April 7, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Pandemic Reveals GOP’s Soft Civil War

Federal government under GOP control will take your money and your votes.

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JB Pritzker appeared last night on PBS Newshour. The Democratic governor of Illinois said the White House had arranged for personal protective equipment (PPE) to be flown in from China to meet shortages in the US. On its arrival, Pritzker said, the PPE will be turned over to private firms. States like his, which are experiencing the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, are expected to bid against each other for access to it.

The US Supreme Court overruled Monday a lower court’s decision to extend the period in Wisconsin to count absentee ballots. State law requires votes tallied by Election Day (today), but the lower court made an exception for the pandemic. The high court said no exceptions. As a consequence, many votes will be invalidated.

What does it mean when a party has created legal conditions with which to enforce minority rule in a democracy?

How are these two events related? At first, it seems they aren’t. But if you look closely, what they share is a wholesale rejection of the common good, a refusal to recognize the social contractual bonds that hold together a political community—a nation, a union. On the one hand, profit is privileged above human life and liberty. On the other, power is privileged above equality and democratic participation in the American franchise. Both, I think, are expressions of what I’ve come to consider a soft civil war.

I say “soft” because it’s entirely one-sided. (Feel free to pick your own nomenclature.) For all the outrage vented by leftists, liberals and Democrats, there’s still a sense, an unfounded faith, that everything will get better once Donald Trump is gone. But there’s more at work than false hope. There’s a sense, a blind faith, that history is working against the Republican Party, that the invisible hand of “progress” is pushing us steadily toward justice, with or without human agency. For this reason, I think, Democrats can’t quite bring themselves to see what’s happening before their eyes.

Brian Schatz, a liberal senator from Hawaii, was correct in saying, after the US Supreme Court handed down its ruling Monday, that “they are throwing away ballots. They are literally going to not count votes. We Democrats need to understand the magnitude of the Republicans enterprise here.” But he stops short, and says only that, “They are systematically going to try to make it less easy, and less safe, to vote.”

Well, what does it mean when the highest court in the land makes citizens choose between good health and the right to vote? Let’s take it to its logical conclusion. What does it mean when a party has successfully created legal conditions with which to enforce minority rule in a majoritarian republic? For one thing, it’s sabotage of the common good. For another, it’s a deep betrayal of our national values, myths and interests. For yet another, it signals a civil-war posture. Democracy be damned.

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The Times published a map last week showing parts of the country in which people are continuing to travel during the epidemic and parts of the country in which people are sheltering at home. The entire map is a variation of yellow and green, indicating state governors understand the importance of the common good in a time of a nationwide crisis. The more people do their part as individuals, the better off everyone will be.

I say the entire map but with a huge exception—the southeast quarter of the US. That’s the section of the country in which state governors have been either slow to react to the pandemic or have been hostile to those calling for greater commitments to public health. And it so happens that’s the part of the country that does not, historically speaking, care about the common good, because the common good is democratic.

Colin Woodard, in his book American Nations, divides that quarter in three. Each part represents the politics of the white Europeans who settled them. In what he calls “Tidewater”: “17th-century gentry recreated semi-feudal manorial society of English countryside. Conservative; respect for authority and tradition, not equality or political participation.” In “Greater Appalachia”: “Settlers from war-ravaged Ulster, northern England, lowland Scotland. Deep commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty; intense suspicion of external authority. In “Deep South”: “Established by slave lords from English Barbados as a West Indies-style slave society. Modeled on slave states of the ancient world—democracy was the privilege of the few” (stresses mine).

To southern GOP governors, serving the common good is in fact undermining their respective political orders.

Assuming Woodard’s thesis is correct—that our politics can be explained to a degree by settlement patterns established centuries ago—it’s clear why the southeast isn’t doing its part in a viral pandemic. It won’t, even if that means people die. It won’t, because serving the common good is undermining their respective political orders.

Americans in other parts of the country, especially white liberals in big cities, might not have noticed the soft civil war. White people have more access to better health care. White people are not generally blocked from voting. White people might have continued believing the Republicans when they said states rights means the federal government shouldn’t get involved in local matters. Then the GOP tipped its hand.

In 2017, the Republicans passed a law cutting taxes for the very rich and very large corporations but paid for it by extracting wealth from rich states. Rich states, mostly blue, had already been sending more money to the treasury than poor, mostly red, states. By repealing deductions for state and local taxes, the Republicans in effect said blue states have no sovereignty they are bound to recognize. A federal government under GOP control will take your money as quickly as it throws away your votes.

