Lincoln is a thought-provoking movie about the conflict between principle and pragmatism

by Michael Nugent on January 25, 2013

I’ve just watched Spielberg’s Lincoln, which as well as recording the fate of the bill to ban slavery as the civil war wound down, addresses how Lincoln faced unbearable conflicting pressures from both political opponents and supporters, as well as from within his own family.

Because the story itself is familiar, the movie stands or falls on how the characters are portrayed. And Daniel Day Lewis captures perfectly the calm and folksy, yet steely, reassurance conveyed by a leader under increasing ethical, legal, political and emotional pressure.

Principle versus pragmatism

If you are looking for blood and guts action from the same period, you’re probably better off watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Lincoln, by contrast, has about as much action as Redford and Hoffman’s All the President’s Men.

But Lincoln is a powerful and thought-provoking movie that pitches political principle against pragmatism, where good people are forced to advance noble ideals through grubby politics.

Lincoln’s dilemma is multi-faceted. He is trying to push through a constitutional amendment banning slavery. Not all of his Republican Party colleagues support the bill, and he also needs to convert enough Democrats to make the bill law.

He know that he must pass the law before the war ends, because after that the southern pro-slavery states will be back in the political system to oppose it. He also knows that every day the war continues means that more lives are lost on both sides. So how does Lincoln face these conflicting pressures?

The mechanics are like those of the Clinton presidency, when deals to bring people on board for key votes became mini-dramas in themselves, feeding almost incidentally into the big picture of trying to pass major policy initiatives. Of course, the stakes were higher for Lincoln, and the historical impact greater.

The turmoil of Thaddeus Stevens

But this movie is about much more than Lincoln, or the civil war, or slavery, or any of the plot twists on the way to the conclusion. This movie is about how we bring about social change through politics, and the age-old conflict between principle and pragmatism.

I generally lean towards idealism, and I prefer to articulate my political agendas clearly, so for me the most thought-provoking part of the movie was the turmoil faced by Radical Republican abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

Stevens was one of the strongest, clearest voices against slavery in American politics, and his support for full racial equality was used by his opponents to instill fear into Democrats wavering in their support for slavery.

Could Stevens reign in his overt support for racial equality, which he saw as his life’s mission, in order to possibly, and not even necessarily, get a bill passed that went only partially towards what he believed was an ethical imperative?

The Gregory Deal

The political conflict between principle and pragmatism always reminds me of the Gregory Deal in Ireland in the early 1980s.

Independent TD Tony Gregory held the balance of power, and his vote would decide whether the new Prime Minister would be Garret (the good) Fitzgerald of Fine Gael or Charles (the corrupt) Haughey of Fianna Fail.

Both party leaders came to Gregory’s constituency office, where he demanded substantial local investment for his inner city voters.

Fitzgerald arrived with a team of advisors and a bundle of files, and patiently went through each proposal that Gregory made. He explained what he could offer, and what he could not, and the interactive impact of each proposal on other proposals and on the Government’s overall agenda.

Haughey arrived on his own, and simply said: “You know what I want. What do you want?”

Haughey got Gregory’s vote.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John Moriarty January 26, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Michael, the reviews I heard on the airwaves led me to think one would need a detailed interest in US politics, and in that department I think I fail. Nonetheless the idealism/pragmatism tensions you describe are interesting, if insufficient to remain seated and paying!
As regards the good and the corrupt Tony Gregory courtiers, there was nothing inherently indicative of their moral status in their negotiating styles, as I see it.

2 Michael Nugent January 26, 2013 at 10:45 pm

John, I don’t think you need a detailed interest in American politics. It is much more a human interest morality tale.

With regard to Garret and Haughey, I agree that there was nothing inherently indicative of their moral status in their negotiating styles, but there may have been something indicative of their negotiating styles in their moral status! :)

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