How to Bring Back Civility in Politics? Embrace Lincoln.
With every passing day and in each successive news cycle, politics is becoming nastier and more vicious. It seems the 2016 presidential election left a residual aftertaste of partisan bitterness which still lingers heavily. All sides of the political spectrum are engaging in the mire. In recent months, a member of Congress encouraged her supporters to publicly harass officials of the President’s administration, and a gubernatorial candidate expressed his desire to stomp all over his opponent’s face with golf spikes. Rather than condemn those comments, leaders and allies on each side responded with silence or cheered these actions. Equally disconcerting is the tendency of politicians to resort to fear tactics and dog whistles to rally their bases. They often take the easy road — the low road — and create a bogeyman in their political opponents. As we have seen in recent weeks, the end result of fear-mongering is that it brings out the worst impulses in followers, and it creates an environment of hate which propels some to turn to violence to neutralize the voices of their political opponents.
This behavior is not civil nor does it advance our nation. Incivility is not an exercise of leadership, and it isn’t an exercise in character. We all claim that character is important, that it matters. We try to instill character in our children, so why is it that we are so willing to overlook a lack of character in our politics? We have relegated civil character as secondary to being right in defense of our chosen identity politics. A few years back, Allegheny College conducted a survey of civility in American politics, finding that 95 percent believe it’s important for a healthy democracy. 87 percent stated it is possible to disagree civilly and respectfully about politics.
Can it be done? The answer is yes, and it is simple to do so. Of course, it starts by refraining from the marginalization of opponents: it isn’t helpful to use terms such as “deplorables” or “snowflakes” in describing human beings, regardless of when they were used in the past.
As I remind my college students, the vitriol in politics is not new. I recounted to my students how, in 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was caned on the floor of the Senate by a congressman of the opposing political stripe. This was after Sumner insulted Southerners, and this was a time where weapons were brandished in the halls of Congress leading up to the Civil War. But even amidst that deep political divide, there were leaders who stepped up and who did not to wade into those murky swamp waters. Instead, some took the moral high ground and focused on the intellectual discourse of the day.
Case in point: the rivalry between Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas and Republican Abraham Lincoln.
If you’re not familiar with the story, these two were political opponents going back to the 1830s when they served in the Illinois legislature together. They went their separate ways and followed their respective political pursuits. Then came the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act which Douglas championed in the spirit of popular sovereignty, which shocked and reawakened Lincoln to the reality that slavery might spread across the country. When Douglas ran for reelection to the Senate in 1858, Lincoln challenged him and lost the race.
Their 1858 debates are recorded nearly word-for-word. The two argued for hours in the open air across seven cities in Illinois. The contrasts in policy and personality — even appearance — between Douglas and Lincoln were stark. Their opposition on the great question of the day was greatly evident, and they had every reason to despise each other. But for the most part, their conversation was civil, and their attacks were rarely intensely personal.
To be sure, there was some animosity and snarky name-calling between these two. Indeed, there was some race-baiting and fear-mongering. Douglas tried to paint Lincoln as a “black Republican” hell-bent on giving full equality to Blacks. Lincoln charged Douglas with lying and that he “bamboozled” people about his true position on the slavery question just ingratiate himself to the electorate.
The difference here between Douglas and Lincoln, and what politics is often like today, is that these two men were rivals and antagonists, but not enemies. Amidst the trading of barbs, they treated each other with respect and even admiration. Douglas spoke of his opponent: “I mean nothing personally disrespectful or unkind to that gentleman.” Lincoln, in turn, said of Douglas, “I affect no contempt for the high eminence he has reached.”
Their battles were fierce, and Lincoln was no doubt disappointed in his 1858 senatorial loss. Lincoln did not resort to demonizing Douglas, nor did he blame others. Rather, just weeks after the election loss, he wrote that he desired to let the past be and that he looked hopefully to the future. That future found the two squaring off again for the 1860 presidency. Even after Lincoln’s victory this time, the relationship did not become acrimonious or hostile.
When Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861, Douglas was invited to be among those assembled on the stage with him. Concern arose that there might be an outbreak of resistance to Lincoln taking the presidency in the face of division in the country. Douglas agreed to be present and is said to have remarked, “If any man attacks Lincoln, he attacks me.” As Lincoln stood to take the oath of office, he removed his hat, awkwardly passing it to anyone who would hold it. Douglas stepped forward, remarking, “Permit me, sir,” and held the hat of his rival for him during the entire inaugural address.
Weeks later, Lincoln invited Douglas to the White House where the Republican and the Democrat discussed the present and future of the country, not their past conflicts. One observer of the meeting noted, “No two men in the United States parted that night with a more cordial feeling of a united, friendly and patriotic purpose than Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas.” Douglas then traveled the southern states, imploring the rebels to rejoin the Union and to trust President Lincoln’s leadership.
Douglas stated to a friend:
"I've known Mr. Lincoln a longer time than you have, or than the country has. He'll come out all right, and we will all stand by him." Douglas would die just months later of illness, likely contributed by the exhaustion he incurred in attempting to reunite the country with his former contender.
The moral here is not necessarily that people should always rally around their president and unify unconditionally behind him.
As Lincoln once said:
“Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right and PART with him when he goes wrong."
Indeed, there are moments when a leader is wrong that demands us as citizens to oppose the words or denounce the actions. But that exercise in the freedom of speech should not be made personal nor ferment embitterment.
There is much here that can be learned from the example and the character of Abraham Lincoln. Most every elected official today publicly reveres Lincoln, hails his greatness, and quotes him when politically expedient. They beckon the wisdom of Lincoln to be heeded and that we should draw upon his lessons. But the actions of such politicians often fail to live up to the rhetoric. Our politics greatly fails to attend to Lincoln’s advice or walk in his footsteps. If we did so, our political discourse and tone would be vastly different. The character of our nation’s leadership would be humbler, more empathetic, more selfless, more civil, more principled, more visionary, and more valiant. Our leaders, and all of us, need to live to what is principally courageous rather than what is politically convenient. And it isn’t that difficult to do.
Lincoln did so.
History is replete with demonstrations of Lincoln’s character in politics. While Lincoln did relish in bashing his political adversaries as a younger man, he mellowed and developed greater character by the time he became a national leader. We all know Lincoln hated slavery. He believed it to be repugnant to everything our republic was based upon. Yet on the eve of the Civil War, rather than demonize the South, he tried to understand them. He said in 1858: “I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation.” He even hesitated in calling them the enemy. Lincoln believed that our politics should “aim at the elevation of men,” continuing: “I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them."
Even after his re-election to the presidency in 1864, which validated his political stances and silenced his critics, Lincoln did not rub his victory in the face of his rivals. Rather, in a unifying tone, he displayed grace for his foes. He pronounced:
“I do not impugn the motives of any one opposed to me. It is no pleasure to me to triumph over any one.”
Lincoln didn’t feel the need to exercise revenge politics. He didn’t see it as necessary when being hit to hit back twice as hard. He didn’t feel it profitable to publicly defame or degrade his political opponents. If only we could have more Abraham Lincolns today.
It isn’t difficult. And if we truly wish to rise to the level of Abraham Lincoln — and the greatness of the institutions which our American republic is founded upon — it is required. Yes, politics often become combative, but it shouldn’t be the angry blood sport it has sunken to. The nation might be divided in some respects, but not nearly as divided as it was 160 years ago.
So this is what we must do.
Embrace what is possible, not what is polemical. Embrace hope and understanding, vanquishing fear and hate. Just as Lincoln called for the nation in 1861 to “seek the better angels of our nature” we too, citizens and elected officials alike, must embrace civility, embrace the character of Lincoln, and work together as one people to complete — paraphrasing Lincoln’s words — the great unfinished tasks remaining before us.