Featured image created by Sam Nystrom-Costales
Jeremi Suri is undoubtedly one of the most famous historians of American diplomacy and the Cold War. In addition to his academic publications, he’s also well known for his media appearances and podcast, This is Democracy. Historifans co-founders, Alex Marino and Danielle Sanchez, sat down with Jeremi Suri to chat about his new book, Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy, and American pop culture. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Alex Marino: When I originally heard about your new book, I was a bit surprised because your prior work focused on the Cold War (which we will get back to later in this interview). For those who know you as Jeremi “Cold War Guy” Suri, would you mind giving them a little bit of info about your new book, Civil War By Other Means?
Jeremi Suri: This book is different from my others because it was motivated by my own struggle to understand the disruptive events of the last six to seven years. I was surprised at how susceptible, precarious, and violent our democracy became so quickly, and as a historian, I know it’s not just because of one man or because of one set of events. There’s something deeper there and I don’t think the historiography that I had been contributing to helped to explain why.
Writing this book was a journey, and trying to understand—as I think most history is—the origins of our world in one way or another. That doesn’t make it presentist, that makes it an effort to dig into the soil and find the roots. The more I looked into it, the more I read about the 19th century, the more it became clear to me that there were parallels and continuities—not necessarily causation—but continuities from the twenty years after the Civil War to where we are today. What my book is trying to show is that there are parallels between the 1870s and where we are today. I also try to show and understand the seeds, or in some ways, the cancerous tumors that began to grow in many of our institutions. The tumors that were planted and began to grow after the Civil War. There isn’t a simple solution, but I do think there’s an optimistic part of the story. If we can see these problems, we can understand where these ailments are in our institutions, and then we can begin to talk about fixing them.
AM: What are some examples of these cancers? In which institutions?
JS: So, for example, the ways we did not create a truly protected set of voting rights for newly enfranchised citizens after the Civil War. That was a conscious decision. So, on the one hand, the Civil War marks a moment of great progress. Four million people who were not treated as humans were now given human status and citizenship, at least nominally, but their voting rights were not really protected. That’s a cancer within our institutions.
By the 20th century, we became one of the largest democracies, with the least protection for voting of our peers in the world. It’s quite ironic actually. After World War II, we went around the world, and we enforced voting rights in other countries that are more protected and expansive than they are in our own society. That’s one of these cancers.
The book is mostly about the problems and not the treatments, but my argument is that we need a constitutional amendment like the First Amendment for the right to vote. The right to vote shall not be abridged under any circumstances. That would eliminate many of the issues we have in many of our states where people are prevented from voting.
AM: I’d like for you to explain a little why you chose the title of the book, which is a clever riff off of Carl von Clausewitz’s argument that war is politics by other means.
JS: I’m so glad you picked up on that. Just as war is politics by other means, politics is war by other means, and that’s precisely my point. We are not still fighting Antietam and we’re not starting a new civil war. We’re dealing with struggles that are unresolved from the Civil War. The conditions that allowed us to ignore these issues are not allowing us to ignore them anymore; we’re in a more economically constrained environment, we have more international competition, and we have figures who, for whatever reason, are exploiting these divisions. It’s not a new civil war, it’s not the old Civil War, but it’s a continuation of that struggle.
Danielle Sanchez: What are some of the examples of American political divides in popular media and pop culture?
JS: It’s so overwhelming in our popular media that we almost don’t comment on it, right? So the place I always like to start when talking about this are Civil War reenactments. There are parts of the country, including Texas, where Civil War reenactments are a huge deal. You won’t go to a small town in west Texas, and not find people who are play-acting as Confederates. People in France and Germany don’t typically dress up and pretend they are soldiers fighting in the First World War. We play Civil War, and generally Civil War reenactors hold particular political views and consume particular forms of popular culture. And then there’s the other side of people that can’t imagine participating in Civil War reenactments. I grew up in New York City. I can’t imagine dressing up and pretending to be a Confederate soldier. I can think of all the offensive things people did at costume parties as a kid, but dressing up as Robert E. Lee wasn’t even in the space of contemplation. And so in our imagination of what’s acceptable to play, in our imagination of what the space of debate is, it’s very different, based on where you sit in your understanding of what the Confederacy was. As a Jew growing up in New York City, the Confederates were kind of like Nazis, but to a perfectly fine person growing up in Lubbock, Texas, their understanding of the Confederates is often very different from my own. Some of their understandings were likely informed by popular culture and representations of the Confederacy that portrayed soldiers as heroic people who were standing up for Texas.
