Lincoln’s Worry about American Democracy

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln, not yet 29 years old, showed his potential for political leadership not by pulling some crass political trick but by speaking with wisdom. To our own great harm, we no longer look for or — apparently — even want our leaders to be wise. The loss to our country is immeasurable.

Lincoln, reflecting on the half-century of the grand American experiment, asked what kinds of forces could threaten the governmental institutions created by the Constitution.

First, he warned about what we might call “street justice,” people taking the law into their own hands regardless of the restrictions of the legal institutions. He used Southern lynchings, among other examples, of the kind of mob justice that threatened the rule of law which is so essential to a democracy.

As I read his words, I kept thinking about what Chris Christie did at the RNC, get the mob to chant “Guilty” and “Lock Her Up” about Hillary Clinton, though in fact our legal institutions have found no guilt in her. The Republicans in Congress spent many millions of tax-payer dollars trying more than eight times to find her guilty of something, anything, in the Benghazi affair. But with the mob mentality being cultivated by the Republicans these days, that meant nothing. They call her guilty no matter what Congress and the FBI say.

And of course there is the constant danger that the various protest movements such as Black Lives Matter may boil over into their own kind of street justice. They want to see videos, knowing full well that a video or even a whole set of videos, can never capture the whole story or be sufficient evidence on their own to convict someone.

Third, Lincoln said America would always be in danger from the natural and inevitable diminished of passion such as that which sparked the American Revolution. If Americans did not develop a deep rationality to replace the passion, there would always be a danger that subversive leaders would arise to rouse the people to a new and ill-guided passion. This is especially likely where the people have come to dislike and disrespect the government, a view Lincoln considered extremely threatening to the American system.

Again, reading these words, I kept hearing the increasingly shrill shouts of the Tea Party and the Far Right who have become so anti-government that they border on being anarchists. Or, more likely, they will inadvertently inspire a mob to go beyond the rhetoric and actually challenge the government with force. In fact, the rural areas of the Northwest have already witnessed small movements in that direction. Remember Cliven Bundy, the rebellious rancher who feels entitled to graze his cattle for free on Federal lands. And remember how Fox News’ Hannity fawned over him?

Lincoln knew that we would always be in danger of some ambitious leader arousing and exploiting the blind passions of a dissatisfied people. I have not the slightest doubt that wise Abe Lincoln would have been horrified by the shameless spectacle in Cleveland last week. And he would be seriously alarmed at the danger to democracy it represented.

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About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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