-In a recent New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman, echoing Abraham Lincoln, remarked that the case for universal health care was “an appeal to our better angels, urging politicians to do what is right, even if it hurts their careers.” His politics and bias, whether you agree with them or not, are immaterial here. More important is to understand his use of a phrase now firmly ensconced in the American rhetorical canon, one which may help us to see how the passing of a landmark piece of legislation on Sunday fits into the larger picture of American social policy.
Better angels. It’s a Lincoln original, a curious turn of phrase he used, against the advice of his Cabinet and colleagues, to describe an aspect of America’s internal conscience. It implies the smallest lozenge of good residing within everyone, heavenly, metaphysical, one we strain to hear over the din of heated argument and impassioned emotion. Our ongoing struggle with this innate empathy also calls to mind a stark truth: that American crusades for civil and social justice, the ones we now deem unshakable and sacrosanct, were never popular with contemporaries.
At the turn of the 19th century, those who had fought so hard to guarantee free speech in the Constitution faced its erosion by sedition laws. In Lincoln’s own time, emancipation was reviled by the South and thought imprudent and reactionary in the North. A century later, a handful of legislators, state politicians, and citizens showed they would go to any length to curb the presidency’s quest for civil rights chartered by law. To question the spirit of these movements today, now removed from any political or prejudicial skew, would be to question what is now snugly assimilated into the country’s heritage.
Do we possess the prescience to feel certain the cause for health care will be remembered similarly? No, but we have a feeling it will be. Of the three fundamental rights Thomas Jefferson ascribed to humanity, life and liberty are the most easily stripped by the vindictive, heartless, cutthroat side of mankind. We must never allow that side to take ground. We must recognize for ourselves and for each other that the cause for life, like the cause for liberty, will be threatened constantly by the shallow, inhuman interests that lurk on the fringes of a harsh world. We must pledge to never lie beholden to these. We must pledge to take the steps necessary to ensure that our citizens, one and all, have the resources they need to preserve their own life and the lives of loved ones.
This may require us to quiet ourselves for a moment and listen within to that which binds us together as Americans, and as human beings. The better angels of our nature.