Slimantics: A House Divided redux


Slim Smith



In his acceptance speech for the state of Illinois' Republican nomination for President in 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered his "House Divided" speech. Apart from his Gettysburg Address, it is the most famous speech of America's most poetic president.


At a time when the issue of slavery was approaching critical mass, Lincoln was prescient.


"A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free... I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South."



Now, 162 years later, we find our nation again a House Divided as we enter another presidential election.


As it was in 1858, the stakes are high. This is no trivial difference of opinion. Lives and livelihoods hang in the balance.


The issue today is the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it. By all objective criteria, our response has not been good. The U.S. mortality rate from COVID-19 is fifth highest in the world with more than 178,000 deaths in six months. Cases continue to spike as the summer nears an end. The consensus of most experts in the field is that a vaccine to arrest the virus remains months away. Even then, the logistics of vaccinating 330 million Americans is daunting. It may take months. And, of course, there are likely to be many who will refuse the vaccine at a time where there is popular "anti-vax" sentiment. We know the effectiveness of any vaccine relies heavily on how much of the population submits to vaccination.


Given all that, there can be no realistic expectation that the end of COVID-19 is just around the corner.


Unlike most other countries, our efforts to coalesce around a strategy to mitigate the virus until a solution arrives has become hyper-political. Ours is among the few nations that does not have a national strategy to fight the virus.


By rhetoric and example, Republicans are less likely to accept the consensus of medical experts. Refusing to wear masks, in particular, has become a political statement.


There is a stark contrast between the two presidential candidates. President Trump seems to place far more emphasis on saving the economy. Democratic challenger Joe Biden focuses more on addressing the public health crisis. In both cases, the candidates are reflecting the prevailing view of their bases.


Again, this is generally true. There are Democrats who defy safeguards. There are Republicans who follow the safeguards faithfully.


What has the result been? We are neither fish nor fowl. We aren't saving lives or saving the economy. Along with those 178,000 deaths, the nation's second-quarter GDP saw a 32.9 percent decline, the worst single-quarter fall in the nation's history, more than four times greater than any quarter during the Great Recession.


So here's an interesting exercise.


Go back to the start of this column and apply Lincoln's words to the pandemic rather than slavery.


That's where we are.


President Trump has yet to employ a cohesive, national plan, instead deferring largely to the states to implement and execute policy. It's the modern-day "state's rights" argument that was also prevalent on the question of slavery in Lincoln's time.


That approach has saved neither lives or the economy.


Biden has stated he will implement a national plan. Whether or not Americans will comply is another matter, of course. It stands to reason, though, that a consistent message from our president will have some good effect.


What should be beyond dispute -- based on the state of public health and our economy ­­-- is that continuing the present is not working and cannot work.


A house divided cannot long endure.


It was true in 1858. It is still true today.



Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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