Thursday, February 7, 2008

In Defense of Divisiveness

A big theme in this year’s election is unity. John McCain, the Republican most beloved by Democrats, and the soothing Democrat Barack Obama, both promise to end the political divisiveness that has plagued our national politics through the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

There is a lot of debate about whether or not they can succeed. But does anyone stop to wonder if, perhaps, unity is such a good thing?

Put differently: has anyone noticed that the list of America’s most successful Presidents is remarkably similar to the list of America’s most divisive Presidents?

The list starts with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is widely considered to be America’s greatest President…but he’s got the Divisiveness Crown well in hand, too. Lincoln was elected President on November 6, 1860. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. In the 4-month interim between election and inauguration, 7 states seceded from the Union. They were so appalled at the idea of a Lincoln Presidency, they chose to leave the Union and start their own nation. Four more would follow.

Obviously, the divisiveness was more tragic than that. The Civil War ensued from the secession, and 600,000 American lives were lost. That, my friends, is divisiveness of the highest order.

While no other example is that stark, most great Presidents have not had the admiration of their political opponents:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt led a unified country through the Second World War, but his New Deal policies were fiercely contested by his political opponents through the Depression. As FDR began losing those battles in his 2nd term he unveiled his “court packing” plan – the idea was to simply add 5 new Supreme Court justices.

Republicans and conservative Democrats were disgusted at this power grab, and the Democrats were slaughtered in the mid-term elections of 1938.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the first master practitioners - and victims - of nasty, partisan politics in American history. We know now the Sally Hemings story is true, but that doesn’t change the fact that his enemies hated him so much that they’d print it.

But TJ was no shrinking violet himself – he even secretly financed a newspaper to attack his opponents. The Federalist-Republican feud in the early 1800’s was a vicious back-alley fight that makes today's feuds seem like high tea at Harrods.

Andrew Jackson was more despised by his political opponents than even Bush or Clinton could claim. He was even called a murderer – one campaign bill featured a picture of 6 coffins representing men Jackson had executed in court-martials or killed in duels. The attacks on him were so severe he blamed them for his wife’s sickness and death.


What does all this mean? Is it merely a coincidence that great Presidents inspire the deepest hatred among their political opponents?

Of course not. Greatness only comes to the bold, to those who have and act upon strongly held convictions. Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt were all powerful and effective leaders who had a very strong vision for the United States. They were attacked by those who disagreed. The South, for example, realized that Lincoln's positions on slavery were dramatically different than the wishy-washy compromisers who preceded him.

You want unity? Try Warren Harding on for size. Harding ran on a “let’s all get along” platform. His most famous speech came while running for President, in which he argued for normalcy:

"America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality...."

Yawn... But seriously, if you heard Barack Obama give this speech, would you be surprised? (Well, maybe at the use of the words nostrums and equipoise.) Would you nod your head along in agreement?

Harding was immensely popular while in office, but today, historians rank him among our least effective Presidents.

So, the next time you hear one of the candidates tell you that they are going to unify the country, stop to ask yourself if that is all it’s cracked up to be.

Sidebar: McCain may be the Democrat's favorite Republican, but he's the conservative Republican's least favorite Republican. Rush Limbaugh, whom you would assume is dedicating every waking moment to fighting the Clinton Restoration, in fact spends most of his time attacking John McCain. In this respect, McCain is similar to FDR, who sometimes inspired more vitriol from conservative Democrats than from Republicans.

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