Scholar, documentary attempt to cover America's divided politics

Jan 14, 2020

Tonight on WNED-TV, Frontline will air the final segment of its  two-part documentary: "America's Great Divide: From Obama to Trump." The series focuses on the nation's increasingly bitter, divided and toxic politics. It's a familiar theme for UB's Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Doctor James Campbell. In 2016, he addressed the topic at the beginning of the Trump Presidency with his book, "Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America." 

"We've been having very, very polarized elections now for some time, but they're getting more so,"Campbell said.

"And we know the American public has become more polarized.  It's partly events and it's partly the parties now. The people have chosen up sides."

When it comes to the impeachment of President Trump, Campbell understands why Speaker Nancy Pelosi was originally reluctant to start the process. While many Democrats were hungry for impeachment, Campbell believes Pelosi also understood the need to play to the center where voters were more ambivalent about impeachment.

Many Americans are avoiding political discussions, feeling that it's better to remain silent than to engage in unwinnable arguments. Emotions may be running higher, but to Campbell's perspective the wide divide between parties is nothing new. 

"I think polarization in American politics is more natural than unpolarized politics."

Yes, things were different in the post-Word War Two era, Campbell notes. A majority of Americans came to an understanding that larger matters--the Depression, fighting wars across the globe--took precedence over parochial issues. He cites a study from the 1950's by the American Political Science Association.

"The complaint back then was that the parties were too muddled, that they were too moderate. They didn't present a clear choice. "

In the middle of the 20th century, the Republican Party was nearly nonexistent in the southern United States. As that began to change in the sixties, the ferocity of political opinions began to change. Party leaders, Campbell argues, shouldn't be blamed for fueling that evolution.

"I think they're responding to where the votes are," Campbell said.

"You have a much larger body of the electorate who are calling themselves conservatives and a fairly large group that call themselves liberals and they want to be represented by political leaders that reflect their views."

Research shows that conservatives have felt they have been losing on most issues in recent times. In Donald Trump, voters found a "fighter" who could "win" for them, Campbell maintains. That's reflected in the favorability ratings among Republicans. Even if Trump were to lose the White House in November, polarization is likely to continue.

"But I think there are perhaps remedies to the dysfunctional aspects of polarization. And that is the lack of civility, the unwillingness to compromise with the other side, " Campbell said.

"I think we have to work on creating a new civics in our educational system, in our broadcasting that emphasizes discussion across sides that doesn't demonize each other."

Instead, discussions should focus on ideas and how to find common ground. It should be accepted that liberals and conservatives are not going to be able to transform the other side.

Campbell encourages voters to try to understand "why we think as we do about it (politics) and, maybe, see the other side. If we see the other side, maybe we can find a way to work things out."