Raise your hand if you can define “Whig” — without peeking at Wikipedia or a textbook. (I can’t, either.)
That said, I sat through last Friday’s opening of Lincoln, the latest Old Abe biopic that stars Daniel Day-Lewis, and kept fiddling with the same, unanswered question:
If Lincoln were alive today, what would he be?
Whig is a non-starter, if for no other reason than modern-day American politics is a two-party race. Whiggery died more than a century ago. Today’s others — Libertarians, Greens, etc. — exist for various reasons and have devoted followers. Though there are extremists among them, their causes are logical and legitimate. But who’s the last third-party or independent candidate who truly affected the outcome of a presidential election? Strom Thurmond in 1948? George Wallace in 1968? Perhaps Ross Perot in 1996?
Not a chance.
Well, here’s where it gets tricky, as I tried to tell my 13-year-old son when he asked, somewhat perplexed, about Lincoln being a Republican — the same party, in a mind influenced by the election of 2012, of Mitt Romney, oppressive immigration laws and virtually no support from any voter who isn’t white. Anyone with a passing grade in high-school history or civics knows the labels of America’s political parties have morphed many times over with the passage of time. (Just like Alabama’s state capital used to be in Tuscaloosa and Cahaba, stuff changes.)
Republicans in the time of Lincoln were the party of racial equality, or at least what passed for it in the mid-1800s, protective tariffs, governmental activists and strong industrial business interests.
Democrats in the time of Lincoln were hard to describe: the party of popular sovereignty, of states’ rights, of protection of the South’s peculiar institution.
Factions, left and right, within both parties make it impossible to describe either in simple sentences. The Democrats fractured strongly along North and South divisions during Lincoln’s time in Washington; two Democratic candidates ran against Lincoln in 1864. The Republicans even changed their name on the ’64 presidential ticket (the National Union Party) to make it easier for moderate Democrats to vote for the Republican incumbent.
They did, and Lincoln was re-elected.
The point is that the Republican Party the ex-Whig Lincoln joined is not the Republican Party of Romney — or of Reagan or Ike. Likewise, the Democratic Party that Lincoln so strongly opposed is not the Democratic Party of Obama, Clinton or Roosevelt. Trying to fit Daniel Day-Lewis’ version of Lincoln into the political sphere of today isn’t square-peg-round-hole, but it’s close.
Suffice it to say that Lincoln would espouse some of today’s Democratic policies, particularly those that are inclusionary, not exclusionary. He’d scoff at the imbeciles on the extreme right who foolishly advocate secession for the Romney states from the second term of Obama’s United States. And, given his belief in morality and republicanism, it’s a good bet he’d see travesties such as Alabama’s harsh immigration law as being an unnecessary political boil that needs lancing.
Deep in his heart, Lincoln would fret over today’s America — an America divided over seemingly chasm-sized differences that make the two parties virtually incompatible. That may be one of the most poignant themes in Day-Lewis’ depiction of this uniquely American legend: that it takes great men — men in short supply — to rescue nations from the precipice’s edge.
In that respect, who is America’s next Lincoln? Our divided nation awaits.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.