We couldn’t have asked for a more portentious finale to a hard-fought presidential campaign. The swirling storm swept up the Atlantic seaboard, emptied its wrath on the Jersey shore, battered lower Manhattan and the southern shore of Long Island, and produced scenes of Old Testament destruction before it veered inland. Any soothsayer worth his sooth would have quaked in fear of its occult meaning.
Coming as it did a week before a bitter election, the monster hurricane with the disarming name took our minds off partisan politics for a moment. But make no mistake, America on Election Night 2012 is more sharply divided than at any time since 1860. That year, with the nation already barreling inexorably toward Civil War, the election of a moderate anti-slavery Republican named Abraham Lincoln over his Democratic archrival Stephen A. Douglas was enough to break up the Union.
Tonight, no matter whose name flashes on our TV screens when the networks reveal their final projections, we’ll be sliding toward the most contentious era in our history since the last four years — but even more so.
Conservatives hate Obama with a passion generally reserved for the Vietnam-era Jane Fonda. They proclaimed him a socialist, even though his domestic policies would place him slightly to the right of Richard Nixon. During his first term they continually attacked his legitimacy and even his nationality; the Republican majority in the House went out of its way to thwart his every move, even at the expense of the country as a whole. Then, naturally, they blasted him for his lack of accomplishments.
Liberals, for their part, fear that a Romney presidency (and particularly a Ryan vice-presidency, which goes with the package) would propel us even more speedily toward a winner-take-all society — a latter-day Yankee replica of Latin American republics with their self-pampering upper classes and impoverished peasantry. They excoriate the Michigan Mormon for his shape-shifting policies, his slippery penchant for saying whatever he needs to say to win votes at the moment: conservative when stumping for his party’s nomination, moderate when appealing to the national electorate, and who-knows-what after he takes office.
The reality is that both nominees are more moderate than their supporters. Yet each man has come to symbolize the rampant polarization that defines America in 2012. We’ve been torn asunder by financial collapse, endless unemployment, corporate outsourcing, growing wealth disparities, abortion, guns, race, religion, gay rights, the insatiable greed of bankers and the insatiable needs of the unfortunate. We’ve taken sides like a land split down the middle by an earthquake, with most of the populace on one side or the other, and only a sprinkling of hardy souls occupying the middle.
The polarization of America has been fueled not only by hyperpartisan politicians, but by the tireless militancy of Twitter extremists and Facebook fanatics. These chatty radicals are something new on the American scene; they preach to a homogeneous choir in a vast echo chamber that raises the volume and distorts opinions until there’s no possibility of compromise with the enemy.
As a wise Republican once warned us, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The winner of the 2012 presidential election must work to find common ground between America’s dangerously overheated liberals and conservatives. It shouldn’t take a disaster like Hurricane Sandy to unite partisan warriors like Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in brotherly affection. If Americans refuse to unite, we’ll have an even more devastating disaster on our hands.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.