When Abraham Lincoln took to the podium on March 4, 1861, to deliver his first inaugural address, his country stood on the threshold of war. The divisions that had festered since the founding era now threatened to erupt into open conflict over the issue of slavery.
Yet Lincoln, who was far from neutral on the great question of his time, chose to use this occasion to sound a peaceful note.
“We are not enemies, but friends,” he said. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Several weeks ago, I attended a luncheon where a federal elected official gave the keynote address. The speech began on a promising note: Washington is broken, he said, and needs healing. The solution is not more partisanship, but more consensus.
Yet after that perfunctory acknowledgement, the speech veered into the snarky precincts of partisanship — and for 20 minutes, the audience was treated to an entertaining, if sarcastic, recitation of the ills of the other political party.
How disappointing. Elected officials of both parties now understand that the vast majority of voters are fed up with politics as usual. But even knowing that, they can’t help themselves.
It’s easy to blame this on our political culture, but it’s actually a reflection of our culture as a whole. Whether it’s deficit reduction or Tim Tebow, there’s no such thing as a minor difference of opinion. You’re either all in on one side, or all in on the other.
There are exceptions. Gov. John Hickenlooper has put some real substance behind his promise to be a post-partisan governor. By avoiding extremes in his own rhetoric and appointing Republicans to key posts, he’s proving to be a different kind of leader. You don’t have to agree with his politics to appreciate his openness.
We need more like him. The world doesn’t organize itself around extremes. There are nuances, exceptions, and shades of gray. We face complex and multifaceted problems that cannot be reduced to simple dichotomies.
Lincoln was right: We aren’t enemies. We should stop treating one another that way.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”