There’s also the world of cop shows right now, which is really interesting. There’s a show called Blue Bloods that is very popular. It is very pro-police and pro-paramilitary violence. Why is New York well-run according to this show? Because New York has an army of its own called the New York City Police Department, right? Then there are shows on the other side that are probably equally popular. I was thinking about a recent show, The Equalizer with Queen Latifah, where she is highly trained, and almost a superhero. Her character is helping people who are always left out, poorly served, and sometimes the subjects of criminal behavior by the police or by authority. The Equalizer and Blue Bloods are equally popular. My guess is there aren’t too many people who would say they watch both of those shows.
And then one other reference I was thinking of—it’s mandatory for me to say this in Austin, Texas—Willie Nelson and his version of country music is so different from Waylon Jennings. In a place like Austin, Texas, it’s fascinating to learn about country music preferences because it can tell you so much about basic understandings of history and ideas about the United States.
DS: Right! I don’t think there is any overlap between fans of The Chicks and Toby Keith.
AM: The Chicks really are perfect to talk about this—from their fan base up until the War in Iraq, their career in response to that, and then this confrontation that they’ve had with themselves over their name.
JS: I think it captures these conflicts within our popular culture. They had fans who really weren’t where The Chicks were politically, and for a while that was okay. Then, as soon as they connected their music explicitly to political issues like Iraq, you saw an explosion among their fan base.
AM: Before this interview, we asked you what kind of pop culture you thought about while writing this book and you said REM’s album, “Fables of Reconstruction.” I was not very familiar with it, so I listened to the album and it made me think about Bob Dylan’s album “Infidels” from around the same time, where Bob is singing about unions on the retreat, globalization, all kinds of issues going on in the world, and how things just didn’t feel right. Another that came to mind was Bruce Springsteen’s album, “Ghost of Tom Joad,” which is filled with angst about a changing economy and world. These all seem to be about neoliberalism and de-industrialization. So what does the REM album mean to you and how does it help us to understand The Civil War by Other Means?
JS: I think all of these albums get at the nostalgia and the loss that people are dealing with, and the irony of it—that the loss is something they’re blaming others for—is that it’s actually too little change that has put them in this place of loss. So they’re trying to hold onto a world that you can’t hold on to, and they have little left as the world is changing around them. To me, these are all albums filled with a lot of anger, too. They are fables of reconstruction, because the fables they’re being told are actually not what the problem really is.
DS: I know that you are a big fan of Bridgerton. Are there ways that we can tie the kind of class strife and alienation in Bridgerton to what you’re doing in your book?
JS: One way of understanding Bridgerton is that it is about how the individuals–the aristocratic families with status–fight to hold onto and gain status. For example, the Featheringtons, who are not as rich as the Bridgertons, have to marry their daughters to someone who has money, and they have to lie to get their daughters married off. When Jack Featherington becomes the new Lord Featherington, they have to play along with a ruse that he made a bunch of money in mining in the United States. It’s not the money that’s motivating them–it’s holding onto their status and position in society. Lady Whistledown’s gossip newspaper is threatening because it has the power to deflate status. It undermines the pretensions that people have, and I think that’s exactly the way to understand what happens after the Civil War. Take someone like Andrew Johnson. He didn’t own a lot of slaves and was not particularly wealthy. He represented a group of Tennessee tailors like himself and other small business people who were struggling. They hated the rich white plantation owners in Virginia, but they were really threatened by free African Americans because they could compete with them for the little business they got as tailors, and the one thing they had was whiteness. If whiteness now doesn’t mean anything, the old elites now lost their status.
So what Richard Hofstadter called “status anxiety” is a huge part of this and it’s why these divisions hold so firm. Even if you show people that they’re living better in a more diverse society, they feel they’re losing something if they don’t have that Bridgerton-like titling of being white or being the plantation owner. I think that’s so much of what whiteness comes down to–it’s much more than race. It’s class.
Stay tuned for Part 2!
Dr. Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. He’s a professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs. He’s written numerous books on American history, and particularly the American Presidency and American Foreign Relations. His latest book, Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy came out on October 18, 2022. You can purchase a copy of the book here. Twitter: @jeremisuri
Dr. Alex Marino is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College. His research focuses on the American Foreign Policy and U.S.-Africa relations. Top five fandoms: Star Wars, Star Trek, Civilization, The Sopranos, and Dune. He credits childhood favorites Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park for his interest in becoming a professor and spends his free time streaming shows and watching the Lakers and Chargers. All views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army War College, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense. Twitter: @Alex_J_Marino
Dr. Danielle Sanchez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Colorado College. Her research focuses on the Second World War in Africa, specifically popular culture, consumption, and social movements in francophone and lusophone Africa. She teaches a range of pop culture and history courses, but her favorites are Health and Healing in African History, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Star Wars, and Writing Graphic Histories. Her nerdy obsessions include knitting, roller derby, Star Wars, contemporary romance novels, and the MCU. Twitter: @drdanisanchez