x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bitter rifts long a part of US elections

Polarising and nasty scenes involving supporters of McCain and Obama are 'amateurish' in historical terms, author says.

The crowd applauds Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, at a rally in Henderson, Nevada.
The crowd applauds Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, at a rally in Henderson, Nevada.

WASHINGTON // Outside a McCain-Palin rally in Henderson, Nevada, last week, the divisiveness of presidential politics played out - as it often does - among protesters in a car park. On one side, supporters of Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, accused Republicans of preaching hatred: "Hope not hate," they shouted over and over, before falling into a round of "War breeds hate". A few feet away, and separated by police officers on horseback, supporters of John McCain, the Republican nominee, tried to drown out the Democrats with chants of their own: "Vote McCain, not Hussein," they screamed, referring to Mr Obama's middle name. The shouting match, caught on the video camera of a mobile phone, then broadcast on YouTube last week, involved just a few dozen people in the throes of what some might identify as typical pre-election fervour. But this year the scene also typifies what is happening on a much larger scale in the United States, a country that is sharply divided along partisan lines and being wedged further apart by a bitter election. Some measure of intensity is to be expected, of course. After all, this is a historic election in which US voters will pick their first black president or their first female vice president. The outgoing president, George W Bush, will leave office with record-low approval ratings and polls show that 90 per cent of US residents - a record high - think the country is on the wrong track. A massive financial collapse and two wars have added to the tension. But the flames are also being fanned by politicians of both parties, who have used particularly strong rhetoric and, in some cases, cast their opponents as real enemies, not just as political ones. In North Carolina, for example, Robin Hayes, a Republican congressman in a tight re-election race, recently warmed up the crowd by saying: "Folks there's a real America and liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God." A day before, on a popular cable news show, Michele Bachmann, a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, said she believed Mr Obama harbours "anti-American views". And Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate who has already been criticised for not speaking out against inflammatory remarks made by audience members at her rallies - including "kill him" - referred last week to "pro-America" parts of the country. But such partisanship is not limited to Republicans. John Lewis, a former leader of the civil rights movement and a veteran Democratic congressman from Georgia, accused Republicans of "sowing the seeds of hatred" and invoked a similarity between Mr McCain and George Wallace, the former Alabama governor and segregationist whose speeches were written by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The Republicans are "playing with fire and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all", he wrote in a statement to the media on Oct 15. "George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans." As outrageous as some comments have been, the rhetoric is nothing new to presidential politics. In the 1988 race, for example, George H W Bush portrayed the Democrat, Michael Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts, as unpatriotic and one of his allies even accused Mr Dukakis's wife, Kitty, of burning the flag. Larry Sabato, a national political analyst and author of Divided States of America: The Slash And Burn Politics of the 2004 Presidential Election, said some past campaigns were fiercer than those in this year's race. "We think of politics as nasty and polarised today, but the things said about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson? make today's attacks look amateurish," he said, referring to the second and third US presidents. The campaign of Mr Adams, for example, at one point called Mr Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father". So if the country's founding fathers could get away with language like that, what makes this campaign so bad? Martha Zoller, a conservative radio talk show host in Georgia and author of Indivisible: Uniting Values for a Divided Nation, said new media such as the internet, blogs and cable news have allowed political rhetoric to reach and influence more people than ever. "Today things are moving so much faster. They build on each other and take on a life of their own, making it harder to get back to the correct information," she said, adding she thought Mrs Palin simply misspoke with her "pro-America" comment. Ms Zoller, who calls herself a "right-wing nut", also referred to what she sees as an increased hardening of positions between Republicans and Democrats in recent years. "There is sort of this lack of ability to have a discussion about issues? people no longer agree to disagree," she said. "The attitude, especially on the far right or the far left, is that if you don't agree with me, you are bad." In fact such "extreme partisanship", as some call it, has been fomenting for three decades. In his book The Second Civil War, Ronald Brownstein refers to this process as "the great sorting out", or the movement of political parties towards opposite poles of liberalism and conservatism. The ideological and geographical diversity of both parties - manifested in groups such as conservative Southern Democrats - has disappeared, he argues, leaving behind a starker contrast of "with us or against us" politics. "Now when the parties conflict it is ideological," said Jonathan Rauch, a columnist for National Journal magazine. "There is much less ground for working together." And many analysts say those deep divisions have widened since 2000, when Mr Bush first took office in a climate that was already politically charged because of Bill Clinton's impeachment. At first, Mr Bush, whom the US Supreme Court declared the winner of perhaps the most contentious election in history, pledged to bring unity. But once in office Mr Bush took advantage of a Republican congressional majority and ran an administration some say was the most partisan in modern history, essentially ignoring the 49 per cent of the electorate that voted for his opponent, Al Gore. "He overreached; he went too far right. It gave him a divided country and low popularity," Mr Rauch said. So far Mr Obama and Mr McCain have also pledged, predictably, to unite the country. Mr Obama built his candidacy on a bipartisan philosophy expressed through his well-known refrain that "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America." And in his acceptance speech at this year's Republican national convention, Mr McCain referred to the need to overcome "partisan rancour", saying "much more unites us than divides us". But whoever wins will have to persuade the US people - including those shouting outside the Republican rally in Nevada - to look past much of what has already been said on the campaign trail this season and to step over the battle lines they themselves have helped draw. Some worry that the divide will endure far beyond Nov 4. "This won't be an easy time to be president," said Mr Sabato, who nonetheless added that the next commander in chief will have a unique chance to bring people together. "I'd just caution against thinking of him as a miracle worker riding to the rescue." sstanek@thenational.ae For the latest on the campaign, see www.thenational.ae/uselection