Are Smashed Windows Signs Of Cultural Divide?

Window i i

This picture provided on Wednesday, March 24, 2010 by the Monroe County Democratic Committee in Rochester, N.Y. shows damage to their office after a glass door was struck with a brick with a note reading "Exremism [sic] in Defense of Liberty Is no Vice" sometime from late Saturday, March 20, 2010 or Sunday, March 21, 2010. AP Photo/Monroe County Democratic Committee hide caption

itoggle caption AP Photo/Monroe County Democratic Committee
Window

This picture provided on Wednesday, March 24, 2010 by the Monroe County Democratic Committee in Rochester, N.Y. shows damage to their office after a glass door was struck with a brick with a note reading "Exremism [sic] in Defense of Liberty Is no Vice" sometime from late Saturday, March 20, 2010 or Sunday, March 21, 2010.

AP Photo/Monroe County Democratic Committee

While Congress debated the health care bill, passions flared among protesters outside the Capitol building. Some shouted slurs at Democratic congress members, and carried signs expressing passionate objection to the bill.

Since Sunday, doors and windows have been smashed at the offices of several Democrats who voted in favor of the bill, and the FBI briefed lawmakers on threats to their security.

And on the left, some who support the President denounce anyone who disagrees as racist or paranoid.

But is the American public today any more divided than in prior periods — during the tumult of the 60s, or the Bush and Clinton eras? Guests place the tense climate in historical context. Tell us: What period in U.S. history does this remind you of?

Guests:

Robert Dallek, presidential historian

Heather Mac Donald, fellow at the Manhattan Institute

Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University, and author of Dark Days, Bright Nights

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Many Americans passionately believe that justice will not be served until former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney answer for war crimes in the Hague. Others are equally convinced that President Barack Obama is leading the U.S. on the path to socialist totalitarianism. Some on the left denounce the president's detractors as racists. Others on the right charge Speaker Nancy Pelosi with fascism.

Since Sunday, doors and windows have been smashed at the offices of a few Democrats who voted in favor of the health care bill. Republican Eric Canter says somebody put a bullet through his office window in Virginia.

And it's not just one issue. A House divided can refer to the party-line vote on Sunday night or to Abraham Lincoln's ominous reference before the Civil War, and yes, we have heard whispers of secession in recent years from red states and blue.

What period in American history does this recall for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Marc Morial, of the National Urban League, on the state of black America. But first, we start with historian Robert Dallek, who joins us by phone. His forthcoming book is "The Lost Peace: Leadership in the Time of Triumph and Hope." And Robert Dallek, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Author, "The Lost Peace: Leadership in the Time of Triumph and Hope"): Good to be with you.

CONAN: And does this current political moment remind you of another in American history?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, of many others in American history. But there are, of course, variations on this. In the 1920s, the country was bitterly divided between the urban modernists and the rural fundamentalists, and it was played out in something like the Scopes trial in Tennessee, played out in the bitter recriminations over the Sacco-Vanzetti case, and over the National Origins Act of 1924 that put into place an immigration statute that, when Lyndon Johnson threw it out in 1965, he called it, essentially, a racist law.

And so there are periods in American history where we have fierce acrimony. Now, I don't know that it's quite as ugly as when you get people throwing bricks through a congressman's office window, but there is a long history of lots of tensions in this country.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Steve(ph) in Jonesboro, Arkansas: Having a master's of arts and history and having taught this subject in high school for some three decades, I find today's discussion important. The U.S. has certainly experienced serious political division in its past, early national period with Alien and Sedition Acts, the War of 1812, the sectional period of the 1820, 1860; and the civil rights, Vietnam War period.

However, while these earlier divisive periods had rather single or limited foci, it seems that today's divisions are as multifaceted as they are deep. I fear our nation may have become both too populous and too diverse to be governable.

While in 1790, the U.S. had some four million rather homogenized citizens, only five percent of whom were urban, the 2000 census shows over 290 million very heterogeneous citizens with over 81 percent urban. Will the old model still work?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, it's an interesting point that he's making, now that we have a country of some 310 million people. But on the other hand, the country has always had a great deal of diversity in terms of race and religion, and that's why, of course, the founding fathers put into place the proposition about separation of church and state. They didn't want there to be any established religion which could then oppress minority religions.

It's a balancing act. It's a struggle to keep things in balance, and they never seem to quite be fully in balance. But you know, the country did have, of course, that horrible Civil War in which some 620,000 Americans perished, but we do manage to hold together.

