The Divided State of the Union

Steve Chapman
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Posted: Jan 17, 2016 12:01 AM
The Divided State of the Union
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama lamented the deep divisions of our time and expressed regret that he hasn't done more to overcome them. His words had a nostalgic air, cloaked in memories of times when Americans were more united and less angry.

"Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens," he said. "It doesn't work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn't work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise or when even basic facts are contested or when we listen only to those who agree with us."

If that were true, American democracy would have expired a long time ago. Accusing your political opponents of being malicious and unpatriotic is as American as the Super Bowl.

Obama suggests that fierce hostilities are a new and ominous development. In fact, as Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley assured me, "American politics has been a mud-fest since the get-go."

He's not exaggerating. In the 1800 presidential election, a Federalist newspaper warned that under Thomas Jefferson, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced."

When was this innocent age that we trusted and listened to each other with respect? Not the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was impeached, Hillary Clinton detected a "vast right-wing conspiracy" and Newt Gingrich urged GOP candidates to label their opponents with such terms as "corrupt," "sick" and "traitors."

Not the 1980s, when Democrats reviled Ronald Reagan as a racist who hated the poor. Republicans charged that Democrats "always blame America first," and Pat Buchanan pronounced AIDS to be nature's revenge on gay men.

Not the 1970s, which brought fierce battles over Vietnam, Watergate, Black Power and the Equal Rights Amendment. Not the 1960s, when assassinations, riots and bombings became a scary part of the political landscape. Not the 1950s, when President Harry Truman tried to seize steel mills, Joe McCarthy accused his opponents of being communists and President Dwight Eisenhower had to send troops to integrate a Little Rock high school.

Not the 1940s, when our politics were so fractured that in the 1948 presidential election, the leftist Progressive Party and the white supremacist States' Rights Democratic Party each got more than 2 percent of the popular vote. Not the 1930s, when the Great Depression raised the specter that communism or fascism would take hold in America.

There have been times when political passions cooled and parties cooperated toward broad goals, such as winning World War II and landing on the moon. Ideological fissures were less visible back when the two major parties had considerable overlap. Brinkley noted that in the 1960s, liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans joined in passing civil rights legislation.

But the underlying conflicts were there, and they often boiled over. When segregationist George Wallace mounted a third-party presidential campaign in 1968, he got 13 percent of the vote and carried five states. After National Guard troops killed four students at an anti-war protest at Kent State University in 1970, a Gallup Poll found that most people blamed the students.

Americans have always been more pluribus than unum, separated by region, income, race, ethnicity and religion. That's why the nation nearly collapsed under the Articles of Confederation -- and actually split apart during the Civil War.

The centrifugal forces have persisted through centuries. A 2014 Reuters poll found that 23.9 percent of Americans would like to see their state secede from the union.

The past seven years have been polarized, but not appreciably more than the preceding ones. In December 2008, 62 percent of Republicans approved of George W. Bush's performance -- while 88 percent of Democrats did not. The two parties not only have different viewpoints but inhabit different realities.

But the gulfs separating different groups have existed since the beginning. Henry David Thoreau wrote, "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

Our intractable divisions should not be grounds for despair. History indicates that we can overcome the hostility, distrust and inflexibility that pervade our political environment.

Obama would like Americans to behave as though we are members of the same family. In fact, we do -- like Cain and Abel.