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A house divided against itself

Illustration By Matt Collins
Illustration By Matt Collins

The country is polarized. Every issue is a wedge issue. There’s lots of talk of finding consensus and common ground, but that’s all it is—talk.

Name a headline and it’s easy to see the divisions. We gather into camps armed with rhetorical firepower. Talk radio and cable news celebrities fan the flames—we tune in to our favorites, get stirred up, and bob our heads in agreement.

Our inclination to be tribal knows no boundaries. The polls routinely reflect the divide is almost 50-50—there’s always three to five percent in the middle that shifts back and forth.

Whether it’s the Hate Obama or Hate Bush crowd, the storyline of the 21st century seldom varies much. The top stories that generate advertising dollars are perpetually those topics that excite dissension and trouble.

The pot stays in the near-continual boil mode as each political party seeks to use the highly-charged turmoil to divide and conquer. Politicians have always used the basest instincts of human nature to get elected and stay in office.

Of course, every candidate claims noble and altruistic motives—their positions are what’s desirable for the country, and they’re habitual good-deed doers who know what’s best.

It’s always been and always will be about power and control—we all want it for our tribe. Does that sound cynical? Maybe it is, but what is just as readily possible, is that it’s clear-eyed realism.

Consider the facts: Barack Obama was presented as a transcendent figure that’d pull us all together—there were no Red or Blue States, only the United States of America. He was a centrist with the charisma and inspirational skills to unite.

We were even sold the idea that under his leadership we’d reside in the promised land of a post-racial America. Martin Luther King’s dream of individuals being judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin was being realized.

Ah-huh. Did you catch Dr. Laura Schlessinger attempting to illustrate the degrading use of a racial epithet by members of said community on HBO? The flare-up resulted in all the usual and customary rants, hand wringing, and victimization politics. None other than Al Sharpton weighed in with the full facade of his moral authority.

A glance backwards with eyes that wish to see reveals much: George W. Bush campaigned as a “uniter, not a divider”. Is there any evidence that the country came together under his administration? Perhaps for a short stretch of time immediately following 9/11, but it was brief, tentative, and largely superficial.

Take a little longer look at history. Every administration in the baby-boom era has had to govern in the chaos of radically contrary viewpoints. Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson—even during Camelot, John Kennedy presided over a nation with gaping fissures.

During all these years, the bumper-stickers, commercials, and party spin doctors all proclaimed their tribal message with a vigor and enthusiasm that was attacking and contentious. Golden Rule civility was seldom if ever put into action.

Dig deeper—read the contemporaneous accounts of the 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The pamphleteers used the same techniques, slogans, branding, and harsh language as modern day marketers and shapers of public forums.

The divisiveness on display nowadays is not something new. It’s merely exasperated and exaggerated by the 24/7 news cycle that feeds the blogosphere.

The American house has always been divided against itself. The difference now is that everyone has a voice and platform from which to express rumors, half-truths, and opinions.

We are tribal by nature—the only question is whether or not tribes can set aside or temper differing passions to co-exist in one house.


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