Ten Years Later

B lue America is not really into old-fashioned flag-waving. But the day after September 11, 2001, in the liberal precincts of Washington, you could see Old Glory fluttering in front of every Victorian and red-brick Colonial. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon seemed to throw even highly sophisticated “citizens of the world” back on older and more primary sources of identity.

At the time, one imagined this and other similar demonstrations across the nation might portend a broader, more lasting unity—that a common external threat would wipe out the red-blue divide that had hardened during the bitter 2000 election deadlock. Even Al Gore voters who had previously denied the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s presidency could be heard murmuring their admiration for Bush, as his approval rating hit ninety percent in the Gallup poll.

Soon enough, though, the flags came down, and signs demanding “Impeach Them Both” went up. And now, ten years later, American politics are as polarized and conflictual as they were before the attacks—if not more so. This may be measured in many ways, whether by the fact that members of Congress vote along party lines at the highest rate since 1879, or by the sheer rancor that pervades political discourse.

The shock of 9/11 was not, in the end, enough to heal the US body politic. Ten years ago, Americans wondered, in unison: “Why do they hate us?” Today, we need to ask: “Why do we hate each other?”

To be sure, the initial sense of unity was bound to dissipate. Union enlistments after Fort Sumter gave way to the 1863 Draft Riots in New York City. Even in World War II, there were race riots, wildcat strikes, and black-marketeering on the home front. The Cold War gave Americans our most enduring common foe. Yet fierce struggles—McCarthyism, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and Watergate—plagued us throughout that long twilight struggle.

In an important sense, however, the Cold War muted divisions within US politics. Since the competition against the Soviets was not only military but also ideological, politicians felt the need to define common purposes—and to show that our system worked better than Communism. Led by the World War II generation—and abetted by centrist media, universities, and labor unions—Democrats and Republicans fought for power, but agreed on certain big-picture concepts, such as containment in foreign policy and managed capitalism at home. Yes, society polarized bitterly in the ’60s and ’70s—but the parties did not.

Today, it’s the other way around. You might say that the fall of the Berlin Wall liberated Republicans and Democrats to resume all-out exploitation of the fault lines within American society. Aided by technology, political operatives—often children of the ’60s and ’70s—now identify potential partisans and press what Karl Rove memorably labeled their “anger points.” The innovators may have been conservative Republicans—Rove, and Lee Atwater before him—but liberal Democrats have long since caught up. Today, each party specializes in inflaming its “base.” Building a vital center does not interest them.

In hindsight, it’s clear that one of the questions raised by September 11th was whether the shock would force parties and politicians to reconsider this strategy. An initial burst of bipartisan legislation suggested that it might: every member of Congress but one voted for the September 14th resolution granting Bush sweeping war powers. Even the more controversial Patriot Act passed 98–1 in the Senate and 357–66 in the House, after the White House worked with Congress to amend some provisions.

It’s hard to pinpoint when partisan fissures reopened, but something changed on November 13, 2001, when President Bush issued an executive order creating military commissions for terrorism suspects (and shutting Congress out of the decision). As civil libertarians issued often-hyperbolic denunciations, Democrats who controlled the Senate demanded that Attorney General John Ashcroft answer their questions. At a December 6th hearing, he told critics that “your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”

Thereafter, Republicans made the creation of a homeland security department a wedge issue in the 2002 congressional campaign—for example, using Georgia Senator Max Cleland’s votes against the new bureaucracy to label him soft on national security, despite the fact that Cleland was a Vietnam veteran who had lost three of his limbs in combat. And then, of course, came the great debate over Iraq. Whatever the merits of that war, it is undeniable that the Republican political operation exploited the issue to divide Democrats before and during the 2004 presidential campaign.

All of this has had an equal and opposite reaction on the Democratic left. Bush became a hate figure; a new and bitter energy suffused not only the liberal blogosphere and such cable networks as MSNBC, but also the discourse in Congress. Senator Dick Durbin could be heard comparing interrogations at Guantánamo to those under Cambodia’s Pol Pot. Accurate or not, the Democratic belief that Republicans never deal in good faith justifies their own refusal to compromise and their own use of negative, polarizing tactics.

To be sure, President Obama’s 2008 campaign offered an antidote. But both his own partisan actions in office and those of his Republican opponents rendered the promise of “change” illusory. A Republican Congress and the Democratic president spent the summer of 2011 in acrimonious debate over the country’s ballooning debt—a squabble that often seemed more about posturing for the benefit of their respective party faithful than actually solving the problem.
Immediately following September 11th, many thought that the struggle against terrorism would be the galvanizing challenge of a generation. The financial panic of September 2008 lay in the future. Today, Osama bin Laden is dead, and al-Qaeda appears incapable of mounting a big direct attack on the US. Yet the American people take cold comfort in those facts, because our economic foundation is in jeopardy—while our cherished political system seems incapable of doing much about it.

Bin Laden dreamed that toppling the Twin Towers in New York and striking at power centers in Washington, DC, would catalyze the downfall of an internally divided and decrepit superpower. He has been proven wrong, so far. If he is to be proven wrong forever, Americans must develop a new politics of national consensus. We must rediscover the spirit of September 11th.


Charles Lane is an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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