American Politics

Marble and Mud: Political Commentary

The President’s remarks after Charlottesville engendered more controversy than usual. Some interpreted his measured denunciation along with the tacit support from many in his party as a GOP transitioning from the party of Lincoln into the party of George Lincoln Rockwell. The further irony of a Republican Commander-in-Chief defending monuments dedicated to “losers” from the Confederacy became muddled by the Chief Executive’s continued missteps. The incident and aftermath reignited the debate over the appropriateness of monuments honoring Civil War enemies. It’s confounding that it took an incident of this magnitude to bring the issue to the national forefront.

The United States may hold the distinction as the first nation in history to immortalize figures for taking up arms against it. It baffles the mind that individuals such as Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and other rebels would become marble effigies displayed on public properties throughout the union. This stretches the boundaries of Lincoln’s assurance: “malice towards none and charity for all.”

It astonishes that some deem such figures worthy of honor. The West Point alumni who abandoned their blue uniforms for gray forsook their oath to defend the nation from “all enemies foreign and domestic.” The Confederate States instigated a war of choice against their fellow Americans. The states that seceded from the Union did so unnecessarily. The Republican Party opposed the extension of slavery; it didn’t contest its existence.

All the legalese regarding “states’ rights” and “secession” only obfuscated the real issue. No state seethed over matters such as the Federal Government building a post office on prime public land. No local government raged over the unfairness of port duties getting sent to Washington. None invoked the “taxation without representation” epigram in response to state funds stuffing the coffers of a bloated national bureaucracy. Slavery served as the catalyst, cause and core of the conflict.

Myriad contributions to the American experience originated in the South. Authors such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote enhanced our nation’s literary tradition. Statesmen such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson built our political system. It’s difficult to imagine popular music without the influences of Elvis Presley, the Delta Blues and—America’s original art form– Jazz. Without these inspirations, American culture would not exist. The area south of the Mason-Dixon line gestated numerous boons that made the nation a “shining city on a hill.”

The Civil War is not among them. It seems macabre to “honor” those who waged a four year war of attrition against the United States government. Scholars debate the conflict’s human cost. Depending upon which estimates one uses, the hostilities caused casualties somewhere in the range of 600,000 to 900,000. The War Between the States initiating the deaths of more Americans than any other war is not open to conjecture.

Critics complain that removing Confederate monuments “erases” history. The question: just what history do they believe it erases? The very existence of these statues muddies the past. Even without the presence of the rebel effigies, Americans will still study and seek to understand the most violent war in our country’s history. Understanding why society held these figures in high regard for so long will prove more challenging.

It’s always mystified me that Americans adopted the Roman practice of deifying political figures. Imperial officials made (popular) former emperors into gods. They then chose to construct elaborate monuments honoring their memories. It’s bizarre to witness that practice in my own country. After all, the Founding Fathers crafted a constitution predicated upon a deep mistrust of government.

While appropriate to respect public servants, revering them is a dangerous practice; at times, a strange one. It defies all bounds of reason that a marble likeness of Roger Taney occupied the grounds of the Maryland State House until recently. While Chief Justice, he wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott v Sandford (1857) case. Legal scholars cite it as the worst decision SCOTUS ever handed down. The reckless application of judicial activism made the Civil War inevitable.

Some have suggested that Taney presided over a successful Court. His conduct in Dred Scott represented one mistake in an otherwise distinguished career. I find that comparable to lauding Neville Chamberlain for his contributions to European politics. It would be unfair to judge the whole of his career by his one failure. So what if that lone irresponsible act almost precipitated the end of liberal democracy?

Monuments to political figures reflect more upon the era of their dedication. Seldom are they timeless. History often mires public officials in mud. They have no place in marble.



This past November 8th Americans went to the polls facing the most daunting choice we’ve ever had to make in a Presidential election. The main options consisted of the candidate with the worst temperament of any in our history or the one with the worst judgment in the 227 years of our republic. Following an unexpectedly surprising evening, –if one believed the pontifications of the political “experts”, that is–the aspirant with the poor judgment ended up defeated. For the second time in less than a decade, Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton lost an election she should have won. Again she failed to defeat an upstart insurgent whom few—especially within her own campaign—took seriously.

This most unusual Presidential contest ended on an ironic note. After months of speculation about the future of the GOP, pundits now ponder the Democrats’. At the time of this writing, they only hold 13 of the nation’s state legislatures. As Marc Porter Magee observed, should they lose another they will fall below the percentage needed to block Constitutional amendments. The opening of the “standard bearer” position became as much a surprise as Mrs. Clinton’s loss of “firewall” states in the Rust Belt. Despite their history of voting blue in Presidential elections, the former Secretary of State managed to lead the party to defeats in places once considered impregnable strongholds. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan all voted Republican. The latter should’ve raised “red” flags, as yet another upstart insurgent who challenged mainstream political convention won the Democratic primary there this year; and, curiously enough, the self-described “democratic socialist” who serves in the Senate as an independent wasn’t a real Democrat.

