With the nation on the brink of civil war and the Democratic party ripping at the seams, 156 years ago today America elected the once obscure lawyer and former U.S. representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.
He won with a mere 40 percent of the vote.
Clearly lacking a majority coalition, by the time Lincoln took office seven states had already seceded from the Union and four more would quickly follow.
Today, the nation does not face the prospect of secession or civil war, but the battles over partisanship, political divisiveness and demonizing are real. Like Lincoln, the incoming president will face national fissures in desperate need of fixing. The way to weld America back together will be to effectively and efficiently address the country’s most pressing political problems in a collaborative, bipartisan manner.
This will not be easy.
As mentioned, the nation’s ideological divides have become wider and more acidulous. Polarization is not new to American politics, but today an unprecedented half of Republicans and Democrats say the opposite party makes them feel afraid, angry and frustrated, according to recent Pew Research Center data. Today, matters surrounding class, education, race and identity are increasingly politicized.
Earlier this year Paul Taylor and the Pew Research Center summed up their findings regarding contemporary political trends by observing that “many in each party now deny the other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources and bring different value systems to such core social institutions as religion, marriage and parenthood.”
Taylor concludes: “It’s as if they belong not to rival parties but alien tribes.”
Whichever candidate wins the White House will have to heal this “house divided.” Rather than push an extreme agenda on an exhausted electorate, the next president should seek to find common ground and implement sensible bipartisan solutions to fix America’s most pressing problems. The economy, for example, needs to grow and lift more Americans out of poverty. Terrorism continues to plague the world abroad while threatening freedom at home. The nation’s debt to GDP ratio is climbing to unsustainable levels, and America must reform social security and medicare. The federal government needs to solve issues surrounding Immigration, taxation and defense.
To bring about a new birth of unity, the oval office and the nation’s houses of congress should set an example by becoming paragons of productive politics and civility. Although both presidential candidates have disconcertingly low favorability ratings, whoever wins will have an unprecedented opportunity to help the nation come together.
Commentator Glenn Beck, speaking to Bloomberg Business Week, suggested the incoming president sacrifice something, not from their party's principles but from their party's pet causes, in the spirit of coming together. "Words won't cut it anymore," he said. "Somebody has to be bigger. Somebody has to sell sacrifice."
Last week, speaking to a group in Salt Lake City, veteran newsman Tom Brokaw observed that "our political structure is badly fractured,” and the job for the next president on day one must be to put the nation “back together.” That process begins not only by approaching grave responsibilities with, to quote Lincoln, "malice toward none” and “with charity toward all,” but also by sacrificing for the other party as well as confronting substantive policy issues. Only then will America “bind up the nation's wounds” and “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”