As we edge ever closer to that perilous “fiscal cliff,” with Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of intransigence, some observers have pointed to a way out of our national dilemma: Just take a page from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.’’
The film tells the story of how the president managed to steer the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery through a House of Representatives that was not particularly hospitable to it. On the one side were Democrats who opposed outlawing slavery on the grounds that this would confer an equality that blacks did not and should not have. On the other side were conservative Republicans who felt that its passage would outrage the Confederacy and prompt it to prolong the war, with continued death and destruction. Neither side was inclined to compromise. So what was Lincoln to do?
Many people have viewed “Lincoln” as a modern political parable about gridlock, saying the film provides a clear prescription for our own political stalemates: Rather than making the perfect the enemy of the good, you have to compromise. Lincoln, they say, didn’t dig in his heels. Instead, he found a way to lure recalcitrant Republicans and even a few lame-duck Democrats to his side. “Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, invoking the word that nearly every reviewer of the film invoked: compromise. In short, if only President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner would just calm down and meet each other halfway . . .
But this, I think, is a serious misreading of the film, one that encourages a political attitude toward the “cliff” that the movie doesn’t sustain. Lincoln never compromises his political principles in the film. He doesn’t change a word of the 13th Amendment. He doesn’t postpone the vote. He doesn’t even invite his opponents to have a dialogue with him to resolve their differences. He knows that he is right and his opponents are wrong when it comes to human rights.
Instead of compromising his political principles, Lincoln compromises his personal principles. He finagles, wheedles, pressures, bribes, even lies to make sure that he achieves his end — the underhanded in service of the exalted. As parable, this suggests that Obama ought to hold out for his own deficit-reduction plan while working to coax some Republicans aboard. That coaxing should come not by finding areas of agreement, but by finding things that individual Republicans might want: federal largesse for their districts, jobs in the government, even a promise to let them run unopposed.
And here is where the parable fails. “Lincoln” is a film about the human dimension in politics — indeed, the human dimension that makes politics possible. It is Lincoln’s understanding of and appreciation for the human, both for the lesser and better angels of our natures, that enables him to pick up votes — promising money or jobs to the greedy, sympathy to the aggrieved, reassurance to the nervous. If “Lincoln” says anything, it is that ideals are sacrosanct but human beings are malleable, and, in an odd way, Lincoln’s greatness resides in both his own humanness and in the humanness of his opponents.
These are the politics that so many have justly praised. But the problem with “Lincoln” as parable is that these are not the politics we have today. The sad truth is that that kind of humanness is in short supply in our political culture. We live in an ideological age — an age in which most politicians have subordinated their own needs and desires to a sense of ideological purity that not even Abraham Lincoln could have dented. Lincoln’s opponents may have been zealots, but they had a human core. Our own conservative zealots, having mistaken ideology for idealism, are more devoted to conservatism than they are to the public good. There is nothing you can give them but their own ideological way. How else can one explain how adamantly they cling to their big issue: no higher taxes for rich people? In effect, they have taken the politics out of Congress.
So “Lincoln” winds up less a timely parable than a tragic anachronism about a time when there really was such a thing as human wiggle room. It is not a film about trimming one’s sails for the greater good. Rather, it is a film about how the greater good is often the product of our individual frailties, which is precisely why we are likely to remain at a stalemate and why Lincoln was able to overcome his. It is not perfection that is the enemy of the good. It is unrelenting self-righteousness.