I don't want to be Pollyannaish. There have been some terrible moments, with lynchings and riots in the inner cities and terrible recrimination over things like the Vietnam War, but and even 1968, I'm sure you recall, Neal, the riots in Chicago at the Democratic convention. There was a French tourist agent who advertised: See America while it lasts.

But we're still here, and I'm hopeful that the and also the fact that the country could elect an African-American as president in 2008 says something about the acceptance of diversity and of the willingness of the country to apply a kind of equal standard to all people.

CONAN: Let's get another voice into the conversation. Heather Mac Donald is with us. She's a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor of the institute's City Journal and joins us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York. And thanks very much for taking the time out to be with us today.

Ms. HEATHER MAC DONALD (Fellow, Manhattan Institute; Contributing Editor, City Journal): Thanks, Neal, although I have to say I can't really hear you. We've got some problems with the connection.

CONAN: Can you hear me better now?

Ms. MAC DONALD: No.

CONAN: Well, why don't we see if we can get that fixed, and we'll bring you back in as soon as you can hear me, because it doesn't do a lot of good if you can't.

Ms. MAC DONALD: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, and let's go to David, and David's calling us from Tulsa.

DAVID (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. David, can you hear me?

DAVID: Yeah, I can. I was taking you off speaker. You know, a point was just being alluded to about Vietnam. And in my memory, that was kind of the last time of a lot of vitriol in this country. And interesting that it came right on the heels of certain people kind of losing their point of view, regarding the whole Civil Rights Act and everything.

And then during Vietnam, there was a mentality of people that were talking about love it or leave it, with bumper stickers and all. And if it's not the same people, it's that same mentality that we're criticizing. Protestors are now saying, oh, we've got us a Tea Party protest going on. And it's just interesting. Why is it okay for some people to protest one thing but other people not to protest something else, you know, and...

CONAN: Well, it's different times and different causes, and it's certainly all right for Americans to protest at any period in time. And in any case, I think we have Heather Mac Donald back with us from New York. Can you hear me better now?

Ms. MAC DONALD: Yes, and you're not silenced. So I guess we have free debate now, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead. Thanks very much for being with us. I don't know if you got a chance to hear David's phone call, but he was talking about the period in the 1960s as a period of another great divisions within the country and times when protests were driving the country apart - though at that time, protestors from the left, and indeed a lot of people from the right, saying love it or leave it, something that's sort of switched around a little bit now.

Ms. MAC DONALD: Well, I do think that the '60s were a period of much more worrisome and radical division than today. What we have today is a heightened rhetoric that I think talk radio has definitely fueled, but what is essentially a political debate about, recently, the health I do think health care is the biggest flashpoint. But that is not striking at the very essence of what the American way of life has been, which I think the '60s with the youth revolt, did challenge.

And the degree of animosity and hatred that was expressed then, I think, is much worse than today. It feels worse, I think, now because of the amplifying effects of talk radio that does lead to a tendency towards extreme rhetoric, and I think the...

CONAN: Throw the Internet in there, too.

Ms. MAC DONALD: The hate gestures that you have talked about are completely deplorable, cowardly and juvenile, but I think it's perfectly appropriate for people to worry about the direction of the economy under this health care reform bill.

CONAN: Well, you talked about one health care bill, one issue. Do you not think that the flashpoint would be just as intense if the issue had been, oh, immigration?

Ms. MAC DONALD: No, I do think that what we're seeing now is a classic liberal attempt to take over too much parts of the economy. I'm also getting some feedback.

CONAN: We'll try to fix that.

Ms. MAC DONALD: Okay, thank you. And yes, immigration reform did produce a lot of pushback before, but I think that people do have a sense that Obama is pushing too far. On the other hand, this is really a difference of degree, not of kind. Obama is a standard-issue liberal, and the right has not been accustomed to this, and I think they are overdoing the threat that he poses.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation, and we'll go to Mary(ph), Mary with us from Sonoma.

MARY (Caller): Good afternoon, thank you for taking my call. I really have strong fears that the vitriol we're seeing has been unmatched in this country except for the times of our North against South, which of course led to a Civil War.

I have political commentary on the tailgate of my pickup truck. I had a man throw an apple at me as I was driving the other day. It hit me in the side of my face. I've had people key my truck, and it is it's a situation, I believe, where the majority of Americans feel as though our Congress is not governing with the consent of the governed. And I only thank God that those of us that are conservatives, patriots, are the ones who advocate and uphold the Second Amendment because I believe we may see, if this economy is allowed to collapse because of the socialist leanings of this government, that we will end up having to be the armed militia that the Constitution laid out for us.

