The dividing line in American politics

Posted: Feb 06, 2004 12:00 AM

All of the Democratic presidential candidates insist as a matter of bedrock faith that George W. Bush is "dividing America" like never before. There's even a new book out by former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg called "The Two Americas," in which, according to his Web site, he argues that "Our nation's political landscape is now divided more deeply and more evenly than perhaps ever before."


OK, well, it is true that George W. Bush divides America. But so did Bill Clinton. Al Gore would have too, if his voters only had understood that pesky butterfly ballot. So will any of the Democrats running, if they manage to win the election.

As my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru recently wrote in the New Republic, presidents have come to be symbols of the culture war. As long as there's a culture war, there will be close to half the people who are opposed to pretty much any president.

Beyond that, I simply don't believe America is more divided than ever. The fact is, division is the rule in American life. Unity is the exception. I think you can make a strong case that America was more divided in the 1780s, 1790s, 1840s, 1850s, 1860s, 1890s, 1920s, 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, and probably the 1980s and 1990s.

It may be true, as Greenberg suggests, that we are now more evenly divided than at any time - possibly including the Civil War period. But so what? Evenly divided people can, and often do, settle their differences with Nerf bats, or over checkers, or even, don't you know, at the ballot box. Deeply divided people, on the other hand, are more likely to use guns, knives and really pointy rocks to settle their differences.

What bothers me is the way Democrats tend to hide behind cliches about "unity," which are really so much nonsense. A few examples:

- Howard Dean's 1960s. On the stump the good doctor - like so many other Democrats - incessantly refers to the '60s as if all Americans joined hands to sing kumbaya. When Dean turned 21 in 1969 it was "a time of great hope," he said. "Medicare had passed. Head Start had passed. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the first African American justice (was appointed to) the United States Supreme Court. We felt like we were all in it together, that we all had responsibility for this country. ... That (strong schools and communities were) everybody's responsibility. That if one person was left behind, then America wasn't as strong or as good as it could be or as it should be. That's the kind of country that I want back."

Well, that country never existed. In 1969, this country was torn apart by race riots, anti-war protests and campus demonstrations. A year earlier, Democrat Lyndon Johnson didn't run for reelection because America was so divided by his presidency. If liberals cared so much about "unity" they would be nostalgic for the 1950s, not the 1960s. But that wasn't a period when liberals felt like they were winning, so it doesn't count.

- John Edwards' "Two Americas." The millionaire trial lawyer turned senator regularly declares how "tired" he is of living in "two Americas," one for the "privileged" and one for "the rest of us." That's nice. I'm tired of living in the America where paper cuts are still possible. But there's more of a chance to banish paper cuts than there is to get rid of "privilege." Even if you improved the standard of living of every "unprivileged" person in America by, say, 500 percent you'd still have some folks - like trial lawyers - doing much better than others.

- John Kerry's "wedge issues." It's really not fair to pin this on Kerry, since every leading Democrat also whines about wedge issues. But Kerry's the frontrunner, and he drones on about wedge issues more than most. Regardless, the only reliable definition of the term I've ever run across goes something like this: "Wedge issues are issues that work poorly for Democratic politicians." "Important issues" are issues that help Democrats.

Look: Americans are divided because they disagree with each other. That is the American constant, and, frankly, I like it that way. Sure, not every disagreement in America is a healthy one. But that's no reason to gloss over real differences with silly cliches.

However, if you think unity is the highest political value, ask yourself this: Would you rather have national agreement on issues you fundamentally oppose or would you rather have divisiveness with a chance for victory another day? If you answered honestly, stop complaining about America being divided.