The old map of the US, the one from 150 years ago with the union above the Mason-Dixon line, the confederacy below, is almost complete again. Thanks to James Jeffords, the Vermont Republican senator who becomes an independent today, the Yankees have once again begun to resist the slave-holding, Bible-thumping south.
America spent more than 70 years building up to its last civil war, from the adoption of the constitution in 1789 to the attack on Charleston's Fort Sumter in 1861.
The racial peace the north imposed after the war settled in a system of apartheid that lasted 100 years. It began to unravel only in the early 1960s as the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson launched their assault on the south's racial caste system.
Just as had happened a century earlier, the states righters unfurled their ban ners, seeking to nullify the authority of the federal government. Over the next two generations, the radical right, masquerading as conservatives, won one campaign after another.
They captured the White House with Richard Nixon in 1968, the judiciary with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and the Congress with Newt Gingrich in 1994. With the supreme court coup in December, which gave victory to George Bush, they completed their takeover of the federal government.
In victory, they began to rewrite history, or rather to undo it. They envisioned the restart of the nuclear power industry, taking us back to the days before the near disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979.
They could finally implement their stealth campaign to reverse the 1954 supreme court decision outlawing racially segregated schools. Their vehicle? School vouchers, allowing children to spend their education tax money in any school, public or private, secular or religious, segregated or mixed.
Private savings invested in the stock market could help eliminate the socialistic (and atheistic) system of public pensions introduced in the Roosevelt reforms of the 1930s. The income tax, another socialistic creation, this one a burden since 1913, could be replaced with a flat tax, or maybe just by the sale of public land and minerals, the same sort of revenue generation in place before the civil war.
The most devout of the radical right dreamed of imposing new restrictions on immigration similar to the 1890 Chinese Exclusion Act. They even achieved, at least temporarily in one state, a rejection of the theory of evolution and natural selection. With Darwin shelved, they had set the scene for the second coming of Christ, in the unlikely event he were to choose Kansas as his re-entry point.
Rationalists among us don't take this kind of politics seriously. There must be other explanations - a lust for power, a craven desire to satisfy corporate contributors. They forget the ability of religious faith to drive governmental decision-making. To such rationalists, the Taliban, the mullahs, the religious right in Israel, represent only bizarre aberrations in the political process. But if so, America is suffering from the same suspension of reason in politics.
James Jeffords found he could no longer worship in the new Republican church. His party of Abraham Lincoln had morphed into the party of Stephen Douglas, the Democrat who lost to Honest Abe. Jeffords wasn't prepared to join the crusade.
The south may not be what it used to be in slavery days. It is air-conditioned now. People of all races are welcome in Wal-Mart. Golf has replaced cotton as the principal crop.
But religion, or at least Christian fundamentalism, remains as essential to public life as in the 19th century. From Virginia to Texas no political week is complete without at least one prayer breakfast, a peculiar get- together of like-minded souls over eggs and bacon to discuss the issues of the day and listen to a mini-sermon on the ethics of leadership.
This is the Republican heartland of George Bush. Back in the 1970s, in the boozy days before Billy Graham helped him see the light, Bush dabbled in the oil business in Texas. There was an energy crisis on, but even with the price of oil soaring, Bush had a hard time making a living. One of the most popular bumper stickers in his part of the state at the time read "Let the Yankees freeze in the dark".
Last week in California (a union state now loyal to the Democrats), he spoke more temperately about allowing market forces to solve the west coast's energy crisis. Republican Christians believe in markets. God will provide. They don't, however, believe much in compromise or coalition.
Jeffords was born into a different Republican party. In his youth, Democrats still ruled the south, white Democrats that is, while Republicans prevailed in New England and the midwest. The Democrat Strom Thurmond, repelled that Lyndon Johnson had turned the party of slave-holders into the party of negroes, women and old people, became one of the first to bolt for the Republican alternative. The last convert, Richard Shelby of Alabama, waited until 1995 when the Republicans had won a majority and so could offer him an important committee assignment.
Today's transfer of majority power to the Democrats - thanks to Jeffords's decision to leave the Republican party - may mark the turning point of the new civil war in America. It won't be evident till late next year when elections for the House and Senate show which way the country is ready to move.
The strategy of the south, this time like last, has called for an early victory that could be enshrined in a permanent reduction in the power of the central government. For the time being, the strategy isn't working.
The author founded and edited the Georgia Gazette
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001