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
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.

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