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Divided America

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2007 was a year with many negative news stories. The war in Iraq dragged on, as did the less-publicized war in Afghanistan. The US economy began a decline precipitated by a crisis in the housing market. And, there was increasingly bad news about the environment, the rapidity of the changes wrought by global warming. Nonetheless, the most disturbing news was barely mentioned by the media: the polarization of America.

Living in Berkeley it's difficult to comprehend this problem, as we're surrounded by lefties who share our attitudes on most issues. Nonetheless, the national polls provide abundant evidence of the deep divide in American public opinion. Iraq? Republicans feel we're doing fine, suspect that a biased liberal media underreports good news, and argue we should continue the occupation until we "win." On the other hand, Democrats view Iraq as a disaster, believe we're policing a civil war, and feel we should leave as soon as possible. The economy? Red voters think it's fundamentally okay, say irresponsible individuals caused problems, and predict the market will make the necessary corrections. In contrast, Blue voters see the economy as a looming disaster fueled by greedy conservative economic interests, want to protect unwary consumers, and believe the only remedy is massive government involvement.

This is not to say that one side is right and the other wrong, but rather to point out it's increasingly the case that liberals and conservatives see America's problems in fundamentally different ways. It's possible to march through a list of these problems -- health care, energy costs, reproductive rights, immigration, and so forth -- and be confident that red and blue voters have radically different opinions about each issue.

In another era this factionalism might not be important. Unfortunately we are living in a historical period where the United States is faced with daunting problems, where citizens will be asked to change their lifestyles because of global climate change and the scarcity of fossil fuel. These are challenges that require Americans to work together for the common good, rather than be restricted by the confines of narrow political interest.

It's difficult to date the moment when this factionalism first became a major national problem, when the extreme competitiveness between Democrats and Republicans began to breed cynicism and hostility. Certainly some of this rancor is due to the Administration of George W. Bush, who ran for President as "a uniter not a divider... It's been my record. It's what I've done as governor. I know how to unite people." As was true with the majority of Bush's campaign personas compassionate conservative, believer in small government, and advocate of fiscal responsibility time proved this to be a lie.

In both 2002 and 2004, Bush led Republican campaigns that ruthlessly portrayed Democrats as weak on terrorism. In 2002, the GOP ran a TV ad linking then Senator Max Cleland a decorated war veteran and triple amputee with Osama bin Laden. At the 2004 Republican convention, delegates mocked Senator John Kerry's Purple Heart. These attacks bred antagonism between the two Parties, and helped produce a situation where Congressional Republicans and Democrats did not cooperate. Recently, Democratic Congressman Mike Thompson observed, "[Congress] is the only business in the world where your colleagues wake up in the morning and try to figure out how to screw over their colleagues." Republican Senator Olympia Snowe agreed, "Unfortunately, there are not enough people building bridges. There are too many people destroying them."

Despite the serious nature of the factionalism dividing America, most of the 2008 Presidential candidates aren't talking about their ability to unite Americans. None of the major Republican candidates Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, Romney and Thompson has mentioned reconciliation as either a goal or as a something they have experience in. And it hasn't been a prominent topic for Democratic candidates either, except for Barrack Obama.

Several political commentators including David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan have followed Obama's campaign and observed that he is a potentially a "transformational" candidate who has the ability to unite Americans. Writing in the latest Atlantic Monthly Sullivan said, "Unlike any of the other candidates, [Obama] could take America-finally-past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us."

Sullivan argued the bitter divide in American politics stems from the sixties: "between those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn't, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but never dissented at all." The writer dissected these difficulties and concluded: "If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today's actual problems, Obama may be your man."

Whether the junior Senator from Illinois is or is not "the man" is not the point of my column. Rather that he is addressing the deep division in American politics and aims to do something about it. This should serve as an example for all the Presidential candidates. We need to end the bitter partisanship dividing America.

 

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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