We live in a time of chaos and uncertainty. Both on the left and right, Americans fear threats to the democratic order and an untimely conclusion of the American experiment. Not all of these fears are unfounded. As restrictive voting laws and districts are drafted throughout the country, rising stars in national politics resort to militant language in dispute of election results. So too do we continue to reel from an assault by armed radicals on our nation’s Capitol. It’s clear America is in a bad way.
But you’ve heard all that before. You’ve probably also heard calls to heed the facts, trust the science, and have faith in the power of truth to prevail. In 2017, four years after billionaire Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post, the newspaper’s slogan was changed to “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The belief among many moderates or left-of-center liberals—the general audience of publications like The Post—is that the particular ailment of Trumpism and radicalism is the proliferation of lies and deception in our politics. A common belief is that the cure to this is to bring democracy into the all-penetrating light of the truth. If only people could see the facts about the pandemic, about vaccination, about Donald Trump, about anything, the ship of American democracy could be righted. If truth could regain a position of high regard in politics, we could end this chaos. But politics has never been so simple as a matter of truth, and truth has never been so simple as a matter of facts.
Rather, we have rarely navigated our way out of the most chaotic periods in our history with truth and facts. We have escaped turmoil through romance. By romance I do not mean the kind you might find in Love Actually but in the speeches of Roosevelt, Lincoln, and Churchill: romance and romantic longing for virtuous and heroic, not truthful and bureaucratic, politics. We live in a time which scorns more than ever appeals to figures like these, but the truth is that such scorn exposes just how vulnerable we have made ourselves without the guidance of their words and approaches to chaotic times. Our scorn is rooted in our learned distaste for sentimentality and our instruction toward a belief that only truth and facts can save us.
At the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address, on March 4, 1933. Among the first words out of his mouth after taking the oath of office were, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” While Roosevelt continued in his speech to lay out what one may think of as “the facts”—his plan to restore American employment and financial stability—it is more than significant that he set the stage for his speech with the imagery of courage and war. His appeal to the millions of Americans listening was like that of a commander rallying his troops not to lose heart in the face of an intimidating foe.
In the depths of a very real war not much later, Winston Churchill’s words for the British people and Parliament were not so different. As London suffered its worst period of bombing from the Nazis, Churchill addressed the nation, saying, “[Hitler] has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe, and until the old world and the new can join hands to rebuild the temples of man’s freedom and man’s honor upon foundations which will not soon or easily be overthrown.” Here, his words embody perhaps the very most important character of great democratic leadership. Churchill does not urge the people to trust in him or in their government but to trust in themselves. That fire which will restore their freedom is a fire within each of them. It is not a call to heroism but a reminder of what heroism resides in the hearts of every citizen. Democracy, Churchill rightly understood, is an idea which is only so strong as the will of its believers—in another sense, only so strong as its believers believe in themselves.
But some time before both the Great Depression or World War II, America was plunged into a crisis far deeper and far more gruesome than either of these. Under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, the United States witnessed the rebellion of 11 of its 33 states and vanquished this treason with more American lives than had been or would be lost in any other war in our history. The story of this crisis and Lincoln’s leadership, it is sad to say, yields perhaps the closest lessons for our own time.
Not only was Lincoln a speaker of capacity perhaps unmatched in the history of American political leadership, but he had an unwavering will to raise and restore the ideals of America as he saw them. He closed his second inaugural address, in the midst of this terrible though righteous war, saying,`1
“Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’ With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Beyond his elevating inaugural words, which imbued his cause and the cause of the American people with a sense of righteousness and divine blessing, Lincoln also extended the reach of his political action beyond the institutions of American democracy and the Constitution. During the war, Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus, as military officials arrested senators and banned the dissemination of publications critical of Lincoln or the war. According to Lincoln, such measures were necessary to suppress rebellions against the government. In other words, to protect the essence of the Constitution, Lincoln recognized a need to abridge the document’s explicit provisions.
Lincoln’s example of political and rhetorical leadership offers us the most useful lessons of any of these figures, because Lincoln led America through the culmination of a crisis not unlike our own. Roosevelt or Churchill’s crises were constituted by material deprivation, terror, uncertainty, and fears of failure and loss of freedom. Lincoln’s crisis was one of identity, of who we are, and it was a contest of Americans against Americans, though the rebels wished to shed that common bond.
We are, today, in the depth of a crisis of who we are, what America is, and what democracy looks like. We suffer from an erosion of confidence in our democratic system and its ability to serve and protect all Americans, as well as an erosion of confidence in the legitimacy of our founding principles.Subscribe to Spectacles
Roosevelt and Churchill both made their appeals to the people in defense of those dearly held myths that laid out what their countries were and stood for. Lincoln did this too, but he could only carry half the country with him, so to speak. America is divided, as I am hardly the first person to observe. In Lincoln’s time, and well before it, America was divided too. The rhetoric which unifies and inflames a romantic desire to defend and protect the principles of American government could not in Lincoln’s time, nor can it today, unify the American people, because we cannot agree on what exactly it is we have a romantic longing or desire for.
As Lincoln’s example shows with such clarity, in such times, rhetoric is not enough. There is no beautiful speech which can “bind up the nation’s wounds.” But romance is not only to be found in speeches but in the motivation and justification for political action and leadership. Lincoln may have abridged the Constitution. Perhaps he did not need to. Perhaps the war could have been won without it. But the important fact is that Lincoln’s violations of the Constitution were motivated and justified by a romantic longing for the restoration and elevation of the Constitution and our founding principles.
