'A house divided against itself cannot stand'

Nicolas Shump
Special to Gannett Kansas

A few short years before he ascended to the presidency, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech in 1858 where he uttered the phrase, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

His presidential term of 1861-1865 put this argument to the test as the United States found itself embroiled in a civil war from which it still has not fully healed more than 150 years later.

While we are not at war, I do believe the United States finds itself further polarized than at any point in recent memory. I had the privilege of listening to the late Sen. George McGovern speak to a class of students during his visit to the Dole Institute of Politics in 2004.

Someone asked Sen. McGovern how a liberal Democrat could work with a more conservative Republican like Sen. Dole. McGovern explained how they shared much in common, including being veterans and serving states with significant agricultural production. He spoke, too, about the need for bipartisanship.

When I think of Congress today, bipartisanship is not a word that comes to mind. According to UCLA’s Voteview Project, the current 116th Congress is more polarized than any other Congress during impeachment proceedings.

With President Andrew Johnson the ideological divide was 0.68. During the Clinton impeachment, it was 0.74. Presently, the ideological gap is at 0.86.

These numbers confirm what I find as I observe Congress. There are few if any points on which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can agree as the acrimonious negotiations regarding the specifics of the impeachment proceedings illustrated.

While there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that requires members of Congress to be in ideological harmony, with such sharp divisions, I worry that Congress will find the courage to minimize ideology and focus on fulfilling its obligation to govern and to serve as an essential check and balance on the presidency and executive branch.

As President Trump’s defense team makes its case against the charges of impeachment, the partisan divide has once again come to the fore. Regardless of whether you believe President Trump has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the senators who are serving as jurors in this matter should do their best to embrace their role and consider the arguments being made on both sides.

In an ideal world, such impartiality would reign supreme. However, I think the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives know there is little to any chance that the Republican-controlled Senate will vote to remove President Donald Trump from office. Some commentators theorize the impeachment proceedings will serve to galvanize Republican support for President Trump as the Republican Party closes rank in preparation for the 2020 election.

As I think of the wisdom, courage and mercy of Abraham Lincoln, who chose to unite a nation devastated by war instead of seeking retribution against the Confederacy, I hope that members of Congress would heed his actions as well as his words.

In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln shared his vision for the restoration of the nation. “With malice towards none; with charity for all ... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Nicolas Shump is a longtime educator and writer in northeast Kansas. He can be reached at