Jon Meacham is one helluva great writer. And we all know that Abraham Lincoln was a very talented man when it came to turning a phrase. But thanks to both of these men the commentary-class in America has fallen in love with the phrase “the better angels of our nature” and the mythology it carries. The falsehood of the phrase is the suggestion that the average man has some higher consciousness within him that will eventually and invariably lead him to embrace peace over conflict, order over chaos, and harmony over discord. That assertion is entirely unsupported when it comes to politics- especially American politics.
Since Meacham is a professional historian he has to know that what has always moved the average man to action is his perception of his own self-interest. And the actions that men take to advance their self interest run the full range on the behavior scale from atrocious to altruistic. Stated plainly, if a man can see himself in someone that is being victimized or marginalized, then he is more likely to find those “better angels” inside himself and become an agent for good. If he doesn’t see himself in the disadvantaged or downtrodden, he likely will not care enough to take any action whatsoever to address the matter at hand. As a rule, there’s got to be something in it for him, or the average man never puts down the remote control and gets off the couch.
The high mindedness of peace, order and harmony tend to peak and plateau when the average man sees that there is something in it for him in advancing those ideals. The exceptional people are those who can help that average man see that those high minded ideals actually do work to his benefit. So the “better angels” are actually mere human beings who can persuade a critical mass of people to take action for the cause of good and persuade an even larger mass of people not to oppose those that act. Isolating the bad actors who are truly committed to nefarious ends is where the “better angels” like Dr. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and John Lewis make their mark. The average man just listens to reason and votes accordingly. There is nothing other-worldly about that.
So those “better angels of our nature” that Lincoln and Meacham believe in are not angels at all. They simply represent a share of the collective awareness that the truly evil forces in this world are insatiable beasts that consume all in their path- so eventually they will consume them too. This dynamic is easiest to see through the lens of racial politics. To wit: when white politicians ignored mob violence against blacks during American Reconstruction that violence eventually started to claim white victims along with the black victims. White politicians in the 2000’s ignored poisoned water supplies in Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey but when the poison water flows in Grand Blank and East Orange watch them take notice and spring to action. White politicians criminalized crack cocaine, locking up users and peddlers alike in for-profit prisons but still never stopped the spread of the scourge. Then opioids found their way into communities they cared about (i.e., white communities) and now the pharmaceutical industry is bracing to pay billions of dollars in settlements, verdicts and government fines.
That is what happens when “better angels” are activated. Soon those “better angels” will awaken and decide that maybe we shouldn’t let oil lobbyists remove the EPA protection of our water supply because that hurts everybody eventually. The same way the “better angels” woke up decades after Reconstruction and decided that maybe it was unwise to remove the Union troops protection that kept the KKK from terrorizing, torturing and murdering people on a nightly basis. Installing permanent military bases in those areas along with FBI field operations certainly helped the “better angels” shine a lot brighter.
I am not railing against hope, change or the quest for higher humanity. I still believe in and invest in those energies. I am simply advocating for pragmatism in our political strategy as we face down the ugliest presidency of my lifetime- and Nixon was president when I was born. So we cannot appeal to the “better angels” in Trump voters or white supremacists. We would have better luck helping O.J. find the real killers. We are far better off assuming they don’t have “better angels.” What the good guys have to do to beat the bad guys in this election is be loud and proud about what we believe, why we believe it, and most important of all what is in it for everybody. Some people don’t want what we are offering so you know what? We won’t waste time trying to pry their MAGA hats from their cold dead hands. Just let them go- but leave a light on for them in case they need to find their own way back.
They will have to walk that path on their own. Let their imaginary “better angels” lead them through the darkness. Although I suspect that any who do come around won’t be led to the right side by heavenly creatures from our imaginations. They will be led by their need to avoid the pain of impending economic doom from nonsensical tax cuts, stupid trade wars and haphazard management from the top. That lacks the poetry of Lincoln but for 2020 it will have to do.