Bridging the Divide

I have to admit that I flinched a bit when President Obama said this during his State of the Union address:

It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.

It was hard for me to hear this President assume ownership for something that he did not create. That’s why I appreciated the way that Harold Meyerson refuted any claim that Obama is responsible for the political polarization we are now experiencing. Instead, he accurately pointed to the three root causes.

First, well before Obama even ran for the Senate, Republicans had come to question the very legitimacy of Democratic presidents…By the time Obama took office, right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and a large segment of the Republican universe assumed as a matter of course that their mission was to destroy the Democratic president, whoever that turned out to be.

Second, Obama became the nation’s first African American president at the very moment when Americans began to understand that the nation was moving from majority white to majority non-white, and when the white working class was experiencing an unprecedented degree of downward mobility…

Third, by the time Obama became president, the GOP was already well on its way to becoming an increasingly insular, white nationalist, Southern-dominated party.

The question about how to bridge this divide came up at the last Democratic debate on Sunday. As I mentioned yesterday, Bernie Sanders writes it all off to the influence of money in politics. The responses from Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley were more of the “usual” we hear from politicians about their history of reaching across the isle to work with Republicans.

That all assumes that we can deal with polarization in this country via politicians. My view is that politics is a power game. And there will always be unscrupulous politicians who exploit our divisions to win that game. A better place to look would be to focus on the American people.

Over the weekend I saw something on Facebook that in some ways was one of those corny platitudes that are so popular there. But this one actually got me thinking.

One of the things Obama has tried to do over and over again is to remind us as Americans about our aspirational values. Think about what he said at the 2004 Democratic Convention about how there is not a red American and a blue America, but a United States of America. His speech on race during the 2008 primary was all about how to create “a more perfect union.” His second inaugural address was dedicated to this theme. I could go on and on with examples. But perhaps the most powerful was his speech at the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. Here’s just a taste of that one:

…what could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people — unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They’re a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.

For years now, President Obama has been doing what he can to bridge the divide by singing the aspirational heart song of America that too many have forgotten…sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. Ultimately, it is up to us to decide whether or not to hear it.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .