Lincoln Project cofounder Ron Steslow delivers remarks from Abraham Lincoln’s podium at Cooper Union in NYC to mark the 160th anniversary of Lincoln’s pivotal “Right Makes Might” speech.
On February 27, 2020, the founders of The Lincoln Project gathered at the historic Cooper Union to discuss what it means to put #CountryOverParty.
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I am a millennial. It is well-understood that my generation entered adulthood not able to take for granted some things our parents were—economic stability, for example, and job opportunity.
Now, my generation is being forced to learn that democracy cannot be taken for granted either. That the balances and checks built into our system require enactment by public servants, and that such service can be costly.
The price of defending democratic ideals rises steeply when one’s political party persistently sacrifices its moral core in exchange for political advantage.
Ends Justifying Means vs. Lincoln’s “Right Makes Might”
As you may know, around the 1960s, the GOP realized it would be mathematically impossible for a Republican to win a national election again. Soon after came the “Southern Strategy,” which exploited racism in the South in order to convert white Democrats. Later on, the party co-opted the church, created the “moral majority,” and weaponized anti-gay sentiment—leaving a legacy of politically advantageous hate that I experienced personally, growing up gay in a conservative evangelical home, with pastors for parents, and going on to work in Republican politics for 17 years.
As a Republican strategist, I struggled to reconcile my hope for reclaiming the moral integrity of Lincoln’s party with the reality of a perverse yet ever-more-intrenched ideology born of a cynical electoral calculation—an ideology that twisted the teachings of my religious heritage and maligned my identity as a gay man.
So I didn’t suddenly become troubled by the GOP in 2016—but I did begin to despair of change from within. This modern Republican Party whose national influence had been built on exploiting minority groups had become unrecognizable from the one Abraham Lincoln catapulted into victory, from this podium, 160 years ago today, with a speech in which he meticulously laid out not only the wrongness of slavery but the moral imperative of standing against it.
Lincoln: there are moral truths
In his Cooper Union address, Lincoln affirmed that there are moral truths and it is our duty to articulate them and to create a country that reflects them.
Those moral truths certainly include that human lives are sacred, that children deserve protection, that people ought to treat one another with dignity. And there are fundamental, uncontroversial tenets of democracy: that power is not its own justification, that the rule of law must be sacrosanct, that lies corrupt trust.
Allowing Trump and Trumpism to prevail, then and now, amounts to abandoning such a moral foundation. To approving the exchange of what is right for what is expedient. To believing that there are no rules other than the ones you make or break or bend to win. That “winning” is the ultimate virtue. That might equals right.
My generation started life as civics classes were dying, “dilemma ethics” were supplanting instruction in virtue, and moral relativism was blossoming. But this world we’ve inherited is shaking us. We are learning, in an era of “fake news,” the preciousness of truth and the labor involved in gathering it. Witnessing the court of public opinion so easily roused to sanction hatred, we are anxious for sturdier moral ground. And recognizing the threat of foreign interference in our democracy, we long for a leadership that, rather than gladly accept advantage, will rise to her defense.