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The State of the Union Is Divided—as Usual

There is nothing particularly special about today’s political hostilities.

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.

© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc. 

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  • straffinrun||

    There are 20 trillion reasons why it's a little different this time. The stakes are much higher.

  • Loki||

    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.

    Look in the mirror, fuckface. As for democracy "grinding to halt:" good. I prefer a government that can't get anything done over one that's hell bent on fucking everyone over.

  • Intraveneous Woodchipper||

    Does that make Bernie Sanders the new Henry Wallace? (i.e. the Pro-Communist Vice President who visited a Soviet Union in which millions of people were being starved and worked to death in Gulags) and was like "Nothing to see here! What's wrong with a little socialism in America!"

  • block30||

    Thanks, I learned something. I did a quick internet search, and found his trip you mentioned. A highly sanitized and choreographed trip put on by Soviet officials. Surprise, surprise. And the proggies want MOAR GOVERNMENT!!

  • Scottzilla||

    The irony is his followers will listen to that speech and think, "Yah those stupid redneck republicans need to be more bipartisan!" And they'll think Obama really tried to heal the country but those damn rednecks wouldn't let him because racism.

  • Dr Doom||

    This prick can't understand why he isn't as loved as he was supposed to be. I imagine his whole life he has been treated with kid gloves and given fake false praise to make up for his shortcomings. This guy was abandoned by both parents and dumped on his grandparents. He has little love for them so I imagine they must have found him to be unmanageable even as a small child. His sense of entitlement and his narcissistic arrogant claims of knowing more than his advisors shows how clueless he is to the fact he has promoted far past his ability to even handle.
    His singular inability to see other points of view and his unwillingness to even talk to Republican shows how insulated his upbringing must have been. His Communist Grandparents probably kept him far away from anyone to the Right of Lenin. He has little knowledge of the Real America, and obviously doesn't even consider himself one. Whether he is actually a citizen or not he certainly has little understanding or Love for America. His hatred for Whites is obviously a holdover from his childhood in Indonesia. I imagine being black there must have given him daily reminders of his outsider status, which seems to go with him everywhere now.

  • ||

    What does a community organizer do? Do they build schools, town halls, and hospitals? Or do they go into communities that already exist and stir up grievances, pick scabs and turn neighbor against neighbor? Do they bring people together, or do they inflame passions and cause marches and riots?

    These people are not community organizers, they are dividers. We may have always been divided, but things are worse since that shitheel got into the oval office. Race relations are set back 50 years. The right/left divide is exponentially wider. The only thing Obumbles regrets is not being able to divide us even more.

  • DarrenM||

    I think a "community organizer" used to be called a "rabble-rouser". Kind of like sanitation engineer instead of garbage collector.

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