This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
Presidential campaigns are long and whiny roads. (Very, very long, longer than any other country's.) This year, it might be said that the campaign really courses two very separate roads traveled by "two Americas."
In the weeks after 9/11, many people noted a kinship and sense of common plight that was worlds apart from the acrimonious ad incessant feuding of America's political teams. It was the great silver lining of the tragedy. It was a stunning mood change so soon after the bitterness of 2000.
But it was fleeting and the political distemper is back. The divisive war with Iraq and enduring questions about the administration's credibility created an opposition to Bush that doesn't just disagree: it hates his guts. The same thing happened in the last administration, inspired greatly by Bill Clinton's scandal.
While I sense, and polls seem to show, that people do feel many traces of post-9/11 solidarity, it seems to have disappeared in the politically involved - not just politicians, but book buyers, talk-show listeners, people who turn out to vote. (Perhaps we should cite a third America, one that has tuned this cacophony out entirely, like most people I know.)
Gridlock was the central political adjective of the 1990s. But that term became too small and too much about Congress after the antagonizing 2000 election. 50/50 America was the new metaphor, an accurate one to my mind. Divided America. Two Americas.
On one level, these phrases simply describe political science data showing the country in a prolonged partisan tie: no president has won 50 percent of the vote in the last three elections; the 2000 candidates were divided by about one-half of one percentage of the popular vote - and the one with fewer votes became president; federal and state legislatures are almost equally divided between parties. In election after election, from school board to the White House, the electorate forms to very equal halves - Two Americas.
On a different, less empirical level, the distinguishing aspect of this moment in political history is the antipathy the Two Americas have for each other - the viciousness of political combat in campaigns, but also in dining rooms and chat rooms. It's an exaggerated hostility that populates the best-seller list with books called "Treason," "Lies (And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them)," "The Enemy Within," "Slander," "The Lies of George W. Bush."
As the campaign begins, Divided America artifacts abound. John Edwards even runs an ad called, "Two Americas." But the most notable is a book by Stanley Greenberg, who polled for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, called, funnily enough, "The Two Americas."
"The loyalties of American voters are now almost perfectly divided between the Democrats and Republicans, a historical political deadlock that inflames the passions of politicians and citizens alike," writes Greenberg. He argues that this civic sclerosis has been forming since the wane of Roosevelt's dominance and that it acutely hardened in 2000, leaving us in the "politics of parity" where "partisans have become more partisans. Politics has become more polarized. America has become more divided."
Another pollster, John Zogby, provided a snapshot of schism at the outset of the campaign in a rambling report called, "America Culturally Divided; Blue vs. Red States, Democrats vs. Republicans - Two Separate Nations." Breaking his survey results into two camps, Bush states and Gore states from 2000, Zogby finds "two different, yet parallel universes." He cites large chasms in views on Bush, Clinton, the 2000 contested election, gay marriage, religion, ideological identification, gun ownership, unions and, well, you name it.
One party dominance isn't anywhere on the horizon, but it's hard to see what in the coming campaign might at least diminish the vituperative disrespect and mistrust the two camps of politically engaged Americas have for each other. The very length of American campaigns profoundly adds to the levels of toxicity in the body politic. With long, comes whiny. No legislating will happen this year. Governing more and more resembles campaigning. Campaigns are essentially permanent.
It's no fluke that the rise of Two Americas coincided with the development of the modern primary system and the yearlong campaign. That in turn empowered a new cadre of political workers: paid consultants. And it changed journalism, giving campaign coverage more cachet than covering Congress or the State Department. It's changed the nature of political fundraising and advertising. In short, there's money to be made on political polarization and alienation.
But campaigns are not always divisive, even razor close ones. John F. Kennedy's 1960 candidacy is a classic reminder. As this campaign nears its formal launch in Iowa, my secret hope is that somehow when this long race is over, it won't have divided us more. My inner pundit, however, tells me that I'm a sap.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to
Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones.
By Dick Meyer
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.