In his famous 1858 “House Divided” speech about slavery and the fracturing nation, Abraham Lincoln borrowed from a biblical passage found in the Gospel of Matthew: “And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”
On the Fourth of July — the closest thing our polity has to a high holy day — I reflected on those words. And I worried about how Lincoln’s political party is recklessly testing his wisdom.
It is comforting to believe there is still more that unites us as Americans than divides us. I can allow myself to hope that is true. But it is hard even for me, an optimist by nature, to deny that the trend line is heading in the wrong direction, toward sharper division and greater strife.
And it is impossible for me to pretend that this conflict is anything but asymmetrical. The Republican Party is trying to realize a revanchist vision of America in which much of the progress toward a fairer, more equitable society that we’ve seen over the past half-century is rolled back. The Democratic Party is mostly trying — and failing, thanks to a Supreme Court painstakingly packed by the GOP — to hold on to an increasingly diverse nation’s hard-won gains.
The court’s recent rulings on abortion, guns and the environment all come in defiance of public opinion, according to polls. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is fond of citing another Lincoln quote: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”
Therein lies the problem. The court’s decision striking down Roe v. Wade allows state legislatures to enact statutes banning abortion and making the procedure a crime. But just how do those states imagine they are going to enforce those laws?
One of the milestones on the downward spiral toward the Civil War was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that African Americans who managed to flee to free states be returned to bondage. It is shocking, and depressing, that Republicans would even think of raising a similar question today: What about women who reside in a state where abortion is banned and who cross state lines to have their pregnancies safely and legally terminated?
Can they be prohibited from traveling? Prosecuted upon their return? And what about the doctors who perform the abortions? Can a physician in one of Minnesota’s abortion clinics, which expect a rush of out-of-state patients, be arrested upon setting foot across the border in South Dakota, where ambitious GOP Gov. Kristi L. Noem has doubts about an abortion-ban exception even for a 10-year-old victim of rape?
I am not predicting a second Civil War, and I have to believe we’ll find some way forward. But the troubling similarity between now and the 1850s is that oppressive, retrograde policies being enacted in some states have an impact in all states. On a day when we celebrate being one nation, red, white and blue, the divide between red states and blue states looks increasingly like a deep and jagged chasm.
Many conservatives who are antiabortion and pro-gun, I realize, see what the Supreme Court and Republican-run state legislatures are doing as a necessary corrective to the direction the country has been heading. But there is an asymmetry. The history of the United States has been a long, hard struggle to make the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution apply to all of us — Black people, women, the LGBTQ community, Latinos and others who have been marginalized. Freedoms that originally applied only to White men who owned property have been made universal, at least in theory. Laws and rulings that attempt to claw back some of those freedoms are ahistorical attempts to un-ring a still-resounding bell.
Americans who want to live in a nation where women have autonomy over their own bodies, where appalling levels of gun violence are not seen as the price of freedom, where science is valued over superstition and where faith is a matter of personal belief rather than public imposition are no less passionate in our views than those who disagree. And we have numbers and history on our side. A minority that wants to take the nation backward cannot, in the end, prevail. But the coming months and years of struggle over the soul of this nation will be arduous and angst-ridden. One thing Lincoln never said was that the American experiment would be easy.