The state of the disunion

By Harvey Dzodin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 7, 2018
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The White House, U.S. [Photo/Xinhua]

I've just returned from a two-week trip to the country of my birth, the United States of America. I hadn't been back since the B.C. years. No, I'm old but not quite that old – I mean the "Before Chaos" years. That's the era that preceded the current "Always Donald" A.D. era, in which the maniacal machinations of the self-described "stable genius" President Donald Trump dominate the media and public discourse. I honestly was unprepared for what I found in this brave new world of a country, hopelessly divided by the president's antics in the supposedly "United" States of America. To be sure, it's a stark 180-degree difference from the discourse of governance in China.

While there, I watched a two-episode CNN series titled "1968," examining that pivotal year in American history when President Lyndon Johnson bowed to public pressure and did not run for re-election over his prosecution of the Vietnam War; when the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis; when presidential candidate and brother of slain President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, was murdered in Los Angeles; and when Richard Nixon was narrowly elected president. Much of the social chaos took place in Chicago, where I watched the documentary. As a student and the president of my university's Young Democrats at the time, and therefore being somewhat close to those events, I honestly feel that the nation was as divided in those days as now but that our political system worked then despite the strains. I can't say that for today, 50 years later. 

In 1968, when politics was still very much the art of the possible, Johnson, a Democrat, could "reach across the aisle" to Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford and play "let's make a deal." Legislation – lots of it – was passed. Contrast that with today, in an era when parties are at war with each other and when politicians put their own partisan interests ahead of the country's and the world's. Take, for example, the despicable Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who held back President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, or Trump staffer Kelly Sadler, who demeaned a terminally-ill Senator John McCain from their own party as irrelevant since "he's dying anyway," and neither she nor Trump publicly apologized. 

It's really difficult to watch TV news these days, when celebrities and athletes get more coverage than current events. And unlike even a decade ago, news today is either infotainment or centered around Trump, if not a combination of the two. Where it is about policy, people are screaming themselves hoarse yelling at each other, not bothering to listen.

This trend happened almost overnight following Trump's election, aided by the fact that under our archaic system, Trump got nearly 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. There's even an empirical study from UCLA to prove it, based on data from three weeks after Trump's surprise election. The study shows that, "Thanksgiving dinners attended by residents from opposing-party precincts were 30 to 50 minutes shorter than same-party dinners," presumably due to family members prematurely absenting themselves from the heated political discussions around the table. Now more than 500 days into the A.D. era, the frequency and intensity of these arguments continue, and Trump's favorable ratings are in the low 40s.

I discern that while there is no particular animosity toward Chinese people, like there was against the Japanese in the late 1980s, there is a fear that China is beating us. Nobody likes to go from No. 1 to No. 2. There is, however, a lack of tolerance for Muslims and other immigrants and minorities. And the great political divide between right and left, liberals and conservatives, is just as wide as it's ever been in my lifetime. The rules seem to be: take no prisoners, don't speak to the enemy, and get them before they get you. There is no talk about higher goals and the values that previously made the country great. 

I am truly worried. President Abraham Lincoln said that, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." We are as divided as we've ever been. 

I visited Philadelphia, the site of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Benjamin Franklin, one of our greatest statesmen, mused during the long, hot summer deliberating the U.S. Constitution about the sun symbol on the back of George Washington's ornate chair, and wondered whether it was a rising or a setting sun. He concluded, with their work done and the document drafted, that it was a rising sun. I sadly feel that today he would have to say that, unless current trends change, the sun rapidly rising in the East is fast setting in the West. 

The author is a research fellow for the think tank Center for China and Globalization, senior adviser to Tsinghua University and former director and vice president of ABC Television in New York.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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