Someone much smarter than most of us warned that if we forget the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat them. Since the beginning of the 1980s, we have drifted apart politically and economically for all the reasons thoroughly thrashed on these and other pages. I watched (for the third time) Ken Burns' The Civil War recently and I drew some parallels between the mid-19th century national agony and the one occurring today. Most of you get it already, but a reminder can't hurt to underscore the urgency of finding our way out of the current wilderness.
The late historian Shelby Foote made two significant points during his opening comments in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. He stated that the war itself defined who we are as a nation and that the decades leading up to the war illustrated how we lost or forgot how to practice the most unique and important aspect of our form of government: COMPROMISE. By entrenching political and economic positions in intransigency, we created the atmosphere for the greatest bloodbath this country has ever endured.
What began as an argument about state’s rights evolved into a war over the moral horror show called slavery. The real issues were economic. The South, primarily an agrarian society and culture, was run by relatively few very wealthy land owners who owned and operated over 90% of the slave population. The vast majority of southern whites owned no slaves. When moderates tried to limit the spread of slavery economics to other, new territories, the entrenched southern aristocrats fought it, because they thought it would eventually impact their way of life.
In watching the film I was reminded that hateful rhetoric directed at politicians is nothing new. Lincoln himself was called names like “baboon” and “gorilla” as well as other less complimentary terms. Why? Because he advocated limiting slavery; he did not advocate abolishing it in his campaign or the first years of his presidency. That came after the South showed they were adamant against reforming the union. It wasn’t until January 1, 1863 that the Emancipation Proclamation became law.
Few argue that the decades leading up to 1861 weren’t the darkest and most divisive in our political history. Intransigence, not compromise, was the order of the day and the nation split apart as a result. Our greatest political “invention”, compromise, was replaced with rancor, self-serving hostility and vicious attacks on opposing views to the point that emotions replaced reason and war replaced civilized resolution.
If this sounds familiar, we seem to be in the midst of a similar atmosphere today. The parallels are too obvious to ignore, but we’d better pay attention to fixing them before they once again get out of hand.
With the entry into our political arena of scorched earth operatives like Karl Rove and Grover Norquist, the art and intent of compromise is replaced with ideological certainty, wedge issues that do nothing but inflame emotions and election rigging to ensure victory for a particular party. Compromise, in this environment, is a sign of weakness. Pledges are forced on politicians to ensure funding from political machinery.
Perhaps worst of all is the blatant name-calling and hostility directed at the President. Bill Clinton received a flood of invective the minute his hand came off the Bible. Barack Obama has stimulated an unprecedented avalanche of hatred and invective from the moment he announced his candidacy. New code words like multiculturalism arose to mask the true intent and meaning of those darts.
When the minority mouth of the Senate says that their number one priority is to oust the President, compromise is the victim. The machine of conservatism and compromise has been replaced by the lesser angels of fear, hate, greed, prejudice and power.