News Analysis

Saturday 23 August 2014

Divided America must reunite after bitterness of election

Published 08/11/2012 | 17:00

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This campaign was more dispiriting than uplifting, marked by nasty bipartisan warfare

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Every Monday morning, rain or shine, my five-year-old daughter, Caoimhe, enters her kindergarten classroom, puts her tiny hand on her heart, faces the star-spangled banner and pledges allegiance to the flag of America.

Tomorrow afternoon, in front of adoring parents and higher grade students, Caoimhe and her 17 pint-sized classmates will climb on to the school stage and sing patriotic songs with lyrics they barely understand, in a tribute to America's armed forces for next Monday's Veterans Day bank holiday.

As I sit writing this in my Washington DC home, our next-door neighbour's super-sized American flag flutters outside his house in the waning afternoon light. Down the street another neighbour proudly displays a 'Support Our Troops' sticker on his car.

America the great. America the beautiful. My three children, all dual Irish and US citizens, are growing up with this narrative; a storyline reinforced when Barack Obama took to the stage and said that "we are an American family and we rise and fall together as one nation".

Two days after the most contentious presidential election this country has ever seen, the prevailing national wisdom that America is the greatest country on earth has never seemed more misplaced or challenged.

With its population torn asunder by nasty partisan feuds, its economy on the brink, its infrastructure in tatters, America feels like a nation in decline.

In my leafy Washington neighbourhood, the power goes out more frequently than it did when I lived in decimated post-war Bosnia in the 1990s. Recently I spent more than $1,000 (€785) on getting the suspension replaced in my car after it was wrecked by the gargantuan-sized potholes that loom up out of nowhere on the streets of the capital Washington DC.

Up the road in New Jersey and New York, tens of thousands of middle-class Americans are without homes and electricity, victims of a super storm that exposed a neglected infrastructure and a national failure to take climate change seriously.

"I had to catch a train in Washington last week," ' New York Times' columnist Thomas Friedman wrote last April. "The paved street in the traffic circle around Union Station was in such poor condition that I felt as though I was on a roller coaster. I travelled on the Amtrak Acela, our sorry excuse for a fast train, on which I had so many dropped calls on my mobile phone that you'd have thought I was on a remote desert island, not travelling from Washington to New York.

"When I got back to Union Station, the escalator in the parking garage was broken. Maybe you've gotten used to all this and have stopped noticing. I haven't. Our country needs a renewal."

I sat through the last US election in 2008 and watched as the nation got swept away by the romance of hope and change and the possibilities that an Obama presidency would bring.

Four years ago this week my kids were unable to sleep because of the noise of cheering crowds and impromptu street parties outside our DC apartment that lasted well through the night following Obama's win.

This week there were fewer parties or crowds, just a palpable sense of relief for Democrats, who feared that a Romney presidency would mark a return to the Bush era with its war mongering and reckless tax cuts.

This campaign was more dispiriting than uplifting, marked by nasty bipartisan warfare and a barrage of television attack ads stretching over more than a year. The name-calling and character assassination is not new but it seems to be consuming the country, leaving a pervasive sense of bitterness and dysfunction.

From the shooting of Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, to the rise in death threats against the President, and the "crosshairs" target graphic used by Sarah Palin on her website, the partisan rancour at times seems to be on the verge of a violent eruption.

Watching the returns roll in on CNN on Tuesday night I was struck by how divided America has become, with the network's vast electoral computer screens showing a country evenly split -- both the east and west coasts swathed in blue for the Democrats and the vast middle, save for a spot or two, slathered entirely in Republican red.

"It's a changing country, the demographics are changing," conservative Fox news commentator Bill O'Reilly said. "It's not a traditional America anymore."

"The white establishment is now the minority," he said, an acknowledgement of the massive number of Hispanic voters who, in part, swept Obama back into power.

Obama must now govern this deeply fractured nation, and tried to offer an open hand in his victory speech.

"I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We're not as cynical as the pundits believe," he said on Tuesday.

He has no time to lose, as the clock is ticking on a financial time bomb, known as the "fiscal cliff." If the President and Congress fail to reach a deal on the debt and budget deficit by the end of the year, $607bn (€475bn) worth of automatic spending cuts and tax increases will come into force, possibly plunging the economy back into recession.

To avert disaster, Obama and his die-hard political opponents will have to find a way to work together and forge a compromise, a phenomenon that was once commonplace in Washington but is now virtually extinct.

Otherwise, they will preside over the steady decline of a fading super power.

Irish Independent

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