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"Lincoln" and America’s political divide

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"Lincoln" and America’s political divide

by Stephen Brunig
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
posted in Opinion

Towards the end of 2012, politics seemed to dominate news cycle. This could hardly be surprising in an election year, but this increased public awareness generated a lot of questions, and almost every media outlet had something to contribute. Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” fit quite easily into this discussion, even though Spielberg insisted on waiting until after the election to premier his film (link). The movie focused heavily on politics, and gave us an intriguing glimpse at the political climate Lincoln faced, the challenges he overcame, and the divisions across and within political parties.

As I observed reactions to the movie, I found that both friends and strangers, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, emerged with questions about how the movie’s take on politics connected with our own experiences. I assured people asking me questions that there were connections to make, but American political history has not always divided as it currently does, and understanding that is a key to making any comparisons.

The current political divide, between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, weighs heavily on our perceptions, and it can be hard to believe that in the mid-1800s, the upstart Republican Party was in fact home to most of the era’s liberal politicians. These “radical republicans,” led by the likes of Thaddeus Stevens (link) and Charles Sumner would dominate their party especially after Lincoln’s assassination. In spite of any one faction’s dominance, powerful liberal and conservative elements existed in both the Democratic and Republican coalitions.

Spielberg’s “Lincoln” does show Lincoln navigating between the liberal and conservative elements of his own party, and Lincoln himself almost always preferred to be a force of moderation. Conservatives attacked him over the Emancipation Proclamation, balked at the expansion of federal powers, and at times agreed with Democratic critics who branded him a tyrant. Radicals, likewise, complained Lincoln dragged his feet on civil rights, pressed for harsher measures against the South, and sometimes dismissed him as an opportunistic “prairie politician.” Even still, Lincoln found a way to unite his party as a force for change, something Spielberg’s movie shows wonderfully.

Modern connections to the political party Lincoln once led are have been stretched and severed over the decades, just as Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic party has been transformed. Most of Lincoln’s political philosophy bolted from the Republican fold dramatically with Teddy Roosevelt in the 1912 election, and the remaining conservative core that crystalized around William H. Taft shed light on the future path of the Republican Party. Lincoln’s cultural value has remained as important as ever, across party distinction, as historian David Donald famously noted, politicians have a powerful urge to “get right with Lincoln” (link). If anything, Lincoln shows that our most important president’s actions are still viewed with reverence and America is still very much a land of Lincoln.

 

--Stephen Bruning

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