Can Anyone Bring America Together in an Era of Division?

by Stuart Rothenberg December 2, 2008 · 11:05 PM EST

President-elect Barack Obama says he wants to bring America together. While that rallying cry sounds good to many people, it would require a Herculean task that may well be impossible.

We are currently in a media environment dominated by loud, often-nasty ideologues who care more about belittling and demonizing the opposition than promoting ideas and civility.

While some of our politicians and political leaders certainly deserve blame for contributing to the animosity, the problem goes beyond them and to the larger culture.

Just go to the Web or turn on a cable TV news network, and you’ll see and hear the kind of coarse, downright mean characterizations of politicians that have made civility and rationality all but impossible when discussing politics or political issues.

On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow have chosen to be every bit as unfair and misleading as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly at Fox. MSNBC brings on writers from the very-left-of-center Nation magazine, much as Fox brings on the agenda- driven Dick Morris — offering partisan, ideological drivel that masquerades as serious political analysis.

Many of these talk-show hosts have no interest in being even-handed, preferring instead to play to the partisan preferences of their viewers. So they mischaracterize their opponents; ask loaded, self-serving questions intended to damage the opposition; and pass falsehoods and half-truths off as accurate characterizations of their adversaries.

What’s lacking, of course, is any sense of humility. The Olbermanns and O’Reillys of the world hardly ever express any doubts about their own views or display a sense of modesty. They are right and their opponents are wrong. Always.

Unfortunately, these efforts at pandering to true believers have borne fruit. Conservatives now watch Fox, while liberals tune into MSNBC. The public deserves some of the blame, of course, because these networks are only giving people what they want.

CNN, the alternative on the cable side, hasn’t sunk to the depths of the other two cable news networks, but it too has chosen to elevate personality over the news. Indeed, the celebrity aspect of alleged news coverage continues to grow, often adding to political polarization. The media’s post- election obsession with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) is a good example.

Beyond the media’s contribution to divisiveness is the reality that November’s exit poll continues to show deep divisions in the country — divisions that will not be healed easily, no matter the president-elect’s intentions.

The country’s deepest and most-explosive division revolves around culture.

Four in 10 voters attend religious services at least weekly, and they went for John McCain, 55 percent to 43 percent. Almost an equal number of voters, 42 percent, said they attend religious services only occasionally, and they went for Obama, 57 percent to 42 percent. And among those voters who never attend religious services, Obama won by 37 points, 67 percent to 30 percent.

On guns, another longtime indicator of cultural values, divisions remain deep. A substantial 42 percent of Americans own guns, and they voted for McCain, 62 percent to 37 percent. Those voters who don’t own a gun, 58 percent of all respondents in the exit poll, went for Obama by 32 points, 65 percent to 33 percent.

It’s true, of course, that if Americans no longer care about cultural issues, as some suggest, these differences are unimportant. But with gay marriage clearly remaining a major issue on the national radar and with Supreme Court vacancies and appointments nearly certain in the next few years, it’s unlikely that cultural issues will evaporate.

Further, the size of Obama’s victory and the nature of the problems that he will confront don’t suggest the end of division.

Obama’s 53 percent victory was a solid win, far more decisive than the last two presidential elections. But it was hardly a blowout.

His apparent margin of 6.8 points (based on near-final numbers from CNN) was well below the true landslide margins in Richard Nixon’s and Ronald Reagan’s re-elections (23.2 points and 18.2 points, respectively), but it also was below Bill Clinton’s re-election (8.5 points). Maybe more importantly, it was significantly below Reagan’s margin over Jimmy Carter (9.6 points) and slightly below George H.W. Bush’s 7.8-point margin in the 1988 open-seat race.

In other words, America did not “come together” to elect Obama. The country was divided, and while most Americans now hope that he can solve the nation’s problems, the new president’s choices will invariably require him to make trade-offs — trade-offs that are likely to anger some, maybe many, Americans.

While many Americans say they would like the country to come together, what they often really mean is that they would like others to change their views.

Obama has the oratorical skills to capture the public’s attention, and the nation’s pessimism about the future actually gives the president-elect a unique opportunity to rally support.

But unless our new president is smart enough and lucky enough to preside over the transformation of the American economy, and unless he places a higher priority on uniting the country, rather than pursing an ideological agenda, we are likely headed for more nastiness and division sooner or later.