David J. Bean
David J. Bean is a freelance writer living in California.
Sometimes old books can reflect attitudes and emotions that are being repeated in spite of the lessons that should have been learned the first go-around. Specifically, a review of Nathaniel W. Sephenson's little book Abraham Lincoln and the Union published in 1918 reveals a remarkable similarity in political discussion during the 1850s and the political volatility of the present day. Of course we don't have slavery as an issue today but the division, the hardened positions, and the outright hate exhibited between the Right and the Left today is certainly reminiscent of what Lincoln faced.
The book starts out with a quote:
There is really no Union now between the North and the South. No two nations upon earth entertain feelings of bitterer rancor toward each other than these two nations of the Republic.
This remark is attributed to Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, and provides the key to American politics in the decade following the Compromise of 1850. If you substitute Liberal and Conservative or Right and Left for North and South, doesn't this quote sound like it would be applicable to the political situation today? Lincoln's answer was that he did not believe that the nation could survive half slave and half free. Can our society survive half hard Left and half hard Right? That question is not as frivolous as it first appears.
In the 1850s there was a process of natural selection at work, in the intellectual and economic conditions, which inevitably drew together certain types and generated certain forces. As early as the opening of the 19th century the social tendencies of the two regions were already so far alienated that they involved differences that could hardly admit to reconciliation. It would be fallacious, however, to say that this growing antagonism was (or is) controlled by any deliberate purpose in either part of the country. Then, it was apparently necessary that this republic in its evolution should proceed from confederation to nationality through an intermediate, reactionary period of sectionalism. Slavery of course, was the primary issue but sectional consciousness, including state sovereignty, with all its emotional and psychological implications, was also part of the fundamental impulse for the terrible events that occurred between 1850 and 1865.
In the middle of the 19th century the more influential Southerners had come generally to regard their section of the country as a distinct social unit. The South strove to perpetuate a social system that was fundamentally aristocratic while the North sought to foster its ideal of a more pure democracy. The next step was inevitable. The South began to regard itself as a separate political unit. Aren't those divisions similar to the conditions that have produced the bitter divisions we have today between the Right and the Left? The collectivist tendencies of the urban people on both coasts make them more liberal and more socialistally inclined than the more independent and individualist-minded people of the South and West. And the fact that the hard Left is imbedded in the more popular Democratic Party gives them power that their actual percentage would not normally enjoy. While polls show that most conservative positions are popular with average Americans, when it comes to voting, the people more often follow the Democratic crowd. The two opposite positions have hardened to the point where both parties are confronted with "single issue voters" that make compromise or even intelligent dialog difficult. The Liberals have been a bit shrewder, and practical in this regard admitting senators like Specter and Lieberman while the conservatives adhere much more closely to their various policies within what is considered the conservative movement.
Indeed, realization of the basic differences between the Left and the Right are still being defined by some prominent writers. Peggy Noonan in a recent Wall St. Journal column admitted she was impressed by observing the Democrats at the recent Edward Kennedy funeral. She stated that
. . . pretty much the whole democratic establishment was there and the level of shown affection among them was striking -- laughing, hugging, and telling stories.
She speculated that if it had been a gathering of Republicans it would have been less emotional with little shown affection; polite laughter, cordial handshakes, a lot of staring ahead would have been the standard. People in this group do not necessarily like each other; they compete and they don't feel that they need to fake liking each other. To this group politics is not about emotions, but thoughts and ideals.
The "single issue" people on the conservative side would include the libertarians, who are not always in sync with main-stream conservatives; the security conservatives who are sometimes at odds with the isolationists; the neo-conservatives who are mostly 1950 liberals who crossed over mainly on security issues; and the social conservatives who are labeled by the Left as the religious right. The conservatives do not have any central organization that is powerful enough to hold these groups together.
Today the Democratic Party still generally exhibits the impression that they are unified with "Blue Dogs" and Liberals under one roof. In reality, with the hard Left in key positions, the Left has control over their majorities and with this power have just about converted our republic into a pure democracy, with all the negative aspects. For example, today, only popular minorities are protected. Unpopular minorities like churchgoers, gun owners, smokers, or "the rich" are fair game for any punishing legislation. A pure democracy soon works against any unpopular minority. Even though some dissention is found today among workers who wouldn't normally be considered for the roll, as our labor workers became more well-to-do over the years they became a significant part of the middle class minority. As such, they have become targets of the tax and spend crowd and need to realize that their economic health is in severe jeopardy. They need to re-think their voting inclinations.
We as a people have come to recognize that men have always misapprehended themselves, contradicted themselves, obeyed primal impulses and then defended themselves with sophistications. Unaware of what they are doing, men allow this aesthetic and dramatic sense to grow and shape their conceptions of their own lives. Their political positions become almost as imbedded as a religion. True as this is of man individually, it is even more fundamentally true of man collectively, and of parties of peoples. As in the pre-Civil War era, the current fundamental divisions have grown to where they are just about irreconcilable. As then and now, both sides feel that their ideals are at risk and that on each side a whole social system is at stake. The liberals identify themselves in their imaginations with all of mankind and would throw open the gates of the nation to share the wealth of America with the poor of the world while the conservatives try to preserve what we have.
Thus, we Americans face a dilemma. Is there no rational solution that would adjust the two viewpoints? Politics is the "art of compromise" or as some say, "the art of the possible." Have we elected enough intelligent politicians to work these problems out? Are we too far into the change from a republic to a pure democracy to ever recover? One thing is sure: we will never be as we were, for history proves to us that we cannot go backwards. This means that conservatives are at a disadvantage because their goal of going back to a saner era is simply not attainable. Unfortunately, even during periods when the Republicans were in control, the overall general government movement was a drift toward the Left and bigger government. In any negotiation or compromise the Right can only hope to shorten the lunge to the Left.
However, ultimately, if our society is to survive, both sides are going to have to find a position they each can accept even though it will be a bitter pill for most and will not be a true victory for either side. The politicians will have to make the new positions whatever they are, acceptable to a majority of the people and we, the people, on both sides must reduce the number of our "single issue" positions. Even some on the Left have begun to question the status quo: In a recent Los Angeles Times column, hard Left columnist Steve Lopez stated, ". . . this cultural divide is destroying America and maybe we all need to understand each other a little better." Of course he then went on to quote a few marginal people that even Republicans would call "fringe."
We must be on our guard, however, against ascribing to either side too precise a conciseness of its own motives. We are prone to forget that we act from subconsciousness quite as often as from conscious influences, from motives that arise out of the dim parts of our being; subtler emotions that make use of fear, intuition, prevailing habit, and illusion. This is strikingly true of the two hard political positions today. Neither side fully understands the other. Both sides know vaguely, but with sure instinct, that their interests and ideals are basically irreconcilable. Each feels in its heart the deadly poison of self-preservation: the whole social system is at stake.
People on the Right have a few courses to pursue that can make a difference. The pending large tax increases resulting from the recent spending hurricane is one where conservatives have an advantage. The health debate is another arena where the Left has probably overstepped itself. So even though a total win may not be possible there is still the chance for thinking people to alter the course toward the Left that the press labels "progressive." Conservatives must find a way to integrate their various factions and provide a clear, integrated position to the voters. This will require giving up the self-destructive "single issue" positions and require more tolerance and understanding of their various factions. *
"Liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood." --John Adams