With the same confidence that the media proclaimed “Dewey Defeats Truman” and the 2007 Patriots would have a “perfect” season, they assured us Mrs. Clinton would take the Oath of Office this upcoming January 20th. Perhaps, Casey at the Bat would’ve been a more appropriate metaphor. The guarantee of her winning this election fluctuated between 90% to a more conservative 76%. That’s quite a remarkable number since a different Democrat hadn’t won the White House following another Democratic Administration since 1856. Then something unexpected happened. People voted.

While watching the results come in, an overwhelming sensation of déjà vu seemed to settle over the nation. Mrs. Clinton won states everyone expected such as Vermont, New Jersey and New York. Indiana and Kentucky went the other way. No surprises there. Then Florida started to report its numbers.

At first the vote totals favored her opponent. As northern Florida has historically supported Republican candidates that didn’t surprise; the narrowness of the race did. When the traditionally Democratic counties in the south of the state voted, the total remained uncomfortably close. Then areas in the panhandle reported. While a battleground state, many viewed it as Mrs. Clinton’s to lose. She did.

At this point I felt as though I’d moved backwards through time. 2016 suddenly became 2008 as contested state after contested state deserted Mrs. Clinton in favor of a man far lacking in her governmental experience. This time, however, a very significant advantage favored her. Many (myself included) believed the former First Lady to be the one candidate who could defeat a Republican challenger. Conventional wisdom would presuppose his “locker room talk” serving to enhance the appeal of the woman positioned to become the first female POTUS. The whole debacle made me wonder if there wasn’t an endemic issue with the current Democratic Party.

To be clear, Mrs. Clinton ran an abominable campaign. One wouldn’t recognize that from the myriad excuses she and her staff have spewed since the election. First it blamed the media for granting favorable coverage to her “celebrity” opponent. After taking a few days to professionally refine its failure to take responsibility, the erstwhile candidate adopted her opponent’s tack. In an explanation eerily similar to that of a “rigged” system, she placed fault on the FBI Director for resurrecting an email scandal: one that she brought upon herself and allowed to become the defining issue of her candidacy.

In lieu of reinforcing support in contested battleground states or attempting to inspire voters in areas that traditionally favored the party, she traversed the hustings in the red state of Arizona. Prior to the election, pundits suspected it would vote Republican and—possibly for the only time in the campaign—voters proved them right.

When Bill Clinton ran for the Presidency in 1992, the mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid” became ubiquitous. Other than boilerplate references to a “middle class tax cut”, Mrs. Clinton abandoned economic issues in favor of assaulting her opponent’s crass comments about women, insensitive remarks about minorities and denigrating the “deplorables” who supported him; and subsequently voted him the 45th President of the United States.

The former President Clinton advised that the campaign reach out to white working class voters. That’s an odd recommendation to a political party forged by Thomas Jefferson to advance the interests of the yeoman farmer. It’s also the institution that gave rise to the “man of the people”, Andrew Jackson, who put the needs of his constituency ahead of the avaricious banker, Nicholas Biddle. In the 1930s, it pursued policies that gave Americans a “New Deal” as FDR instituted popular reforms such as social security.

Following the election catastrophe, a man who served in Mr. Clinton’s cabinet, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich expressed the following thoughts on

…I believe it necessary for the members and leadership of the Democratic National Committee to step down and be replaced by people who are determined to create a party that represents America, including all those who feel powerless and disenfranchised, and who have been left out of our politics and left behind in our economy.

The Democratic Party as it is now constituted has become a giant fundraising machine, too often reflecting the goals and values of the moneyed interests. This must change. The election of 2016 has repudiated it.

He added:

The Democratic Party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades, the party has been taken over by Washington-based fundraisers, bundlers, analysts and pollsters who have focused instead on raising campaign money from corporate and Wall Street executives and getting votes from upper-middle-class households in “swing” suburbs.

While reading Mr. Reich’s comments I finally understood how the millionaire free trader serving Wall Street interests became the Democratic Party nominee in 2016.    

In the days following the party’s gotterdamerung, a photo of the would-be-President circulated on the internet. While hiking, a distraught supporter encountered the former candidate in the woods near her home. The two forced a smile for the picture. The surreal scene seemed a metaphorical manifestation for the state of the party. Should it not heed the advice of those like Mr. Reich, it will spend the next several election cycles in the political wilderness. One doubts either its donors or its membership will seem as happy as Mrs. Clinton or her distraught supporter in the wake of that eventuality.