In 1992, I wrote a published book about Abraham Lincoln, America's 16th president, and how his ability to work with competing interests and personalities would be the new prototype for democratic politics. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Since that time politics north and south of the Canada/U.S. border have descended into a deep political morass of partisanship, leaving a kind of hollowed-out political structure fully incapable of meeting the great challenges facing democracy today. On this, Lincoln's birthday, the need to model his fine temperament and comprehensive mind is one of the few practical ways we can save ourselves from political uselessness.
Doris Kearns Goodwin's recent and revealing book, Team of Rivals, revealed two key aspects of the Illinois lawyer that are essential for any politician today seeking to overcome the present poisonous atmosphere.
The first was Lincoln's excellent mind. It wasn't so much that he had an eye for detail but that he possessed the kind of clear thinking that realized he could never heal his nation if he didn't at least make room for other points of view. He could handle various persuasions at the same time, sifting through each for the nugget of essential reasoning required to properly govern the nation in a time of crisis.
It doesn't seem to matter how intelligent politicians are today. By subscribing to ideological and party-based thinking, they cut themselves off from many of the sentiments and persuasions of large portions of their respective countries.
Canada's Parliament is full of educated people capable only of selecting priorities that have a blue, red, orange, or green hue. Hardly any evidence escapes Ottawa of deliberative meetings of differing minds at the upper echelons of power. For all the significant numerical numbers of advisors in prime ministerial circles of the last few governments, a small cadre of power brokers that has had nothing to do with democratic input or compromise craft decisions. It makes for the worst kind of politics and an even more troubling formulation of government.
Lincoln's second clear advantage was one of personal character. Often maligned and belittled, even by those in his own cabinet, he demonstrated unfailing patience and a spirit of forgiveness unique to political life, especially at such a high level. When on March 4, 1865, he placed the following phrase in his Second Inaugural address, it represented not only an astute political goal, but one emblematic of his own personal experience:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds ... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Seriously, who talks like that anymore? These are words cemented in the roots of character that seem to have no place in politics anymore. Some excellent dispositions are still visible in political structures at present, but strength of character seems to have been unseated by the pursuit of ambition and party.
Lincoln's language is now so unfamiliar in our present political rhetoric that his influence runs the danger of being inconsequential. That's too bad, for if we can't recapture that dedication of purpose, clarity of mind, and humility of character in our political order, then democracy, as it truly can be, will be lost and could well "perish from the earth," to use one of Lincoln's phrases.
We would do best to honour Abraham Lincoln's birthday by acknowledging the deep challenges before us, recognize the need for all voices to be part of the solution, and to demonstrate that only a lived out modesty of character can rescue us from our present political abyss.
Lincoln's greatest gift was not prevailing in an unusually brutal civil war, but keeping competing forces at the table until peace could be ultimately negotiated. We are as far away from that spirit in the political world as we ever have been.
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