09/03/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

Our Cold Civil War

Three years ago, I sat in our Brooklyn apartment, holding my wife's hand as she burst into tears when she realized, as we watched the legislative debate, that New York was about to pass marriage equality. Less than a year later, while in North Carolina, where I teach, the front page of the Asheville Citizen-Times was filled with the image of an African-American pastor, Bible triumphantly extended, as he extolled the passage of a state constitutional amendment barring not only marriage equality but any form of civil union. This in a city famous for being the most tolerant in the South, particularly when it came to its sizable gay population.

In the ensuring time, the divergence has become even greater. New York elected Bill DeBlasio. North Carolina elected a legislature that (despite being the product of a minority of its citizens) moved to close abortion clinics, decimate education, restrict Medicaid, and not only pursued fracking but made it a crime to disclose the chemicals that were being pumped into the ground.

Worst of all, democracy itself was decimated. As part of a systematic gerrymander designed to perpetuate the non-majority legislature, Asheville was split in two, effectively denying the city representation. Voter ID and a restriction on early voting targeted minority participation; high school preregistration ceased.

My two states not only epitomized a nation divided; we were engaged in a Cold Civil War.

Once viewed through this prism, many of events of the past decade -- from the government shutdown to the deliberate (and overt) takeover of American courts by the rightest extreme -- become clear in their intent. An insurgency does not reach across the aisle, no matter how grave the crisis. Its sole intent is to conquer and destroy.

The basic geographic contours of the current conflict are the same as that fought 150 years ago, with select Far West states replacing Southern California in supporting the core Confederacy. Fundamentalism has supplanted slavery as its cause; its goal is to suppress, at the very least within the states of its dominion, the Enlightenment underpinnings of the American compact.

How effectively the South has waged this Cold Civil War can be seen most clearly when examining the result of the judicial offensive. Control of the courts has not only permitted the religious right to limit reproductive rights (including contraception) but has given it the tools -- most notably in Citizens United and the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act -- to further advance their strategic aims. (Many of North Carolina's most egregious anti-democracy laws would have been impossible if the Voting Rights Act were still in place; the electoral victory itself -- like the similarly non-majority victory in the U.S. House -- is due at least in part to unlimited campaign funds.)

Civil wars do not depend upon majorities for victory. I was reminded of this forcefully while reading Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill's biographical study of three couples during the Spanish Civil War, a book I began (full disclosure) because Amanda is a close friend but that grew increasingly frightening and relevant with every page.

The Republicans in Spain instituted basic and necessary reforms -- education of the illiterate; allowing fallow land to be tilled by starving peasants -- that were supported by vast portions of the population. Franco did not necessarily have a majority opposed to these reforms, but he did have an army and the Catholic Church. Once the Falangists gained power, they swept those reforms away, suppressing them for decades.

Make no mistake -- the increasing support for gay marriage, the growing understanding of the need for immigration reform, any response to global warming -- can disappear as quickly as did the popular reforms in Spain. If the Supreme Court aligns on marriage equality as it did on Hobby House, fundamentalist states can eviscerate marriage rights even more effectively than they have reproductive rights.

The geographic division of the antagonists in this Cold Civil War helps to make clear why non-fundamentalist businesses have so readily made joint cause with the religious takeover of the Republican Party.

Agrarian societies in general do not value labor -- family and tenant farms, like plantations, pay only in room and board. The Southern culture of aristocracy fits neatly in the worldview of "super-managers" who believe all spoils belong to an elite. The extreme income equality we are now experiencing is a direct result of the right's victorious battles against unions and taxation waged at the beginning of this conflict.

The left is not comfortable fighting a Cold War -- we remember too well the abuses that were perpetrated against us. But we do not have a choice in this matter. Fort Sumter has been fired upon, and, if we do not respond, every bit of progress made in the past half-century can vanish. In some cases (gay rights, most likely; reproductive rights, possibly), we will become a nation half-unequal and half-free. In many other areas -- most notably immigrant rights, health care, and the environment -- the damage will extend to the entire country.

That a majority of the country supports such rights -- often in growing numbers -- does not matter. Indeed, we are in the paradoxical position where the Republicans are in an excellent position to take over Congress despite the voters' disagreement with their stance on nearly every important issue of our times. Those who trust that the next president will be a Democrat are making a fool's bet -- not only is that race far from assured, but the Republicans have already announced that when in power, they will present the most Draconian legislation, forcing the executive to choose between defunding the government or diminishing rights. Wisconsin and North Carolina are vivid examples of not taking the Republicans at their word.

One can blame the voters, one can blame money, and one can blame a press that treats Congressional malfunction as a bipartisan failure. But the overriding fact remains that while one side has been actively and knowledgeably waging a civil war, the other has been acting as if the war did not exist.

Cold wars are fought on moral ground.

Not only the Democratic Party but a majority of the left as well has failed to cast our fight in moral terms. Indeed, we have been acting as if we are in a normal electoral conflict. The result is an electorate that agrees with Democrats but may very well vote Republican.

That this is a religious civil war -- the very thing the founders fought so hard to forestall -- makes it all the more dangerous. Religious wars are not subject to compromise and they go on forever. (Don't just look towards the Middle East -- the Crusades lasted two hundred years; the Inquisition a quarter century.)

If we do not fight this Cold Civil War, we shall lose. And if we lose, the America of inclusion shall perish.