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Bind Up the Nation’s Wounds

By John P. Caves III

Many difficult and uncertain things need to go right for our nation to heal and recover its full vigor. They will take long, patient, arduous work. But they can still be done. Only malice or despair can render them impossible.

This piece was first published on

As was said by Abraham Lincoln one hundred and fifty-five years ago, so still it must be said: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…”

Our nation is wounded again. In 1865, there were more than 500,000 dead from civil war. In 2020, there are more than 200,000 dead from disease, plus a small but growing body count from street violence sparked by police shootings. At perhaps no point in between have political passions been so vindictive.

Right now, one big political fight—the presidential election—is nearing its climax. Another, over the Supreme Court, has suddenly resurfaced with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Each has only two possible outcomes: either the Republican or Democratic candidate will be elected President, and the next Justice will be installed by either the incumbent President or the next one. The daggers are drawn, and both duels will soon be settled. That much is unavoidable.

Whether or not the partisan bloodletting is followed by healing depends on the conduct of the winning side in the presidential contest.

Either the victor will indulge malice and vindictiveness, and so ensure that our Republic continues to bleed until it lies dead on the ground; or else, by following Mr. Lincoln’s example, the winner will nurse the Union back into health and stand it once more on its feet.

We cannot expect the latter from the incumbent President. Donald Trump—may he soon recover from his brush with Covid-19—exudes malice. He has shown us as much for four years, and he will not change.

Joe Biden perhaps has the character and temperament to heal the nation. Yet his election, if he is elected, will not in itself be enough to do so. It is not sufficient merely to have a “Good Emperor.” To maintain a republic, there must be no emperors, and thus the fear and contempt that lead people to seek one must be stemmed.

Mr. Biden can do this, or at least begin it. There are four bandages he could apply to staunch the bleeding, none of which are inherently partisan.

He must first set aside those in his party whose “attachment to their country itself, is only so far as it agrees with some of their fleeting projects”—as Edmund Burke derided the radicals of the French Revolution—and instead cultivate thoughtful pride, to replace hollow flag-waving, in the one thing that all Americans have in common: our country. To his credit, he has already begun to do so.

As polarization will not fade overnight, the next act of triage is to make politics less winner-take-all by decentralizing decision-making, when constitutional and practical, to state and local governments. Mr. Biden can begin by simply not wielding federal funds as a weapon for bending cities and states to his will.

Decentralization might be a difficult sell to today’s Democratic Party, given the long history of excuse-making for slavery and segregation with hollow “states’ rights” arguments. Yet federalism, done right, stands on enlightened political ideas. It accommodates regional and cultural differences in a large republic by diffusing power and providing more opportunities for different interests to win a share of it. When all issues hinge on the Presidency and the Supreme Court, the struggles to gain them are harsh and embittered. The more that state and local governments can meaningfully determine policy, in contrast, the more partisans can healthfully expend their energies in another election rather than battle each other in the courts or on the streets.

Indeed, it could help to give each state’s residents space to sort out their disagreements among themselves. A Wisconsin Republican may be more willing to trust a Wisconsin Democrat if he or she doesn’t fear that a Manhattan Democrat is pulling the strings. In local governments, where one party often dominates, greater responsibility for governing may force different wings of a party to pit their ideas against each other, helping to restore intellectual diversity and rebuild the “big-tent parties” whose loss we sorely feel today. There is potential here: when there has been constructive policy innovation in the past decade, it has often been in towns and cities.

Third, the Presidency itself needs to be curtailed. We have seen it unrestrained by any respect for tradition—and it is a fearsome spectacle. Many of the powers a President wields today are not inherent to the executive branch under Article 2 of the Constitution, but have been delegated to it over decades by Congress. Congress should take some of them back.

We have gone so far down that road, though, that to limit the power of the Presidency will require the acquiescence, if not the active support, of the President. Mr. Biden may be reluctant to give it; few people who ascend to high office want to constrain themselves. But Gerald Ford turned away from the imperial presidency to heal the country once, and Joe Biden can do it today.

Fourth, the aspects of our elections that feed extremism—namely primaries and gerrymandering—need to be reformed. Mr. Biden cannot do this himself, but he can encourage it. State governments have it largely within their power to act.

Once our wounds have been bound and, under those bandages, are beginning to heal, then we as a nation can productively debate and act on divisive national issues such as entitlements, inequality, immigration, and representation for Washington, D.C., and the territories—to name but a few. Then, for the love of God, our Republic, the Earth, and posterity, let’s take on the century-shaping issues which we have neglected for far too long: the challenge from China, the national debt, global warming, and the regulation of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.

Many difficult and uncertain things need to go right for our nation to heal and recover its full vigor. They will take long, patient, arduous work. But they can still be done. Only malice or despair can render them impossible.

Let us not give into that temptation. Let us not, on our watch, accept our Republic degenerating into a dictatorship; let us not, in the world, accept freedom taking second place to despotism; let us not, through inaction, accept the map of the United States being redrawn by rising sea levels; and let us not resign our grandchildren to automated social control and winters without snow.

Let us, through forgiveness, hard work, and dignity, “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”


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