Op-Ed: The Party of Lincoln?

The Party Of Lincoln?

After hearing a comment that the two leading political parties of his day seemed to have swapped positions over the years, Abraham Lincoln responded with a story that compared both parties to a couple of drunks:  

I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight . . . which . . . after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. 

If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed about the same feat as the two drunken men.  

The same metaphor can be used today.  After all, the Republican Party of Lincoln’s day supported labor unions and the right to strike, was pro-immigration, believed in science, and favored a strong national authority.  As a matter of fact, Abraham Lincoln’s administration oversaw the largest expansion of the federal government in American history (up to that point in time).  Republicans founded the precursor to the IRS, implemented the first income tax, and taxed the wealthy at a higher rate.  They founded the National Academy of Sciences, established Land-Grant Colleges, created the Department of Agriculture, and gave away millions of acres of government land to private citizens (through the Homestead Act).  His administration also passed “An Act to Encourage Immigration,” which created the U.S. Immigration Bureau.  And it was Lincoln’s party that produced the first federal program devoted solely to America’s veterans.  On the other side, the Democratic Party was fiercely conservative.  It was made up mostly of farmers and uneducated city laborers, reflecting America’s largely agricultural society.  They believed in non-government intervention for almost everything, were against establishing a public education system, and were mostly pro-slavery.  

How things have changed.  Just like the two drunks in Lincoln’s story, over time the two major political parties have wrestled themselves out of their own coats and into that of the other.  And each side believes that the other is too extreme – either too far to the right or too far to the left.  So whatever happened to the middle?  Where are all the moderates?  

In his own time, Abraham Lincoln was viewed as a moderate.  Taking a position between two opposing factions was a trademark of his leadership style.  He was a middle-of-the-road politician who could look at any issue, have empathy for both sides, search for common ground, and balance the extreme factions.   

In the presidential election of 2016, both Republicans and Democrats claimed Abraham Lincoln.  Donald Trump said he “could be more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln.” Democratic vice presidential candidate, Tim Kaine, said that the Republican Party “has moved too far away from the party of Lincoln.”  But Republican speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, steadfastly maintained that “This is the Party of Lincoln.”  

So which side can legitimately claim Abraham Lincoln?  Well, the United States of America to Abraham Lincoln was more than just another nation.   It was hope for the future of all humankind.  He believed that the Declaration of Independence articulated the principles of liberty and equality, which not only go hand-in-hand, but are nothing less than the principles of humanity.  The U.S. Constitution then created a new form of government that advocated, nurtured, and protected those principles.  With its three branches — the executive, the legislative, and the judicial — this new system of government was carefully designed to have checks and balances so that no one person, nor one faction, could oppress or terrorize the great majority of citizens.  And to Abraham Lincoln, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was worth preserving, worth fighting for, and worth dying for, if necessary.  

Lincoln’s example represents the best of the America to which we may aspire.  He showed us the kind of people we can be.  Not an America that divides, but an America that pulls together.  Not a shortsighted America, but an America that sees beyond and deeper.  And until American political leaders understand that, neither the Republican or Democratic parties will be able to rightfully claim that they are the Party of Lincoln.  Until then, they’ll be just like those two drunks wrestling with each other, selfishly trying to influence and placate voters to their own self-seeking ends.