Many have commented since 2016 and the populist thrusts of Donald Trump from the right and Bernie Sanders from the left, that the United States is more polarized than at anytime since the Civil War. That polarization led to the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 and sparked the secession of eleven Southern states and the Civil War.
In this turbulent time we are divided over a number of issues. They seem to fall into three broad categories. The first set of issues revolve around race and what it means to be an American. Here we include how to manage our southern border, immigration and the browning of America in general, and policing and criminal justice in Black and Brown communities. Second, there are the whole range of issues related to individual rights versus social obligation, These include gun control, queer and trans people’s rights, pro-life/pro-choice, and now, the conflict over response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A final grouping, climate change, health care and education demonstrate differences over the both the extent and the kind of government regulation and intervention into private affairs to create opportunity and attend to the general welfare.
This laundry lists of issues that divide us is broader and more complicated than the 1860s, when one issue, slavery caused an irrevocable division. But in the 1860s and today, the issue of race is at the center of our political chasm. Slavery was obviously about race. I’ve said above that race is one category of issues. But race and racial inequity run through my second category issues like gun control and COVID-19 outcomes and responses; and also through third group issues like access to health care and education.
Returning to Lincoln, on different occasions he offered a number of reasons why the political opponents of his day could not separate from their foes. For our purposes two stand out today. In his first inaugural address in March, 1861 Lincoln declared that …
Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them.
Four months later In his July 4th, 1861 address to Congress Lincoln posited that the civil war …
embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic, or democracy–a government of the people by the same people–can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes.
160 years later, as we watch our fascist president waging desperate last-ditch efforts to destroy our republic, Lincoln’s two great dictums are once again of critical moment; and they are intimately connected. Despite our “interminable culture wards” and the way we “sort” ourselves ideologically by zip codes, there is almost no place of any size where Americans are not living in close proximity to, and interacting daily with people of opposite political views. And although most white Americans continue to live racially segregated lives, an increasing number of extended families are multiracial. My own family is a case in point. My nuclear family is bi-racial. And my extended family includes flaming liberals, Trumpites, and black, brown and white people. There have been rough moments, but the brood still hangs together with something approximating familial love. So too late! America is already multiracial and multi-ideological down to the family level! We can’t sort ourselves from one another.
Relating to Lincoln’s second point, we are once again called upon to make democracy, government comprised of the people who are already here, work. The populist base of the Republican Party wants to trash our political institutions, because they don’t want to live in a democracy where the new majority is no longer white, and that majority generally favors a larger government role in determining life-chances in areas such as education, healthcare and environmental protection.
And as Lincoln suggested all those generations ago, the whole world is watching, Trump wannabes and right-wing populists have seized the high ground in country after country. What are they witnessing? Through this electoral season thus far, except for the Republican Party, the institutions appear to be holding up. Trump is a right-wing fascist populist, but our system is not yet a fascist one where a dictator gets to make up his own rules. But let us remain vigilant for the immediate future. Each of us may yet be called upon to play a part in the drama of constructing a multi-racial society with democratic institutions to match
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