In 1858, Abraham Lincoln prophesied, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” In his lifetime, he was both witness of that division and ultimately its healer.
Today, those who engage in social protest in Oregon and Wisconsin and those who refuse to wear masks or to socially distance in stores may have more in common with each other than we might at first imagine. The “International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences” (Smelser and Baltes, eds., Pergamon, 2001), includes an exploration of feelings of alienation, including powerlessness, normlessness, social isolation, self-estrangement, cultural disengagement and meaninglessness. When we feel that our voices are not heard, that others exert unwelcome power over us, or have greater, unearned power, we may feel alienated and act outside our own norms.
In 2016, 53% of voters in the United States supported a candidate other than the current president, or put another way, 9,750,326 more citizens voted for someone other than the person declared the winner of the election. Many in that majority of voters likely felt that their voice had been muted by the minority. And according to a spate of stories across media outlets following the election, many Americans, especially those in the middle of the country, felt that they had been disparaged and their convictions demeaned during the prior administration.
The death last week of Justice Ginsburg might be a call to unite in appreciation for an extraordinary American life, but seems far more likely to reflect another increase in divisiveness. What might be called the McConnell Doctrine, that only when the president and Senate majority are of the same party may a Supreme Court vacancy be filled during the final year, or months, of that president’s term, is more familiarly known as “might makes right.”
We are at an important moment in our national experiment, where every action seems to engage a ratcheted-up reaction. It is time for cooler heads, with a clearer focus on future ramifications to prevail, not only among those currently in positions of authority, but also in how all of us use our voices within our circles of influence. Each of us can spare a moment to listen intently to someone who sees our current circumstances differently. As the friendship of Justices Scalia and Ginsburg so clearly demonstrated, brilliant and vigorous proponents of opposed views can respect the intent and personhood of one another.
We can and must look to the future, at the likely consequences of our actions today, on the American experiment. Our respect for compromise, for seeking and identifying solutions in which all gain something, will lay the groundwork for reduced feelings of alienation among our fellow citizens and those who will follow us. More people will feel their voices can be heard within the system, rather than normless engagement outside of it. Each of us, in our own sphere, can, like Lincoln, be agents of unity and healing for a divided house.
Tom Christofferson is the author of “That We May Be One” and the forthcoming book, “A Better Heart.”