salon, December 22, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/12/22/over_the_fiscal_cliff_we_go_2/; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Liberals reject Obama’s Social Security offer,” Salon, December 18, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/12/18/liberals_reject_obamas_social_security_offer/; Jake Sherman, Carrie Budoff Brown, and John Bresnahan, “Cliff chaos: Boehner pulls GOP bill,” Politico, December 20, 2012, http://www.politico.com/story/2012/12/eric-cantor-we-have-the-votes-for-plan-b-85365.html
    7. [7]Jamelle Bouie, “Why Our Elites Don’t Care About Mass Unemployment,” Nation, August 3, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/169235/why-our-elites-dont-care-about-mass-unemployment; Morgan Housel, “3 Facts About the Economy That Should Freak You Out,” Motley Fool, October 31, 2012, http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2012/10/31/3-facts-about-the-economy-that-should-freak-you-ou.aspx; Paul Krugman, “The Third Depression,” New York Times, June 27, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/28/opinion/28krugman.html; Paul Krugman, “The Forgotten Millions,” New York Times, December 6, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/07/opinion/krugman-the-forgotten-millions.html
    8. [8]Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza, “Mourdock apologizes for ‘misinterpretation’ of rape comments, Obama campaign pounces,” Washington Post, August 24, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/10/24/mourdock-god-intended-for-babies-to-result-from-rape/; Garance Franke-Ruta, “A Canard That Will Not Die: ‘Legitimate Rape’ Doesn’t Cause Pregnancy,” Atlantic, August 19, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/08/a-canard-that-will-not-die-legitimate-rape-doesnt-cause-pregnancy/261303/; Jeffrey P. Moran, “‘Modernism Gone Mad’: Sex Education Comes to Chicago, 1913,” The Journal of American History 83, no. 2 (1996): 481-513; Deborah L. Rhode, “Adolescent Pregnancy and Public Policy,” Political Science Quarterly 108, no. 4 (1993): 635-669; Josh Marshall, “Akin Issues Statement,” August 19, 2012, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2012/08/akin_issues_statement.php; Evan McMorris-Santoro, “Republican Senate Nominee: Victims Of ‘Legitimate Rape’ Don’t Get Pregnant,” Talking Points Memo, August 19, 2012, http://2012.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/08/todd-akin-legitimate-rape.php; Eugene Robinson, “Todd Akin comment brings ‘war on women’ back to prominence,” Washington Post, August 20, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-todd-akin-comment-brings-war-on-women-back-to-prominence/2012/08/20/c4570fae-eafd-11e1-9ddc-340d5efb1e9c_story.html
    9. [9]Irin Carmon, “The Harvard Law graduate pretends not to know about a major Supreme Court case to mask his stance on contraception,” Salon, January 8, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/01/08/mitt_romneys_birth_control_fake_out/; Irin Carmon, “The administration vaguely signals a middle ground with the Catholic Church on contraceptive coverage,” Salon, February 8, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/02/08/will_obama_compromise_on_birth_control/; Helene Cooper and Katharine Q. Seelye, “Obama Tries to Ease Ire on Contraception Rule,” New York Times, February 7, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/health/policy/obama-addresses-ire-on-health-insurance-contraception-rule.html; Democracy Now! “‘Where Are the Women?’: Lawmakers Walk Out on Contraception Rule Hearing After Female Witness Barred,” February 17, 2012, https://www.democracynow.org/2012/2/17/where_are_the_women_lawmakers_walk; Democracy Now! “The Paul Ryan Vision of America: Ban Abortion, Defund Contraception, Outlaw In Vitro Fertilization,” August 13, 2012, http://www.democracynow.org/2012/8/13/the_paul_ryan_vision_of_america; Sara Robinson, “Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control — And Why We’ll Still Be Fighting About it 100 Years From Now,” Alternet, February 15, 2012, http://www.alternet.org/story/154144/why_patriarchal_men_are_utterly_petrified_of_birth_control_–_and_why_we%27ll_still_be_fighting_about_it_100_years_from_now; Michael Scherer, “Rick Santorum Wants to Fight ‘The Dangers Of Contraception’,” Time, February 14, 2012, http://swampland.time.com/2012/02/14/rick-santorum-wants-to-fight-the-dangers-of-contraception/; Kate Sheppard, “Ron Paul vs. Birth Control,” Mother Jones, February 14, 2012, http://motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/ron-paul-birth-control; Louise G. Trubek, “The Unfinished Fight Over Contraception,” New York Times, March 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/02/opinion/contraception-war-goes-on.html; Joan Walsh, “Watching liberals defend a church they disagree with showed us that even Catholic insiders can feel like outsiders,” Salon, February 11, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/02/11/catholic_tribalism_and_the_contraceptive_flap/
    10. [10]C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
    11. [11]C. Wright Mills, “The Structure of Power in American Society,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).
    12. [12]Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (New York: Holt, 2007); Mills, The Power Elite.
