Tuesday night, while political junkies throughout America were preparing for one address, I was talking to my young niece about another. Delivered 154 years ago, its writer didn’t think much of his own craftsmanship in penning the speech. His mind was focused elsewhere, on the men who inspired him to write. As I explained to my niece, a fourth grader from Zionsville, Indiana, some of those men fathered kids they would never get to know. Duty required them to leave their families and head off to war, a conflict of cousin versus cousin, classmate versus classmate, American versus American. One summer day, on a Southern Pennsylvania field, these men fell by the thousands, the victim of rifles, cannon balls or some other instrument of death. “Imagine being one of their young children,” I explained to my niece. “You’ll never remember your daddy, but you’ll sure come to honor him.” After all, these men have been immortalized through a 154 year-old address that still moves folks like me to tears.
I read the entire speech that evening to my niece, and the final paragraph I read twice.
“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.”
These men, I explained, gave their lives both for people they knew and for people they’d never know – folks like us who are alive in the year 2018. They gave their lives so that the United States could exist forever as a bastion of freedom and democracy. These men died so my niece and I can live in an America we can both be proud of. A place where statesmen put the interests of “the people” first and foremost. Where partisan bickering takes a backseat whenever the Union’s security or fundamental justice is threatened. Where patriots come together, despite their ideological differences, and tackle whatever big projects the nation requires. Where the voters choose their leaders, but the leaders don’t get to choose their voters.
How, I wondered, would the fallen of Gettysburg think about the state of our union right now? A big speech was delivered Tuesday night, but nobody is talking about it. Instead, we’re embroiled in what is yet another round of partisan squabbling, probably the 15th or 20th such round we’ve witnessed since the beginning of the Trump Presidency. To be sure, this problem didn’t start in 2016 – ever since the rise of Talk Radio in the late 80s, our country has been on the verge of a second Civil War. What we’re seeing now, though, is different. The battles are heating up. No, we don’t fight with bullets or swords or even leave a body count. Nor, however, can we take seriously mottos like “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many, one. This no longer feels like one country. It feels like a battlefield.
In the new American landscape, our leaders use words and documents to metaphorically spit in each other’s faces. This allows each group to fight on for another day, but it also leaves a field of spit for “we the people” to deal with. Instead of representing the Blue and the Gray, our leaders represent the Blue and the Red. They huddle in separate caucuses like football players, and then, when they are interact with each other, they fight like combatants on the gridiron – except that it always seems to be “we the people” who are getting the concussions.
Last year was especially noteworthy for this new Civil War. Didn’t it seem like the Redcoats were saying that the Bluecoats didn’t matter anymore? That the war was over – the Redcoats won – and it was the Bluecoats’ job to step aside and let the victors decide alone who gets to have money, who gets to have health care, and who gets to decide what the Constitution means? What was remarkable about last year was that there wasn’t even a token effort devoted to compromising between the two armies – the Redcoats simply told the Bluecoats to sit in the back of the bus and shut up because Blue means “minority” and Red means “majority” and that’s all there is to say. To make matters even more comical, the Redcoats used this strong-armed strategy despite the fact that more people voted for the Bluecoats for President and for Senator in the past election. These are the kinds of things that happen in the new American Civil War.
Honestly, as Civil Wars go, I prefer this one. I abhor violence. Now, thank God, we have figured out a way to threaten our union without killing one another. That’s surely progress over the situation in the early 1860s. But I’m not exactly pleased by the situation. I still remember an America where, at least at times, we all seemed to be paddling in the same direction. An America where Purple dominated Red and Blue. Where Walter Cronkite reported, and the whole nation listened. I still remember an America that would have done the fallen of Gettysburg proud.
Now? We have an America where a President sets out to begin a speech called the “State of the Union” and nobody is even willing to hear it because we already think we know all we care to understand about the State of Union.
When you’re watching a mammoth tug of war, there is no union. There are just two groups of guys – one who will fall face-first in the mud and another who will fall butt-first on the ground. These are not wars anyone wins.