The Reproach of the Binary Swamp

Election season means that zombies resurface. Founding fathers and past luminaries are brought back to life, spoken on behalf of, and turn in their graves, apparently due to the state of our politics. This according to political pundits hoping to score some points for their party from the grave. There are the usual suspects — “What would Jefferson think?” “Washington would be horrified!” “Roosevelt didn’t stomach a gunshot wound for this!” And then, there are the more elusive, holy monument men whose legacies and views are simultaneously appropriated and denounced by Republicans and Democrats alike. No figure more articulates this opportunistic confusion than President Abraham Lincoln. But, it is by deciphering — and embracing — the duplicity of Lincoln that the very key to our politics of crisis shall be resolved. And, to much surrender.

In his latest masterpiece, On Grand Strategy, John Lewis Gaddis inquires what, and especially who, makes grand strategies possible and actually happen. He approaches this question beginning with Isaiah Berlin’s work on Archilochus’s allegory of the hedgehog and the fox. That, a “fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” Gaddis reviews this conjecture using a comparative historical review. He examines King Xerxes, as a hedgehog, and his general, Artabanus, as a fox, and their failed invasion of Greece. He writes compellingly how Xerxes’ fixation about the end-goal of conquering Greece via crossing the Hellespont opposed Artabanus’ thorough considerations about the many challenges of doing so. Gaddis concludes that this failed invasion of Greece laid not merely on Xerxes’ or Artabanus’ and their individual, differed views of reality but — more importantly — their joint failure to integrate both of their approaches for success: That of the fox and hedgehog.

President Abraham Lincoln, Gaddis writes, had the rare quality for a leader of having integrated both of these approaches. Lincoln, in Tony Kushner’s words, understood that a compass will point you to “true north” but provides “no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way.” Lincoln had understood that wheeling-and-dealing the House of Representatives with bribes and lies was necessary for passing the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery and reconstruct a house divided against itself — the moral and legal tipping point to sway a war fueled by an impasse about the future of slavery in America

Needless to say, Lincoln’s world is immeasurably different than ours. Donald Trump’s Republican Party resents the virtue signaling of social equity whilst the Democratic Party, in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidency, finds itself tired of privilege’s influence on social inequity. Consequently, neither a Democrat nor Republican of today can fully embrace Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. But they should surrender to his gestalt — that you can be a fox and hedgehog and, therefore, more.

We find ourselves in a political climate disabled by binaries — to be for or against, with or without, Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive. This, in many ways, is Donald Trump’s strength: the hyper-simplification, crude over-reduction of concepts, events, experiences, and facts demanding of greater time, consideration, and openness. And, that in a popular culture governed by 280 characters, mentions, and instant trends.

This partisan fundamentalism is a universal problem. On the Left, we find those wholly unwilling to accept Nancy Pelosi as Speaker again or Cory Booker as a nominee. In short, we find ourselves in a partisan climate so overwhelmed by the “big picture,” the hedgehog, that we have yet to reconcile the “long game,” the fox. We have become virtually disabled by our increasingly enabled partisanship.

Then, the midterm elections happened. A host of new representatives of varying backgrounds and alignments have been chosen by their people to compose what will be, by any measure, the most diverse House of Representatives in American history (of body and mind). Democrats elected in Republican districts, entrusted to ignore the swamp and get things done. These representatives have been elected to be both the fox and the hedgehog.

On the first Meet the Press following the midterm elections, Chuck Todd asked two incoming representatives, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Lauren Underwood of Illinois, about the significance of their being elected to “purple” districts. Following, he asked whether either would support Nancy Pelosi “under any circumstance” becoming Speaker again, despite deep reservations from their respective constituents. A politically incriminating question, both women rejected the bait, which seems so indicative of today’s partisan fundamentalism. Slotkin and Underwood replied about a higher priority towards an agenda that will deliver results to their constituents. Slotkin said, “I’ve got to do right by my constituents and so we’re going to work together [with whoever is Speaker]. Amazing as it sounds, Americans can disagree and still respect each other and go on and do good work, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

It seems there will be Lincolns in Washington again. The hedgehogs and foxes (and other critters) of the swamp should be weary.

Originally published at www.aarshinkarande.com.

Audience & Narrative Advocate — Writes about tech policy, beliefs, and global affairs. Studied at LSE, Oxford, and UW Bothell. Indian Classical musician.

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