Americans Disagree and That's OK

I’ve written before about the odd focus political pundits have on President Obama’s culpability for the current era of partisan and hyper-polarization, despite the fact of categorical Republican opposition to nearly everything that comes from the White House.

John Harwood’s piece on Obama’s travel schedule—there are deep red states the president has never visited—is the latest entry in this genre. In fairness, it’s better than most, since Harwood acknowledges the existence of Republican obstruction. Still, the basic idea—that Obama has contributed to polarization by ignoring certain states—puts far too much weight on the president’s ability to change public opinion (which is limited), and not enough on the reality of genuine disagreement between different groups of Americans. Here’s Harwood in his own words:

Mr. Obama has not given North Dakota his time. It is one of six states he has not visited as president, along with South Dakota, Arkansas, Idaho, South Carolina and Utah. He has gone just once to Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Tennessee and Wyoming.

Mr. Obama’s near-complete absence from more than 25 percent of the states, from which he is politically estranged, is no surprise, reflecting routine cost-benefit calculations of the modern presidency. But in a country splintered by partisanship and race, it may have consequences.

Is there any harm in a visit to South Carolina or Nebraska for President Obama? Not at all. But if America is polarized on partisan and ideological lines, it’s not because red state citizens are unfamiliar with the Democratic president, it’s because they disagree with him.

Americans—both in and out of Washington—like to think that because we share a common national identity, we also share common interests. And in the broadest sense, we do. But for issues of public policy—on the questions that drive our politics—there’s far more disagreement than not. That Obama couldn’t bring red and blue states together isn’t a sign of his failure, it’s a sign that Americans hold fundamental—and often unresolvable—differences on key issues.

Everyone would do well to remember that the next time a politician—of any stripe—promises to bypass polarization and “bring the country together.” Yes, in the end, we’re all Americans. But that doesn’t mean we’re not partisans as well.

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