Eric Foner on Presidential Powers
Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, is the author of numerous works on American history, including Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Tom Paine and Revolutionary America; and The Story of American Freedom, and Our Lincoln. He has served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, and has been named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.
Question: Was Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus an abuse of executive power?
Foner: Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus a number of times during the Civil War. And at first in 1861, he suspended it first along the railroad line between New York, Philadelphia and Washington because there were riots going on in Maryland, people trying to block troops coming down to protect Washington. So, in a sense, at first, it was in a military district and, you know, it was part of a war, you know. Later, the writ of habeas corpus is suspended for the whole country, and, certainly, there were abuses of civil liberties under Lincoln. No questions about it. People arrested who just for giving speeches criticizing the war. There were newspapers temporarily suspended. Now, we should not think that Lincoln was a dictator, a tyrant. There was great criticism all through the war of him and the elections went on. Nobody said let’s suspend the election because, you know, the war is on. But, certainly, I think Lincoln established a dangerous precedent that the Constitution doesn’t really apply in war time. And now, unlike our recent president, Lincoln directly addressed this question. He went to Congress. He said, “I may have stepped over the line here. Here is my problem. Here is my situation. I was faced with this thing. Do I abide by the law and let the whole country fall apart or do I violate this one law and therefore save the whole country?” Well, that’s a difficult question to answer, you know, and there was no simple answer, but at least Lincoln put it on the agenda. He said, “This is a serious problem.” President Bush has never even admitted there’s any kind of problem. He just [blithely] goes his own way acting as if there is no Constitution. Now, the other thing is in the Civil War, the United States face the greatest crisis in its history and the greatest threat to its existence as a nation. The attack of 9/11 was a tragic thing but it didn’t threaten the existence of the United States and there was no thought that Al Qaeda today is actually going to overthrow the government of the United States. They can commit, you know, heinous acts but they are not going to take over the government. I don’t think Osama Bin Laden will be president anytime soon. So, we don’t face the kind of threat to our national existence that Lincoln faced. On the other hand, history shows that almost any government conducting a war will find the Constitution an inconvenience and will try to get around it, and this has happened during World War I with the suppression of freedom of speech. It happened in World War II with the internment of Japanese-Americans. So, you know, what is the lesson? It simply that we have to be very vigilant about our liberties and that, you know, to realize you can conduct a war and still respect civil liberties.
Question: Would Lincoln endorse Bush’s use of his executive mandate?
Foner: Lincoln is saying and this is a Democratic view, if people think I have abused my power or I have not conducted the war properly or intelligently, they’ll vote me out of power. That’s what democracy is. It gives you a chance to [boot] the guys out. And Lincoln ran for president, reelection in 1864, and even though he won a very large majority, we should not forget that in August, not long before the election, Lincoln and most politicians thought he was going to lose, that the war was at a stalemate. There was a great deal of discontent. Lincoln and the Republican Party thought he was going to lose. In fact, there were people who came to him and said, “You’ve got to rescind the Emancipation Proclamation.” People think that it is prolonging the war. That if you tell the South come back and you can keep slavery, they’ll come back now. But if you say come back and you’ve got to get rid of slavery, that is just making them fight longer. So, rescind the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln said, “I cannot do that, I would be damned in time and eternity,” or something like that. In other words, you know, he wasn’t willing to do “anything that might be done to get reelected.” The problem with Lincoln’s quote though is that in the midst of a war, it often is quite popular to trample on civil liberties. You know, many of the things that President Bush has done that have popular support rounding up people with Muslim names, [chucking] them into jail with no charge, throwing away the key, holding people at Guantanamo. You know, when people are frightened, they are willing to support serious infringements on other people’s civil liberties. Civil liberties are not supposed to be subject to popular vote. They are in the Constitution. They are the protection of minorities. The person who holds popular views, his freedom of speech is never in question. It’s the person who is the [center] who has unpopular views. So, you don’t put that up to unpopular vote to say, well, should this guy be able to give a speech criticizing the war. A lot of people will say no, you shouldn’t. So, you know, Lincoln’s view of democracy in a certain sense is right, but on the other hand, it doesn’t really reflect the fact that civil liberties are the protection of minorities against majorities, and, therefore, they can’t be just subjected to majority vote.
The author characterizes Lincoln as a president who was unafraid to
suspend some basic rights for the betterment of the union
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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