No, We Can’t All Get Along: On Lincoln, Obama, and Dysfunctional Conflict Avoidance

Now would be a good time to read or re-read Abraham Lincoln’s justly famous Second Inaugural Address (1864). Coming off "President’s Day" (combining the Lincoln and George Washington birthdays), we have recently marked the 200th birthday (February 12th) of Lincoln, a fellow Illinoisan to whom the new U.S. president Barack Obama (widely adored by many liberals and progressives) has made repeated efforts to link himself and for whom Obama president has repeatedly expressed great admiration.





Those efforts and that admiration notwithstanding, Lincoln’s 1864 speech (to which I shall turn in eight modest paragraphs, dear reader) might be consulted as something of an historical antidote to the dead-centrist Obama’s fetish of unity and bipartisanship.


The new president’s fixation on "reaching across the aisle" – a political habit of his since his days at Harvard Law – has been exposed as naïve by the Republican Party’s refusal to get behind even his mild, watered down, and (truth be told) inadequate economic stimulus. The G.O.P.’s strict opposition to minimal measures of economic decency demonstrates yet again that the nation’s most enthusiastically capitalist major party is stuck in its own bizarre moral and ideological Stone Age.  The Republicans are doctrinally determined to place ludicrous "free market" ideology and partisan advantage above country and common sense. Just for the delicious irony of it, could someone please accuse them of good old-fashioned "anti-Americanism?"


Some U.S. progressives are saying "but of course" and even "we told you so."  Lots of the progressive activists and voters I met in Iowa during the long presidential primary season were disgusted by Obama’s repeatedly expressed determination to "work with" the Republicans. "Why?" one voter in Muscatine asked. "What the Hell for? The G.O.P.? They’re a bunch of right-wing kooks. They call my mother getting Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare ‘communism.’ ‘Unity’ with the Republicans – what is that about?  Obama says he’s a ‘progressive,’ right? I don’t get it…a ‘progressive’ who wants to work with people like Bush or Mitt Romney or that evangelical idiot Huckabee or McCain and the religious right? You don’ hear John Edwards talking about that.  Even Hillary doesn’t talk like that, thank God." 


Here’s another comment I got on Obama’s promise to "partner" with Republicans in Davenport, Iowa:  "Hello? What for?  I don’t get it. It’s like John Edwards says: the Republicans are nuts. They’re George W. on steroids. And there’s something else about Edwards I like," this voter added: "He doesn’t go all that big happy family shit. He says, ‘hey we’ve got ‘two Americas.’ There’s the America of the rich, you know, the privileged Few, who basically own the country and get whatever they want.  And then there’s the America of the rest of us, including the poor. And basically John says he’s gonna knock the crap of the rich for the rest of us. I don’t know whether he really would do that since he’s a rich guy himself, but I’ll take that kind of talk over all Obama’s ‘lets get beyond our divisions’ bullshit."





The lifelong consumer advocate and left-liberal progressive Ralph Nader got this Edwards (fight the rich and the Republicans) versus Obama (work with the Republicans and the rich) difference when he spoke MSNBC’s wacky political talk show host Chris Matthews in mid-December, 2007. When Matthews claimed that Nader had "excluded Obama from the progressive coalition," Nader responded that "he’s excluded himself by the statements he’s made…which are extremely conciliatory to concentrated power and big business."  Explaining why he was endorsing Edwards in Iowa, Nader noted that "Edwards raises the question of the concentration of power and wealth and power in a few hands that are working against the majority of people"  In Nader’s view, "the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire have to ask themselves a question: ‘who is going to fight for you?’" (MSNBC "Hardball," December 17, 2007).


On the same day Nader spoke with Mathews, leading liberal economist and columnist Paul Krugman argued in The New York Times that "there are large differences among the candidates in their beliefs about what it will take to turn a progressive agenda into reality."  In Krugman’s view, "anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world." Krugman’s rhetoric mirrored that of Edwards, who had repeatedly referred to Obama’s message of conciliation (with big business and the Republicans) as "singing Kumbaya" and to the Illinois senator’s desire to work with and through corporations "a total fantasy." (Paul Krugman, "Big Table Fantasies," New York Times, December 17, 2007).





