Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, July 13, 2009


Page 7



Political Changes Are Defining This Country




We are ready for the kind of renewal epitomized by the great nation-changing Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

Just to refresh the memory: In 1858, Steven A. Douglas was the Democratic senator from Illinois, the 5-foot, 4-inch tall “little giant,” as people called him.

Trying to replace that little giant as senator was Republican Abraham Lincoln, a railroad lawyer from Springfield. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were a series of debates between Lincoln and Douglas for an Illinois seat in the United States Senate.

At the time, U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures — thus Lincoln and Douglas were campaigning for their respective parties to win control of the Illinois Legislature. The debates previewed the issues Lincoln would face in the 1860 presidential election.

The main issue discussed in all seven debates was slavery. Douglas was a proponent of Popular Sovereignty, which meant he believed that each state should decide for itself if it wanted to support slavery or be free.

Lincoln stated that the U.S. could not survive as half-slave and half-free states. He had laid the groundwork for this position in his famous “House Divided” speech given in Springfield in June of 1858. In that speech, he said that “a house divided upon itself cannot stand.”

Lincoln opposed slavery on moral and political grounds and said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” He pointed out that the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal.”

Douglas and Lincoln had seven debates throughout Illinois. In the election that followed, Lincoln won the popular vote by 4,000 votes; however, the state legislature picked Douglas by a vote of 54 to 46. So Lincoln ended up losing the election.

When Lincoln first entered politics in the 1830s, there was no Republican Party. There was the Democratic Party and the Whig Party. Lincoln was elected to the Illinois Legislature four times as a Whig. But by the 1850s, the Whig Party was growing old, and the slavery issue was so contentious that compromises could not be forged.

Enter the Republicans, composed of mostly anti-slavery people from the Whigs and insignificant splinter groups. At first, the Republican Party struggled to define itself clearly; Lincoln, through his debates, helped to give it focus.

Now this country is entering a similar period. Political parties are redefining themselves. The Democratic Party is becoming much stronger. Gallup has reported that a majority of Americans nationwide said they identified or leaned toward the Democratic Party in 2008. All told, 29 states and the District of Columbia had Democratic Party affiliation advantages of 10 points or greater last year.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, the party of Lincoln, is in a decline. Only five states had solid or leaning-Republican orientations in 2008. The GOP holds a smaller share of non-Southern seats in the House and Senate than at any other point in its history except the apex of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s popularity during the early days of the New Deal.

These intertwined trends — the Republican Party’s growing reliance on the South and the erosion of its strength elsewhere, particularly along the coasts — have prompted some unusually public soul-searching within the GOP about whether the party has grown too defined by the priorities of its most loyal region.

The regional challenges now confronting the GOP resemble those the Democrats faced in the first decades of the 20th century, when Republicans dominated Congress and the White House.

From 1896 until Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932, the Solid South, which still rejected Republicans as the perpetrators of “Northern aggression” in the Civil War, provided the sole regional base for the depleted Democrats. But throughout much of that period, the Democrats’ identification with the South made it harder for them to loosen the Republicans’ commanding grip on the rest of the country.

In those years of Democratic decline, “the South was the majority faction in a minority party,” notes Emory University political scientist Merle Black, co-author of the 2002 book “The Rise of Southern Republicans.”

“And now it looks like the Southerners are becoming close to a majority faction in a minority Republican Party,” he added.

The Gallup report shows that Democratic support at the national level is the highest it has been in more than two decades and growing each of the last five years, and Republican prospects for significant gains in power in the near term do not appear great. But recent data does show that party support can change rather dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

What is likely to encourage that change? Like the period of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, larger issues face our nation. Health care, technological change, changing demographics and changing roles for workers reflect what Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot calls a “significant and new developmental period in our culture.”

This new age offers a wide range of opportunities for people who feel burned out, restless or dissatisfied with their lives. Lawrence-Lightfoot describes in her recent book, “The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50,” a newspaper executive who retires and devotes himself to fiction writing and playing jazz piano; a law firm partner who leaves work behind and develops small urban gardens; in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, an artist who organizes interfaith quilting groups; and a neurobiologist who moves from the laboratory to the public arena to work with HIV/AIDS patients in East Africa.

Will people like these really want to get involved with political parties? More likely they will want to be advocates for a cause or two. Research on advocacy shows that personal sources (friends, family, co-workers) have more than three times the influence as political parties when it comes to triggering support for an issue or cause (60 percent vs. 18 percent, respectively).

This past presidential election was like nothing we’ve ever seen before, a change in the way society uses technology to communicate its concerns and advocate for its causes.

It will be some time before the final analysis of the election is complete, but without a doubt, no candidate in the future can underestimate the power of his or her advocates or the technology to link them together. Successfully tapping into both people and technological power will mean victory or defeat for both Democrats and Republicans in the future.

— Capitol News Service