“In 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. The subject was citizenship and the preservation of America’s political institutions. The backdrop was the threat posed to those institutions by the evil of slavery. Lincoln warned that the greatest danger to the nation came from within. All the armies of the world could not crush us, he maintained, but we could still ‘die by suicide.’
“And now, today, we look around. Our politics are paralyzing the country. We practice suspicion or contempt where trust is needed, imposing a sentence of anger and loneliness on others and ourselves. We scorch our opponents with language that precludes compromise. We brush aside the possibility that a person with whom we disagree might be right. We talk about what divides us and seldom acknowledge what unites us. Meanwhile, the docket of urgent national issues continues to grow—unaddressed and, under present circumstances, impossible to address.
“Contending viewpoints and vocal dissent are inevitable, and not the issue. More than a year ago I stepped down from the best job in the world, secretary of defense, over a matter of principle because of grave policy differences with the administration—stating my reasons in a letter that left no room for doubt. What is dangerous is not that people have serious differences. It is the tone—the snarl, the scorn, the lacerating despair.
“Are we unaware of the consequences of national fracturing and disunity? Do we want to bequeath such a country to our children? Have we taught them the principles that citizens of this democracy must live by? Do we even remember those principles ourselves?”
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