In The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian Jon Meacham looks at the extreme partisan divisions that currently exist in our country asserting that, while our differences appear to be irreconcilable, we have overcome similar challenges before and can do so again.
Meacham examines bygone eras to reassure Americans that despite all appearances to the contrary, today’s seemingly intractable issues are not unique and that our struggles with extremism, racism, economic hardship, pandemics, and civil unrest have been mirrored throughout our history.
2020 will certainly go down as one of the most contentious years in the life of our fragile democracy. However, parallels can be found in our Civil War and its aftermath, in the Suffrage Movement, the two World Wars, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, Segregation, and the fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice. In all these the fate of America was at stake. “Each of these dramatic hours in our national life has been shaped by the contest to lead the country to look forward rather than back, to assert hope over fear – a struggle that continues even now.”
President Lincoln referred to this struggle as the search for ‘the better angels of our nature.’ “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Writing about the most combative periods in our history while showcasing the examples of previous Presidents, civic leaders, and influential citizens, Meacham gives us the reassurance that “we have come through such darkness before,” and that the country and our democracy can yet prevail if we come together by rebuilding faith in one another and working towards a common good – not a perfect Union, but a “more” perfect Union.
In How Democracies Die authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote “when societies divide into partisan camps with profoundly different worldviews, and when these differences are viewed as existential and irrevocable, political rivalry can devolve into partisan hatred. Parties come to view each other as enemies. Losing ceases to be an accepted part of the political process and instead becomes a catastrophe.” This is the unfortunate reality that we find ourselves in today. Intractability, our unwillingness to even listen to the other side much less reach across party lines to find a compromise or bipartisan solution, is undermining our democratic processes and institutions. Our inability to discern objective fact from fabrication is eroding the very foundation upon which our nation was built, and the demise of this experiment, “government by and for the people,” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is why Jon Meacham’s book The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels is so prescient. It is so easy to be cynical these days, but the author’s message of hope, so beautifully expressed through the prism of history, captures the resilient spirit of America that has resonated through the ages. To fulfill the promise of our Founding Fathers we need only heed the lessons of the past and “summon our own ‘better angels’ to meet the obvious challenges of today.”