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Reviews | Lincoln’s political party recklessly tests its wisdom

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In his famous 1858 “House Divided” speech on slavery and the nation being divided, Abraham Lincoln borrowed a biblical passage found in the Gospel of Matthew: “And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against himself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.

On the 4th of July – the closest thing to our policy of a high holy day – I thought about those words. And I worried about how Lincoln’s political party is recklessly testing its wisdom.

It is comforting to believe that there is even more that unites us as Americans than divides us. I can afford to hope that is true. But it’s hard, even for me, an optimist by nature, to deny that the trendline is pointing in the wrong direction, toward sharper division and greater conflict.

And it is impossible for me to claim that this conflict is anything other than asymmetrical. The Republican Party is trying to achieve a revanchist vision of America in which much of the progress towards a fairer and more equitable society that we have seen over the past half-century is undone. The Democratic Party is mostly trying — and failing, thanks to a Supreme Court thoroughly packaged by the GOP — to hold on to the hard-earned gains of an increasingly diverse nation.

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Recent court rulings on abortion, guns and the environment all come in defiance of public opinion, according to polls. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) likes to quote another quote from Lincoln: “With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Therefore, the one who shapes public sentiment goes further than the one who enacts laws or pronounces decisions. It makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to execute.

This is where the problem lies. The court’s decision annulling Roe vs. Wade allows state legislatures to enact laws banning abortion and making the procedure a crime. But how do these States imagine that they will apply these laws?

One of the milestones in the downward spiral to Civil War was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that African Americans who had successfully fled to free states be returned to servitude. It is shocking and depressing that Republicans even think of raising a similar question today: what about women who reside in a state where abortion is banned and who cross state lines to terminate their safe and legal pregnancy?

Can we ban them from traveling? Pursued upon their return? And what about doctors who perform abortions? A doctor at one of Minnesota’s abortion clinics, who expects a rush of out-of-state patients, may be arrested after crossing the border into South Dakota, where the ambitious governor GOP’s Kristi L. Noem has doubts about an abortion ban excepting even a 10-year-old rape victim?

I’m not predicting a second civil war, and I have to believe we’ll find a way forward. But the uncanny similarity between now and the 1850s is that the oppressive and backward policies enacted in some states impact every state. On this day when we celebrate being one nation, red, white and blue, the divide between the red states and the blue states looks more and more like a deep, jagged chasm.

Many conservatives who are anti-abortion and pro-guns, I realize, see what the Supreme Court and Republican-led state legislatures are doing as a necessary corrective to the direction the country is going. But there is an asymmetry. The history of the United States has been a long and hard struggle to make the moving words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution apply to all of us – black people, women, the LGBTQ community, Latinos and d others who have been marginalized. Freedoms that originally applied only to white men who owned property were made universal, at least in theory. Laws and decisions that attempt to reclaim some of these freedoms are ahistorical attempts to ring a bell that still rings.

Americans who want to live in a nation where women have autonomy over their own bodies, where appalling levels of gun violence are not seen as the price of freedom, where science is valued over superstition, and where faith is a matter of personal belief rather than public imposition are no less passionate in our opinions than those who disagree. And we have the numbers and the history on our side. A minority that wants to set the nation back cannot ultimately win. But the coming months and years of struggle for the soul of this nation will be arduous and full of anguish. One thing Lincoln never said was that the American experience would be easy.