Can a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . long endure.”
When Lincoln said these words at Gettysburg, he stood at the brink of a pivotal moment in history. The new American republic had been under siege and faced possible extinction. Thousands of its citizens would die in an internecine cataclysm that would either end America’s quest for liberty and equality or give it rebirth.
My fellow Americans, we are at a similar pivotal point in our American quest. Although we have yet to take up arms against each other, we are deeply divided and engaged in a struggle that threatens the very foundation of our democracy. Let me explain the nature of this struggle.
America appears about to begin the second act of a Shakespearian tragedy. The first act witnessed the emergence of the American ethos—a “can-do” attitude coupled with unhindered ambition, territorial expansion, economic growth, and the reapplication of “unalienable rights” to include the civil rights of those previously excluded. The rule of law was winning out over the dissonance of divisiveness arising from racial, class, and gender despotism. What energized that rule of law was a firm belief in liberty and equality that included economic opportunity. But that energy unleashed a fatal flaw in the guise of mindless ambition. Like Macbeth, America had climbed the pinnacle of power only to confront the ultimate temptation. When the witches foretold Macbeth’s rise to regal power, they also foretold his demise. Power sought for itself alone is a siren call to disaster. While ambition can give rise to individual and social achievement, it can also trample in its path any desire for liberty and equality or the democratic justice they demand. Unbridled ambition, unmoored from its purpose and sought for its own sake, will become the ouroboros that consumes itself. What may ensue is not a natural occurrence of nature, but a manmade tragedy—an American tragedy.
At the Gettysburg National Cemetery, Lincoln called upon his fellow Americans to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom . . . and that government of the people . . . by the people . . . for the people . . . shall not perish from the earth.”
“Government of the people” is a democratic government established and owned by the people. “Of” is a possessive preposition that presupposes ownership. But the “people” cannot be an authoritarian (or dictator) and/or a privileged class (or aristocracy). The people’s government must be the majority of the democracy’s citizens. Since America is a democratic republic, our elected officials are tasked to represent the will of that majority. Then how has it come to pass that the two elected branches of government are controlled by a political Party that lost the popular vote? It is true that the electoral college assures that the more populated States cannot dominate the smaller States. And each State has two Senators regardless of the size of their electorate. But how can any citizen of a democracy support gerrymandering or voter suppression tactics designed to distort the popular vote. No political party should be allowed to choose its electorate by excluding the majority. These attempts to silence the will of the majority are further amplified by actions designed to mislead the electorate, including malicious campaign propaganda and subversive foreign media. Together, they distort the truth and undermine the trust that must exist between the citizenry and its elected government. In effect, the political parties and their election campaigns become complicit in disowning and disenfranchising the citizens of their own democracy. This situation is a self-inflicted tragedy: an American tragedy.
Government “by the people” is a government controlled by the will of the people through fair elections and the honest representation of those they elect. Then how has it come to pass that the legislative agenda is mostly controlled by high-powered lobbyists and the special interests they represent? If the general welfare of all Americans is the governing mandate, then what justification is there for tax law and labor regulations that promote gross economic inequality? If a democracy is based upon liberty and equality, then how can it allow unequal educational and employment opportunities for its citizens? And how can it defund programs that provide healthcare or assist the less fortunate and disabled to gain a constructive role in a free society? If, instead, those privileged by wealth or status have a disproportionate influence on elections and government, the net result will inevitably be a government controlled by a self-interested minority—that is, a government unresponsive to the will of the people. This situation is a self-inflicted tragedy: an American tragedy.
Lincoln, the President who saved the union, clearly knew what government “for the people” meant. The Constitution defines the very purpose of the United States of America to secure domestic peace and security, our general welfare and the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. Today, America continues to secure peace and security for its citizens from foreign adversaries and terrorists. But how well does our government serve the general welfare and preserve our liberties for ourselves and our posterity? Is the general welfare served by relaxing regulations that control mercury and coal detritus pollution of our water supply or that limit power plant’s hydrocarbon pollution of our air? Is the political management of the EPA serving our interest by defunding clean-up of dangerously polluted superfund sites or by suppressing EPA scientists from participating in climate change conferences? Worldwide, more die annually from pollution than all those who die in wars and from major diseases combined. Even if the EPA political management removes the term “climate change” from all its correspondence, it cannot erase the effects of the worst West Coast fire season in history or of three recent hurricanes, each of which accounted for more damage than any like cataclysm in over a hundred years. And how well are we served by a government that would even consider eliminating healthcare from millions of our fellow citizens or removing subsidies that would force insurance companies to raise rates on all insurance plans? These actions are not indicative of a government wholly committed to serve its citizens. Instead, they represent a deviation from the very purpose of our democracy. And that, indeed, is an American tragedy.
As the Statue of Liberty exemplifies, the United States of America stands as a beacon of hope for the world, precisely because it was, as Lincoln proclaimed, “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” If we forget our birthright and lose our commitment to our founding ideals, we foreclose the oldest democracy in history and extinguish its light for posterity. Instead, let us renew our dedication to the rule of law and to the Constitution. We must reclaim our government at the voting booth. We must petition the government, run for office, or select representatives whose character and wisdom win our trust. And we must demand our political leaders serve our interest, not just those privileged by wealth or status. In a democracy, it would indeed be tragic for any person or political party to subsume power that rightly belongs to the people.
My fellow Americans, we can no longer be the silent majority. Acquiescence to those who seek and maintain power for themselves is equivalent to complicity in an unfolding American tragedy. Rather, with the same dedication President Lincoln urged, we must be persistent in our resolve to seek a “new birth of freedom.” That is our birthright and our heritage. It is also the foundation for both American conservatism and liberalism.