Another View -- Charles Lane: Our nation really is as divided as our politics
It was exhilarating - that night in July 2004, when a young Senate candidate from Illinois stood before a national television audience, invoked his improbable Kenyan-Kansan background, and called upon Americans to unite.
"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America," Barack Obama said. "There's the United States of America. . . . We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. . . . We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
Those powerful words, and the powerful hope they expressed, helped propel Obama to the presidency and, ultimately, to his bitter reelection struggle against Mitt Romney. In 2012, though, his language, and that of his Democratic surrogates, was different: "Romnesia," "Romney bet against America" and, in one television ad, "Mitt Romney - he's not one of us."
In 2004, Obama denounced "those who are preparing to divide us - the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of 'anything goes.'" In this campaign, some of those people worked for him.
What went wrong?
It's not, as his worst detractors on the right would have it, that Barack Obama is some kind of unusually sinister politician, who revealed his true nature after taking office. Nor is it sufficient to protest, as Obama's supporters do, that he had to respond in kind when faced with unprecedented GOP demonization. The problem is simpler: Obama's 2004 speech, though undoubtedly sincere, was not true. Americans were deeply divided then, and they are, if anything, more deeply divided now.
Polarization has reached the point where party affiliation predicts a person's beliefs better than race, education, income, religiosity or gender, according to a remarkable study published in June by the Pew Research Center. More ominous, to anyone familiar with the political history of 19th-century America, is that party and ideology overlap heavily with geography.
Divergent social systems, founded in divergent value systems, are taking root in different regions. Are there really no red states and no blue states? Only if you think it's an accident that public-sector unionism is weakest below the Mason-Dixon line, or that almost all of the states that allow same-sex marriage are in the Northeast.
Meanwhile, pundits and politicians spend far more energy on mockery and hatred than on mutual comprehension.
This is why Obama is now the second President in a row to win election as a uniter - and then campaign for reelection by trashing his opponent and herding his party's base to the polls.
If recent history has shown anything, it is that neither party is strong enough to impose its agenda. Nor is there much to be gained from conventional legislative compromise. The country's financial problems are too great for piecemeal solutions, and the parties' differences on how to solve them are too big to split.
Our predicament calls for a different kind of politics - in the tradition of the sectional Great Compromises of pre-Civil War America, including the deals embodied in the Constitution itself.
In those grand bargains, seemingly irreconcilable factions stopped trying to crush each other, at least for a time, and exchanged concessions on principle for the greater good of political stability. It was the domestic equivalent of land for peace. Though they preserved the Union for decades, the compromises were fatally tainted by slavery and thus could not ultimately stave off national breakdown.
Prospects for durable compromise today are accordingly brighter - assuming the winners in Tuesday's elections learn from the past 12 years' worth of partisan uniting and dividing.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post's editorial board.
READER COMMENTS: 10
- Deroy Murdock: The indictment of Rick Perry is bizarre and unfounded - 0
- Another View - Marc Champion: A strong terror policy would cure Obama's golf woes - 0
- Jonah Goldberg: Obama confuses the TV world with the real one - 1
- George Will: In defense of the defenders - 0
- Roger Simon: Is Ferguson the future? - 0
- Charles Krauthammer: Stopping the worst people on earth - 0
- Lynn Preston's NH Legal Perspectives: What prospective real estate purchasers need to know - 0
- Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: 'Mirror' approach reflects important role of humans in dog training - 0
- Thomas Sowell: The media and the mob - 1
READER COMMENTS: 0
- Dan Tuohy's Granite Status: Garcia to air her first TV ad - 0
- Boston Red Sox hammer Jays for seven runs in 11th, win 11-7 - 0
- NH Motor Speedway to again host two Sprint Cup Series weekends in 2015 - 0
- St. Anselm football players practice ini August heat - 0
- White, Glenn lift Fisher Cats over Harrisburg, 6-4 - 0
- KSC field hockey first in coaches poll - 0
- New England Patriots guard Mankins traded to Tampa for TE Wright - 1
- NH Fisher Cat Lee still striving for making it to the major leagues - 0
- Former city restaurateur gets jail sentence for sex assault - 0
Backyard boulder kills Raymond homeowner
Reports: Market Basket doomsday plan would shutter 61 of 71 stores if deal not struck soon
GOP for legal pot? Hemignway's high help
Ohio's Rob Portman: GOP can win back Senate