Presidents Day Thoughts on the Failure of Politics

I try to avoid getting too political on this blog, although this month with my tributes to President Reagan’s 100th birthday it might not seem that way.  Politics inevitably invades all human endeavors.  It starts when we are young—watch groups of elementary kids closely and the pecking order soon becomes apparent.  Some of us are good at it, some spectacularly bad, others oblivious, yet it is always there.

150 years ago, America came to the end of a long national bout of self-denial.  We hemmed and we hawed, we passed accommodations and compromises that hexed generations of school kids—what WAS the Missouri Compromise all about anyway?  No matter, it just put off the inevitable.

No, retract. War is never “inevitable”.  Conflict is inevitable, as is disagreement and even hurt feelings.  War, however, is the final failure of politics.  In 1860, our nation held an election.  At stake was the soul of America.  As I’m a Union man (in this context only) I believe the side of right prevailed in Abraham Lincoln’s election.  Others, as we know, could not abide by the majority and sought their own path.  It may seem impossible today that half of our nation would pout enough to take their toys home and stop playing the national game, but they did.  Even today we see countries erupt into civil war.

This year begins the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States, OUR Civil War.  A number of groups and bloggers are observing the occasion.  I am amazed, following their timelines, just how quickly we sunk into open hostilities:

  • November 6, 1860:  Abraham Lincoln elected 16th President of the United States
  • November 10:  Both South Carolina Senators resign seats
  • December 20:  South Carolina secedes from the Union
  • January 2:  South Carolina troops start to seize forts in Charleston Harbor
  • February 9:  Jefferson Davis elected provisional Confederate President
  • February 23:  President-elect Lincoln arrives in Washington, DC.

Even though the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter is considered the official beginning of the Civil War, you can see that the process quickly rolled out of control as soon as the nation voted.

How differently would the collage above look had Lincoln and Union not prevailed?  Some say much, some say not so much.  It is all supposition.  The lesson I take is harsh.  Negotiation is essential to different people living in peace with each other.  However, certain ideals are not open to negotiation, accommodation or compromise.  Many people call for “moderation” and “compromise”, as if these were ideals of their own.  I remember in planning school they talked about the “science of muddling through“.  I’m OK, you’re OK, go along to get along.  Nice thought, until your polity self-destructs from avoiding hard decisions.  Mr. Lincoln had different thoughts, which he delivered to the New Jersey Assembly this day, 150 years ago:

I shall do all that may be in my power to promote a peaceful settlement of our difficulties. The man does not live who is more devoted to peace than I am. None who would do more to preserve it. But it may be necessary to put the foot down firmly.”

In much of the world, nations are built on tribes and other accidents of geography.  Our nation, however, was built on ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  We may not always agree on how to interpret those ideals, but we must never forget them nor abandon them:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….

On these we must not compromise.  The rest, however, is negotiable.  That’s what politics is all about.  Work it out amongst yourselves.


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