Worthy of the saving

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. Let us turn slavery from its claims of “moral right,” back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of “necessity.” Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south — let all Americans — let all lovers of liberty everywhere — join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.

 – Lincoln (Peoria, 1854)

Democrats are split on what to amputate. Some would simply cut off the head, so to speak — the head being the current president. The public understands this sentiment so long as the president is removed the usual way, by defeating him in his bid for reelection. But some Democrats would go further. They would eliminate ICE, for example. Instead of eliminating only the head, who has been misusing ICE, they would eliminate ICE itself, which both the president uses and his immediate predecessor used to extensively limit illegal immigration. The Democrats are split on eliminating ICE, and the Republicans sense a winning issue leading up to this year’s midterms.

There are other points of potential amputation to save the patient, the American polity. Sue the president under the War Powers Act. Amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College. Amend it to nullify Citizens United. And so on. All of these issues needed addressing before 2016, of course. President Clinton violated the War Powers Act in Kosovo. President Bush II won the presidency while losing the popular vote in 2000. And money has been running national politics long before Citizens United, which only made a deplorable situation worse.

The current Democratic despair is reminiscent of its despair during much of the second term of the second Bush administration. It’s more intense now because the financial, political, social, and media walls seem to be closing in on the Democratic Party. The president makes frequent, unprecedented attacks on democratic and republican norms and institutions (e.g., elections, legal immigration, the FBI, the free press), but none of this bothers a large segment of Americans. Democrats — and many independents and Republican never-Trumpers, too — are left defending democracy itself as well as these institutions that have long been eroding in the public’s estimation. But how to save democracy?

This question about means quickly turns into a question about ends, however. “How to save it?” points to “What are we saving?” Is the Union, the Constitution (as it survives today) and its brand of republicanism worth saving? Have we washed our republican robes sufficiently to make our Union, in Lincoln’s words, “forever worthy of the saving”?

From a political standpoint, this conversation is unfortunate. The president and his supporters attack those seriously discussing these greater issues that his own election and conduct raise. It’s ironic, yes. Even as the president’s attacks on democratic and republican institutions give rise to his opponents’ reexaminations of those institutions, the president characterizes his opponents as un-American for doing so. Particularly for Democrats, who have been as guilty as the Republicans since World War II of turning our republic into a corporate-run empire unresponsive to its people, this is a difficult conversation. But covering up the big questions with a campaign platform of “Us, too, but we’re nicer about it” didn’t win in 2016, and it shows even fewer signs of prevailing in the future.

These issues have been discussed in certain circles before. For instance, George W. Bush’s blind eye toward torture, his invasion of Iraq, and his support for encroachments on individual rights in the name of national security lead to at least an academic debate about how to fix our system and what in the system is worth fixing at all. Movitvated to write in part by Bush’s push against the executive branch’s constitutional limits, political theorist Dana Villa in 2008 concluded that “the only way to prevent ‘legitimate’ structures of political power from devolving into structures of domination is to make sure we provide for both individual rights and the institutionalization of public freedom” — i.e., a public space where men and women can develop their political voice and practice.1 One of political theorist Sheldon S. Wolin’s last essays, “Agitated Times,” urges the immediacy of democratic agitation at the local level in order to challenge national assumptions. He concludes his 2005 essay with this ironic sentence: “Democratic agitation takes time.”2 Democracy must begin again at the local level — in many cases it must recreate a local level — and it must tune out the noise of those who would silence it.

Actions of post-World War II Democratic administrations raised issues similar to those raised under Republican administrations, and to fail to admit it is to fail to address those issues. Wolin wrote about some of them during the latter years of the Carter administration. In his 1980 essay “The People’s Two Bodies,” he concluded that Carter’s  “historical mission” was “to prove a mass basis for a new state — corporate, bureaucratic, technocratic, and managerial.”3 Every modern presidency seems to have made Wolin, who wrote for over half a century, question the responsiveness of our institutions, including some major aspects of the Constitution’s federal system, to the American people.

Issues involving empire, racism, xenophobia, and public participation won’t disappear with the current president. We must admit, despite the president’s desire for the country’s entire attention, that he is only another floor built perilously higher on a bad foundation. Moving from merely examining his dizzy, tottering eminence to also inspecting matters down closer to the foundation may be a short-term political loser, but in the long run, such self-examination is our only chance to make our Union worthy of the saving.

  1. Villa, Dana, Public Freedom, p. 300.
  2. Wolin, Sheldon S., “Agitated Times,” in Fugitive Democracy, p. 448.
  3. Wolin, Sheldon S., “The People’s Two Bodies,” in Fugitive Democracy, pp. 390 – 391.

2 thoughts on “Worthy of the saving

  1. This makes me think of a scene near the end of the movie “1776”: the Continental Congress is voting on whether to adopt the resolution on independence set by the Declaration, but some states will only yield if the slavery clause is deleted. John Adams looks at one of the delegates right in the eye and says, “If we did that, we would be guilty of what we ourselves are rebelling against.”
    That quote is the driving reason why we’re struggling to save what’s worthy. The motives and goals of this nation have changed so much that we’ve forgotten what we fought for in the first place…the very reason we celebrate this holiday. That self-examination you discussed is now more important than ever. Thank you for this article!

    1. Thank you for your comments, Laura. I recently read a chapter in Joyce Appleby’s excellent book Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination in which she attributes the colonists’ frequent resort to the language of slavery and servility in their pamphlets against the British in the years leading up to the Revolution to the presence of slavery among them. We often see in others — in this case, a penchant for dominating people — that which we refuse to address in ourselves.

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