Ms. MAC DONALD: That's certainly worrisome. You know, those types of sentiments I think are worrisome, and I do fault a lot of talk radio hosts for turning Obama into the very embodiment of the left and of socialism. I just think that that's a grotesque exaggeration.

You know, we've had a highly regulated economy for the last three decades, and Medicare was a massive government program. And for the right to complain about cutbacks in Medicare I think is a little hypocritical because they now are claiming it's an entitlement.

CONAN: Mary, we're up against the break, but thank you very much for the call, appreciate it, and we hope the situation in your case calms down. Getting your car keyed is no fun and certainly not getting apples thrown at you, appreciate it.

We're talking about the divisions among us and in the country, 800-989-8255. What period in American history does this remind you of? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

At least 10 members of Congress have reported some sort of threat since the House took up a vote on the health care bill on Sunday night. We've seen protests get heated, even out of hand.

In one incident in Ohio, according to the Columbus Dispatch, a protestor threw dollar bills at a man with Parkinson's Disease, yelling: I'll pay for this guy. Chris Reichert now says he snapped and that he's sorry and that he's scared. And to make up for it, he says he donated to a Parkinson's disease group.

These moments expose divides in the country, but we've seen divisive days before. What period in U.S. history does this remind you of? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our Web site, too. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are historian Robert Dallek, who is working on a new book, "The Lost Peace: Leadership In A Time Of Horror and Hope," and Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at the institute's City Journal. And joining us now is Peniel Joseph, a professor of history at Tufts University. His most recent book is "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama." He's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. PENIEL JOSEPH (Professor of History, Tufts University; Author, "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama"): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And this period, does it remind you of a certain period in American history?

Mr. JOSEPH: Well, certainly. I think the comparisons with the 1960s make a lot of sense. But in terms of the real violent rhetoric and the anti-statist rhetoric coming from some critics, if we go back to the era of reconstruction, 1865 to 1877, and then the period after, the period of redemption, we really do see at the local level people trying to take matters into their own hands and really being critics of the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which basically provide for emancipation, citizenship and voting suffrage for black males.

And so at the local level, in places like Mississippi and Texas and South Carolina, we're really going to see talk of really a renewed civil war, talk of nullification, the advent of an institutionalization of Jim Crow in a systematic way, and really things like shotgun policy in Mississippi, where laws to protect the rights of African-Americans are circumvented not just through black codes and through sharecropping and through convict lease but really through violence and terror at the local level.

And by the time we get to the 1950s and '60s, what we're seeing is that Jim Crow regime in its modern face, and that's where we think about King and Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and civil rights marches.

CONAN: As it began to erode.

Mr. JOSEPH: Absolutely.

CONAN: Robert Dallek, does the illusion strike you as apt?

Mr. DALLEK: Yes, absolutely. And you know, what I'd like to chime in with is the point that the current mood, I think, is influenced by a lot of anxiety over the economy and people fearful about losing their jobs, losing their income, and this of course always heightens the tensions and worries in the country.

What's really amazing to me is that, for example, in the 1930s when we went through that awful economic collapse, there were radical voices out there that were so pronounced and calling for really a kind of upheaval that could have transformed the society.

And yet, and yet there is a kind of mooring to our system, the institutions that we continue to live by, that seem to hold us together. And I think a lot of it has to do with what a historian at Stanford, David Potter, once called people of plenty, the fact that at the end of the day, there really is such a great deal of affluence in this country.

I don't want to minimize the fact that there is poverty, and people do suffer from it, but by and large, there is considerable affluence, and people become anxious about threats to that stability, and but the rhetoric and I agree with Ms. Mac Donald that, you know, this kind of mass media 24/7 is just such a point of agitation for so many people, and they chime in.

I know if I write an op-ed piece I had one in the Times of London the other day and the comments that you see are over the top. My son, who does a lot of writing on the Internet, he wrote one about taxes, and people were cursing him, and really the vulgarity and the volatility.

So, I mean, I think there are always social discontents in this country that add to this, but so far, at least, the institutions that bind the country together seem to be stronger than those that tear it apart.

CONAN: And that's what I wanted to ask you about, Heather Mac Donald. Is what holds us together stronger than what drives us apart in an age when it seems everybody's a member of an aggrieved minority?

