Lincoln’s Cognitive Dissonance
Several people have mentioned experienced a cognitive dissonance from watching Spielberg’s recent movie, Lincoln. They find it odd, particularly after the recent presidential election circus, that the Republicans of the 1860’s are the party of progressive politics and emancipation and the Democrats are the reactionary obstructionists. How did this come to change so completely over the last 150 years?
Doug Muder at the Weekly Sift, in his article “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System,” presents an outline of the change in voting patterns and some of the political issues that influenced them. This is probably what most people are wanting to know when they ask the question, but I think there are also other ways of approaching and answering the question.
The way we think about these events has changed a great deal over the last century and a half. You get much less cognitive dissonance from reading the diaries and newspapers of the time and perhaps even find some familiar stories.
Today we look back and think in terms of the dichotomy slavery/no slavery and assign the “no slavery” position to Lincoln and the Republicans and the “slavery” position to everyone else. In the diaries and newspapers of the time the issue was rather “how do we deal with extremely difficult and divisive issues in a democracy (in this case, slavery)?” While slavery was the cause of the problem, the problem was non-authoritarian conflict resolution, particularly, is succession a violation of, or a perfectly legal and legitimate option in a democracy?
Viewed in this way the Republicans are the party of extremists, religious fanatics, and political opportunists while the Democrats are the party of rational debate, consensus and compromise. Early in the war, the Democrats dominated the military. The policy was one of slow, gentle pressure with low casualties and respect for civilian property. Later, as Republicans replaced the moderate Democrats in the military, we see examples of their extremism: increasingly high casualty rates, massive and intentional destruction of civilian property and emancipation. There are even signs of this in the Spielberg movie where the Democrats are looking for a negotiated settlement while the Republicans have suspended habeas corpus and enforced Emancipation by executive proclamation without regard for legislative procedure.
With Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the war, public sentiment changes dramatically. He is no longer a political opportunist and divisive extremist but he becomes the martyr for freedom and democracy that we know today.
- Revisiting emancipation: Lincoln’s proclamation was about property, military strategy (thegrio.com)
- Forever Free (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)