When does a civil war turn from soft to hard? When the other side sees it.

So far, the national Democrats won’t.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Burgs on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    I think that the people on the left, who don’t see this conflict brewing, don’t see it because they don’t WANT to see it. They don’t want to have do anything beyond voting. If they are somehow disallowed to vote, it will just stop there and we’ll all be under a dictatorship. If you posted this piece on the WaPo, you would get shredded by Democrats who don’t want to hear the truth of what is really at stake. They don’t want to be reminded that they’re too cowardly to fight for democracy if push comes to shove.

    Also, we have no access to guns. I can’t get a gun defend myself without jumping through 10 flaming hoops in MA. That puts us at a huge disadvantage imo.

    • Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

      Agreed….far too many liberals are still deluding themselves that everything will take care of itself as if voting is the only activity required. The right wing has seen itself in mortal conflict with the left for decades but liberals still can’t recognize the reactionary agitation and the long-term peril we face.

      I don’t think actual military conflict is coming or required. I believe the elements of the right as defined in John’s article are substantially weaker politically than seems evident. They don’t have the vote totals to win when liberals, you know, actually show up to vote! That’s what happened in 2008 and 2012, and in the 2006 and 2018 midterms. The right’s political success is as much of function of liberal fecklessness as much as the right’s own effectiveness. If the left can consistently muster its power and political resources, we CAN destroy the Republican party.

      I’ve always contended that Repugs don’t win elections but that Democrats lose them. The consistent tendency to ignore non-presidential elections, the dismissal of the importance of the court system both state and federal, and the demand for perfect politicians and instant solutions to major political and economic challenges is just stupid….and now we’re reaping the whirlwind.

      Personally, if I were voting in person in Wisconsin today, I’d crawl on my knees over broken glass to maintain my franchise. The consistent subscribers of this blog I’m sure have the same mindset. More important is the need to construct a political, legal, and media infrastructure that is designed for aggressively accumulating political power. But do liberals in general have the fire in the belly, the mindset that we must build the toolkit for victorious political success, and the willingness to fight to the death for the future and for the Republic? I don’t know, but we’ll see.

      • Wil_E_Quixote on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

        I have to disagree on a few points. The GOP lock on the politics of the South and the heartland is ironclad. Unfortunately, Democratic strength relies on the turnout of the working poor, which means it’s really only good for Presidential elections and national offices. Republicans routinely win a majority of everything else, which means they control election laws, redistricting, and have a solid base in Congress that makes any Democratic gains in Congress temporary.

        Of course, we could mobilize our liberal working poor the same way the GOP mobilized the conservative working poor. Just remember that it took them over twenty years to get them to hate the opposition enough to be reliable voters. And party-wide, movement-wide dedication.

        And you gotta make it entertaining, too. They won’t listen if it isn’t.

  2. Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    Are you suggesting we’re getting close to an *actual* (Second) Civil War? What would that even look like? Or are you talking about a full-on *Cold* Civil War?

    • Burgs on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

      I think plenty of right-wing kooks would welcome a hot Civil War, these people are crazy. But what i think we’re approaching is something akin to real tyranny, where an administration/political party is actually trying to usurp democracy. There will be some kind of inflection point where we either fight back in some real way or we lose our democracy.

      For example, let’s say Trump and the conservatives on the SCOTUS manage to cancel or delay elections in November… I’m not saying that will actually happen, but if it did, what would we do about it?

      Trump is firing IGs and removing any kind of oversight he possibly can, but when is too far really too far? He can just chip away but no one is willing to draw any kind of real line in the sand. The more we give, the more they take. Will we wait until there’s nothing left or will we eventually stop them.

      I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m not overly confident we’d keep our democracy.

      • John Smart on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

        It starts with California secession. And every day that becomes more openly discussed out here.

        • Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

          I live in the Bay Area, and no one I know talks about secession. Things are worse than a mess right now, but even if the Union would let us go (which I doubt), the Chinese navy would be on our shores in a matter of weeks.

  3. John Smart on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    I’ve been saying this for 3 years now. There is no logic in the USA as constructed now. Coastal California including San Diego and even Orange county now – all the way up to Oregon , Cascadia and the Northeast from DC to Maine are CLEARLY different countries now.

    I, for one, am a liberal who would welcome whatever it takes to free California from the Feds. I once felt alone in this but since the 2016 election one hears about secession much more often.

  4. Rick on July 30, 2021 at 8:09 am

    They don’t see it because the NRA has vilified gun laws. Democrats for their own protection need to arm themselves.

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