My country is increasingly fractured and divided these days, with this oncoming election widening the rifts deeper every day. The election has, to an extent, become a clash of ideologies. And though there are still more things that unite us than divide us—all the candidates love their country, all the candidates are trying to protect it—the rifts are so deep that compromise is becoming not just a dirty word but an equivalent to “surrender.” Too many have come to the conclusion that even agreeing with their political opponents is tantamount to treason. I will not pretend that all parties are equal in this respect; one political party, after all, has seemed to drift rightward in the wake of the other’s extremism. Now, it’s possible that the election will end some of this; if Governor Romney wins, he might attribute his success to his late-race moderation, and if he loses, the Republican Party may recognize that it is because of their ideological extremism, and adjust accordingly. But there is no guarantee of that. And with the politics of rage reaping a rich harvest of hate for both parties (though to an unequal degree), I do not see politics in this nation becoming more civil any time soon. The electorate is remarkably divided this year, with few swing votes up for grabs. This means that first, most voters were set along party lines long before Election Day, with few people deciding not on party name but on the merits of arguments, and second, the way to win the election is a matter of firing up the party base and bolstering loyalist turnout. Which means more vitriol and more hatred, because the easiest way to motivate people is through fear. It is almost becoming a situation where we no longer have the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but the Anti-Democrat and the Anti-Republican Parties. Or at least that is how they bring out the vote.
This makes me deeply uneasy.
On November 6th, 2012, we shall elect a president, and regardless of the result, either one half of the country or the other will be disgusted.
One hundred and fifty years before, on November 6th, 1862, the country was still reeling from the bloodiest day in its history less than two months before; 7,000 Americans died at Antietam, more than Pearl Harbor and September 11th put together. And within weeks there would be another bloodbath at a town called Fredericksburg, where 1,900 more perished. To say nothing of those who would later die from their wounds, which would account for thousands more.
And where did this ruinous slaughter come from? Why, from a failure to compromise, as the historian Shelby Foote said. The North and the South began to yell instead of talk, and began to see negotiation and accommodation as signs of weakness rather than the bedrock of democratic government. Civil war seemed impossible at first, but after years of rising tensions the two halves were scorpions in a bottle, and brother was set against brother, and eventually everyone knew someone who had died. A generation was shattered in the corn fields and on the rocky hilltops, and though a new freedom was indeed reborn from the ashes, it was a bitter and terrible birth.
Wiser eyes saw that such a division meant total calamity. Abraham Lincoln was first sworn in to preside over a nation already sundering, but he still had hope for resolution… and terror of what would come without that resolution. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said. “We must not be enemies.”
And indeed, we must not be enemies now.
The bitterness of our current age of rifts, to my mind, is that in truth we are not enemies. There are deep and serious differences among Americans in how we should live our lives, true. So many evils and ills, however, so much fear and want and suffering, are caused by the concentration of vast sums of money in the hands of precious few. As a matter of conscience I do not consider those few to be my enemies, but they may not return me the same courtesy, and if most Americans could find the author of their woes, they would find them among the ultra-rich, and among the policies and structures that gave the ultra-rich their wealth and power. Moreover, no matter who wins the upcoming election, the ultra-rich shall be the ones who call the shots. Their power might be more overt and their control more total under one man than under the other, but it will only be a matter of degree. A slight degree. For what we have here in this country now is government of the money, by the money, and for the money.
It’s an old story. The men in blue and in gray were, by and large, poor men. They were summoned to arms by much wealthier and more powerful men who assured the poor that they were fighting for their homes and for their country. The poor whites of the South were particularly betrayed, for they were fighting in defense of an economic system that had preyed on them as well as on the slaves. This is confirmed by those portions of the South that, having no slaves, saw through the deception and rebelled against the Rebels: West Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and the “Kingdom of Jones.” Somehow, however, the gray-clad ranks were filled out by men who were called or compelled to service under the banner of defending their way of life. They fought for “state’s rights,” yes, but the only right in serious contention was the right to own slaves. They were told to fight for their homes and thus fought for the plantations. I see similar deceptions from both political parties today, though again unequally.
The lies were powerful enough that many southerners believed in all honesty that they were doing God’s work. After the slaughterhouse that was Fredericksburg, the Northern Lights appeared in the sky, and the Southerners took it as sign of divine favor. Their cause was prospering, they could not hope to fail, they were without doubt engaged in holy work. But in fact the South was already doomed. It would die hard, but the seeds of its destruction had already been sown. I think that is worth recalling, as we rise up in self-righteousness and in certainty of holy favor: no matter how loudly we claim that God is on our side, others have made that claim before, and been miserably wrong. God favors whom he chooses, and not all who call on him will be among the chosen.
I do not think many will listen to my warning, however. The fear and anger and hate are rising again. And we must not be enemies… yet we are drawing battle lines. Which is an ominous sign. Because Lincoln said another thing: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher… we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
No matter the outcome, the fury of this election sharpens the suicide knife.