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America is as divided today as it’s been in a very long time. I want to know why.
I grew up believing there was something special — our history, our democratic system — that holds Americans together. While the country has experienced deep divisions before — and in fact, split in two over slavery – we have always found a way to come back together, through a civil war, or a century later, the protests of the 1960s or the war in Vietnam. That again seems to be fraying. I want to understand what is driving the American people further and further apart.
As a young reporter, I first moved from Atlanta to Washington — the city I had long wanted to cover — in January 1977, when Washington was on the heels of a huge political upset. A former Georgia governor had blasted out of near-obscurity to unseat the incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford. President Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace during the Watergate scandal in 1974, and quickly been pardoned by Ford, leaving Democrats riding high and Republicans licking their wounds. But it wasn’t long after I got to Washington that President Jimmy Carter ran into trouble: spiking gas prices, a recession, the infamous Iran hostage crisis and a few political missteps all helped lead to an unexpected and painful loss for Democrats in the next presidential election. By 1981, the Reagan era had begun.
What I witnessed then, and over the years that followed, was a vigorous political debate, with Republicans and Democrats fighting hard, giving no quarter, challenging each other on issues and on personalities. There were battles over government spending, taxes, the environment, immigration, foreign policy and a lot more. Political opponents hammered each other during one election season after another.
But for the past decade and more, it’s become clear politics has been generating deeper divides — not only over issues, but over culture and character. We hear leaders of one party calling the other not just wrong, but anti-American. Surveys show that more than two-thirds of Americans today view members of the other party as immoral and dishonest. What used to be seen as a tolerable set of policy differences has become profoundly personal.
WATCH: How today’s divisions in America are different from what we’ve seen before
Years ago, my husband and I would be invited to dinners with Republican and Democratic members of Congress or other officeholders. There’d be lively discussions over politics and issues, but also shared conversations about movies, children and food. Today, these occasions are so rare as to be almost nonexistent. Bipartisan gatherings seem a relic of the past.
Some of this is no doubt due to congressional rules changes, the growing need for members to travel back home on weekends to raise campaign money, and the example set by political leaders who use scorched-earth language to attack their opponents. But because these shifts began years ago, and because we now see Americans yelling at each other in school board meetings; calling each other out on radio and social media; increasingly socializing only with those they agree with; and refusing to join family at the Thanksgiving dinner table, I think it’s time to take a closer look.
So, I’ve decided to spend the next two years trying to understand what ordinary Americans think about all this. I plan to travel the country, listen to people in small towns, big cities, suburbs and rural areas, ask them how they think the country is doing, what they like and don’t like about the way our democracy is working, how they see their role as citizens and why they think we’re so divided. I also want to know what their trusted sources of information are; whether they’re working across divides in their own communities; and how they think our national divisions might be healed.
I’ll be listening to experts — people who’ve thought and written deeply about all this — as well as historians, political scientists, sociologists, politicians, psychologists, educators, scientists and others who are exploring these divides or worried about the state of our democracy and looking for ways to bring people together.
I hope at the end to have a better understanding of what’s driving our political divide, and a clearer sense of whether this is what the American people want, and why. I don’t presume we’ll have found the formula that makes our differences melt away: The fact that we can have differences out in the open is what makes our democracy strong. But listening to each other and illuminating the views of others might bring us a step closer to understanding this moment in the American story.
If you’re reading this and have thoughts you want to share, I’d love to hear from you. Please email email@example.com. We won’t be able to answer every message, but we promise to acknowledge as many as we can.
Judy Woodruff is a senior correspondent and the former anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
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