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The roots of our current political divisiveness

Discovery of explosives addressed to prominent Democratic figures this week took the country’s political divisiveness to grave new heights. How did we get here, and how can we recover? Judy speaks to Professor Joanne Freeman, author of “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress & the Road to Civil War” and Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The interception of several pipe bombs targeting prominent Democratic leaders has again raised questions about the consequences of vitriolic rhetoric in politics, just as they did when a gunman took aim at Republican congressmen playing baseball in Washington last year.

    President Trump denounced this week's attacks and what he termed the language of moral condemnation, but others have asked whether Mr. Trump's own language has stoked polarization.

    For a deeper look at how we got to this moment, I'm joined by Joanne Freeman. She's a professor of history and American studies at Yale University and the author of "The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War." And Carolyn Lukensmeyer, she's the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Carolyn Lukensmeyer, to you first.

    I want to say that your institute was founded after former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in an incident. This happened, what, seven years ago.

  • Carolyn Lukensmeyer:

    Yes, in January of 2011, after the very contentious 2010 election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So here we are again. And we should say we don't know what — where these pipe bombs came from. They're still very much in the investigative phase.

    But this moment feels very divisive in our country. What does it compare to, Carolyn Lukensmeyer? How do we — is there a moment in our history that this is similar to?

  • Carolyn Lukensmeyer:

    Well, actually, in our recent history, at least as we get lots of messages from the American public all over the country, there was a similar, real sense of moral outrage and concern with the images of children in cages on the border, and a belief that that actually could lead to physical violence at certain places in the country.

    And then that was intensified even further with the Kavanaugh hearings, where, no matter what state or city I was in giving speeches, I could literally say to people, whatever your belief is about the outcome of this, how has this impacted you in terms of the state of our ability to be together in our communities?

    And, without exception, people described it as a time that things would be worse.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joanne Freeman, is there a time — how much of our history have we spent divided the way we are today?

  • Joanne Freeman:

    Well, I think you have to say that there's no constant line. So we have had bad moments. We have had less-than-bad moments.

    There have been moments where we have been very violent. There have been moments that are much like the present that are very divided, that are very polarized. And I think there are moments when, very much like the present, people realize that the nation is seemingly turning in one direction or another, and the stakes seem higher.

    And because of that, I think things become more polarized. Americans become distrustful in each other. A lot of the things that we're seeing now happen. So you can look over the long haul. As a historian, I can look over the long haul. And I can say that, in the 1790s, when people were debating how democratic the new republic would be, was one such moment, obviously the lead-up to the Civil War, when the…

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Joanne Freeman:

    … concept, the thing that they were talking about with slavery.

    And I would say the 1960s was another one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How much — this is so tough to condense us into one conversation, but Carolyn Lukensmeyer, how much have words mattered?

    You gave some modern examples — or current examples a moment ago. But, over time, how much have words mattered in these — in these moments of — that led to some sort of political violence?

  • Carolyn Lukensmeyer:

    Well, people are really social beings, Judy.

    And they respond to the signals that they're given, particularly for people who they look up to. And our elected political officials are amongst the people who set the norms in the country.

    Where it's really mattered, every time any one of us speak, we have an impact on the people that we're listening to in terms of how they perceive things and in terms of actions they take.

    In the 2016 election, we actually saw this connection between the use of demonizing language of other rising groups, African-Americans, Muslims, women, reporters, and then we actually watched in some rallies where that turned into violent action.

    So the link between using words that incite people to emotional, reactive stances, and the move next to actual physical violence, it's a link that's been well established over time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joanne Freeman, how has this country gotten through moments like this? What has it taken to bring the country back to a place where we could, if not all be friends with one another, at least tolerate people with different views?

  • Joanne Freeman:

    Well, for one thing — and I think that's obviously, as you suggested, hard to condense all this in — but part of the answer to that question has to do with the actual political process and the investment of Americans into that process.

    If you go all the way back to the founding, one of the things that the founders thought that they were doing that would really have lasting value was that they were creating a process, a set process of governance, that no matter what happened down the road, the nation could turn to it.

    And so I think elections are part of that process. Supreme Court decisions are part of that process. And some of the events in the past that have gone on a difficult trail, sometimes really it is an election or a decision that, as much as it might be disliked, Americans have invested themselves in the process enough to accept that answer.

    So I think part of what that does, of course, is set up the next few elections, the one that's coming right down the road and the presidential one after that. The meaning of those are going to be very profound.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are there lessons either in history, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, or more recently that give us some sort of road map to how we work our way through this?

  • Carolyn Lukensmeyer:

    Well, when there is this big a gap between how political leadership are conducting themselves and what ordinary Americans really know in their hearts and minds are the base values of our country, which really are about how we can work across our differences and find common ground, then we have often seen in history where there is a link between a single enlightened leader, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement that never could have happened without literally millions of Americans shifting their views.

    I think we're at that moment again, where we can't count at the moment on our current elected officials to shift this rhetoric. But what we see across the country — and it's very hopeful, Judy — Americans of both parties, every — red states, blue states, purple states, they're actually coming together in one-on-one conversations, small group conversations, and setting up the conditions, how do we get past this divide?

    We want to be past this divide.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So maybe it's coming from the community level, from the ground level up.

    Just quickly, Joanne Freeman, examples in history of leaders who have led us out of a period of terrible division?

  • Joanne Freeman:

    Well, I mean, you could go all the way back and say that the first real contested presidential election from 1800, Thomas Jefferson, that election happened, people thought that there might even be civil warfare because it was so fraught.

    Jefferson came out of that and said, we are all federalists. We are all republicans. Let us try to stand back and unite.

    And that was precisely the right thing to do at that moment. So, I do think — and I like the sense of hope in that. I take encouragement, as much as it also means that some people are thinking violently, people are really engaged in the political process now in a way that I think is important and that is encouraging.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's — we are in a tough moment, a difficult moment for all of us. And it helps, I think, to put it in some perspective. And that's why we thank you both for being here.

    Joanne Freeman, thank you.

    Carolyn Lukensmeyer.

  • Carolyn Lukensmeyer:

    And thank you for having us.

  • Joanne Freeman:

    Thank you.

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