"When news of the surrender first reached our lines our men commenced firing a salute of a hundred guns in honor of the victory. I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped. The Confederates were now our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall."
By now, most of you probably recognize this quote as the famous passage from Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs in which he discussed Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House. Its relevance today should be just as obvious for those of us who care about the integrity and character of our political process...
Now that liberals have won, we need to make sure that we show some class.
In part this is because our opposition has, for the last four years, been so distinctly lacking in that quality. Few political movements have shown the level of vitriol toward a single president as that displayed by the Tea Party against President Barack Obama since early 2009. What's worse, the various groups who support liberalism have been victimized by attacks unprecedented in their viciousness — women for demanding the right to control their own bodies (see Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, the contraception controversy), racial minorities for insisting they are just as American as whites (see the bitter race-centric conspiracy theories against Obama, the galvanizing of anti-Hispanic sentiment vis-a-vis the immigration issue), the poor for being victimized by the inherent inequities of post-Reagan capitalism (see Romney's "47%" comments, the Ayn Randesque rhetoric used by Tea Party protesters). In light of this context, it is very understandable why so many on the left want to gloat.
We need to curb that impulse. In the end, no matter how much we may believe in the correctness of our own cause, it is important to remember that the millions of Americans who supported Mitt Romney were just as sincerely passionate about their own convictions. The agonizing disappointment that we would have felt had Obama lost is precisely what they're feeling right now. Just as they have a responsibility to avoid behaving like sore losers, so too must we behave like gracious winners.
If we fail to pass this basic test of civility, we will show that we learned nothing from the ugliness of the right-wing's anti-Obama behavior. Our job must be to observe their example and then demonstrate our superiority to it, not conclude that the vindication of Obama's reelection justifies diminishing ourselves by emulating it. I am reminded of the concession speech delivered by my personal political hero, Adlai Stevenson, after losing to Dwight Eisenhower 60 years ago. He compared how he felt to the reaction of Abraham Lincoln back when he lost an important election:
"He said he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh."
There, but for the grace of God, goes us. That is why — even as we revel in our happiness for the historic victory achieved for America last night — we need to avoid being cruel toward the people who genuinely believe this great country lost.