Every Lawmaker Should Be Forced to Read the Gettysburg Address. Here’s Why.

Reminiscences about JFK overshadowed the 150th anniversary of the speech this week. That’s too bad, because it’s a message our polarized pols need to hear.

Abraham Lincoln delivers his Gettysburg Address is the 1905 lithograph by the Sherwood Lithograph Co. 
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Ronald Brownstein
Nov. 21, 2013, 4 p.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
SAYS TRUMP JUST ATTACKING REPUBLICANS
Former Top Aide to McConnell Says GOPers Should Abandon Trump
3 days ago
THE LATEST
“YOU CAN’T CHANGE HISTORY, BUT YOU CAN LEARN FROM IT”
Trump Defends Confederate Statues in Tweetstorm
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE
CEOS HAVE BEEN FLEEING FOR THE EXITS
Trump to End Business Councils
4 days ago
THE LATEST
FROM STATEMENT
McConnell: “No Good Neo-Nazis”
4 days ago
THE LATEST
NO FORMAL LEGISLATIVE EFFORT
CBC Members Call for Removal of Confederate Statues from Capitol
4 days ago
THE LATEST

"Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are reviving calls to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol following the violence at a white nationalist rally in Virginia." Rep. Cedric Richmond, the group's chair, told ABC News that "we will never solve America's race problem if we continue to honor traitors who fought against the United States." And Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson said, “Confederate memorabilia have no place in this country and especially not in the United States Capitol." But a CBC spokesperson said no formal legislative effort is afoot.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login