Tuesday, May 13, 2014

'We Are Living In The Worst Period of Political History In America!'

The Caning of Charles Sumner
We were talking to a friend yesterday who bemoaned the fact that 'politics is so partisan today'.

'How can we ever expect to get anything done?' is what he went on to say. 'We will never solve any of these big problems facing us today!'

Well, never is a long time. And if that were so, we would all still British colonists sipping tea every afternoon, wouldn't we?

We have a theory about politics that we would like to throw at you for your consideration today:
'Politics always seems worse the more you are involved or affected by it' 
For example, today people are complaining about Obamacare; high taxes, global warming, budget deficits, huge national debt, abortion, women's rights, racism and general insensitivity. Each of these issues hits everyone differently; some care more about 1 or 2 of the issues; others care more about some of the others but not the first two and so on.

It is enough to drive some people into despair.

Relax. We are actually living in perhaps one of the most 'civil', 'sane' and 'safe' periods of time in American history. Really. Hard to believe, isn't it? But it is true.

The strange thing about 'tough times' in American history? They usually cause huge conflicts of opinion and interest about what to do next. Then somehow, someway, great leaders emerge and lead us to the next level of the truly unique American story.

These ideas collide like huge thunderclouds that gather on either end of the sky and crash into each other causing loud thunder and sends out all kind of lightning and then it rains like there is no tomorrow.

And then...it is all over and the sun starts to shine again.

In the end, we have survived it all, haven't we? We have, in case you are totally in the dumps at this point in time.

For those who say: 'This is the worst time in American History!' we only have this to say:

'Really? What about the Great Depression or any of the Panics that seemed to bedevil the American economy every 20 years or so from 1789 to 1930 before they started being called 'recessions' and 'depressions'?

We wonder how many of us could survive in such much harder times. For many of us, losing our IPhone is such a big disaster that it ruins our whole day...until we pick up another one at the local Apple store or ATT.

How about the issues? Surely there were never any deeper divides in American history than we currently experience in the abortion debate, the gun debate, the gay rights debate or the race debate.

Has anyone ever heard of the 'Civil War' by any chance?

600,000 people, mostly white people fighting other white people over the contentious issue of freedom for slaves, died while prosecuting the war over a bloody 4-year period.

Very doubtful we will ever see that sort of carnage in America ever again over any contentious issue, wouldn't you have to agree? At least we all hope so.

US Senators used to shoot each other over issues on which they disagreed!  Henry Clay participated in at least 2 duels with other elected officials. A flipping sitting US VICE-PRESIDENT, Aaron Burr, mortally wounded former Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel at Weehauken, New Jersey  in perhaps the greatest and most well-known display of not agreeing to disagree in an agreeable manner in US history.

Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina sought to defend the honor of his relative, Democratic Senator Andrew Brooks also of South Carolina in 1851 when he almost caned Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts to death on the floor of the US Senate! You can still see the stains of the blood from Senator Sumner on the marble floor.

Granted, Sumner could have used less pejorative language than he did in his 'Crime Against Kansas' speech in the debate over the hot issue of admitting Kansas as a free or slave state.

Here's what he said that got Brooks so agitated in the first place:
'(Senator) Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina.  He characterized Douglas to his face as a "noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator." 
Andrew Butler, who was not present, received more elaborate treatment.  Mocking the South Carolina senator's stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking "a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean," added Sumner, "the harlot, Slavery.' *
'Them's fighting words' as they used to say.

It took a Civil War for the US to settle the issue of slavery. Hardly the optimal outcome for settling political disputes, is it?

However, on most other hot political issues in America, be it women's suffrage, civil rights, prohibition, the gold standard, the silver standard or even the most basic issue of allowing small states 2 votes in the US Senate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 which caused all sorts of enmity and alarm, the political process has grinded and grinded and grinded, sometimes to a halt, but seemingly always inexorably towards a viable and workable outcome for the nation as a whole.

The same will most likely be true about these tough issues we face today as well. In 200 years, future historians will look back on early 21st century America and wonder out loud:
'What the heck was a 'debt ceiling' anyway?'
If American history hadn't worked the way it has under our (mostly) civil form of government, we would have been done for as a democratic republic long ago. Granted, many people have lost their lives fighting for what they believed in be it civil rights, women's rights or even abortion in today's heated cauldron.

But we are nowhere near as fractured as the country was prior to the Civil War. And we are not anywhere near the economic condition our parents and grandparents were in from 1930-1942; just ask them if they are still alive and they will tell you so.

Democracies and democratic republics are perhaps the most fragile of all governments. As Donald Kagan says in his great book, 'Pericles of Athens' (1991):

(Democracy) relies on "free, autonomous and self-reliant" citizens and "extraordinary leadership" to flourish, even survive...These kinds of citizens aren't born—they need to be educated'

We think that is what is missing in today's political environment: 'Extraordinary Leaders'. We know they are out there. You might be one of them.

So next time someone starts wringing their hands about the current state of American politics, give them a brown paper bag to breath into and a cold glass of water to drink and ask them if they have ever heard of Preston Brooks.

That should shake them up some.

*taken from the US Senate art and history website: https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm

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