Would it be possible for an "Abraham Lincoln" caliber of leader to be elected in the current political climate?
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This is a great question for a discussion post, where you will get a variety of responses.
While it is true that we do have a divided political climate in the nation these days, let's not forget that it was much, much worse in 1860 when Lincoln was elected. Before Lincoln could even take office, the country was literally splitting apart as states voted to secede. I don't think we'll be getting to that anytime soon in the modern day.
Lincoln was "elected" with 40% of the vote, as there was a four person race for the President in 1860 among Lincoln, Breckinridge, Douglas, and Bell. Lincoln received more votes than any other candidate, but nowhere close to a majority. So not only was the country divided, but Lincoln was very unpopular in his day. Even after the South left, Lincoln was quite unpopular in the North. He fully expected to lose the 1864 election to George B. McClellan.
It was not until quite some time later, and of course, after Lincoln's assassination, before historians would accord him the mantle of "Greatest American President".
All of this being said, we haven't made the job of President very attractive to prospective Lincolns. The pay stinks (compared to other jobs for that caliber of person), the media circus denies you much of a private life, and the job is so demanding it is sure to age you. There are surely Lincolns out there to lead us who may well not want the job.
First of all, I can't imagine an American politician--local, state or national--who could ever earn a nickname such as "Honest Abe" (or "Honest Newt") today. Contemporary politicians seem to think that subversion, double-crossing and double-talk go hand-in-hand with leadership, and few presidential candidates will ever be able to claim a personal and work ethic as solid as Lincoln's. For me, a political candidate's honesty is the most important aspect of his character--not his experience, wealth, political affiliation, connections, or who his father happened to be (i.e. George Bush and Mitt Romney). Sadly, most politicians care little about this personality trait, routinely lying to their constituents with a smile on their face, and most voters don't seem to consider honesty important, either, perhaps because they've gotten used to being lied to by everyone who seeks their vote. Lincoln rarely if ever compromised this quality of his makeup, and he saw through his primary political goal--to reunite the seceding Southern states back into the Union at any cost--without worrying if it would cost him the Election of 1864. Today, the unquenchable thirst for power dominates virtually every candidate who throws his (or her) hat into the ring, and no one today can really live up to an old fashioned term like "Lincolnesque."
I think that it's really easy to deify people from the past and look down on our own times. We can have no idea what Lincoln would have been like or how he would have comported himself in today's world. We have no idea how we would see him if he were alive today.
A second point: Lincoln did not exactly unite the nation. Many people hated him and he almost lost the 1864 election. He also did some things we would think of as really bad, like suspending the right to habeas corpus. It is just that we see him as a great man because he did, in restrospect, accomplish very important things.
So what if 100 years from now Iraq is a democratic paradise? Will Americans then look back and wish they could have people like George Bush who did what he thought was right even though it was unpopular and perhaps illegal?
There's no way of knowing.
My impression is that Lincoln had a voice that was not necessarily pleasant to hear, although he used it to express himself and his beliefs eloquently. Would a television audience watching a candidate's debate focus more on the message or the immediate impression?
With campaigns and elections having become so heavily dependent upon large infusions of cash, would Lincoln have been able/willing to work with benefactors and political action committees and extremists to build the base of support needed to sustain a run for office? Possibly not - I don't know that he'd be willing to change his stand to accommodate the priorities of interest groups.
Another factor is the changing political and media environment; while in Lincoln's day there was little scope for digging into a person's private life, and people were ready and willing to believe that a candidate was beyond reproach, people today are frothing at the mouth to find some dirty secret of their opposing party. There is nothing we like better than a good scandal, and as we've seen recently, even entirely fabricated rumors can bring people down because we are desperate to believe them.
Therefore, unless a person is (a) genuinely perfect or (b) entirely honest and willing to take responsibility for past mistakes, I don't think a "Lincolnesque" President could really be elected today. (Besides, Lincoln benefits from the twofer: great opinion during his time passed on for generations, and assassinated, which allows him to remain a martyr.)
Elsewhere I've suggested that Lincoln would have a hard time being elected today because of his appearance, his voice, and his habit of not talking in sound bites. Other reasons he might have trouble today would involve the kinds of "negative ads" and "opposition research" that dominate so many modern campaigns. Any possible negative aspect of Lincoln's personality or background -- or anything that could even be construed as negative -- would be widely and strongly publicized. I know that politics could be ugly in the past, but I think they have become even uglier today in certain respects.
I would like to think so. However, the cynical part of me is telling me that this would be impossible. Unfortunately, I don't think that gaining political power is about vision and principles any more. I think it has a lot more to do with how your policies would be perceived by big business and important financial backers. Unfortunately, you have to have donors to win the presidency, and that means that you are not going to find somebody who wants to do what is right for everybody gaining power easily.
The fact that Lincoln, with all his "faults" did get elected suggests that nothing is impossible. Certainly the standard "business as usual" candidates will run and be elected in quiet times, but when there's a true crisis, as there was in the 1860's, the political field gets disturbed and the opportunity for a dark horse appears.
I have to agree that we simply cannot know. What Lincoln did he did in a different world. What he stood for then may not be found to be relevant today (according to the modern voter). While some may like to think that a person such as Lincoln could be elected in a modern election, unless we knew what his platform would be today, it is simply too hard to know.
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