We see it everywhere in American politics. One army general gave voice to the fear in a memorable simile, worrying that the country might collapse like “Mexico and the Central American countries” unless something was done to tamp down partisan passions and encourage unity. His comment went viral, and soon people across the country were talking about, and deploring, the possible “Mexicanization of American politics.”
The governing question, as one distinguished historian put it, is whether “American politics [has] become permanently ‘Mexicanized’?” Another commentator, considering “the Mexicanization of institutions,” defined it as a toxic situation in which “all party contests have the character of civil war.”
We all know what they mean. And it is scant consolation, I believe, to note that the general to whom I refer was writing in 1877 or that “the distinguished historian” was C. Vann Woodward, writing about the 1876 election and its aftermath in his book Reunion and Reaction (1951).
We can discern plenty of echoes of that most disputed election in the conduct of our political life today. The contestants then were Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican governor of Ohio, and Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic governor of New York. Reconstruction was still in force; federal troops still controlled the Southern states. Tilden won the popular vote by some three points. He also won 184 electoral votes to 165 for Hayes. The election came down to 20 disputed electoral votes in three Southern states: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Congress formed an Electoral Commission, with a majority of Republican members, to resolve the dispute. In the end, the commission awarded all 20 votes to Hayes, giving him a victory with 185 to 184 electoral votes.
What was the price of that victory?
The Republicans got the presidency, but the South got the end of Reconstruction. The South might have ended it anyway, since they had held on to a majority in the House and had voted to cut off funds for the occupying federal troops. As it happened, “the compromise of 1877” was never publicly debated. On the contrary, it was the result of what Woodward called “secret covenants privately arrived at.” Did it have the desired effect of restoring stability and order to the metabolism of American political life? To a large extent, yes, though Woodward, in a later edition of his book, argues that that pragmatic victory came at the expense of abandoning the “idealistic aims” of Reconstruction, i.e., the full extension of civil rights to blacks, something Woodward thought had been definitively achieved with the civil rights movement, and the attendant judicial interventions, of the 1960s.
Be that as it may, what seems most salient for our current situation is not the compromise that unfolded behind closed doors in 1877 but the determined fractiousness that preceded it. Indeed, what we have seen is a return of something like “the Mexicanization of American politics.” As many commentators have observed, the country is more divided now than at any time since the late 1850s, with divisions as bitter as in the early years of Reconstruction.
The late English philosopher Roger Scruton put his finger on one aspect of this division when he observed that “Left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people because I simply believe that they are mistaken.” What I have called the Manichean spirit of the Left, its almost gnostic division of the world into an elite of virtuous souls against a coven of ignorant wickedness, is something we see everywhere.
Whether the subject be “climate change,” COVID policy, racism (real or imagined), the latest wrinkle of sexual exoticism, the perfidy of Donald Trump, or any other item on the menu of woke enthusiasm, the spirit of segregation and snarling repudiation is alive and well. You are either with us or you are damned.
It is worth noting that today, unlike it was in the late 1870s, the malady is systemic. That is, the spirit of repudiation affects not just partisan politics but just about every aspect of our social life: education, entertainment, the media, even many churches and corporations. Still, it is in the realm of politics that this intolerant gnosticism appears in its most naked viciousness. It is not strictly a party-political phenomenon. Scruton drew his line between Right and Left. But perhaps the deeper division is between those who regard politics, and the powers it commands, as the most important human impulse and those who, on the contrary, see politics as subordinate to other values and pursuits.
The Mexicanization of American politics operates with the threat (and, sometimes, the reality) of violence in the background as a potential expedient. It is meant to stay mostly in the background—mostly. Surveillance, ostracism, censorship are generally the preferred weapons, at least in the beginning. In terms of electoral politics, you can already see the narrative taking shape. I suspect that those who view Ron DeSantis as someone with less “baggage,” and therefore more virtue points, than Donald Trump are naïve. By the time the 2024 campaign gets underway in earnest, and should DeSantis be the candidate, the Democrats will have completed their transformation of the Florida governor into “literally Hitler.”
Our public life today is a seething cauldron of animosities. Compromises are not wanted, only unconditional surrender. We’ll know that that has changed when a candidate who dissents from the consensus of the ruling party is allowed not only to take office but also to take power. I am not holding my breath.