There was a time when the political life of the United States of America featured stirring and memorable language. The ideas in that language inspired people not just for a particular news cycle, but for the lifetime of our republic. Sadly, the era of uplifting and memorable political discourse seems to have passed, at least for the present.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “How Long?” speech in Montgomery, Alabama; March 25, 1965
The lack of moving and unforgettable language has left a void that has made our democracy weaker. We are now subject to barrages of the most banal social media messaging that stands uncontested by words that hold our hearts and democratic values. We need to rise again to the summit of discourse, to find language that displays the panorama of what we stand for and that energizes people not only in our country, but around the world.
The United States was born with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. That document included language that has resonated throughout history:
We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The idea that people have freedom and happiness as birthrights was revolutionary in the 18th century, when divine-right monarchies still held sway almost everywhere. The Declaration of Independence inspired people to risk life and limb for self-determination, and to take on the world's greatest superpower at the time. Those ideals continue to vibrate today.
When the United States was split apart by the Civil War, the greatest test of our history, Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg on the battlefield where only a few months before soldiers had offered their lives for the Union. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address of only 271 words concludes:
…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln's emotional speech stands in bold contrast to the long, shopping-list discourses of today that try to touch on every political issue and appeal to every possible constituent.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches during the civil rights movement also had the ability to motivate people to take action based on the highest ideals. When the marchers who were beaten in Selma, Alabama, finally arrived at the state capitol in Montgomery, Dr. King said in his “Our God Is Marching On” speech:
I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ Somebody's asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?…How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
We need speeches like that again from our progressive leaders, speeches that sanctify our ideals in ways that are unforgettable and make us pull back the tears. Without speeches that can serve as lighthouse beams to guide us, our political discourse gets sucked into the whirlpools of social media.