In this week's commemoration sweepstakes, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination swamped the attention given to the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. That's a lost opportunity.
The Kennedy reminiscing has mostly inspired reflections on how much America has changed since that day in Dallas. Though more distant, the Gettysburg anniversary feels more contemporary. Americans today are not shooting at each other, as when Lincoln spoke, nor threatening to secede (intermittent Texas bluster notwithstanding). But in every other way, our divisions are hardening to a point that threaten our ability to function as one society in anything but name, or to move collectively against common problems. Without the apocalyptic threat of disunion and civil war, we face our own version of Lincoln's question at Gettysburg: whether "a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … can long endure."
Many historians would label the 1850s as the nadir for the American political system: the moment when the nation's leadership, through dismal decisions and myopic missteps, failed with greatest consequence to confront the challenges rising around it. After a final attempt at reconciliation with the Compromise of 1850, Washington produced a succession of political disasters led by the Kansas-Nebraska Act (arguably the most counterproductive law Congress ever passed), which repealed the Missouri Compromise, and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision (near the low point for the high court as well). Long before they communicated through shot and shell, the North and South lost the ability to meaningfully negotiate.
If the political system had been more flexible in the 1850s, the nation might still have convulsed into war: William Seward, later Lincoln's secretary of State, was right when he called the struggle over slavery the "irrepressible conflict." But it's difficult to plausibly argue that any other issue ever dividing Americans truly deserved that label. (Bimetallism? Prohibition? Abortion?) In all other circumstances, we have faced the same challenge: finding ways through the political system to mediate the differences in a diverse society. It's that capacity our political system is losing, partly because our debates now mistakenly frame too many conflicts as irrepressible.
Today we face no disagreement as morally grave, or as resistant to compromise, as slavery. But even so, the parties, including not only their leaders but many followers, are replicating the 1850s pattern of withdrawing into separate camps that consider their differences irreconcilable. It's true that very different visions animate a Democratic coalition centered on America's racially diverse urban centers and a Republican coalition rooted in nonurban white America. But those coalitions can still choose whether to negotiate, or separate.
The latter impulse now dominates. The states are detaching along blue and red lines on issues from gay marriage and abortion to the implementation of President Obama's health reform law. To a point, this state divergence eases political tensions by allowing local preferences to prevail (although its magnitude raises difficult questions about how much variation is compatible with national rights and standards). But some issues can only be decided nationally, and in Washington the two coalitions are battling to a clamorous deadlock that has precluded action on almost any serious problem.
Like a whiff of gunpowder drifting from a battlefield, these confrontations have brought an ominously apocalyptic air to modern politics. The savagery of the struggle over Obamacare is revealing. Whether the law succeeds or fails, it represents an incremental addition to the social safety net that leaves in place almost all of the existing medical system, while relying heavily on concepts Republicans championed as their alternative to Bill Clinton's health care plan. It takes willful ideological blinders to view this argument, as so many critics have done, as the tipping point between an America dedicated to liberty or redistribution, much less the decisive death struggle between "takers" and "makers."
The overheated health care battle signals that, as in the 1850s, the political system now does more to widen than bridge society's differences. Congressional Republicans, operating with a more ideologically homogenous (and alienated) electoral coalition, face more pressure than Democrats to pursue uncompromising total war, with tactics like roadblock filibusters of Obama's judicial nominees and the government shutdown over the health plan. But neither side now displays much faith that the two can overcome their disagreements.
That's especially dangerous today because America's major social and economic currents are already flowing toward partition. Deepening economic inequality; the educational system's growing tendency to reinforce, rather than uproot, inherited advantages; and the gulf between the places reshaped and untouched by cascading racial diversity are all producing a society in which the boundaries between groups and regions seem increasingly impassable—and immutable.
With Americans already disconnecting in so many ways, the political system should be working to rebuild a sense of common purpose rooted in shared opportunities and sacrifices. Instead, every day Washington hammers at the fault lines in American life. Maybe, amid these somber anniversaries, it's worth recalling how that worked out in Lincoln's time.
This article appears in the November 23, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Unfinished Work.