Not long ago, it occurred to me that the years 1860 and 1960 had something in common other than being 100 years apart. The year 1860, of course, was the year before the American Civil War began, and it was also the year Abraham Lincoln was elected. The year 1960 was the year that John F. Kennedy was elected, and while open Civil War did not break out in 1961, a quiet war has in fact been going on ever since.
Like all good ideas, someone else had this one as well, sort of. Adam Goodheart of the New York Times is now blogging about 1860 and 2010, and comparing the two, with a lot more knowledge of the Civil War than I have. Anyway, having acknowledged that, let me move on to my own analysis.
As soon as Lincoln was elected, war was inevitable. Everyone knew that he was an anti-slavery candidate, but even more than that, he was anti-secession. Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union, and he did, at the cost of many lives, including his own.
John Kennedy also aroused strong passions. He was clearly a break with the past, being quite liberal and also the first Catholic to be elected president. He committed his administration to ridding he country of the last vestiges of slavery in the form of segregation, and made great progress in doing so. His time in office was, as we know, cut short, and there is no way of knowing what he might have accomplished with a full four-year term.
For the past 50 years, since we lost President Kennedy, the nation has been struggling with its identity. The lines are not neatly drawn along state boundaries, but along ideological fault lines. And now we have a new president who identifies strongly with Lincoln and was endorsed by the Kennedy family. He came into office promising to bring the nation together, but instead, our polarization has heightened enormously.
Unity seems ever more elusive in these times.
My life's work is unity, so this is disappointing to me. The question is, how do we get to greater unity when we are in the midst of such disunity?
Looking back at 1860, it seems that the issue of slavery had been papered over with compromise after compromise, starting with the Constitution in 1787. As it turned out, this was an issue where compromise was, ultimately, impossible. There may be similar issues today, where compromise is not the answer, but neither is overwhelming your opponents.
The good news is that most of the polarization is actually within the Democratic and Republican Parties. As Independents become more dominant, they are playing a balancing role, making corrections in the direction the country is taking, without too much regard to party or ideology.
I think that's what the Independents will try to do today, and tomorrow we will begin to see how well they have played their new role.