Today, the ailment of our democracy is not a proliferation of lies. Politicians have always told those. The solution is not truth, because we cannot agree on what we want or what is good. Truth is useful insofar as it may point us toward what we want. An accurate compass is of little use without a good map, a destination, and a knowledge of where we are already.
We suffer from a lack of not just romance but romantic political leadership. We suffer, principally, from stagnation, inaction, and cowardice. What we need is bravery and a love, an adoration for liberal democracy and the ideals—not merely the words—of the Constitution.
Such inaction and cowardice is without a doubt in some ways the product of our own Constitution and our democracy. Provisions like the filibuster have come to generate an upper house of our legislature which achieves nothing. The only things it possesses the will-power to do are those things which all can agree on which all can agree on only because they do nothing. Our democracy today has delegated the most crucial questions of who we are to a Court with geriatric members serving life-terms without any political accountability to the very people who may well have a very clear and different answer.
Our Constitution with its checks and balances—in Lincoln’s case the rights of habeas corpus or free speech—was formulated with great intention and considerable foresight and intelligence to constrain ambition and channel it to the productive service of the country. Such foresight, however, was of course imperfect. The eruption of the Civil War and the un-Constitutional behavior which the preservation of the Union necessitated are one example of a failure of this foresight. Today, other failures of foresight are becoming more visible, and unless we behave accordingly in some defiance of it, we may well lose the Constitution altogether.
I do not mean to suggest that we lack in America today, and what would solve our problems, is a sufficient disregard for the Constitution. I mean to suggest only that our political leadership lacks spirited commitment to its ideals and instead possesses only the flimsiest and most cowardly attachment to its provisions and regulations. Instead of championing the tenets and institutions of our democracy, leaders have exploited them to duck the responsibility of stewardship.
Our legislators have allowed its provisions—intended to constrain wicked ambitions from introducing tyranny—to indulge their base ambitions simply to hold office and feel important. The Constitution meant to cultivate ambition but channel it to the vigorous working order of good governance. Today, subservience to its language has cultivated a lack of the kind of ambition needed to give our country the sort of vigorous leadership to navigate through the difficult waters we find ourselves in today. It is, in a way, a drab obsession with facts and bipartisanship which has stifled the kind of proper ambition necessary to good governance.Subscribe to Spectacles
What I mean to say is that sometimes in our history, we have needed leadership which is romantically and thoroughly committed to this nation’s and our Constitution’s ideals.In some of these cases, the exact letter of the law has been abridged to preserve its spirit. At times, romantic rhetoric and sound policy has been able to restore us when we have been knocked down. But when we are wrestling in the mud against each other, it is not romantic rhetoric but romantic leadership which is our only saving grace. It goes almost without saying that if the Constitution were to be abridged by the kinds of people we now entrust with leadership and office, it would not be borne of a high-minded commitment to democracy but a low self-service.
It may be a question worth asking whether a leader the spiritual and political caliber of Lincoln may be found today. Some believe not. Some believe our politics and our culture have become so profoundly shallow that the kind of intellect and philosophical seriousness which Lincoln possessed may not be replicated today.
However, I do believe our history yields an encouraging proof of the American potential. Today, we have been plagued with the leadership of Donald Trump, a man who, so committed to the idolization of himself, could not be further from committed to the ideals of this nation. Joe Biden has been the answer, and it is hard not to conclude that we will have to do better. He is old. He has spent most of his life amongst that senatorial class which tends to so thoroughly annihilate romantic ambition and commitment to the nation’s ideals.
Yet prior to Lincoln who was our President but James Buchanan, perhaps one of the most feckless and cowardly leaders in a time of crisis we have ever seen. Before Roosevelt we had Herbert Hoover, a man so obviously unequipped, intellectually or spiritually, for the task of overcoming the Great Depression. Besides America, before Churchill Britain had Chamberlain, maybe even the most cowardly and least suited for the times of all these men. This crisis in which we now find ourselves has been growing and developing to its present scale for perhaps a generation.
The question of slavery and the meaning of the Constitution which embroiled the nation in Civil War had been a point of tension for all of Lincoln’s life, and it is that setting in which he developed which allowed him to be so rightly equipped to tackle the crisis it led to. Perhaps among us today there is some young future Lincoln, and the leadership which could possibly see us through this crisis cannot possibly emanate from the aged stock of our present government.
The path out of our current chaos and crisis is not a recitation of “truth” or awareness of “facts” but romantic leadership in search of greener pastures. What’s more, our desire to rely on fact has likely blinded us to the complexities of social organization which it papers over and allowed this division we now see to germinate. This romantic leadership requires a grounding in a knowledge of the reality of a crisis, but it demands that this knowledge be utilized competently to empower rather than enfeeble the forward march. It may well be that policy is not enough in America today but that the forward march toward the realization of the American dream will lead us irreconcilably against each other as it has before and, as the only solid truth of history dictates, will sometime again sooner or later.
It may well be that we sit on the precipice of a crisis which cannot be managed with mere knowledge, that once again we will contest those existential questions over truths which have sadly never been self-evident enough. Without a touch of romance, or perhaps even more than that, we cannot expect a just resolution.Subscribe to Spectacles