Nov 6th 2012

We Are a Nation in Crisis

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

I wanted John Kerry to win in 2004, but I also remember hoping, at one point, that whatever the outcome, the election would be a decisive. After the "hanging chads" debacle of 2000 and the partisan rancor that had preceded and then intensified following that contest, I just wasn't sure that we could endure another election whose outcome and legitimacy were in doubt.

This year, I fear, the situation has worsened. For four years, we have witnessed not only partisan obstruction and gridlock, but a persistent campaign to delegitimize the very person of the President—raising questions about his birth (and, therefore, his eligibility to hold the office) and his religion (and, therefore, whether he was lying about his Christian faith). The race baiting and venomous attacks against Barack Obama have been extreme and are worrisome.

We are a nation in crisis, so deeply divided that the situation can be likened, at times, to a civil war on simmer. Of course, we've had contention and partisanship before, but this is different. In the first place, the warring components of the electorate are more empowered.

In past elections, angry, white, middle aged, middle class voters have been taken for a ride. They were the "Reagan Democrats" whose support the Republican Party would woo with hints of race-resentment or so-called "social issues". They would court them for their votes, then let them down. With the advent of the "Tea Party", however, this crowd is no longer going for a ride, they are now behind the wheel and flexing their muscles.

After being courted and organized and even funded by the GOP, the Tea Party has in many instances turned on their patrons striking fear in the hearts of the Republican establishment. In the last two election cycles they defeated party stalwarts, helping to elect folks as angry, resentful, and as unwilling to compromise as they are.

On the liberal side of U.S. politics, there is intensity as well—emanating from the African American, Latino, women's, and Gay-Lesbian communities, as well as organized labor. They fear that the hard fought gains they have won during the past several decades may be at risk. As a result, they are demonstrating a willingness to fight not seen since the days of the civil rights movement. Added to this are elements on the left—like the "Occupy Movement" and several progressive online organizing communities—that have declared their independence from the Democratic Party establishment.

Both sides are organized independently from the leaderships of the two parties and are pressing their respective agendas, mirroring each other in intensity. Additionally, each side can tune in to (or log on to) their own national media fueling their rage and their mistrust of the other. And finally, listening to both sides it becomes clear that each has its own definition of being American that in many ways denies the legitimacy of the other. To blame the President for this state of affairs, as some have, is patently absurd. He has been the victim and target, not the initiator, of this politics of division.

With polls showing not only that the national race will be close, but that as many as five states may be so close as to require recounts, I worry that there will be an even deeper crisis at the end of the election—whatever the outcome. Instead of coming together, we will be pulled further apart. I worry, as well, that the next four years will witness even more rancor than the last four. And if the McConnell/Boehner model of "victor/vanquished" obstructionism becomes the new modus operandi of politics in Washington, the anger and the deep mistrust that has come to define our political landscape will continue to impede our ability to work together after the election to accomplish the nation's business.

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Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
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