Of the People, By the People, For the People

Alan Zendell, May 27, 2022,

Abraham Lincoln thus defined democratic government. The concept and the images it evoked were the central ideas of his political philosophy, to which he often returned, most notably in closing his Gettysburg Address: “we here highly resolve that these dead [referring to the carnage of the Civil War] shall not have died in vain…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The address was possibly the most powerful ever given by an American president. Only 278 words long, it asked whether a nation “conceived in Liberty” could endure, which became the mission statement of the fledgling Republican Party. In school, we were taught that the Civil War was fought over the right to own slaves. But slavery was merely a reflection of the battle between states’ rights (federalism) and governance by a central government which began in the 1770s and has reared its ugly head again with the appointment of Trump’s three reactionary Supreme Court Justices.

Brilliant writers like Friedrich Nietzsche and George Orwell have long warned how government leaders and politicians manipulate the meanings of words to subvert the will of the people. That kind of deception, supplemented by outright lies masquerading as facts, has become a serious weapon in the arsenal of today’s Republican Party. Despite the internecine war between the Trumpers and the McConnell wing of the party, make no mistake – when it comes to government by decree versus democracy, the two factions march in lockstep.

Republicans have launched a fight-to-the-death battle to reverse two centuries of court rulings that interpreted the Constitution on the side of uniform federal laws that applied to every state. In addition to reversing decisions they hate, Republicans, wherever they control state legislatures, are attempting to rig future elections to assure that once victorious in the states’ rights battle, they retain power to lock in those victories permanently.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution is one of the central battlefields of the states’ rights war. The amendment itself, a mere two sentences intended to assure that local citizens owned firearms in the event their state government needed to raise a militia, has become the victim of politicians’ wordsmanship. To right-wing extremists, its original intent has been distorted to mean every citizen may own as many firearms of any kind he or she desires, from dueling pistols to military assault weapons whose only purpose is to kill people in larger numbers.

At the forefront of this fight is Texas, led by its governor, Greg Abbott. My go-to historian, Heather Richardson noted in her Letters From an American newsletter this morning that when the bipartisan ban on assault weapons passed in 1994 by the Clinton administration expired in 2004, there were about 400,000 AR-15 style assault weapons in private hands in America. A shocking number in itself, that means there were twice as many privately owned military assault weapons in America in 2004 as there were military personnel in the Ukrainian army at the time Russia invaded. Today, there are fifty times more; twenty million assault weapons are privately owned in the United States.

As Professor Richarson pointed out, the post-Lincoln Republican Party was built in the idealized image of the American cowboy, who was white, (in reality, about a third weren’t,) self-reliant, resourceful, and fearless, living in a lawless frontier. That image is still championed by Texas Governor Abbott, who would have us believe every Texan has a responsibility to own a gun so he can protect his family.

The massacre of schoolchildren and teachers in Uvalde, Texas put the lie to that image. While much of what has been reported is yet to be verified, it seems clear that the local police, including their SWAT team, did little or nothing to stop or minimize the damage wrought by the shooter. A few police entered the school to rescue their own children, but fled when they came under fire by the single shooter. Unarmed parents also entered the school and exited with their kids, shooter or not.

But when a decision to breach the classroom in which the carnage was taking place had to be made, police decided to wait for a U.S. Border Patrol tactical squad to risk taking out the shooter. Where were those gun-toting Texans protecting their children against all threats? In Uvalde, the only effect of Texas laws that allow almost anyone over eighteen to own virtually any firearm(s), was a shooter murdering twenty-one children and teachers, while their armed protectors held back in fear of their own lives. Of course, Governor Abbott today said that gun control laws are not the solution.

Today, more than 80% of Americans want universal background checks on all gun sales, and two-thirds of Americans want the assault weapon ban restored. Yet, Republicans, whether those led by Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell will not even allow the Senate to debate those issues. So much for governing of the people, by the people, for the people.

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