“With malice toward none and charity toward all . . .”
These famous words from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address are often quoted and sometimes revered as sacred text, but rarely acted upon. I was brought back to this quote by a combination of attention to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the confounding lack of vision by our leaders.
At a time when this young nation was torn apart by a brutal war, President Lincoln was looking beyond the outcome. Even as the commander in chief of the military force fighting against an internal antagonist, he was reminded that the “enemy combatants” were American citizens. These people would eventually need to be brought back into the fold. Retribution would only further hostility and continue the battles in a different form. Ultimately, Lincoln knew that for the young nation to survive, northerners would need to welcome back their brothers and sisters, and southerners would need to feel like brothers and sisters, not the defeated enemy.
We often talk of reconciliation — after the fact. We rarely hold it as a conscious motivation before and during an antagonistic event. Think about anything coming out of our nation’s capital these days. The motivation is to prove the correctness of a position through the demise of one’s political antagonist.
This is the basic tenet behind the arguments over the health-care system. We are stifled by paralysis on both sides. One unwilling to move on, the other unwilling to fix things until the need for the fix is obvious to us all. Is the future of our democracy really dependent upon the success of a website? While this may be the most current example, others from just the last few years could fill volumes.
An alternative reality
So let’s try a different context — an alternative reality where we look for value and don’t magnify differences. We begin with an acknowledgment that there is value in the perspectives of people on the right and people on the left.
Conservatives remind us that a motivated individual is critical to the success of a society. Success of the individual is a good and a worthy goal. The motivation that comes from the goal is important to a successful and prosperous society. Their public-policy goal is to get out of the way.
Progressives remind us that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. They remind us that we live in a society, not a vacuum. They remind us that each of us, from the most successful to the most challenged, needs help. Their public-policy goal is to develop structures to support.
Those of you reading this who are already arming yourself to criticize, take a deep breath. You/we have been trained to criticize. Your impulse to rip apart the perspective you disagree with is understandable. Every TV ad during an election, every minute of Fox News or MSNBC, every panel of political experts on CNN has trained you well. Step away from the sensationalized impulse designed to keep you watching “public affairs shows” so someone can make money from ad revenue. They feed an impulse. They do not solve the problem. Keep reading.
Think about this: Without the help of the greater society, the individual would not have the tools to succeed. Without the realistic ability to succeed, there is despair — which leads to anger, separation and crimes of survival. Goals and support are intertwined. They are complementary. They are not mutually exclusive as our leaders would have us believe.
A need for both perspectives
Without the focus on the individual goals expressed by the right, we become mired in the discussion of the institutions of support. Without the focus on supporting those in need expressed by the left, an organized society falls apart into despair, anger, hunger, crime, etc. There is a reason why every society celebrates success and is reminded of the responsibility to help the poor. We need both!
I have been inspired working with individuals struggling to move from homelessness to stability, struggling to find success for themselves and stability for their children. They know how much more difficult that path would be without the support of a caring society — both public and private help. They need the boot, the straps, and the aspiration. They need the left AND the right.
Let me say this again. There is an important role for both the conservative and progressive perspective. They complement each other. They are not in competition.
The great challenge in public policy is to find a balance — that place where success is a regular event and support exists to make it happen. We all know this, but we have a hard time living it. I have seen the desire, and ability, of regular people to understand different perspectives, find value in each other, and seek balance. It is in each of us. We need to find ways to bring it out.
The first step us to understand this reality. The second step is to publicly acknowledge this balance. The third, and most important, step is to understand the need and value the importance of “the other side.” This is not easy in a political system where winner-take-all is the goal.
Different discussion, different outcome
Beginning a disagreement with an understanding that we are all bound by a greater good moves us to a different kind of discussion, and likely a different outcome. It is clear that our leaders are incapable of creating this dynamic. It is up to each of us to build a better model in each of our lives, and we can hope that this will be the catalyst our leaders need.
The full Lincoln quote is as follows:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Real leaders are those who think of the condition of the other side before they take action. They think of others at the time and place when it is most difficult. It is a leadership skill in short supply.
Jim Meffert is committed to empowering all in our community through developing public affairs and public input strategies, along with serving as president of Heartland Democracy, where Empowering U celebrates individual values, values the perspective of others, and gives people the tools to improve their lives and communities.
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