Political Unity Peaked After Attacks

by Stuart Rothenberg September 10, 2011 · 12:00 PM EDT

Our normal political discourse in this country has changed much in the past three decades, becoming coarser and angrier. In Congress, the two parties are increasingly at odds, unable to find common ground on many crucial issues and apparently willing to question each other’s fundamental decency.

Yet almost 10 years ago, only hours after terrorist attacks had shocked the nation, Members gathered on the steps of the Capitol and, in a display of national unity and common purpose, sang a chorus from “God Bless America.”

“We, as a Congress and a government, stand united, and we stand together,” then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said at the gathering.

Moments later, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) echoed Hastert’s remarks, promising, “We, Republicans and Democrats, House Members and Senators, stand strongly united behind the president and will work together to ensure that the full resources of the government are brought to bear in these efforts.”

Can we ever recapture the feeling of unity and community that we felt in the days following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or are our divisions too deep, too important?

Only national tragedies such as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) have temporarily erased the bitter partisanship, polarization and mean-spiritedness to which we have become accustomed over the past decade.

At those moments of tragedy, our differences over abortion, taxes and environmental policy seemed both trivial and irrelevant. Instead, we focused on both the human costs of the tragedies and our shared values and goals, as well as our feelings of national grief and national outrage.

Clearly, the terrorist attacks and the Tucson shooting were very different events and evoked different reactions. The foreign threat rallied Americans against a common enemy, producing a bipartisan consensus about protecting the United States from further attack and punishing the guilty.

The Giffords shooting, on the other hand, ignited a discussion in the country about the dangers of the fiery language regularly used in our political debates and the importance of civility even when Americans disagree about politics.

But whether our anger was directed at Islamic terrorists who found our values and lifestyle so repugnant that they wanted to inflict maximum damage on America or a mentally deranged individual whose motives in killing a Congresswoman are still far from clear, Americans reacted to the tragedies by putting politics aside.

For a time after 9/11, President George W. Bush wasn’t merely the leader of his party or even the government. He epitomized our entire nation — everything that we went through, everything that we had become and everything that we hoped to be — as patriotism trumped partisanship.

Similarly, after Giffords was shot in January, most Americans experienced a period of self-reflection during which even some of those fanning the flames of political anger expressed remorse. Calls for civility and tolerance trumped the bitter partisan sniping and name-calling to which we’ve become accustomed.

It’s no accident that after both tragedies, the sitting president’s job approval ratings improved.

Bush’s Gallup poll approval shot up from 51 percent immediately before the 9/11 attacks to 86 percent and eventually 90 percent in the days after the attacks. His disapproval fell from 39 percent just before Sept. 11 to 6 percent during the third week of September.

President Barack Obama’s standing in national polls did not move nearly as much, but his Gallup ratings slightly improved in the wake of coverage of the shooting and the Congresswoman’s struggle for life.

Americans rallied around Bush in a reflexive show of patriotism and support. The different nature of the tragedies and the hardened animosity of many voters toward Obama undoubtedly account for the difference in the public’s response after the two tragedies.

In both cases, however, these pauses from our usual condition of sharp political division and rhetoric evaporated when Americans got back to discussing matters of public policy. When that happened, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats once again began to question each other’s motives, convictions, values, integrity and morality.

By the third week in February, just six weeks after the Tucson shootings, Obama’s ratings were almost exactly where they had been before the Congresswoman was shot, according to Gallup.

Bush’s job approval stayed up far longer, not surprising given the nature of the terrorist attacks and the U.S. response. His disapproval didn’t hit 39 percent again until September 2003, two full years after the attack.

Clearly, partisanship and a lack of civility have become the norm in our political debates, though political scientists disagree about the depth of our polarization and even whether it is good or bad.

Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz argues that polarization among political elites reflects the polarization among the general public, which accompanies a more informed and engaged (and ideological) public.

Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina, on the other hand, argues that most Americans sit in the political center and only the political class has become polarized. Ordinary Americans are more moderate and civil than their elected officials, Fiorina insists.

But even if Fiorina is correct, for the moment that doesn’t much matter. Our current system is producing ideological politicians who are sensitive to their most ideological constituents and to the heavily ideological media, not to the political center.

Frustrated with politicians’ inability to get America’s economic house in order and with unfulfilled promises of fiscal responsibility (to say nothing of their cultural differences with the bicoastal elite), conservatives simply no longer trust the people who have been in charge, whether they are Democrats or Republicans. Slowing the rate of growth of government no longer is enough.

Liberals, on the other hand, feel as if they are being asked to compromise with an increasingly unreasonable, inflexible tea-party-dominated Republican Party that wants to dismantle a safety net built over the past 80 years and treats modern science with disdain. They see the conservatives’ view of change as reactionary and assume the worst of motives in the opposition.

Each side, of course, is cheered on by a cable television network with strongly ideological prime-time hosts opposed to political compromise and by bloggers who have set themselves up as judges of ideological purity.

The growth of “outside” political organizations and media watchdogs has changed our politics, empowering the more ideological elements and undermining traditional institutions of authority.

There are possible institutional changes that could produce more centrist elected officials — more open primaries, more states using commissions to draw Congressional and legislative district lines, a third political party in the center, for example — but those changes are difficult to bring about, and it isn’t clear how much change each proposal would produce.

The reality of our current politics of division and partisanship is not what many would prefer, but at least it is real.

Those periods after 9/11 and after Giffords’ near-fatal attack, when Americans focused on self-reflection and healing, were aberrations. Both tragedies created artificial moments of when important public policy questions were put aside.

Our differences certainly didn’t disappear at those times of tragedy. We simply chose to ignore them and focus on other matters. And when we refocused our attention on those issues that will determine our future, issues on which we have strong differences of opinion, partisanship and a coarseness of tone automatically followed.

Changes in our political system and in the media, combined with a heightened sense of the high stakes involved in government’s decisions, have produced a more partisan, polarized, nasty political dialogue. Ignoring that and romanticizing about the tone in the days after 9/11 won’t accomplish very much.