“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly 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.”
Six years ago, I quoted the above passage in this blog. I cannot quote it enough. Ironically, for all its wisdom, it contains one of the most patently false statements in the history of oratory, the clause that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Thankfully, the world has indeed noted what Lincoln said in Gettysburg in 1863; his entire Address has become immortalized, and for good reason. Few can forget that it began with the words “Four score and seven years ago.” But perhaps the Address’ most lasting portion is its ending – a plea that “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people  shall not perish from the earth.”
I keep finding myself reflecting on those words. As both a small “d” democrat and a small “r” republican, I feel that Lincoln was setting the standard by which a country’s governance should be judged. Sometimes, I even envision him as one of my professors. Lincoln is looking at me and all other future American citizens and proclaiming that we’ll be “graded” based on the extent to which our government truly measures up to the standard he has set – a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It then becomes our job as students/citizens to assess our success level and actively work to ensure that failure is no longer tolerated.
I don’t know about you, but right now, I’d give us a failing grade. And part of the problem is that while we may well remember the words Lincoln used, we seem to have forgotten what they mean and why they must be respected.
Let’s begin by analyzing the “of the people, by the people, for the people” formulation. The first of these three phrases refers to the source of governmental power. It was explained well by John Marshall in his famous Supreme Court opinion, McCulloch v. Maryland: “The government of the Union [...] is, emphatically and truly, a government of the people. In form, and in substance, it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them, and for their benefit."
To further illustrate his point, Marshall could have pointed to the introduction to the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” “We the people” are thus the source of our government’s power – not a work of Scripture nor a set of sovereign states, and certainly not a kingdom across the ocean, but “we the people.” In this regard at least, I’d say that the American democracy is alive and well, for we haven’t seemed to have forgotten that the source of our government’s power resides in the citizenry.
Next, if you would allow me, I’d like to skip ahead for a moment to the third prong of Lincoln’s formulation, the idea that our government is “for the people.” Now, we’re not talking about the source of governmental power but its beneficiary. I hardly need to cite 17th or 18th century documents to explain this concept. Indeed, every politician in Washington invariably claims that she acts for the betterment of “the people.” Whether it’s the people of her district, state or nation, it’s always “the people” for whom she selflessly works. Allegedly.
But do you really believe that’s true? Do you really believe our politicians are consistently putting “the people” over their own party or their personal re-election chances? Just look at the way they handle government scandals. Whenever their party is in power, they become mum; by contrast, if the other party is in power, they become publicly outraged. Is that what “the people” would want? Or how about those times when Congress considers an extremely popular bill that everyone knows is going to fail because the lobbyists won’t let it succeed? Consider, for example, gun-control legislation that is favored by 80-90 percent of “the people” but opposed by the highly-organized gun lobby. Why do you think those measures fail? Is it because our politicians believe that they are voting in the best interests of the (ignorant) public, or because they are taking care of their own hides? To ask the question is to answer it.
I’ve saved for last the second item in Lincoln’s formulation: “by the people.” Now, we’re not talking about the source or the beneficiary of government power but rather the agent of such power. Who is doing the actual work of exercising political power? A limited number of social or economic classes? Or ALL the people? My sense is that when it comes time to assigning grades, Professor Lincoln will place a special emphasis in this domain. Why? Because it is precisely by broadening political participation among all the people that we can best guarantee that our government will operate for the people in actuality, and not just in lip service.
Fortunately, when it comes to grading us on our political participation, Prof. Lincoln would have actual facts and figures available to judge us. And what he’d find is that we seem to be failing miserably. Roughly nine of every 20 eligible Americans choose not to vote in presidential elections. In mid-term elections, little more than one in three eligible Americans vote. So even though we included the right to vote in the Constitution and amended that document four different times to extend that right, only a small portion of this country seems to feel strongly about exercising it. If that’s not an F-U to Lincoln, I don’t know what is.
But don’t just blame the problem on “we the people.” “They the Government” aren’t exactly encouraging the people to vote, now are they? Recall that last Sunday the voters in France went to the polls. Here in America, we vote on Tuesdays, and we don’t even get a day off from work. It’s as if the powers-that-be are saying that “voting is a privilege, and we expect people to go out of their way to prove that they’re worthy of it.” The result is anything but a government “by [all] the people.” It’s a government by that portion of the people who tend to be relatively well-educated and well-heeled. It’s not what Lincoln had in mind.
Personally, I think that there is no set of duties more sacred than those of citizenship. Those duties include voting, but that’s just the beginning. A citizen’s duties also include marching, canvassing, debate watching, poll watching, you name it. Plus, they include taking stock in those societal forces that undermine civic interest and working to confront those forces. I’d suggest that we all begin by focusing squarely and passionately on our woefully inadequate level of voting participation. This needs to be addressed by our schools, our media, our government, and yes, by concerned private citizens like you and me. And until this issue is addressed, we have to stop talking like we live in a functioning democracy or that “the majority” voted for this politician or that one.
Somewhere up there, Professor Abe is waiting to grade us on how we respond to this voter-participation crisis. And believe me, even for someone as kind as Honest Abe, 36 percent (the percentage of eligible voters who turned out for the 2014 mid-terms) merits an F.