Collective memory from the Civil War can help us better understand the recent debt-ceiling crisis, and rhetoric arguing to get rid of government.
As David Blight (2001) writes, the legacy of the Civil War is still strong in American memory. During the Civil War, people used strong discourse describing the Federal Government as an aggressor. For a long time, the Federal government was the enemy for a large swath of the United States. Collective experiences like attacks from a large and powerful attacker leave collective memories in communities effected. This is the case with the southern United States and their experiences in the Civil War. These memories are even more salient because the South lost the war, and is reminded of that every day.
Collective memories are interpretations of historical events that a community shares. In them, people often make their communities look good. People pass down these collective memories over generations by telling their kids stories of these events from the community’s slanted perspective. People often do this implicitly, they don’t think their version of history is slanted, it’s just right. However, sometimes politicians do this intentionally to create more emotion and rally up their bases. Collective memories, and thus versions of history, vary across mnemonic communities.
However, what about people who never experienced the civil war themselves? Why do they get riled up? Well, when young people hear these stories enough, they begin to feel strong emotions and form strong emotional attachments to their communities and against the aggressors in those tales. Scholars call this process post-memory – even though you didn’t experience the atrocity or event, you can still get riled up because you identify so strongly with your community in those stories.
People like Marianne Hirsch at Columbia University have written extensively about this post-memory processes for example, among second-generation Jewish individuals in relation to Holocaust memory.
When it comes to these recent political confrontations, even though Ted Cruz, Dixiecrats, and Tea Party Republicans did not live through the Civil War, they are drawing upon memories from the south and discourses from the Civil War to fight against what they see as an intrusive and aggressive Federal Government. Some radical conservatives do not even mind that the government shut down, or would go off a fiscal cliff, because it accomplishes the central premise of a southern collective memory and discourses from the Civil War – to get rid of the “big” Federal government aggressor.
Leaders like Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and those in the media would benefit from looking at this crisis through the lens of collective memory and the shared experiences of different parts of the country where these House Members and Senators come from. In his recent remarks after the shutdown President Obama sounded frustrated and perplexed when he asked told members of Congress, “So let's work together to make government work better, instead of treating it like an enemy or purposely making it work worse.” Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, and news commentators also seem perplexed that government representatives would actually say they wanted to shut down the government and why some would frame their government re-opening, and their colleagues passing a fiscal deal, as ‘defeat.’
However, what discourses do these representatives need to use to appeal to their bases? What collective memories, and related experiences, are most salient in their districts, especially when in contexts and conversations that invoke the federal government? Finally, what post-memories do many of these ‘radical’ representatives themselves hold and what stories did they grow up hearing about federal government? When we look historically at the Civil War, and look at this in terms of collective memory and post-memory, we see the connections. Confederate flags that fly in many parts of the south are symbolic indicators of the memories and discourses that are still strong in half of our country.
Our political analysis could improve if we take collective memory and impactful historical events into account. Instead of throwing up his hands in exasperation at the “irrationality” of House Republicans, Obama should realize that in many ways he presides over two countries with different historical and narrative traditions. It is important for him and other policy-makers to consider the impact of of collective memories on our policy-making and work to come up with discourses and memories around which more Americans can rally.