Ms. MAC DONALD: I completely agree with Professor Dallek and with you, Neal. I just think the rhetoric is different than the reality today. I think the reality, again in the '60s, when you had youth saying, you know, let's drop out of society and join and ashram and challenging bourgeois values of hard work and self, you know, deferred gratification, that really was a challenge to American society.

I think today you have hot heads and hot voices, and I think again, talk radio can be a poison on the land, but basically the conservatives and liberals lead fairly similar lives. They embrace similar values, and we all are Americans.

I mean, Obama is an American, and to demonize him I think is a big mistake. And we are going to pull through this. Again, this recent health care bill, it is extremely unfortunate that Congress and the president decided to ignore public opinion, but it is an extension of a part of American politics that we've lived with for a long time, which is the liberal notion that it can knows better than market players about how to regulate the economy.

So I think, you know, we'll survive this, and I think ultimately, despite the hot rhetoric, people really do, I hope, understand that our institutions are strong. And the solution is the ballot box, not throwing bricks through windows, which is simply atrocious behavior.

CONAN: Let's go next to Greg(ph), and Greg's on the line from Tallahassee.

GREG (Caller): Thanks, Neal. My comment was that I think that a lot of the problems that we're seeing, whether you look at the vitriol about health care most recently or immigration coming up, or if you tied this to any of the periods in American history, it seems to me that you could look at those most contentious and divisive periods as periods where the federal government made some kind of decisive policy decision for everybody.

So for all the talk about diversity and the exacerbation of, you know, the differences between people, you know, there didn't seem to be this kind of vitriol when Massachusetts enacted health care across the state because you could say, well, you know, that's them. I don't care about that.

CONAN: And you could move to Vermont if you want to.

GREG: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So we've got a mechanism to handle a lot of these disagreements, which are going to be more and more exacerbated by increasing diversity in the country, and that is the mechanism of federalism by allowing states and local governments to make those decisions for themselves.

CONAN: Well, let me put this thesis to Peniel Joseph. In the '60s, of course, you had people reacting, as you suggested, to the civil rights legislation. You also had people reacting to the federal government's role in enacting and enforcing the draft and the war in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, whipsawed between two fires.

Mr. JOSEPH: Well, this is really about a debate at its core between what kind of democracy are we going to have. When we look at the Tea Partiers, they're going back to we talk about Senator Calhoun of South Carolina and Calhoun conservatives who have a very specific vision of American democracy, the talk about nullification, 1830s, don't believe in the rights of citizenship for blacks, voting rights for women.

Then there's another vision, expansive vision, of American democracy, that I would argue in the 20th century is crystallized in FDR's New Deal. Even presidents like Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower actually further consolidate the New Deal, massive expenditures for highways and for the suburbanization of America, continued industrialization of America. And then what Lyndon Johnson does in 1965 with Medicare and Medicaid and immigration reform and the Voting Rights Act, which is passed on August 6th, 1965, is consolidate a further extension of that New Deal.

What's interesting about Obama is that Obama becomes somebody who is thwarting what Ronald Reagan did, because Ronald Reagan is really a behemoth in terms of our history. He's a monumental figure because what he did was constrain the growth of government by arguing that big government did not work. What Obama does...

CONAN: Not the solution, it's the problem.

Mr. JOSEPH: It's the problem. What Obama does 27 years later in his inauguration speech, 28 years later, he says it's not about whether government is too big or small, it's about whether or not it works. And so what we see with the health care passage is the biggest piece of social legislation in the past 45 years, and implicitly, it's a piece of legislation that's trying to end the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots.

We have the biggest social inequality and economic inequality gap in America since the Gilded Age. And what this bill does is really try to have a vision of American democracy that's very expansive, that's very multicultural, multiclass, multi-generational. Think of the young people who are going to be able to be on their parents' insurance until the age of 26. So this is continuing FDR's vision without - people have criticized Obama for not having a big vision, a big picture.

We can say - we can see what kind of liberal he is just through this enactment of health care. He doesn't have to call it the Great Society. He doesn't have to say he's going to do a war on poverty, and quite frankly, that wouldnt work in our current political climate.

CONAN: I'm sure Heather Mac Donald has a different characterization of the -what's happened in the past couple of weeks and, indeed, the Obama presidency. But, nevertheless, I did want to ask you, Heather Mac Donald, about - it does seem that there are periods - and Greg, thanks very much for the phone call -periods of reaction in - after long periods of Republican rule when a Democrat takes office, and you saw this in Clinton years, too. There were - there was visceral reaction to a Democratic president then, who had - he tried get health care through but, otherwise, more - less ambitious goals than Barack Obama.

