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Opinion

November 22, 2012

Watson: Lincoln and the elixir of politics

If we’ve all been a little beat up by the recent election campaign season, and possibly even wondering about the integrity, dignity and worthiness of this business we call “politics,” then the current movie “Lincoln” is just the elixir we need.

For the movie in no uncertain terms is a paean to politics — to the work and deals and compromises and practitioners of the profession. Politics is often referred to as “the art of the possible,” and “Lincoln” reminds us that politics is a craft — difficult, exasperating, powerful, indispensable and often noble.

Over the course of history, empires and governments and ideologies have come and gone; churches and dogmas have waxed and waned; inventions and technologies and markets have played their roles; wars and disasters and injustices have occurred; and, through it all, it has been politics — the interplay and organization of people, institutions, societies, ideas and action — that has endured and offered ways for men to plot paths through the present and future.

The very practice of politics, then, especially in a democracy, is an act of realism that implies a belief that society’s problems can be addressed effectively and best with reason, discourse, negotiation, the participation of citizens or their representatives, and, finally, action.

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, serving from 1861 until his assassination in 1865, had a profound grasp of the value of and need for politics. Taking office at a time when the nation was severely divided over the issue of slavery, and when civil war appeared a real possibility, he understood that no unilateral federal action nor any simple coercion was going to resolve the country’s divisions.

The irony — to a believer in politics, like Lincoln — was that he had just been elected by a nation that had signaled with its vote its strong opposition to slavery. Lincoln had run as the Republican Party nominee and had defeated two Democrats sharing the ballot. The Democrats had split over slavery — and so had run a pro-slavery candidate, John Breckinridge, and an anti-slavery candidate, Stephen Douglas. Together, Lincoln and Douglas received almost four times the number of votes as Breckinridge.

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