But back to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.  One thing it can’t be reasonably accused of is an excessive desire to work in a spirit of harmony with the opposition! Its opening paragraph states that "the progress of our arms" in the Civil War is the basic fact on which "all else chiefly depends." The second paragraph states that Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address was concerned mainly with what turned out to be a futile effort to "save the Union without war." Lincoln notes that the Slave South chose to "make war rather than let the nation survive."  The North decided to "accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came." In other words: "we tried unity, they rejected it.  Now it’s a struggle to the bitter end."


The third paragraph states that the basic and underlying reason for the war was slavery. "One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves," Lincoln noted, "not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it."


This third paragraph also notes a number of commonalities between the North and South during the Civil War. Neither side expected the war to be so fierce and to last so long, Lincoln observes. Neither side anticipated that slavery might end "with or even before the conflict itself should cease."  Both sides expected "easy triumph" and "a result less fundamental and astounding" than the overthrow of black chattel slavery. Both hoped for a rapid end to the hostilities. Last but not least, "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God…"


Re-reading that last line the other day, I was reminded of Obama’s claim, in his widely hailed 2004 Democratic Party Convention Keynote Address, that Americans "worship an awesome God" in "the Blue States" as well as "the Red States." This was a key part of that speech’s widely acclaimed section claiming that "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America…" Watching that richly conservative oration [1] in the summer of 2004, I flashed to Rodney King’s comment during the 1991 Los Angeles riots: "can’t we all just get along?"


Lincoln had an answer to Rodney King question on the steps of the Capitol in mid-January of 1864: no, we can’t. In the third paragraph of his Second Inaugural Address, he says, in essence, "So what about these commonalities? So what if we pray to the same God and read from the same Bible. There is an America based on slavery and there is an America that repudiates slavery. The war between those two Americas is upon us.  It is now a war against slavery and we shall fight that war to the end to eradicate that vile institution."  Here is the passage, framed in the language of fearsome 19th century frontier Protestantism:


"The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’"


The formidable blood abolitionist and anti-racist John Brown (more than four years dead after his doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry by the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration) would have approved.





No, we are not on the verge of a civil war. I’m not saying that.  But the Republicans are telling even the "deeply conservative" [2] and militantly centrist Barack ("I love the market") Obama that "No, actually, we can’t all get along. We are more interested in power than we are in economic recovery and job creation. We wish for your stimulus efforts – efforts we have already watered down (over little protest on your part) to no small degree – to fail. We hope to garner political advantages from your failure in 2010 and 2012."


Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply skeptical of top Democrats’ commitment to advancing meaningful economic reform and social justice in the U.S. Consistent with its heavy (indeed record-setting) corporate/Wall Street funding (Obama got more than $37 million from the finance, real estate, and insurance industries for the 2008 election cycle), their party stands well to the right of majority progressive policy and issue opinion in the U.S. It is far too corporate and militarist to respond in a meaningfully democratic way to the current epic economic crisis. Once aptly described by former Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips as "history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party" [3] the Democrats function as little more than the milder wing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Party.


But insofar as any Democrats might be ready, willing, and able to respond to popular needs and sentiments and to channel widespread progressive sentiments in the U.S., they could start by dropping the assumption that anything meaningful can be accomplished by working with the G.O.P. No seriously "progressive" (as Obama has repeatedly described himself) political actor reaches out to radically reactionary dinosaurs like the Republicans.  If you are a "progressive," you don’t mollycoddle Republicans. You don’t appoint them to key positions. You don’t revel in endorsements from their ranks. You don’t dilute legislation to accommodate their ridiculous and dangerous ideas. You don’t make a point of socializing with vicious right-wing pundits like George Will, William Kristol, and Charles Krauthammer, with whom Obama dined at Will’s home in Chevy Chase. Maryland one week before his Inauguration (see an AP and CBS account of this noxious bread-breaking at http://cbs4.com/inauguration/Obama.convservative. critics.2.907799.html).



No, you stand and fight them to the last drop of (political) blood, saying "Woe to that politician or political commentator who advances plutocratic tax cuts and criminal wars and who privileges lacks the decency to privileges the common good over selfish advantage and the wealth of the Few." You use whatever resources and influence you have to mobilize citizen power to sweep them into history’s proverbial dustbin. The Republicans are faith-based, militantly regressive, and messianic militarist tribunes of deadly, obsolete and deceptive "free market" doctrine. They are agents of harsh economic, political, and social reaction.


