Divided We Stand, United We Fall

Iowans listen to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., deliver his stump speech in an airplane hangar at the the Waterloo Municipal Airport, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2004, in Waterloo, Iowa. Both Kerry and President Bush are fiercely fighting to win Iowa, one of a handful of battleground states that could decide the election. AP

This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.


I'm going to break my vow of predictibacy (thou shall not spill thy words guessing about plebiscites). If John Kerry wins, the Senate will stay under Republican control. If George Bush is re-elected, the Senate will pass to the Democrats.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not willing to put my money where my keyboard is. Frankly, I don't have a whole lot of confidence my prediction will come true — exactly. But I think it will in spirit.

I prognosticate rhetorically, to make a point: The great collective unconscious of the American voter, the invisible hand of the political market, prefers divided government.

Not since 1988 has a president been elected with majority of the popular vote.

For two and a half decades, American voters have not trusted either party enough to give one team control of both houses of Congress and the White House for more than two years in a row.

The Republicans have just completed two of those years of single party control — slim, tenuous control. A president who lost the popular vote controlled Congress for the second half of his term by a two-seat Senate margin.

If Mr. Bush wins the vote outright and adds Republican seats to the Senate, government will indeed grow less divided. But unless there is a huge and undetected tsunami, the best the Republicans can hope for is to cling to power.

John Kerry has no hopes of winning the presidency and a Democratic Congress; the House will not turn over.

A powerful presidential mandate matched by overwhelming control of Congress is not in the cards for either party this year. Again.

You can analyze it up and dissect it down. The conclusion is pretty simple: Americans don't trust either political team very much. They haven't for years. Voters don't just want checks and balances; they want full nelsons and sandbags.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was twice elected with less than 50 percent of the vote; in 1992, he got only 43 percent. His Democrats did control Congress after that first win, but lost it two years later.

In 2000, "peace and prosperity" was the phrase of the day. By any usual measures of well-being, times were good. Yet the elections produced no mandate and a divided federal government; indeed, the election produced the first full crisis of legitimacy in over a century.

Since Election Day 2000 we have had the greatest day of national trauma since November 22, 1963, and December 7, 1941 before that. Osama bin Laden has replaced Monica Lewinsky as the personification of trouble. With only four years passed, the political times couldn't be more different. Yet again, we will have an election without a mandate and government that will almost certainly be narrowly divided.

So in many different moods and with very different players, the voters have essentially not wanted either side to win for four elections in a row.

This is 50/50 America. Or is it? Has power and authority been divided so equally for so long because the nation is polarized, divided into two warring factions, fighting a culture war?

I don't think so, not exactly.

I do think the nation is divvied up into three batches – call them liberals, conservatives and those grossed out by all politics. In all three groups, most people's views of the actual issues are fairly centrist, as common sense and our own experience indicate. Despite that big middle, politically engaged people are increasingly partisan, balkanized and hostile to their perceived enemies. Lots of those people think they're in a culture war.

Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford, thinks the 50/50 America theory is a crock and says so well in "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America." He believes the electorate broadly shares a consensus on basic issues and worldviews, is often ambivalent about its political options, but that "the political figures Americans evaluate are more polarized. A polarized political class makes the citizenry appear polarized, but it is only that – an appearance."

The more polarized "political class" has become more partisan, less like normal people and so less attractive to them. Put plainly: Americans don't trust politicians. They don't trust political parties or political marketing. So very logically, if collectively and mysteriously, voters haven't given any one political team a big win in a long time.

Why such mistrust of politics?

You've heard the litany: the money-grubbing and ceaseless campaigning now required of politicians repels the best ones; politics, like primetime television and public manners, has grown coarse; government ignores serious issues year after year; journalism harms what it covers by being too critical, too inaccurate, too trivial and too loud and opens a platform for characters like me; American mistrust of power, always strong, still ebbs and flows and it's flowing now. Pick two of the above.

The election we're almost finished with demonstrates that the political class has responded to mistrust by doing more untrustworthy things despite the higher post-9/11 stakes. This campaign is long, expensive, and notably full of dishonest propaganda. In spite of that, it seems many more Americans will vote and participate than usual; that's the good news. But neither side has earned a big win and neither is likely to get one.



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones.

By Dick Meyer
  • Dick Meyer

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