Last week I wrote an article for the Huffington Post about Abraham Lincoln's birthday and the need for our politicians to take some pointers from the 16th president on how to conduct themselves with a sense of respect and compassion.
Lincoln actually shared his birthday with another great historical figure from across the Atlantic. Charles Darwin was born a few hours apart from Lincoln and both of their lives were to have profound effect on their generation. Their combined contribution perhaps has something to say to our political elites today and they are lessons worth learning.
We don't normally associate Darwin's research with political structures, but in many ways his reasoned concept of "survival of the fittest" has taken on new significance, especially among right-wing politicians. Listening to those Republicans aspiring to the presidency and their view of the free market and society has an eerie similarity to how Darwin observed the natural order. His Origin of the Species revealed how plants and animals succeeded or failed on the basis of adaptability and geography. In essence, the natural world was dog-eat-dog, with only the strongest able to survive.
For some reason politics has taken a Darwinian turn, in the process defending elitism, the wealthy class, the primacy of shrewd investment over hard work, and the sense that the rich deserve their perks, and the rest -- well, too bad. This was mirrored in Rick Santorum's speech to an economic club in Detroit last week when he concluded: "There is income inequality in America. There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be." This was survival of the fittest language and offered paltry consolation to the struggling citizens of Detroit.
It's fascinating to watch American (and increasingly Canadian) politicians utilize Darwin's rhetoric designed for the natural world instead of the more familiar political overtones used by Abraham Lincoln. It reveals how modern politics has become more about the economy and less about people.
It's hard to imagine any politician living through a more difficult era than Lincoln. He lived in hard times and drove difficult bargains, but ultimately came to be seen for what he was -- fair, compassionate, driven by justice for the marginalized, and remarkably astute as a leader. Rather than castigate or belittle his opponents (standard fare these days), he successfully recruited them to work with him in the best interests of the nation. He could handle their disagreements as long as everyone remained focused on the long view and the ultimate benefit of the country.
When he and his opponents had reached a standstill, he would sometimes say, "Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way." Is there any of this kind of reasoning in our politics anymore? Is anyone grand enough to say it ... and mean it? Every party says they want peace, prosperity, a cleaner environment, and better communities, but they start with the divisions and not the commonality. The vitriolic and partisan mudslinging continues even as once-prosperous nations continue their downward slide.
Those championing the survival of the fittest are already those with all the toys, the money, and the power. So of course they can adopt such myopic policies. But let one of them slip, lose their wealth or their job, or their reputation, and they will look to their neighbour for consolation, and their government for support.
There's a reason why great civilizations succeed. They looked the survival of the fittest in the eye and said "not here," "not now." Like Lincoln, great leaders govern in ways that lift all boats and not just those who have yachts. Darwin was describing the laws of nature. Lincoln endowed the laws of humanity with grace and persuasion. No great society opts for the former over the latter.