We are engaged in a great Civil War of ideology
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, September 29, 2020
When I was in fifth grade we studied the Civil War. Our teacher gave us extra credit for memorizing the Gettysburg Address. As an overachiever, I jumped at the chance. Now, 20 years later, I can still recite most of it, but the words have taken on a new meaning — a new urgency.
In his address, Abraham Lincoln talks about a nation “conceived in liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and then addresses the circumstances surrounding the speech: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Lincoln gave the speech on Nov. 19, 1863. In 2020, 157 years later, we are engaged in another battle testing the endurance of our democracy. But a battle without the defined lines of the Civil War.
Recently, CBS News performed a study showing people with differing political beliefs the same video of a recent protest and then asked them which side was being more aggressive. Those who identified as liberal said the police officers, those who identified as conservative said the protestors. The only thing all of the respondents agreed on was that our country is becoming more and more divided.
The problem, the segment suggests, is that we do not have a shared reality; we cannot even agree on the facts. The segment ends with the hosts joking that if the solution is talking to one another and we can’t do that, then maybe the solution is divorce: “Well we tried that once, it was called the Civil War, and it didn’t work out so well,” Anthony Mason quipped.
That insight is more than an offhand remark. The Civil War broke out because the North and South did not have a shared reality. The North believed that slavery was an abomination — that a country that believed all men were created equal could not justify keeping Black people as slaves. The South believed their way of life was more important, that there was no reason to change the way things had been since the founding of the country, and that slavery was integral to their economic prosperity.
A shared reality is what keeps our nation healthy. We can argue about what facts mean, but we need to have the same set of facts as a baseline.
For example, the Greatest Generation lived through a shared trauma of the 1930s. They agreed on a certain set of facts: America was in crisis and needed strong leadership and teamwork to get out of it. And then, during World War II, they came together over a common enemy — the Japanese and the Nazis.
Right now, we cannot even agree that a virus that has killed over 200,000 Americans is a national crisis. And we do not have leadership and unity in the government to bring us out of it.
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln concludes by saying it is the task of the living to ensure that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I believe that is still our task. And I believe that task is more important than ever.
On Wednesday, the President refused to commit to ensuring a peaceful transferal of power after the election, should it not come out in his favor. Instead, he chose to spread a consistently debunked fear about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots: “Get rid of the ballots, and we’ll have a peaceful transfer — there won’t be a transferal, frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”
The peaceful transferal of power is the very foundation of our democracy. That is not a political statement. That should never be a political statement. If this “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” we must come together and condemn the president’s words. We must restore faith in our elections. We must stop speaking only to those with which we agree and yelling at those we don’t.
If we can’t do that, I fear for the future of our country.
third-year law student
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.