In a recent radio interview, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger made an interesting point about how polarized our politics have become. I’m paraphrasing here, but Kissinger’s idea is essentially that positive changes in society are achieved only through moments of reconciliation, not conflict. It seems clear he views the partisan environment as a major obstacle to the continued success of America.
So how can we get to a point of reconciliation? And are we so polarized that reconciliation is no longer possible?
Absolutely not — but it does take leadership to pull it off. The Civil War comes to mind. While this brutal, divisive conflict was essential to end slavery, the reconciliation that followed was not inevitable. It took one man who earnestly looked forward to a time when the war would be over, and a nation must heal.
As President Lincoln delivered his second inaugural speech, the bullets were still flying. Yet his words struck a conciliatory tone without conceding the moral high ground on the issue of slavery. If you have a moment, take the time to read this short but remarkable speech — and think about what it must have meant at the time. “With malice toward none, with charity for all”: thus Lincoln turns conflict to reconciliation.
Would that the same tone of reconciliation were present in our current political environment. “Charity for all” is distinctly missing from the rhetoric. It doesn’t matter the issue: In the eyes of partisans, allowing even the possibility of reconciliation is seen as weakness, or a failure of resolve.
We must remember the major issues we face cannot be solved by a mere majority vote. They are so big, so generational in scope, that nothing short of consensus will move us forward. To get that consensus, the tone must change.
This doesn’t mean sacrificing one’s deepest beliefs. Lincoln never did. But to follow partisan advantage to the bitter end with no thought of how to reconcile after the dispute is settled is a fool’s errand. You may win this battle, but at what cost?
As Democrats and Republicans fight over the debt ceiling this summer, let’s hope some of Lincoln’s spirit rubs off on them.
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.”