NPR's Steve Inskeep shares lessons from Abraham Lincoln we could use in today's politics
The celebrated NPR host discusses his new book on the 16th president titled "Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America."
How relevant is Abraham Lincoln's political style today? "Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America" explores wisdom the president shared in his lifetime that author Steve Inskeep thinks could help bridge modern political divides. I talked with him about the book that dives into how Lincoln managed conflict with others.
Bill Burton: This book it weaves together 16 stories that illustrate how Lincoln dealt with individuals with whom he had a disagreement, whether a major one or relatively minor. How did he sway people to his side? Or if that wasn't possible, how did he at least find a common ground?
Steve Inskeep: The essence was empathizing with the other person, Bill, just trying very hard to understand the other person and what their interest was, or their self interest was. He tried to meet people where they were. And that sounds pretty simple, but it's actually really hard. And I think it's a skill that a lot of us struggle with now, especially when it comes to political questions.
When the other person is on the other side of the divide from you, how do you even talk to them? How do you respect them? How do you deal with someone who holds these positions we might even think or are immoral? This is something that Lincoln tried to deal with.
And one thing to know about that is that he didn't necessarily change people's minds. If anybody listening is saying, you know, there's no way I'm going to change the mind of my uncle who has a totally different opinion than me. Well, that's okay. Lincoln didn't necessarily change people's minds, they didn't necessarily change his mind. That's not really what the interaction was about.
Lincoln was trying to figure out, can I build a coalition with this person? Can I find some narrow area of agreement where we can work together? And even if I can't do that, because Lincoln was in a very divided time, of course, is there some benefit or advantage for my cause that I can get out of this interaction.
BB: With that in mind, when you think about the political world today, You know, it's it's chaotic. It's there's so much anger, not necessarily really all that different from what Lincoln encountered in his day. Do you think Lincoln could be successful with that approach today?
SI: I think he could be successful. He would have to tweak things, I'm sure. He would not get away with giving three hour speeches as was common in the 1800s. Probably to cut those down a little bit. But he could also do a short speech, the Gettysburg Address is less than 300 words, he could do that.
I think that he would succeed still today, for the reason that he based his approach on human nature, understanding other people, he observed other people all his life.
This is even noted when he was a child, that he would carefully observe the adults who came to his parents log cabin in southern Indiana, where he was spending a lot of his youth, he observed people and thought about them, and thought about how he could appeal to them. And I'm sure that's a skill that he could use today,
BB: The stories in the book, they're excellent examples of how to approach a difficult situation politically. So you're based in DC, have you scattered copies of your book around Congress and the Senate hoping that maybe some people read it? Maybe not do tar and feathering?
SI: Thank you for the suggestion. I appreciate that. I have certainly spread a few copies of this book around. And I do hope that people learn something.
I don't know that I'm so wise, particularly that I have any lessons to teach anybody. But I think Lincoln does. And I think these examples are really useful. And when I have talked to people in Washington and some other parts of the country who have read early copies of this book, I've heard people say, this changes the way that I think about my interactions with people. This changes even my personal life, the way that I'm talking to my friends or my wife. It's really even made me think differently about how to approach people.
Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.