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Howard Fineman

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Our Slow Motion Civil War

Posted: 09/17/2012 4:27 pm

Lincoln is back (Steven Spielberg's Lincoln opens in November), and with him urgent questions: Are we locked in a new form of Civil War in our time? If so, why and what is it about? And where is our own Father Abraham?

President Obama, an Illinoisan and Lincoln devotee who launched his own candidacy at the Old State House in Springfield, invoked his hero at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, saying that he, like Lincoln, had learned from his own failings.

Of course we are not in a fratricidal war, but much of our politics is eerily reminiscent of Lincoln's time, when the country split in two.

Now, as then, the party system is broken and achingly in need of upheaval. As the Civil War approached, the two parties of the era were powerless to resolve the fundamental issue of slavery. Only the rise of a new Republican Party broke the gridlock.

We may be reaching a similar point again.

At the Republican convention in Tampa and the Democratic one in Charlotte, profound issues were left unaddressed or merely nodded at.

There was barely a mention of the war in Afghanistan and the rise of the security state, the threat to civil liberties arising from it, the dangerous, widening and anti-democratic gap between the richest and the rest, or the obvious outlines of compromise necessary to avoid bankrupting government at all levels.

Congress is paralyzed by partisan division in a way it has not been since the years after the Civil War. Back then "crossing the aisle" grew rare; after the war bipartisanship was an act of betrayal.

The media is divided, too, as it was in Lincoln's day. The pamphleteers and editorialists of that time are the bloggers now; FOX and MSNBC are equivalent to the great partisan newspapers.

The conventions were living evidence of the divide: The nice little old ladies in Tampa who hailed from a Richmond suburb had nothing in common with the urban hipsters and big-city union bosses I saw on the floor in Charlotte.

In Lincoln's time, politics was paralyzed and the country divided over slavery, secession and the transition from agrarian to industrial society--issues that were not just difficult, but apparently irresolvable.

What are the profoundly divisive issues now?

Sad to say, race--or rather the idea of government induced strategies to expand diversity--remains one of them. The GOP, formerly the party of Lincoln, recoils from the idea, and the result, at least in Tampa, was shockingly obvious. There were as many people of color on the speaking list as there were people of color among the delegates and guests in the hall.

Charlotte, by contrast, was the second largest multi-hued political gathering I have ever seen. (The biggest, of course, was President Obama's Inauguration in 2009.) The barbeque-scented streets were packed with every ethnicity, race and sexual orientation. At a dinner hosted by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, my table consisted mostly of pols from the African-American, Latino and Asian-American communities.

But beyond race, even more central today is the divisive argument over the "traditional" family's role in society and in the genetic destiny of humanity itself. That battle, in turn, is tied to one between science and faith over public policy. Decibel levels prove the point. The abortion issue elicited the loudest cheers in both Tampa and Charlotte alike.

And this issue is deeper than abortion. In his new book, All in the Family, Brown University historian Robert O. Self frames the modern political era as an ongoing argument over gender roles--manhood, womanhood, fathers and mothers, sex and family structures--suddenly made malleable by new social mores and science.

The Republican Party of today, decades in the making, is a faith-based crusade to preserve the man-woman family, and to protect the primacy of faith in deciding the reproductive and genetic destiny of mankind by banning abortion and most fetal research.

The GOP faithful think that God, in Marxist terms, should control the means of production and distribution of the human gene pool. They see the Democrats as ushering in a Huxley-like Brave New World.

The Democrats are just as vehemently devoted to a woman's right to choose, and to the widest possible variation of--and constitutional protection for--sexual and family identities, Self writes.

Finally, there is a mostly unspoken and utterly unresolved battle between generations over the social welfare state. Young Americans stand to be crushed by the tens-of-trillion-dollar bill for Medicare, disability payments, Social Security and other programs and promises made by politicians of BOTH parties over the decades, not to mention by the government bureaucracy and public employees necessary to administer those programs.

Neither party, nor President Obama or Mitt Romney, has directly and honestly offered a full response to the fiscal nightmare that lies ahead.

All we need now, as we needed a century and a half ago, is leadership and, as Lincoln said, the triumph of the "better angels of our nature."

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.

 

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