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A hundred and fifty years ago, the United States was at war with itself: not metaphorically, in the way that has often been true, but literally.

Two large and growing armies faced each other in northern Virginia, with other forces scattered west of the mountains, in the first year of the American Civil War.

Politically, there was no doubt about how the country divided. The north was led by Abraham Lincoln, the first and greatest Republican Party president; the south was the Democratic Party’s heartland, and while many northern Democrats supported the war effort, the party took decades to recover from the stigma of being responsible for secession. In the tactless words of one of their opponents, they were the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.”

Fast forward to today, and the political map looks eerily similar.

Compare, for example, the presidential election of 2008 with that of 1896 or 1900: the pattern is the same, but the party labels have swapped over. With a black man in the White House, the deep south is almost as solid for the Republicans as it once was for the Democrats.

And now, for perhaps the first time since George Wallace in 1968, a true son of the Confederacy is in the running for the presidency. Texas governor Rick Perry, who at the weekend announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination, has already shot to favouritism; Intrade this morning quotes him at 38.7, ahead of Mitt Romney on 30.9 and the rest back in single figures.

I’m inclined to think that a lot of this is a novelty effect, and that Perry’s star will wane over the next few months. Trying to combine establishment credibility with an appeal to the party’s crazy wing risks satisfying neither: those who want sanity will go for Romney, while the crazies will stick with Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin. But I could be wrong about this.

In any event, it’s remarkable that Perry has as much credibility as he has. Granted Texas has enjoyed economic success under his stewardship, you would still expect that a deep southerner who has explicitly defended the right of secession and aligned himself with hard-line Christian fundamentalists would ring alarm bells in the rest of the country.

Ross Douthat, who in saner times would himself be tagged as a crazy, put it this way in The New York Times: “What Perry doesn’t have, though, is the kind of moderate facade that Americans look for in their presidents. He’s the conservative Id made flesh, with none of the post-partisan/uniter-not-a-divider spirit that successful national politicians usually cultivate.

“Imagine if the Democratic Party nominated a combination of Al Franken and Nancy Pelosi for the presidency, and you have a sense of the kind of gamble Republicans would be taking with Perry.”

But this is what the Republican Party has become. For the past three years it has defined itself as the anti-Obama, and if your vision of apocalyptic evil is a well-educated, softly spoken Black moderate from Illinois, then it’s no surprise if you end up in the arms of someone such as Rick Perry.

I think Matthew Zeitlin in The New Republic gets it exactly right:

“If Rick Perry is nominated, in other words, we will probably finally see the campaign that conservatives have been wanting since the day Obama got the Democratic nomination. And it’s sure to be ugly.”

It won’t be as ugly as 150 years ago, when this contest was fought out on the battlefield. But if the south is still out for revenge then Perry could be its chosen instrument.

Peter Fray

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