On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” It was in part an anti-slavery talk, but also expressed strong and profound words against internal divisiveness.
Lincoln argued that the real enemy was not expected as “some transatlantic giant to step the ocean and crush us...” About our potential demise he stated that “if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
Those were prophetic words as the division that threatened our institutions he long feared came to fruition on his watch as President of the United States. The American Civil War represents the ultimate divisive action on the part of a people and a country.
A new unity was slowly gain by our focus on the settlement of western lands, the Industrial Revolution and our role as a new colonial power. Much of the first half of the 20th Century was spent developing America into a world-class economy and the unity that comes from common prosperity.
The Great Depression served to remind our people that we were all in the same boat. But our effort in World War II cemented the common vision of America as the greatest military and economic power.
During much of the second half of the 20th Century our country had a strong and dangerous enemy in the Soviet Union that continued to foster American unity and a new world order. It is however, beginning in the 21st Century that our country faced an unconventional war waged by terrorists at home and abroad that we cannot win militarily.
Added to this danger has been the steady and profound change in our demographics that is seeing our country become “browner.” The power shift that this represents here and abroad is also causing the rise in identity politics.
The civil rights movements of the 20th Century featured identity politics as one of their primary manifestations. It was one of the tools that minorities used to announce their presence as important in American life.
At the same time, it was taken for granted that “the man” was White and powerful. What happens however, when this primary actor in the power structure feels gradually diminished?
That is what is going on and the response to it has been a variation on identity politics as a way to maintain control.
This is the nerve Donald Trump touched and has depended on to gain and maintain political prominence. His focus on immigration as bad for America has been a winning formula to date.
So Lincoln was right as it was not Napoleon in his day nor the other imperial powers of the 19th Century nor the Nazis and the Communists in the 20th Century that would “crush us.” To him, it was the enemy within, ourselves, that pose the greatest danger to our democracy and our way of life.
Finding common ground and unity of purpose in the face of global challenges to American exceptionalism is difficult as well as a defining aspect of our democratic experiment. The fact that our new Millennial majority finds more comfort with its generation that tends to be inclusive regardless of race and gender is gratifying.
Our country and the world are rapidly changing and there is no going back to what was. There is only a future for those bold enough.