Last week in Washington, D.C., I stood at the top of the Lincoln Memorial looking across the Mall to the Washington Monument. Behind me in the rotunda, two of Lincoln’s greatest speeches have been carved, in their entirety, into the wall on either side of his statue. Each is short, powerful and poignant: the Gettysburg Address, with its promise “that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” is only 272 words long and took Lincoln two minutes to deliver; the Second Inaugural, delivered 15 months later, is 701 words and lasted for about six minutes. In it, Lincoln asks Americans to hold in their hearts two conflicting emotions: justice for the victims of slavery, even if it means that “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and . . . every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword;” and mercy for the whole nation, urging Americans, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, [to] strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds [and] to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
As I looked east across the reflecting pool and past the World War II Memorial, I noticed for the first time that Washington’s monument completely blocks out the dome of the Capitol behind it. In one sense, it seemed almost fitting that America’s two towering presidents – one the country’s founder, the other the union’s preserver and the nation’s conscience – should overshadow a place that has lately become associated with feckless representatives who seem unable to put the country’s welfare before their own. It’s interesting to note that in his farewell address Washington warned about the danger of “the baneful effects of the spirit of party,” which he called “a frightful despotism.”
This seems a global disease these days, as people, particularly in countries with little tradition of democracy, opt for authoritarian order over democratic disorder. Many argue that such elections, whether in Turkey or Russia, China or Hungary or here, are the result of fraud. Perhaps they are, but a more troubling thought is that they are not – that the excesses of partisanship, the decline of traditional institutions, the growing disparities in wealth, the abdication of the common good by our elected representatives – is fulfilling George Washington’s warning that “the disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”
In the end, democracy is about making choices and about building from the bottom up. “All politics is local,” said former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and while our communities are far from the grandeur of the Washington Mall, they are a good place to start rebuilding the American spirit. A vote is a terrible thing to waste.