Ms. MAC DONALD: Well, I think both sides suffer from amnesia. They forget that they're engaged in the exact same behavior that they criticize their opponents of engaging in in the previous administration. So I - you know, I would hope that conservatives or Republicans would be a little more rational about themselves and about the opposition. The demonization of Clinton was way over the top and so, when liberals now said that the criticism of Obama is race-based, they forget that Clinton was accused of simply wild, you know, crimes that was - without any evidence whatsoever.

And also, conservatives forget that they were very hotheaded about criticism of Bush. I think the media, too, is a little bit unself-aware because I don't remember outlets like NPR brewing so much about accusations like Naomi Wolfs against Bush that he was leading us to fascism and that Republican poll watchers were the equivalent brownshirts. So, you know, what feels extreme to a certain extent is based on your own political outlook.

CONAN: And where you sit, yeah.

Ms. MAC DONALD: It may seem to many people that, say, opposition to racial preferences is an attack on the very core of civil rights, and that that is something that is deplorable. Other people might say that that analogy is extremist. So I do think that both sides tend to forget their own tendency towards extreme rhetoric when theyre not - when they're on the receiving end of it.

CONAN: We're talking with Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, with historian Robert Dallek and historian Peniel Joseph. Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to - this is Cyll(ph), Cyll calling us from St. Louis.

CYLL (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CYLL: In some ways, what is happening now does remind me of the civil rights era of the '60s. I have looked at some of the news reports when they have the shots of the people holding their signs. And a lot of those signs are very racist slogans about Obama, and we can't deny that. And some of these same people who say these racist things or have these racist signs or who curse Obama, if you ask them if they were a Christian, they would say, I'm a Christian and I'm not racist.

I was appalled that Sarah Palin advised the Tea Party folks to - not to retreat but to reload. When I hear the word reload, I think of a gun. I mean, that certainly, to me, did not send a very positive message.

CONAN: Well, let me ask Robert Dallek. There was interestingly a figure that we can cite from both examples, of course, that's John Lewis who was - we had on this program, remembering the 1965 march in Selma, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge when he was, of course, beaten and eventually made that march. But, of course, he was among those in Congress just this past weekend who was on the receiving end of some nasty epithets. The difference, Robert Dallek, is in those days that John Lewis was an outsider, very much a young organizer, and now is one - a long-established member of Congress, an exemplar of the state.

Mr. DALLEK: Yeah. That's a very good point. There has, of course, been a huge sea change in this country in terms of race relations. Again, I don't want to be Pollyannaish or suggest that there's no racism in this country. There is plenty of it, but the tone of things is very different in that regard - and as I said before, the very fact that we could have an African-American as a president.

You know, Neal, I think in part all these rhetorical outbursts that we get in the country may be a way of giving people a catharsis rather than, you know, going to the extremes and doing violent things which, of course, occasionally does happen, but the rhetoric may be a form of outlet.

I think back to the French novelist Honore de Balzac, who once said that praise be for the taverns in France, that the working folks would go there on weekends and work of all sorts of energy by drinking. And he said, if it werent for that, we'd have a revolution in France every Monday morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DALLEK: So I mean, it may be that this rhetoric provides an outlet. Now, I'm not celebrating it nor am I inclined to say, oh, good. It's ugly, as Ms. Mac Donald said, and it's uncalled for. It's so hyperbolic and unnecessary and unproductive of anything, and does add to the tensions and agitation in the country.

CONAN: And it will be interesting to see if this kind of intensity can be sustained between now and November, the next election day, whether this is going to be one arc moving up through a long summer or whether this is going to be something that is episodic and sporadic. It'd be interesting to see. But anyway, thank you all for joining us today. We appreciate your time. Heather Mac Donald, I'm hoping that wasn't your line going away, but we wanted to thank you for your time and putting up with our technical problems.

Ms. MAC DONALD: Thank you.

CONAN: Heather Mac Donald, a fellow with the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute City Journal, joined us from the Radio Foundation in New York City. Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tuft's, whose most recent book is, "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama," with us here in Studio 3A. Thank you very much. And Robert Dallek's upcoming book is "The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope." And thanks to you all.

When we come back, we're going to be talking with Marc Morial about the state of black America. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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