Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian of American class, race, and inequality, with a particular focus on the South during and after the Civil War. Her book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South deftly navigates discourses on race, power, and capitalism, telling us what happens to “excess labor” under a slave economy. In this conversation, she talks about the South’s influence on her direction as a scholar, and explains how vital elements of the Southern political economy (from “right to work” to convict leasing) have spread to the rest of the country.
Matthew Stanley is a historian and professor whose latest book, The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America explores how the politics of the Civil War moved through the regions of the Lower Middle West. His work shows us how ideologies evolve through space and time, and how the Civil War in particular has served as a container for American social and political attitudes well into the 21st century. With Confederate monuments being toppled by activists and organizers around the country, to the shock and outrage of white supremacists and “traditional” (wink) Americans everywhere, Stanley points out some vital historical context:
“People talk about preserving history. But the best argument against keeping these monuments in public places IS the historical argument. Most of these were not erected by Confederate veterans, they weren’t erected during the Civil War or even Reconstruction. They were erected during the Jim Crow era, and many of them explicitly re-encode the racial order through monumentation. So they’re designed to be a political statement. You can’t depoliticize a monument. A monument is inherently political.”
Heather Cox Richardson is a historian of American politics with a number of important books on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the ideological evolution of the Republican Party. Richardson’s work tracks the space between rhetoric and reality, showing us how political parties pull the levers of race and class to manipulate public opinion and gain power.
Richardson’s recent focus is the way American conservatism has influenced the direction of the Republican Party over the course of the past several decades. In this conversation, she explains how “movement conservatives” since the Buckley era pushed the GOP to embrace increasingly extreme candidates and positions, setting the table for the Trump nightmare:
“Americans figured out fairly early on that [Republican economic policies] didn’t really help them. So Republican language has gotten more and more crazy. For me, the real sign was when Carly Fiorina, in the debates in 2016, said that Democrats were literally killing babies so they could sell their body parts . . .
They’ve had to ratchet this language up more and more. So when Trump came in and said and did the horrific things he did, he was really simply playing that movement conservative narrative out to its logical end. It’s exactly the path we started on in 1951 with God and Man at Yale.”