Shakespeare and Lincoln Urge Us to Unite Before It’s Too Late

By Robert Cohen, October 2009

William Shakespeare understood human behavior perhaps better than anyone.  I submit that if he were looking at America today, he would not see Republicans and Democrats but Montagues and Capulets.  Through this prism, his Romeo and Juliet foreshadows for us an ominous warning regarding the consequences of our two parties’ bitter enmity.

Romeo and Juliet is the story of two families who have seemingly always been at war with each other.  Their conflict continues unchecked, regardless of the casualties it renders, until eventually it springs forth a tragedy unmatched in sadness: the suicides of two children and the destruction of their shared true love.  Shakespeare’s opening words impress on us the sequence of tragic events:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.


Shakespeare makes clear that what finally ends this “partisan” struggle—he uses this prescient adjective in Act 1 Scene 1—is a tragedy of epic proportions.  He warns that rival families unable to bury a feud may ultimately do so only after it has led to a catastrophe.

Like Shakespeare’s Verona, America today is stricken by a bitter, wearying, and seemingly permanent conflict between our two parties.  Insults and vitriol seem to fly constantly, not only between aisles in the House chamber or pundits on different networks, but as so many of us have experienced, now frequently between ordinary citizens.  We have reached the point where Hitler is routinely invoked to characterize the political opposition.

Indeed, as Shakespeare might predict, the last time Americans truly united was just after a shared tragedy, 9/11/01, shook us out of partisan acrimony.  Yet eight years removed from that horrible day and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, it seems clear that our bond in 2001 was temporary, and that today we are as divided as ever on seemingly every issue.

This is perhaps understandable.  We face incredible challenges, from a weak economy to global climate change to impending nuclear escalation.  Things are more uncertain now than they have been in a very long time.

But division is both counterproductive and unsustainable.  Abraham Lincoln accurately warned us in 1858 that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Despite our shared fate as American citizens, however, neither side today seems particularly interested in heeding his advice.  With each side wrapped tightly in a cocoon of partisan media, we seem locked in a downward spiral of mutual disdain.

So I ask, as an American independent: will we unite now, in the face of our great challenges, or are we doomed to continue quarreling until another tragedy befalls us and jars us back to solemn unity?  

The health care bill offers a fortuitous opportunity to come together.  Every American with political stripes is invested in this debate, perhaps because it is so personal.  However, the degree of bipartisanship in the final bill is ultimately up to one man—President Obama. With sixty votes in the Senate he could permit an entirely Democratic bill to be forced on the country, provoking a predictable backlash from at least the 46% of Americans who did not vote for him.  Or, he could negotiate with his party for a package that earns the approval of the American Center and a large portion of the Right.

He said to the joint session of Congress that “there is agreement in this chamber on about eighty percent of what needs to be done.”  He should insist, in the closed-door meetings that are to come merging the Baucus bill with the more liberal proposals, on a bipartisan consensus on the remaining twenty percent; a bill that passes with eighty or more votes in the Senate might then be a possibility and could be a uniting moment for us.  It would be concrete evidence to all Americans that we are all interested in confronting our challenges together, behind a leader with unity among his priorities.

And we need to be united now.  In the almost five months since President Obama first began his health care push, Iran has bloodily “reelected” a belligerent regime with definite nuclear ambitions, Afghanistan has deteriorated to the point where our nation stands at the precipice of defeat, and unemployment has risen to 9.8%.  

Lincoln told us we will not overcome these challenges divided.  Shakespeare warned us that feuding parties tend to perpetuate their conflict until they endure a historic tragedy, unless they find the wisdom to do otherwise.  What we do with their advice is up to us, and the health care bill presents a rare opportunity to heed them.

Please unite us, Mr. President.