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3 historians on American political divisiveness — and how to heal it

The partisan results of President Trump’s Senate impeachment trial reinforced the political divisions characterizing current American politics. How does this moment compare with the past? Judy Woodruff sits down with the University of New Hampshire’s Ellen Fitzpatrick, presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Carolyn Lukensmeyer of the National Institute for Civil Discourse to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We can never know how the eyes of history will look back on the present, but we can be pretty confident this was a consequential week that exposes the deep political divisions in our country.

    We want to take a step back now to reflect on how this moment in America compares with the past and what it may say about the future with presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Ellen Fitzpatrick, an author and political historian at the University of New Hampshire, and Carolyn Lukensmeyer. She's executive director emerita at the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona.

    And we welcome all three of you back to the "NewsHour."

    Michael, let me begin with you.

    Has this been as consequential a week as those of us who cover all of this all the time think?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    An awful lot going on at once.

    And I think one of the big themes really is how divided this nation is, especially the State of the Union the other night.

    Judy, there are some ceremonies that were almost invented to bring the nation together, three branches of government. The president speaks, usually, a civilized atmosphere.

    That has been slowly breaking down over the years. But we have never seen a scene like the other night, where the cooperation between the two parties was at such a minimum, and you had the campaign chat of — chant of "Four more years," and such open hostility between the speaker and the president and the vice president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ellen Fitzpatrick, is this a standout week? Can you think of a time in modern history where we have seen this kind of sort of politics on fire, if you will?

  • Ellen Fitzpatrick:

    Not really.

    I think that we're in sort of uncharted waters here, in which we're seeing a kind of performative element made for television. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan started the process of introducing members of the audience and working references to them into his State of the Union address.

    But, here, the whole process integrated conferring an honor on Rush Limbaugh, which truly was an innovation of sorts.

    So, I think that Trump is — President Trump is very alive to the elements of television, mass media, and is gearing — did gear the address to those realities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Carolyn Lukensmeyer, as somebody who looks at political discourse, political debate, what does this moment say, do you think, about our political — about the body politic?

  • Carolyn Lukensmeyer:

    Well, I think what we have seen, Judy, over the last really more than four years, but intensely in the last three or four, is that what started out as hyperpartisanship in Congress is now like a virus that has gone across the country.

    And we have now embedded it, as Michael said, in one of the traditions of our democracy that was intended to bring everyone together. So, the potential for this becoming even worse during what we all expect to be a quite vicious 2020 campaign is of high concern, in terms of how we can, as Americans, deal with the differences that are now so writ large.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Michael, as somebody who thinks about American history a lot, in the past, when we have had these kinds of divisions, how have Americans dealt with it?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Well, one of two ways.

    I mean, the good news, I guess, is that we have been there before. This is not as bad as the 1850s, when the country was being completely torn apart by slavery, and it culminated in the Civil War. 1932, Americans were divided over what you do to get out of the Great Depression. 1940, do you stand up to Hitler? Vietnam in the late 1960s was dividing American families.

    So, you look back, how did we get out of these things? It's basically one of two things. Either, God forbid, there's a crisis. You wouldn't want a civil war, but — or an external crisis, like World War II and the threat of Hitler and the imperial Japanese, that caused Americans to resolve their differences and fight the war, or you have a president who says, part of my job is to bring people together. I have got a role to propose policies that divide people, but also part of my job is to be chief of state.

    Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 came in at the time of McCarthyism, very bitter divisions, and said, my big job is to unite this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Ellen Fitzpatrick, I mean, whether it's one of the examples Michael has cited or something else, do you see how this country, how the American people work their way through this?

  • Ellen Fitzpatrick:

    Well, sometimes, it doesn't happen as quickly as we would like.

    Michael's reference to the Civil War is a telling one. In 1856, Charles Sumner, a United States senator from Massachusetts, was almost beaten to death on the floor of the United States Senate by a congressman amid the debate over Kansas and slavery and its extension.

    It was a horrific moment, but, in some ways, a liminal one that dramatized the divisions that existed in the society as a whole.

    And so I think there's reason for people to be anxious and worried about the nature of these very public and very raw divisions that are being articulated by our leadership at this moment, our elected representatives, who seem to not be bringing people together, as much as reflecting or mirroring these deep divisions.

    I guess the upside, if there is one, is that, usually, extremism overreaches, and the pendulum does swing back. And that has been the case repeatedly in American history.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Carolyn Lukensmeyer, do you see the seeds of that right now?

    And I guess I'm sitting here thinking, is there any degree to which it's better for us to air our differences in this country, rather than to try to find some sort of artificial compromise that papers over what people are really believing?

  • Carolyn Lukensmeyer:

    Well, Judy, I think I have another source of good news about how we can get out of this.

    Given the work we do at the National Institute for Civil Discourse, I'm always asked or often asked, am I optimistic or pessimistic about where we are and our ability to get out of it?

    And I — it's a very quick and easy answer for me. It all depends on what I pay attention to. If I watch the president's tweets, if I watch the national narrative, if I watch social media, I'm very pessimistic about our ability to get beyond this and out of it.

    But if I pay attention to what we have the privilege of seeing in communities all over this nation on a regular basis, the vast majority of Americans know how wrong this is. And they actually have a hunger to be connected across the divides.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And hearing that, Michael, is it on any level healthy for Americans to air their differences, to air their deep divisions?

  • Michael Beschloss:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because there are places in the world where people can't do that.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    That's for sure. And that's what the founders wanted. They were trying to make the society different from England, where differences were not allowed to be aired.

    Everyone had to basically say, we agree with the king. So that part of it is good.

    But am I allowed to also complain about the founders? They assigned too much of this to the president of the United States. They expected that the first president would be George Washington, who would unite the country, Americans would know how hard the revolution was, they'd all come together.

    Abraham Lincoln called this the mystic chords of memory that stretch back to patriots' graves, that this would unite the country in times of division.

    It's too difficult. The country is too broad. And Donald Trump — this is not a criticism of President Trump, but his approach, he'd be the first to say, is to cater very much to one part of the country, and fulfill that job of the president to propose controversial policies, but, as he has said, he doesn't feel it's a big part of his job to unite the country and combine groups that don't otherwise agree.

    And the same thing, we see in Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Ellen Fitzpatrick, does that suggest that we need to think about the kind of government that we have and whether it is equipped to deal with the world that we live in today?

  • Ellen Fitzpatrick:

    I think we need to think more, Judy, about the kind of citizens we are.

    And it seems to me that what the founders, in their defense, Michael, really emphasized that we tend to forget is that a democracy depends on the virtue and the knowledge and the wisdom of the citizens themselves.

    And it seems to me that there's such a highly personal character to these attacks that are being made in the public sphere today, that it is really up to the citizens to really go back to the fundamental principles and values that we share in common, and in some sense to hold our government to those fundamental values.

    And there's room in that for leaders to emerge. In 1950, for instance, Senator Margaret Chase Smith stood in the well of the Senate and confronted a member of her own party, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and said, as much as she wanted to see the Republican Party gain power, she didn't want to see the party ride to victory on what she called the four horsemen of calumny.

    And she mentioned ignorance and bigotry and smear and fear. And she said, this isn't a place for character assassination. Otherwise, we're really resorting to totalitarian methods.

    So, there are moments for courageous people to step forward in our government and take those kinds of stands. But it's up to the citizens, really, to hold our officials accountable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Michael Beschloss, thank you.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Ellen Fitzpatrick:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Carolyn Lukensmeyer:

    Thank you, Judy.

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