We Are Not Living in Lincoln’s House Divided

This weekend’s shooting in Tuscon, Arizona has led to a great deal of commentary about the intense partisanship that currently animates our political discourse.  I am as concerned as the next person about the short- and long-term consequences of a political landscape and media culture that seems to have little patience for rational debate.  To be honest, I don’t know where this most recent shooting fits into all of this.  That said, I tend to take a cautious view of the doomsday scenarios because I think they tend to contribute to the toxic atmosphere.

As a historian I understand the desire to place this shooting as well as broader concerns surrounding our political and cultural wars within a historical context.  Allen Guelzo gives it a shot in this interesting commentary on what the Civil War can tell us about the fine line between words and violence.  Guelzo expresses concern that “that the lids are rattling again” because the issues at stake strike at a difference over fundamental values:

This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Today’s passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.

First, I couldn’t agree more that the language has become overly hyperbolic, but that may not be a sign of impending doom for our democracy.  We may simply have become much too sensitive given the advances in communication technology.  That said, I don’t think the Civil War sheds much light on our current political culture.  As divided as Americans are over the issues mentioned by Guelzo not one of them divides the nation regionally.  We are not living in Lincoln’s House Divided.  As much as I find Lincoln’s appeal to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject” as well as “the better angels of our nature” it’s hard to imagine that we are headed down that road.

I find it interesting that few have compared our climate to the 1960s.  Perhaps this weekend’s shooting ought to remind us of the assassinations of King and Malcolm or that of Bobby Kennedy in 1968.  Somehow the nation survived a period that witnessed violent political protest, social unrest, and an unpopular foreign war.  Are we as a nation really in a more dangerous position than this?  I find it interesting that Guelzo bypasses this period, but I suspect that many who are concerned about our present trajectory have done so as well.  Perhaps it reflects the extent to which the violence and partisanship of that period has become legitimized.

I’ll end with Guelzo’s final thought and one that I completely agree with: “Democracy lives by reason and persuasion, not by statute or decree. Its purpose is not to give us what we want, but to free us to do what we should.”

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4 comments… add one

  • We are of like minds–the first thing that I thought when I heard about the massacre was the political and social strife of the 1960s and 1970s. We all (Republican, Democrat, Independent, etc.) need to use this as an opportunity to think carefully about our rhetoric, and instead of pointing blame at one side or the other as being “worse than us,” we need to get to the heart of the matter. Ultimately, we are all Americans. Let’s set a good example for the next generation and show them that it is possible to have political disagreements without resorting to violent or offensive language.

    • Anonymous Jan 10, 2011

      Not to trivialize anything, but when I heard about this, I immediately thought about Martin Scorcese’s _Taxi Driver_, itself an artistic response to the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s. Before Travis Bickle goes on the rampage against Jodie Foster’s pimp, he attempts to assassinate a politician. I think perhaps Scorcese’s point about the prevalence of violent rhetoric still holds true. Is it really that surprising when someone acts violently in a way we don’t condone when everywhere you look there is violence that is encouraged and excused? And in saying this I don’t mean rhetoric or something on the solely discursive level; we as a country have said that torture is good and fine, that assassination of those we view as terrorists is ok, and that a war on drugs excuses all manner of violent excesses. Scorcese pretty much pointed these aspects of our society out in 1976; the same level of violence in one place is inexcusable (trying to kill a politician) whereas in another the same level of violence is valorized (killing Foster’s pimp) even though in both cases the (potential) perpetrator is a mentally disturbed man acting out his fantasies. I think for us to scale back our violent rhetoric, as a culture, would require far more effort than would be possible. The military-industrial complex is built on the concept of eternal war (first against the Communists, and then conveniently terrorists, and the axes of Evil that supposedly support them); the concept of government assistance to the poor and needy as a war on poverty; the extreme expansion and power of the police-prison-industrial complex as a war on drugs. Martial metaphor and violent language lie at the heart of all politics. If one thinks of the interest groups, PACs, jobs, and money wrapped up in all of those things, it becomes immediately apparent that this discourse can’t even be challenged. I agree with Ken Noe that we should strive to recognize humanity in all its forms, and strive to avoid glorifying violence, but I think tendencies to the opposite are too far embedded in our culture to shake (for instance, how many people would be closed to this project before it began, because on Sunday morning they elide what Jesus said during the sermon on the Mount, and instead sing themselves hoarse with “onward yonder, Christian soldiers”). And if we step back from the immediate present, we find that these metaphors of violence have always undergirded partisan conflict in our country from the start. I’m not sure how the overheated rhetoric now is any different than the overheated rhetoric that led to the election of Thomas Jefferson, or the second-party system, or the Civil War, or basically any political event in our country’s history.

      Finally, we do need to have a conversation about political discourse, just not this one. We need to ask ourselves what it means to have a democracy in a society where virtual communities increasingly replace actual ones. Fundamentally, compromise is the heart of democracy, so what happens when people feel that compromise isn’t necessary (because their social/emotional lives are rooted in the echo chamber of the internet, etc. where they can choose not to interact with people who disagree)? In this sense we haven’t been concerned enough about our advances in communications technology.

  • Ken Noe Jan 10, 2011

    Perhaps it’s my Virginia Tech ties, but it bothers me deeply that once again I find the public far too willing to wring its hands, feel helpless, and then do nothing While worse, many people seem increasingly “hardened” (to use a Civil War term) and others immediately jump at the chance to use murder for partisan gain. I don’t claim to have answers, but some things clearly need to change. Just as at Tech and elsewhere, this guy’s teachers and classmates knew full well that he was dangerous, but could do nothing. Somehow we need to find a better way to listen and respond to people who have to deal with the angry and deranged. Every teacher in this country could make you a list right now. We need to fund better treatment for those identified. I think of the vet I knew who told the VA was considering killing his loved ones, at which point they put him on a six-month waiting list because of understaffing. And whether or not it was a factor here specifically, we all could step back from our keyboard courage, the rhetoric and glorification of violence, and the tendency to dehumanize or de-Americanize those with whom we disagree, while just turning off the politicians, commentators, programs, and websites left or right who keep it up. It would be a start, and frankly we need to start somewhere. Throwing up our hands in despair and then doing nothing else just isn’t cutting it.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2011

      Hi Ken,

      I couldn’t agree with you more. The conversation is almost entirely focused on our political discourse, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, the conversation we need to be having is about issues related to mental health.

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