From Turmoil to Stability

The American public being fired up over hot-button issues is nothing new.

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"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.


Polarization. Anger. Resentment. Violence. It's all happened before, just as it's happening now. It's part of the cyclical nature of American politics. But based on history, Americans can look forward to the likelihood that this, too, shall pass.

As President Barack Obama regularly points out, the horrendous shooting incidents in Connecticut, Colorado and elsewhere have shocked the nation. And he is using these incidents to argue for stronger gun control measures. To some, however, the problem is more fundamental. They see a society unhinged.

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But experts say that goes too far. America has endured similar bouts of violence at other times. Take the 1960s when three assassinations – of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy – made the country seem out of control and undergoing a nervous breakdown. But the United States eventually settled down, and the dark forces in our culture receded into the background.

Polarization is also nothing new. America was polarized in the 1960s and early '70s over the Vietnam war and wedge issues such as abortion, law and order, civil rights, feminism and the counter culture. The nation was polarized in the early '80s over Ronald Reagan's conservative policies. The nation was polarized in the '90s over Bill Clinton's sex-and-lies scandal. The nation was polarized in the early 2000s over the Iraq War under George W. Bush.

Today, the nation is polarized over President Obama and his perceived move to the left, as seen in his health care law, his economic policies that call for increasing taxes on the rich, and his support for gun control and gay marriage.

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Historian Robert Dallek goes back even further in history. He says, "In the 1920s, our country was very badly divided between the modernists mainly in the urban centers, and fundamentalists centered in small towns and rural areas." When the stock market crashed in 1929 and the economy went into a catastrophic decline, millions of Americans were thrown out of work and into a pit of desperation. It took a remarkable leader – President Franklin D. Roosevelt – to unite the country under an economic vision of government activism that he called the New Deal.

FDR was at heart an experimenter. He would try one approach, and, if it failed, he would try something else. Ideology was less important to him than pragmatism – finding what worked. He started out as a budget balancer. This soon gave way to FDR the deficit spender.

He didn't end the Depression, but he became beloved to millions of Americans by creating safety nets for many who were down on their luck. His legacy included programs such as Social Security for the elderly and public-works projects for the unemployed.

Many thought that President Obama would be a transformational leader in the mold of Roosevelt when he was elected in 2008. He did make history as the first African-American president but he has been more conventional, not path-breaking as FDR was. And Obama has been unable to unite the country or tame the opposition. Historians say that, to be transformational, he needs to capture the imagination of the country, which he hasn't done.

Beyond policy, it's in the political arena that Obama is showing signs of really changing the landscape. Roosevelt formed a new and enduring coalition, combining the big northern cities with the South behind his New Deal, along with union members, African-Americans and working-class people. Obama has formed another coalition based on Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and other minorities; unmarried women, young people and new voters. It's unclear whether this will be as enduring a coalition as Roosevelt's but it has won two presidential elections for Obama and has enormous potential for the future.

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One problem for effective government is the overly zealous and inflexible factions within each major party that can block pragmatic solutions. "The left and the right are mirror images of each other," Dallek says. "Both see cabals and conspiracies out here, and they see people in power threatening you and abusing you."

But Americans are, at heart, results-oriented problem solvers, and in the end it's likely that they will find common ground. Americans might have to do it themselves, perhaps state by state or community by community, if the president and members of Congress don't lead the way. But based on history, it's likely that the current period of turmoil and change will lead to a period of stability and some degree of consensus.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com, and followed on Facebook and Twitter.