Power, as Frederick Douglass famously said, never concedes without a fight.  The power the GOP still exercises in this country after everything and in cold defiance of public opinion is dangerous and illegitimate, particularly in light of the current economic crisis facing the U.S. and the world. That power will not be rolled back to an appropriate degree without intense conflict of the sort that Obama negatively associates with the "tired old" evils of "extremism," "ideology" (which he falsely claims to have transcended in the name of "pragmatism") and "partisanship." 





Even in the wake of the Republicans’ cold-hearted stimulus betrayal, Obama’s comments on Lincoln’s legacy continue to push bipartisan harmony and unity. On February 12 at the U.S. Capitol, Obama praised Lincoln’s approval of the use of metal (a scarce military material at the height of the war between the 1860s’ Two Americas)in the construction of the Capitol building as indicating his faith in the structure "as a symbol of unity in a land still mending its divisions." Obama praised Lincoln for working to "repair the rifts that had torn this country apart" and to "begin the healing that our nation so desperately needed. For what Lincoln never forgot," Obama said, "not even in the midst of civil war, was that despite all that divided us – north and south, black and white – we were, at heart, one nation and one people, sharing a bond as Americans that could not break." The following day in Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois (where Obama wrapped himself in Honest Abe’s long historical afterglow to announce his candidacy for the White House in December of 2006), Obama praised Lincoln, "our first Republican President," for knowing "what it meant to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. He understood that strain of personal liberty and self-reliance at the heart of the American experience," Obama said.


This last statement was just the latest indication of the truly remarkable length Obama is willing to go to avoid and downplay the nation’s harsh racial disparities and (or in other words) the living and unresolved legacy of slavery.  The new president knows very well that "the American experience" denied "personal liberty" to three million brutally exploited African American chattel slaves during the time Lincoln (himself permeated by no small degree of white supremacist consciousness) rose on the militantly racist American frontier.


Returning to his 2004 Keynote theme of American unity, Obama’s Springfield oration praised Lincoln, George Washington, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt for "recognizi[ng] that America is – and always has been -  more than a band of thirteen colonies, more than a bunch of Yankees and Confederates, more than a collection of Red States and Blue States. We are the United States of America… Together. As one nation. As one people." Obama hailed Washington for "[leading] farmers, craftsmen, and shopkeepers to rise up against an empire" and Roosevelt for "lift[ing] us from Depression" and "creat[ing] the largest middle-class in history with the GI Bill."  The new president extolled Kennedy for

"sen[ding] us to the moon."


These were interesting things to hear from the nation’s first black president. The early U.S. Republic’s black slaves and native Americans had good reason to favor the British Empire over the insurgent colonists during the American Revolutionary War: the North Americans were certain to deep their savage oppression of nonwhites – enslavement and cultural genocide for blacks and physical and cultural genocide for Indians – once the English (who put "intolerable" limits on British North America’s’ bloody settler imperialism) were defeated.


Roosevelt’s New Deal and GI Bill largely excluded black Americans and actually deepened racial inequality in significant ways that have been ably detailed in Ira Katznelson’s recent study When Affirmative Action Was White [4]. World War II, not Roosevelt, brought the depression to an end, at no small human cost.


Kennedy’s Cold War moon-shot diverted untold billions of dollars that could have been far better spent fighting the extreme and concentrated black ghetto poverty that helped fuel the racial violence of the 1960s.  When I was on a family vacation in London at the time of the moon landing (they said it was the first time BBC TV stayed on past midnight), my father responded to British "congratulations" for this great "Yank" accomplishment by citing U.S. poverty statistics.  He told momentarily taken-aback English people that the money spent on meaningless lunar jaunts might have fed, housed, clothed, and schooled millions of children in rural Appalachia, Harlem, and the West Side of Chicago. That sentiment was more widespread than some might think at the end of the wonderful, conflict-ridden 1960s, that exciting decade whose alleged terrible radical "excesses" Obama trashed in his conservative campaign book The Audacity of Hope [5]. There and elsewhere our "progressive" president reflected favorably on how the arch-reactionary Ronald Reagan helped restore "common purpose," order and "personal responsibility" after the frightening upheavals of the Vietnam era [6].


