The Nation Today: Divided We Stand?

In today's world, almost every political issue seems to polarize Americans. What happened to the middle ground? Why can't we all just get along?

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
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To quote President George W. Bush, “You are either with us or with the terrorists.”

But that’s not the only schism in our society today.

You are either for Bush or you are against him. Same holds true for the war in Iraq, presidential candidate John Kerry, guns, abortion, and gay marriage.

With choices like this, it’s no wonder the middle ground has faded into oblivion.

Why can’t we all just get along?

In the 2000 presidential election, the winner in Florida was decided by a handful of votes no matter how you tally them. Democratic nominee Al Gore only won New Mexico by 366 votes. And things haven’t changed all that much in the past four years. At no time, perhaps, in our history has the country been so divided over politics.

People either love Bush or hate him. And the same (to a degree) for Kerry. Polls consistently split down the middle, and people react to political issues not with vigorous debate but with anger and venom. Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing film Fahrenheit 911 spawns Swift Boat Veterans eager to cast doubt on John Kerry’s Vietnam valor.

Why are we so partisan all of a sudden? Is it a reaction to the isolationism brought on by terrorism, or is there something more basic (or more complicated) at work here?

“The intensely partisan, angry feelings on both sides are a displacement of fear and helplessness of the current situation in the world,” opines Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, a New York-based psychoanalyst.

“Things are as bad as they have been in the last 20 years, and a lot has to do with 9/11 and global threats of terrorism,” says Sulkowicz, also chairman of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s committee on public information.

When people are angry and scared, Sulkowicz says, they tend to become more polarized and take hard, angry positions in one camp or another.

“Both sides become increasingly unable to understand the other side,” he says. “As a society, we are much more involved in fighting our internal enemies as opposed to looking outward to what the real threats are.” But “in some ways it’s much easier to fight with Kerry than bin Laden.”

There may be more at work than fears of terrorism, says presidential historian Tim Blessing, PhD, chairman of the history department at Alvernia College in Reading, Pa.

Geography Is a Factor

“It would be strange if this [type of polarization] wasn’t occurring,” says Blessing, director of Penn State’s Presidential Performance Study.

Each year, Blessing travels across the country through rural, suburban, and urban areas.

“We really have splintered into three societies – rural, urban, suburban,” he says. These societies tend to differ on guns, abortion, foreign policy, religion, and families.

“They even disagree in terms of how people should look,” he says, “In Noth Dakota, I only saw one person with body piercings and tattoos, but at Alvernia College, a Catholic Institution, hundreds of students have body piercings and tattoos.”

Will We Ever Be Friends Again?

A lot of these differences are not amenable to compromise, he says. “If you think that the U.S. is an imperialist power, you will oppose the war in Iraq, [but] if you feel the U.S. is attempting to bring democracy and law to a lawless section of the world, you will probably back the war,” Blessing says.

In other words, there is no middle ground.

“One group says abortion is murder the other says a woman has right to choose,” he says.

These are not minor issues, he says. “These are major issues that go to the very basis of what it means to be an American or human.”

Blame It on the Media

“This differs from the past due largely to modern communication and modern transportation methods,” Blessing surmises.

“We are nose-to-nose all the time,” he says. For example, you can turn on Crossfire, a CNN talk show in which liberal pundits verbally battle their more conservative counterparts, or a whole host of other news shows fueled by often cantankerous debates.

“Every day, you can watch these guys yell at each other, and that really means that these differences are front and center all the time,” he says.

When asked if the differences are sharper now, than say, the Civil war, Blessing says that “I can make a real argument that we were not as divided then as we are now.”

He backs this up by pointing out that the Confederate constitution (which Blessing recently reviewed) was similar to the U.S. Constitution. “But,” he says, “just imagine what would happen if the people who are pro-gun, anti-abortion, pro-strong foreign policy wrote their own Constitution?”

It would look very different then if their more liberal counterparts took pen to paper.

“We could not agree on a Constitution these days,” he says.

That says a lot.

Written by Denise Mann