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Lincoln at 200: still a light for democracy's moral purpose

Critics saw in America a 'pigpen of freedom.' He saw a cause worth dying for.

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Can democracy be ugly?

What preoccupied the mind of Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address was precisely his fear that it could. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people might be all well and good in theory, but it can only be as good as the people themselves, and it was the judgment of most of the world in Lincoln's day that the vast majority of the people were very likely to make democracy into a repulsive-looking mash.

Sometimes, this judgment was made by the powerful, by "a king" (as Lincoln said in 1858) "who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor." Sometimes, it came from the self-interested, "from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race."

In our day, we are most likely to hear it from the cynics who argue that democracy only seems to produce the unrooted, unencumbered self, interested only in instant gratification and rampant consumerism. Democracy grants us freedom, rumbles the cynic; but to do what? Can you pursue a vision of the good in a democracy, when all around you, people believe that the only purpose of democracy is to prevent others from imposing any particular vision of the good on them?

This is why democracy's enemies – from Karl Marx to Osama bin Laden – have so much contempt for it. The only freedom democracy appears to guarantee is the freedom to live in the suburbs, read the paper, and have a nice day. This is also why so many of our wisest heads have seemed, and still seem, perversely fascinated with communism, fascism, and other forms of totalitarianism. Why not, when democracy is not only so ugly, but so boring?

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