A piece by Drew Gilpin Faust in my Sunday Press Democrat touched the sore spot in our current governmental dysfunction. “Is Government By the People, For the People, Threatened?” harks back to the Civil War and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Faust notes how astonishing it was in the day that millions of northerners, whose lives were not directly threatened by Southern secession, should fight and die. They were nearly all volunteers. Lincoln, he says, articulated the inchoate logic that sustained America in that horrific fight. It was not merely to preserve the Union, but to preserve a Union that represented the best hopes of humankind–a government of the people, by the people and for the people. (As the Constitution puts it in its opening sentence, “We the people… in order to form a more perfect Union….”) Such a government, Lincoln recognized, was unique on the earth and uniquely hopeful. Millions of Americans agreed, to the point of sacrificing their lives.
The exact political shape of that Union–in particular, that it must involve citizenship for all people, not just those with the right color of skin–became clearer during the course of the war. Thus slavery, which had always been the point for the South, also became the point for the North.
But Faust’s contention is that something very large and precious lay under that commitment to end slavery. It was a commitment to a government dedicated to the welfare of its people, as defined by its people. Lincoln had earlier described the war as, “a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. … I am most happy to believe that the plain people understand and appreciate this.”
Do the plain people still understand and appreciate this? When we shoot off fireworks for the Fourth of July, and stand with hats off for the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games, is this what we honor? According to Lincoln, it’s not first of all “America the Beautiful” we should admire, with its spacious skies and productive fields, nor is it “the Homeland” which is worth defending simply because it’s our home. It’s a political philosophy known as democracy, by and for the people.
With all the grousing and suspicion (some of it very much justified) about government we may lose sight of what we are ultimately seeking. It’s not to beat somebody who has the wrong ideas. ( Lincoln offered very benevolent terms of surrender for the South because he was not fundamentally interested in victory, but in democracy.) It’s not even to have less government or more government, efficient government programs or strong free enterprise. It’s to decide matters together, through a political process that gives everyone an equal voice and thus is equally for everyone. This process represents fundamental convictions about the worth of every single individual, and also about the possibility of a shared welfare. It offers no space for contempt. Search the words of Abraham Lincoln and see whether you can find words of contempt for his enemies.
Today’s politics is full of contempt. It’s not just our representatives in Washington; it starts with us plain people. How can you have a democracy when you show contempt for your fellow citizens?