Many years ago, literary critic Dorothy Parker skewered an unfortunate author with her sharp wit: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force!”
That’s how a lot of us feel about this presidential election year, which has been distinguished by an incumbent who is so self-centered, incompetent and both mentally and morally unsteady that he’s more dangerous than a baby who’s gotten hold of a hammer.
Swinging wildly, he’s tried to win by demolishing the truth, shattering the law, smashing basic rights, annihilating fair play, trashing the common good, busting up social trust, splintering justice and … well, generally eradicating the egalitarian principles that unify Americans into a functioning democracy.
The worst, most divisive election ever, right?
No. That horror belongs to the 1860 contest, a four-man race that Abraham Lincoln won with 39.8% of the vote: rabid racism; furious intimidation of voters; blatant manipulation of ballots; personal attacks so vicious they’d even make President Donald Trump cringe; and daily death threats not only from the goofball “proud boys” of the day but from Southern elected officials and establishment newspapers.
“If Lincoln is elected,” a Virginia member of Congress told the New York Herald, “we will go to Washington and assassinate him before his inauguration.”
It was a campaign of demonic fury: Mobs attacked and wrecked Republican offices in Washington and Baltimore, and 10 Southern states wouldn’t even put his name on the ballot.
Despite the vitriol and violence, Lincoln won, stayed calm yet firm in a time of dangerous turmoil, held a bitterly divided nation together and even expanded our democratic ideals and advanced the possibilities for ordinary people to achieve them.
He didn’t wear a silly red cap arrogantly proclaiming, “Make America Great Again.” He did it. Indeed, he died for it.
The point is that Lincoln didn’t preserve the noble idea of America by rewriting the law but by altering the culture, pushing the people themselves to act on their better natures. So, 160 years after that toxic election, here’s another one, and there’s no Lincoln in sight. That means that We the People have to do the healing ourselves.
“Good grief!” cry many progressives. “How has America turned so right-wing that a flabby, narcissistic, wannabe dictator such as Trump is even in the running?”
But wait. Aside from a minority of racist, xenophobic, misogynistic voters, plus a bunch of uber-wealthy corporate profiteers making a killing from his rich-man’s agenda, most of Trump’s rank-and-file voters are not right-wingers at all. To see evidence of this, look at the multitude of overtly progressive ballot issues that won majority support on Tuesday, even in so-called Trump Country.
– Fifty-three percent of Arizona voters said yes to a tax surcharge on incomes above $250,000 a year for individuals and $500,000 for joint filers, specifically to raise teacher pay and recruit more teachers.
– A whopping 78% of Oregon voters approved a populist proposition to put strict controls on the corrupting power of big-money corporate donations in elections.
– Sixty-one percent of Floridians voted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, a working-class advance vehemently opposed by corporate giants and right-wing groups.
– Fifty-seven percent voted yes on a Colorado provision requiring corporations to let employees earn paid time off for medical and family needs.
– Between 53% and 69% of voters in six states – including such supposedly conservative bastions as Arizona, Mississippi and South Dakota – approved initiatives liberalizing and even legalizing marijuana and other drug use.
– Plus, there were some big symbolic victories, such as Mississippi replacing a Confederate symbol on its state flag with a magnolia blossom, and the people of Nebraska overwhelmingly voting to amend their constitution to excise an antiquated provision authorizing slavery as a punishment for certain crimes!
The hope that resides in these progressive policy positions is the prospect that a truly great American majority might yet be forged – not around some mega-politician but around our people’s basic shared values of fairness, justice and equal opportunity for all.