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Understanding a world in upheaval

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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Rarely has the world witnessed so much unsettling change so fast in so many nations for so many reasons.

  • A torrential decade has unleashed massive financial, political and technological crises, crises of trust, truth and untethered populations.
  • People are irate and balkanized, and provocateurs, itching to make them more so, keep stirring the pot.

Why it matters: Never in recent memory has the danger of some imminent, undefined catastrophe felt so genuinely palpable.

The big picture: It's important to step back and think deeply about the currents running through this moment of history — and what could come next.

I chose among the most disturbing and conspicuous dynamics of the period — the extreme anger all around (most recently in France and Brazil), and, everywhere, the urge to create "others" in society.

My guide was "The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War," Yale historian Joanne Freeman's exploration of the last time Americans were so divided — the decisive three decades leading up to the war that tore the U.S. apart.

The bad news: If there is a lesson in these years, it is that our circumstances can get worse. It was a time of extreme, polarized U.S. politics, strange and vicious conspiracy theories, and cutthroat media that amplified all the noise.

  • Eventually, the Civil War closed in, even though “no one at the time thought it was inevitable. People were trying to protect their interests without blowing up the whole thing,” Freeman told me.
  • When people worry about the divided country, that’s what they are really asking: Whether that 19th century past is in store for us — a new national conflagration, the result of never having figured out how to reconcile our differences. Are we mere tribes, seeking advantage and to hell with the other guy?
“I’m not saying we are marching into civil war. But you can see the power that conspiracy theories can have and how people can be swept into them.”
Joanne Freeman

The book's title refers to an 1856 letter written by abolitionist John Turner Sargent, calling the floor of Congress "that field of blood."

  • From around 1830 on, Congress was a practice ground for the Civil War — "a den of braggarts and brawlers, a place of sectional conflict waged by sectional champions," Freeman writes. Representatives regularly punched, knifed, threatened — and once shot and killed each other.
  • This was not seen as unusual — because the U.S. was an extraordinarily violent place. Voters demanded such displays of loyalty to conviction. "Nothing but denunciation and defiance seem to be tolerated by the masses," a former Northern congressman wrote. If you failed to be angry enough, you could be summarily voted out.
  • They were fighting less for a moral cause than their section of the country — their tribe, in today's parlance. They felt their region's honor at stake.

Ultimately, as we know, the impulse was not honor or gallantry, but slavery. At the same time the British Empire abolished slavery (1833), there were auction blocks and slave pens right in D.C. Shackled slave gangs were marched along the capital's streets.

  • In 1865, an unambiguous conclusion to the war was the only way to break the fever.
  • Freeman says rightly that she's produced a window to what can happen when people become trapped in their own polarized politics and "can't see their way out."
  • "As violent and strife-ridden as the nation and its politics continued to be, a new day was at hand."

Read the rest of the Special Report:

Democracy isn't the problem

It started with the crash

Technology has over-saturated us

Geopolitics, in three spoonfuls

Podcast: Racism is fraying society

The last time fate surprised

Your Twitter feed in lyrics

Cover of the book Field of Blood