Lincoln, political courage and pragmatism, and the war on drugs

by Rob Tiller

As my Twitter followers (awful expression, sorry) and Facebook friends (also awful) already know, we saw the new movie Lincoln over the holiday, and really liked it. It works like a good old-fashioned Hollywood movie, which is to say it can be enjoyed as pure entertainment, but it does a lot more. It takes on a huge and deeply embarrassing subject, one that we still can barely bring ourselves to acknowledge or discuss a century and half later — American slavery — and contributes meaningfully to the dialog. This is remarkable. Kudos to Steven Spielberg and a great cast (especially Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field) and production team.

The movie reminds us that there are crucial moments when individual courage and moral vision matter. It concerns the last few weeks of the Civil War (1865) when the burning issues of how to stop the carnage and how to stop slavery were both pressing and pulling in opposite directions. About half of the members of Congress thought black people were subhuman and were opposed to recognizing them as in any sense equals. If the war ended, the matter of passing the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery would become less politically pressing, and could conceivably not happen at all. The President was under great political pressure to end the horrific war, but insisting on abolition of slavery looked likely to prolong it. Resolving this dilemma required both courage and political genius.

David Brooks wrote an interesting column on Lincoln noting that the political solution required the President to act in ways that were, well, ethically questionable. That is, he engaged in tactics that could easily be viewed as bribery and other dishonesty. Brooks suggests that this is characteristic of politics — pure moral vision has to be balanced with pragmatic compromise to get anything done. Is some degree of dishonesty inescapable and even necessary for normal, effective politicians? I truly hope not, but it’s an interesting idea. In any case, the movie makes the case that Lincoln’s ethical compromises were justified.

Another theme of Lincoln is that words matter. The abolitionists, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) clearly saw the evil of slavery, and were prone to use language that prevented dialog with those that hated blacks, and also with those that saw slavery as a complex issue. Stevens could verbally disembowel his political opponents, but it just made them more determined to fight abolition. Persuading him to soften the rhetoric was a key part of the strategy for passing the Thirteenth Amendment.

And then there are the iconic words of Lincoln. The movie strains a little to get the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural into the story, but the strain is worth it: these words are among his proudest accomplishments, now with quasi-Consitutional status, and are still inspiring. Listening to them again, I was struck by their chiseled beauty, but also their combination of directness with artful ambiguity. They start with a factual and moral premise that almost all could agree on — many have died, and it cannot be they have died in vain. The concept of equality is discussed, but the in terms that seem classical rather than radical. The idea of full equal rights for slaves is not explicitly mentioned, presumably because it would make political compromise impossible.

Speaking of issues that require some amount of political courage and some amount of pragmatism, here’s one: the war on drugs. There was good news a few weeks back when Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. They expect to regulate and tax it and raise substantial revenue as a result. This seems rational in these tough budgetary times. As I’ve said before, it seems like terrible public policy to put people in prison for smoking marijuana. The drug war costs us more than $76 billion a year, including the costs of police, courts, prison buildings, guards, services, and foregone revenue. At the same time, we create an entire criminal economy that not only corrupts our society but wreaks violence across the globe.

Much of this is to discourage pot smoking. We’ve been trying it for several decades and it hasn’t work! Instead it has destroyed individual lives, families, communities, and governments. No matter how bad an idea you think pot smoking is (and I agree it can be bad for some people), you might still agree that the cost of the drug war is wildly disproportionate to its positive achievements. I”ve thought for a long time that the practical need to address budget woes and the huge economic upside of taxing marijuana might eventually overcome the moralism of those who support the drug war path. The votes in Colorado and Washington suggest on this I might be right.