Family at Cliffside

A divided 2012 America can take some lessons from Lincoln

The greatest contribution of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is that it shows our 16th president not marching majestically toward Mount Rushmore, but deeply immersed in the conniving and compromise of politics. The re-elected Lincoln fears that without amending the Constitution to prohibit slavery, 600,000 deaths will have been in vain. So he cajoles, trades and browbeats his way to the votes he needs in the House of Representatives. As a war that has riven families winds down, he sees the importance of binding up the nation’s wounds.

One hundred forty-eight years later, America is like a family observing a fragile truce for Thanksgiving. Our Democratic president has been re-elected, but needs Republican support in the House to pass his agenda. He could learn a lesson from Lincoln on not leaving all the legislative horse-trading to Congress. In abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens, one sees the forebears of more recent advocates who pressed action to end the military gay ban. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

We are not in a civil war, although the secession petitions by angry losers would push us in that direction. The Republican Party that traces its lineage to the Great Emancipator clings to the lie that its followers are makers and its opponents are takers. It cannot deal with its sense of entitlement being thwarted. So far, the main lesson it is learning is not to change its policies, but to repackage itself to avoid insulting the new majority too blatantly.

Our nation remains so divided that we can only address our financial problems with a “fiscal cliff” whereby tax increases and spending cuts will occur automatically if the two parties reach no agreement by year’s end. Rather than try to resolve the impasse, some disappointed Republicans prefer the politics of distraction, such as by desperately trying to inflate the terrorist killing of four Americans in Libya into Barack Obama’s Watergate.

The GOP, which last year demonstrated its “Country First” values by flirting with defaulting on our national debt for partisan gain, has used gerrymandered districts to retain control of the House despite Democrats having won more votes. Armed for obstruction, Republicans make cosmetic changes in response to voter repudiation of their attacks on women, gays, workers, and people of color, while doubling down on discredited assumptions on the economy, defense, the right of religion to dictate public policy, and man’s role in global warming.

Unfortunately for the tea partiers, reality has not conformed itself to their ideological house of mirrors. A new coalition reflecting America’s true diversity has dealt a heavy blow to the contempt for science that threatens our future competitiveness, the nativism that undermines justice and public order, and the politics of sexual control that violates our most basic egalitarian principles. We have only begun.

President Obama’s narrow popular victory, combined with our divided government, shows that liberals cannot afford a triumphalist sense of inevitability. Among our tasks ahead: seizing the rhetorical high ground on faith, flag, and family; defending public policy from pseudoscience driven by religious dogma and corporate greed; reforming Senate rules that enable a few obstructionists to block judicial confirmations; reaffirming the need for government regulation in the common interest and for public investment in projects too large for the private sector, from rebuilding infrastructure to addressing climate change.

Let us pull the governing center back from the far right toward which it has drifted. And let us remember that the battle lines of the culture wars have cut across our own families. Removing ideological blinders lets us check our ideas against the world and people around us. These are the first steps toward recognizing and respecting one another as fellow members of the American family.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

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