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In our times, a destructive force has emerged in the American political system. This force –- or spirit — should be understood as the re-emergence onto center stage of what drove the United States to polarize, break apart, and fight a bloody Civil War a century and a half ago.

This destructive force is damaging our nation now just as it did then.

The persistence through time of a recognizable pattern in a culture points to an important part of how the human world works.  Just as Great-grandpa’s red hair reappears in a new baby, so also can the patterns of social and political dynamics (in this case, destructive dynamics) move through the generations within a society. Such a pattern, or spirit, can perpetuate itself by socializing individuals in ways that lead them, in turn, to reinforce in the world around them the patterns that had been impressed upon them.

The parallels between the political crisis in America in our times, and the crisis that drove America into a terrible Civil War a century and a half ago, reveal how a spirit of this sort has re-emerged to hold major parts of the American cultural system in its grip and animate the actions, beliefs, and attitudes of millions.

I begin here a series of articles to delineate these telling parallels.  Perceiving the same pattern in these two important eras –- our present crisis, and the crisis that led to the Civil War —- can be revelatory just like the images in the Magic Eye books: out of the stereoscopic image, a startling figure emerges with depth out of a new dimension.

The play of forces in our society, admittedly, is far more complex than to allow one crisis to be simply a replay of a crisis of a century and a half ago. Each time has its own set of circumstances and its own mixtures and alignments of forces.

Nonetheless, the parallels between the growing crisis of 1848-1861 and that of, say, 1994 to the present– are significant.  In each case, one finds:

• Insistence on pressing conflict over seeking accord
• Systematic overreaching
• A warped view of reality, driven by bogus and invalid ideas
• A drive toward exploitation masked by deception and self-deception
• Use of divisive tactics to manipulate supporters
These and other parallels will be explored in this series to reveal the dark spirit at work in both eras. In the next posting, some remarks by Abraham Lincoln will help provide a glimpse into one such manifestation of that spirit.

*********

Andy Schmookler, recently the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia’s 6th District, is an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher.  His books include The Parable of the Tribes:  The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.   His website is at www.NoneSoBlind.org .

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