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Today’s divisiveness bad, but not the worst in our history

U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh far right holds up phoTammy Duckworth Democratic challenger for 8th District Congressional seshopping for dress as

U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, far right, holds up a photo of Tammy Duckworth, Democratic challenger for the 8th District Congressional seat, shopping for a dress, as they take part in their third of five debates at the Meadows Club, Rolling Meadows, Illinois, October 9, 2012. | Dom Najolia~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:31AM

America has never been so divided politically, we often hear. And it might be easy to conclude that, based on the roar of Tuesday’s Rolling Meadows debate between tea-partying Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, who’s seeking re-election in a redrawn 8th District, and Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth.

But people who believe that have not read, or remembered, much about U.S. history.

True, Congress seems uniquely unable to agree on anything. And the debate, in which an estimated 1,000 Walsh and Duckworth backers shouted and jeered at the opposing candidate and each other, may have set a new record for passion at Chicago-area debates.

Political science professor Paul Green of Roosevelt University, who moderated the slugfest, said he has participated in many regional debates but that the Walsh-Duckworth one was “sui generis — one of a kind. It had the biggest crowd. It had the most passion on both sides. It was rock ’em, sock ’em.”

At one point, the crowd’s virulence reminded Green of the thumbs-up, thumbs-down spectators to gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome. He said that if the crowd didn’t settle down, they may need to put on some togas.

“We have always had political differences” over personality and so forth. “But now we have philosophical differences” about what government should be allowed or expected to do, Green said.

And making that worse, Green says, is what he calls “the waterhole analogy.”

“When the waterholes in Africa start drying up, the animals fight over the limited resource. The same applies to people and the economy. With monetary resources so short now, people are fighting over what’s left.”

With a big mouth and no filter, Walsh also says just what he thinks — and that makes him controversial, especially after the scandal last year about his child support, or lack thereof, made him look hypocritical as a champion of family values.

A few weeks ago, a very Republican, very conservative friend of ours went to a Walsh rally and came back speaking the way the disciples Peter and Andrew must have after they first met Jesus. But a nationwide Democratic super PAC thinks that middle-of-the-roaders and liberals are so turned off by this tea party messiah that the PAC is spending $2.4 million on TV commercials aiming to link fellow Illinois GOP congressional candidates Bob Dold and Judy Biggert to some of Walsh’s more outrageous statements.

Our next-door neighbor recently hosted an in-home gathering for Walsh. A giant RV with “Vote for Joe Walsh” on its side parked in front of our house. Halfway through the meeting, shouting could be heard from next door. Whether somebody was arguing with Walsh or he just likes to “rock ’em and sock ’em,” I can’t say.

Still, Green agrees that it’s not true that America has never been so divided. “I think the Civil War might have been just a tad worse,” he says.

Yes, you might say that. A war of brother against brother over issues like state’s rights and slavery killed more Americans than both world wars put together. If you’re mad because the Democrats are forcing you to buy insurance for your employees, think how you’d feel if an army sent by northern Republicans had killed your three sons, raped your daughter and burned your barn.

You think it’s unbecoming when a congressman shouts “You lie!” during President Obama’s State of the Union message? In 1804, Aaron Burr, the vice president of the United States, shot to death former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel. True, Dick Cheney got a little careless with his shotgun while he was vice president. But can you imagine Joe Biden killing Ben Bernanke, on purpose?

Flash forward to the 1890s, another time when the rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer, and immigrants were competing for jobs. Socialists and anarchists rioted and set off terrorist bombs in Chicago, pushing either to totally eliminate government or to have the government confiscate all the factories.

In the 1930s, the economic waterhole had become even drier. Europe was dividing between racist, nationalist, war-loving fascists like Hitler and Mussolini, and true socialists like Stalin who didn’t care how many individual humans they murdered in their quest to make mankind happy. A significant number of Americans thought that capitalism and democracy weren’t working anymore and that we, too, should turn either Nazi or communist.

When I interviewed people who lived through the Great Depression, almost all looked back on President Franklin Roosevelt as a hero who held America’s hand through unemployment and a world war, started Social Security and kept people from starving. But my grandpa and grandma were convinced FDR led us needlessly into big war and big government. When Roosevelt died during his fourth term, their reaction was, “We thought that man would never die.”

Even within baby boomers’ lifetime, the 1960s were more divided than this. The economic waterhole was full. But again we had rioting in the streets as the nation split not along party lines but between old and young, between North and South, over segregation and Vietnam.

No, we’re not more divided than we’ve ever been. But one thing about this election does especially disturb me. That’s the passion against Barack Obama, generated by outright lies and crackpot conspiracy theories by email forwarders and radio-show hosts and the film documentary “2016: Obama’s America.” Many are convinced he’s a secret socialist, a secret Muslim, a secret gun-seizer — a secret hater of America who’s purposely trying to bring down the nation and make us all kneel to Allah five times a day.

Rarely has a mainstream-party candidate — not even Joe Walsh — been pictured as a traitor. And while I’ll be voting for Obama myself, I shudder to think of the anger in many quarters if he wins.

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