Delivered less than a month ago, Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address was conservative and uninspiring [7]. It lacked energy and moral clarity. It rambled and went on too long, unlike Lincoln’s remarkably quick and on-point Second Inaugural Address. It avoided critical issues of class and racial inequality and the need to wage war against poverty and social injustice in the U.S., where the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the wealth and where black median household income is equivalent to 7 cents on the white household dollar – this even as the nation celebrates Obama’s election as a symbol of its alleged transcendence of racism. Obama’s Inaugural oration asserted that the U.S. is now "ready to lead" the world again and proclaimed that "we will not apologize for our way of life," ignoring deep disparities at the heart of the contemporary "American experience" and the biblical injunction to "set thine house in order" (2 Kings, chapter 20, verse) before claiming qualification to show the way for others.




To be sure, Obama’s efforts to "reach out" to the Republicans could contribute to the more reactionary party’s irrelevance. The Republicans’ frosty repudiation of his efforts to include and co-opt them could help cut the Republicans down to size, exposing them as narrow and vicious arch-reactionaries. But given the new administration and the Democratic Party’s underlying commitment to existing political-economic and societal arrangements and to keeping the specter of an angry and mobilized citizenry at bay, I wouldn’t get too excited about the extent to which the Obama team wants the GOP gone. Imagine if Obama and the rest of the corporate Democrats didn’t have the Republicans around to scare the Hell out of the populace every time we dare to question the party in power’s refusal to advance policy in accord with public support for basic progressive goals like universal national health insurance, a major reduction of economic inequality, an end to poverty, immediate withdrawal from the Middle East, and the intimately related rollback of the nation’s gigantic and still apparently untouchable "defense" (empire) budget?  "Sure," we have all been trained to chant again and again for ever and anon, "the Democrats are bad but the Republicans are worse.  Oh well." Neither party truly represents what we want and deserve, but the Democrats at least promise to inflict less harm than the Republicans.


The disappearance of the Republicans would be a frightening thing for the "nice cop" Democrats to imagine.  They are married to the "bad cop" GOP in common commitment to corporate and imperial rule over and against those "dangerous and meddlesome outsiders" known as the U.S. citizenry. Expect democratically dysfunctional White House "bipartisanship" in pursuit of a harmonious, conflict-avoiding "United States of America" to continue without serious challenge unless and until it is confronted by a popular left that has yet to reappear on the American political stage [8]. 


Paul Street ([email protected]) is an author in Iowa City, Iowa. His latest book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).  He voted for Ralph Nader and against Wall Street bailouts in the general election.





1. For a detailed critique written the day after, see my "Keynote Reflections," ZNet Magazine (July 29th, 2004), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=41&ItemID=5951



2. As Obama was accurately described in The New Yorker in May of 2007. See Larissa MacFarquhar, "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?" The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). As MacFarquhar noted, "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good." See also Ryan Lizza, "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama," The New Yorker, (July 21, 2008), wherein the author notes that "Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them." Later in the same essay Lizza noted that Obama is "an incrementalist."


3. As quoted in Lance Selfa’s excellent left critique of the Democratic Party, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2008), p.12. 


4. Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York, NY: WW Norton, 2005), pp. 25-142).


5. For a detailed critical review of The Audacity of Hope (2006) from the left, see my "Barack Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power," Black Agenda Report (January 31, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=61


6. Obama praised Reagan for helping rescue America from "the excesses of the sixties and seventies" during an interview with a newspaper editorial board in Reno, Nevada in mid-January of 2008. See "Obama Prefers Ronald Reagan Over Bill Clinton" (n.d.), You Tube, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaoYD7iZG9w; Matt Stoller, "Obama’s Admiration of Ronald Reagan," Open Left (January 16, 2008), read at http://www.openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=3263.


7. For a detailed critique, see my "Obama’s Not-So Non-Ideological Inaugural Address," Black Agenda Report (January 28, 2009), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=999&Itemid=1.


8. See John Judis’ interesting reflections in "End The Honeymoon," The New Republic (February 13, 2009), read at http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=5bff5e94-6fa6-4a69-9ff2-8f08cb437ccc.

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