It wasn’t until I traveled to Florida just as the election campaign was nearing its conclusion that I understood how very deeply our nation is divided. Living, as I do, in Massachusetts — quite decisively a nonbattleground state — I have been aware only at a distance of the frequency and the brutality of the campaign television commercials. In Florida, where the battle was unsurpassed in its ferocity, there was no escaping them.
Historians tell us that the bitterness at play in this campaign was not unprecedented, and they go on to quote from 18th-century election campaigns that are on a par with what many of us have now experienced. But for sure it was unprecedented in my lifetime, in the 14 presidential campaigns I remember quite clearly. Part of it, to be sure, was the sheer volume of advertising, as a race that was “too close to call” dragged on and on, begetting expenditures worthy of Croesus and ultimately sucking the oxygen out of the public square. But much of it was not about volume. Instead it was about voice — shrill, accusatory, vituperative, a campaign of tooth and claw.
One cannot envy the victor. There’s a war, and there’s a deficit, and there are effectively two nations to be governed and somehow to be re-knit into one. Abraham Lincoln had it right, but his words back then seem wholly inadequate now. Speaking of secession, he said in 1861: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” We may nod in assent, but where are those “mystic chords of memory” as we screech at one another, as we wonder how the other side can be so utterly and so passionately wrong?
It is not immediately obvious how to go about activating the better angels of our nature, but I do have one suggestion. It is based on data released by the U.S. Department of Commerce just last week, and analyzed by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The data show that the real income of Americans is today roughly where it was at the beginning of 2001. More interesting is the fact that over that same period, the share of our nation’s gross domestic product that goes to wages and salaries actually has declined — for the first time since the end of World War II — while the share going to corporate profits has risen substantially. In fact, the share of national income consisting of wages and salaries is at the lowest level ever recorded, with data available back to 1929.
Prosperity is likely not an adequate prescription for healing all our nation’s ills, but so determined an absence of growth in personal resources — during an administration notorious for its solicitous attention to corporations and to the already wealthy — surely abets our current distemper.
I am here reminded of the wisdom of Rabbi Mordecai Yitzhak Levi, an 18th-century Hasidic rabbi, commenting on the biblical command that we “blot out the name of Amalek from under the heavens.” That curse — which led the tradition to identify Haman as a descendant of the Amalekite king, which gave the name “Amalek” to all the enemies of the Jews through the centuries — concludes with the words, “Do not forget!”
Levi asks what is it that we are commanded to remember. The reason for the curse, so the passage in Deuteronomy 25:18 tells us, is that when we were in the desert, “weary and faint,” Amalek attacked and slaughtered “all the stragglers” who lagged behind. So, says Levi, we are to learn and remember that if we allow the weak, the infirm and the beaten-down to fall behind the rest of us, Amalek will be able to destroy them. What we are to remember, he teaches, is to bring our brothers and sisters who need special attention into our midst. No one is left outside the tent. No one.
I know, I know: Words, and not nearly as eloquent as Lincoln’s. But these words lead, if we attend them, to policies; and the policies to which they lead, in economic terms and in other terms ,as well, are policies of inclusion, as distinguished from politics of separation. It is not just rising prosperity that is here indicated, although that is no small thing. (Think less of the ability to buy a plasma-screen television, more about the ability to send your children to college; think less of Harvard or Stanford; think of even a local community college.)
The notorious income gap, that gap between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest, the gap that now stands at record level and the tax cut that helped it reach its bloated current state, both reflects and encourages the division in our nation. That division is not “just” between Evangelical Christians and the rest of us. Indeed, pre-election data show that evangelicals did not intend to flock to George W. Bush; they were concerned with jobs, with health care, with all the issues that concern other Americans.
So the notion of healing the rift is not an idle notion. It can be done. And yes, the better angels of our nature can again be evoked; the frightful bitterness can be tempered.
Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).