Give Politico’s chief Washington correspondent, Ryan Lizza, some credit. After Michelle Obama’s speech capping the first night of the Democrats’ virtual convention, he tweeted: “Story of an era in two convention speeches: Barack 04: ‘There’s not a black America and white America . … there’s the United States of America.’ Michelle 20: ‘my message won’t be heard by some people’ because ‘we live in a nation that is deeply divided.'”
But who’s to blame? Democrats like to load all the blame on President Trump, and, despite their continued failure to cite evidence for his “racism,” there’s no denying his coarse insults have contributed to an increasing sense of national division.
Balance that off, however — at least a bit — by recognizing that bipartisan electoral politics inevitably divide a citizenry, as it has ours since former President James Monroe was re-elected without opposition in 1820. That Era of Good Feelings ended four years later when a four-candidate deadlock made the House decide the election. It’s been division ever since.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2004 speech made an Illinois state legislator into a plausible presidential candidate, an African American whose election promised to smooth over racial divisions as the election of John Kennedy in 1960 smoothed over Catholic-Protestant divisions. Such hopes buoyed Obama’s rapturous crowds from Denver’s Mile High Stadium to Berlin’s Tiergarten to Chicago’s Grant Park in 2008.
The letdown came well before Trump descended that Trump Tower escalator in June 2015. Gallup showed the percentage of Americans rating black-white relations as very or somewhat good plunging in Obama’s second term, from 70% in 2013 to 51% in 2015. The 2014 exit poll showed 38% of voters believing “race relations in this country” had “gotten worse” in the last few years, versus 20% saying they’d “gotten better.”
Plainly, there was a sense of disappointment, of optimistic and perhaps unrealistic expectations being unmet. Comments by the president and his appointees about incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere probably contributed to this. But it surely also reflected continuing poor conditions and relatively high crime rates in many (not all) predominantly black neighborhoods.
Distinctions between Catholics and Protestants became less visible after 1960. Distinction between blacks and whites did not after 2008.
And politically, the Obama presidency left us in an America very sharply divided into two countries. Responses to COVID-19 have widened the already sharp partisan differences between big cities and the countryside. Democrats have vastly overestimated the virus’ death rate and its danger to people younger than 75, and have embraced stringent lockdowns and mandatory masking and social distancing. Republicans’ estimates have been closer to reality, and Republican states like Florida, Texas and Arizona have taken milder measures.
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