    13. [13]Matt Bai, “Will Obama Agree to Entitlement Cuts? He Already Has,” New York Times, November 13, 2012, http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/will-obama-agree-to-entitlement-cuts-he-already-has/; Roger Bybee, “Obama’s Double Game on Outsourcing,” Dollars and Sense, September 12, 2012, http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2012/0912bybee.html; Tom Hamburger, Carol D. Leonnig and Zachary A. Goldfarb, “Obama’s record on outsourcing draws criticism from the left,” Washington Post, July 9, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/obamas-record-on-outsourcing-draws-criticism-from-the-left/2012/07/09/gJQAljJCZW_story.html; Jonathan Martin, “What Obama isn’t saying about Medicare,” Politico, September 27, 2012, http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0912/81757.html; Matt Stoller, “Obama’s Second Term Agenda: Cutting Social Security, Medicare, and/or Medicaid,” Naked Capitalism, July 29, 2012, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/07/obamas-second-term-agenda-cutting-social-security-medicare-andor-medicaid.html; Lambert Strether, “Grand Bargain or Great Betrayal? Reading the Tea Leaves of Fiscal Intentions for Entitlements,” Truthout, November 14, 2012, http://truth-out.org/news/item/12721-grand-bargain-or-great-betrayal-reading-between-the-tea-leaves; Lori Wallach, “NAFTA on Steroids,” Nation, June 27, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/article/168627/nafta-steroids
    14. [14]Mills, “The Structure of Power in American Society.”
    15. [15]Zachary, “The Will to Secede.”
    16. [16]Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?; Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
    17. [17]Nate Cohn, “The GOP Has Problems With White Voters, Too,” The New Republic, November 12, 2012, http://www.tnr.com/blog/electionate/110039/the-gop-has-problems-white-voters-too
    18. [18]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005); Raymond A. Morrow and David D. Brown, Critical Theory and Methodology (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994); Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
    19. [19]Lydia DePillis, “The GOP Can’t Afford to Ignore Cities Anymore,” The New Republic, November 12, 2012, http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/110074/the-gop-can%E2%80%99t-afford-ignore-cities-anymore; Ron Rosenbaum, “Is the Republican Party Racist?” Slate, October 8, 2012, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_spectator/2012/10/is_the_republican_party_racist_how_the_racial_attitudes_of_southern_voters_bolster_its_chances_.single.html
    20. [20]For more on this, see Michael Lind, “Slave states vs. free states,” Salon, October 10, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/10/10/slave_states_vs_free_states_2012/
    21. [21]Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94; Adam Liptak, “U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations,” New York Times, April 23, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html; Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
    22. [22]Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories, 2005).
    23. [23]Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2007); Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, 15th anniversary ed. (New York: Three Rivers, 2006).
    24. [24]Emily Badger, “Political Polarization Grows as Job Security Falls,” Pacific Standard, July 19, 2011, http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/political-polarization-grows-as-job-security-falls-33968/; Jason DeParle, “Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs,” New York Times, January 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/us/harder-for-americans-to-rise-from-lower-rungs.html; Jason DeParle, “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall,” New York Times, December 22, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/education/poor-students-struggle-as-class-plays-a-greater-role-in-success.html; Richard Florida, “The 66%: America’s Growing Underclass,” Atlantic Cities, October 29, 2012, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/10/66-americas-growing-underclass/3618/; Steven Greenhouse, “A Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and Shift,” New York Times, October 27, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/business/a-part-time-life-as-hours-shrink-and-shift-for-american-workers.html; Andrew Hacker, “We’re More Unequal Than You Think,” review of The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, by Robert H. Frank, The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, by Thomas Byrne Edsall, and Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, by James Gilligan, New York Review of Books, February 23, 2012, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/feb/23/were-more-unequal-you-think/; Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt, “Real Wages Fail to Match a Rise in Productivity,” New York Times, October 28, 2006, Real Wages Fail to Match a Rise in Productivity; Paul Krugman, “America’s Unlevel Field,” New York Times, January 8, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/09/opinion/krugman-americas-unlevel-field.html; David Leonhardt, “Standards of Living Are in the Shadows as Election Issue,” New York Times, August 23, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/24/us/politics/race-for-president-leaves-income-slump-in-shadows.html; masaccio, “The Death of the Liberal Bargain,” Firedoglake, August 12, 2012, http://my.firedoglake.com/masaccio/2012/08/12/the-death-of-the-liberal-bargain/; John Nichols, “GOP Candidates Embrace Anti-Labor, Free-Market Fundamentalism,” Nation, February 28, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/166485/other-fundamentalism-gop-candidates; Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Some Are More Unequal Than Others,” New York Times, October 26, 2012, http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/stiglitz-some-are-more-unequal-than-others/; Rich Yeselson, “Not With a Bang, But a Whimper: The Long, Slow Death Spiral of America’s Labor Movement,” New Republic, June 6, 2012, http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/103928/not-bang-whimper-the-long-slow-death-spiral-americas-labor-movement
    25. [25]George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
    26. [26]Mark Newman, “Maps of the 2012 US presidential election results,” University of Michigan, November 8, 2012, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2012/
    27. [27]Newman, “Maps of the 2012 US presidential election results.”

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