The noted journalist and historian Carl Bernstein has observed that the 2016 presidential election is “the Gettysburg of the culture war” and he is absolutely right. And with Election Day just a few days away, some historical perspective will be helpful in truly understanding how important November 8, 2016 will be in American history
In July of 1863 the Union army had yet to win a major, much less decisive battle against the armed forces of the Confederate States of America. Led by the flawed but charismatic General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army had actually invaded Pennsylvania with the plan of encircling Washington, DC and forcing President Abraham Lincoln to agree to a negotiated settlement that would recognize the independence of the CSA.
The three day battle was epic in its loss of life, demonstrations of bravery and insane bravado as well as the gut-wrenching shifting of fortunes that ultimately left Lee and his Army a shadow of itself as it limped out of Pennsylvania, never to win another major battle as the CSA simply bled to death, the funeral ceremonies being held in Appomattox in 1865.
But it didn’t have to be that way – with a few twist and turns of fate and luck Lee could have won. And if Lee had won the CSA would almost certainly have become an independent country, immediately recognized by Great Britain which hungered for southern cotton. Racial slavery would have been institutionalized for at least another half century and literal complexion of the North and South would in no way resemble the America we know today.
The Gettysburg analogy is appropriate for the next week’s election because for the past half century there has been a cultural civil war being waged in this country. Issues ranging from racial civil rights to gender equality to the right of women to control their bodies to environmental sanity to marriage equality have resulted in battles that have raged in cities, states and in Washington, D.C.
There might actually be common ground on issues such as taxation policies and the limits of social service support by government. But there are entrenched forces on both sides of basic issues such as racial and gender equality or the right of women to decide how they will live their lives and control their bodies. On these and other issues there really is no middle ground.
And what we now see with not only the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is not only incredible divergence of temperament, qualifications and personalities, but also a yawning gap between the policies of the platforms of the parties that they represent. And while there might be some value in parsing Clinton’s e-mails or coming to grips with Trump’s incredible obscenity, the fact is that the platform of the Republican Party calls for the repeal of Roe v. Wade as well as the mindless denial of climate change.
The fact is that the Republican Party is the home of men and women who have spent a half century of their lives seeking to roll back the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and who literally celebrated when the Supreme Court gutted that historic and foundational pillar of the civil rights movement in the Shelby v. Holder decision of 2013.
And the fact is that a President Hillary Clinton will appoint Supreme Court justices who will defend Roe v. Wade and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a President Donald Trump has promised to do just the opposite.
In 1863 the literal character of the nation was at stake and that battle of Gettysburg, which could have gone either way, determined that the United States of America, flawed and faulty as it has been, had the potential and the possibility of aspiring to and achieving the greatness articulated in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
In 2016, the literal character of the nation is again at stake. A victory by Donald Trump will guarantee the degradation of the rights, hopes and aspirations of millions of Americans in order to keep the promise to the shrinking majority of non-college educated and angry and disaffected white Americans to “Make America Great Again” –an America when blacks and women and gay Americans knew their place in the shadow….an America where the myth of liberty and justice for all satisfied the then white male American majority.
It is not possible to exaggerate the apocalyptic results of a Trump presidency. Hillary Clinton will not be a perfect president, but there has never been a perfect president.
The Gettysburg of the culture wars will be fought on November 8, 2016 – each and every one of us has the power to make a choice.