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America’s Bipolar Disorder


One of the greatest dangers facing American democracy today is extreme partisanship. The division of public and politics along party lines hinders political discourse and halts social progress at great costs to society. If little else, Americans can agree on that. But, as soon as you ask who is responsible for political bipolarity, people are divided: Fox News or the liberal media, fundamentalist evangelicals or the eastcoast elite, rich republicans or wealthy democrats, SUV drivers or treehuggers.

Split: A Divided America” is a documentary that shines a light on the roots and consequences of this political divide. While it can’t solve all the problems and leaves the viewer with open questions, there are still some insights to be drawn from it.

First of all, the paradigm of red states vs. blue states is a construction, and not a political reality. But, its adoption is of use for some people, which explains its popularity. Partisanship can win campaigns and makes the media’s job a little easier. Alas—it fails to describe a much more complex reality.

The 2008 documentary features well known scientists, publicists, and political activists such as Robert D. Putnam, Nicholas Kristof, Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky and Jesse Jackson.

Plus, it is remarkably bipartisan and although the producers are part of the story, they manage to step aside and let their subjects speak for themselves most of the time. In taking this approach, “Split” is a step away from the Michael Moore kind of opinionated reportages, that preach to the choir and seem to divide rather than unite.

The movie is not officially available in Europe yet, but—much to our delight—we found it on Hulu (once again, how to watch Hulu if you are outside the U.S.):

6 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Leon

    To be frank, I don’t think that the lack of bipartisanship is what is ailing American political discourse, but rather the lack of pragmatic debate within the Republican Party.

    The democrats encompass a pretty wide swath of pols, from moderate liberals to moderate conservatives. Their internal debate, their pragmatism, has led them to soften their positions on gun control and abortion, and embrace the unrestrained free market at least tentatively. The internal debate happening within the democratic party is a much more constructive one, than the one on the national level.

    The GOP hasn’t enjoyed any such evolution, and is now a rump party, boiled down to it’s most ideological elements. It seems to me a mistake to see bi-partisanship as any solution, when one side prescribes to an alternative reality of superstition, torture and outdated libertarianism. They are on the wrong side of history, and should be ostracized into the political wilderness until they’ve reconstituted themselves into a constructive political force. They are the Tories in 1997.

  2. I’m on your side that the GOP isn’t a real source of innovation. But how is that a problem? It were only a problem, if the tactic of the GOP is to widen the partisan gap and tell conservatives that they cant vote for whoever has the best concepts. Then the political process is not a battle of ideas anymore.
    That is what the documentary is more concerned about – the two parties not even living in the same reality anymore. That’s a concern I share with them, because when political discourse happens only in two disconnected spheres, society has a problem of integrating these two publics. There need to be shared ideals in order to establish some sort of deliberative public. (sorry for speaking in theoretical terms) Otherwise, there is no legitimation for the elected majority and their decisions.

  3. Leon

    Yes, I agree with all that. The two parties do live in two alternative realities, though calling the world the republicans inhabit a “reality” seems overly generous to me.

    But seriously, as things stand now, I am not that concerned about these disconnected spheres, as long as the republican one isn’t big enough to obstruct democratic legislation. Ideally, there would be constructive debate between several intellectually curious parties, but the republican party has nothing serious to contribute right now. That might read like a sweeping statement, but it isn’t. I can’t think of a single debate where they are putting fourth intellectually honest argument.

    So, reintegration of these spheres can only happen if the GOP changes. For this, to happen we have to allow them to further marginalize themselves and splinter. They are already working hard on becoming a local party, so if their sphere is a bitter 35% of the nation, I’m not particularly bothered. These things come in ebb and flows, and like the 1997 tories they might have to go through a stage of radicalization and electoral defeats, to return with some level of seriousness.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this, really interesting documentary with a lot of diverse views on the subject. Not completely sure why every American documentary has to be measured against the Michael Moore standard (which I agree are bad documentaries, but they’re good films and great agitprop). Anyhow, really pleased with the proxy server solution too. Finally I can waste away all my free time on Hulu!

    @Leon, I think it’s hard to argue against your point about the GOP lacking political innovation for quite a while now. Although saying that, I have massive respect for their political stratgists. Selling someone like George Bush to the public is a stroke of evil genius. It took the Democrats a long time to recoil from that.

    But I don’t really see how you can derive a critique of the movie’s premise from that. The film’s main point in my opinion seems to be the necessity of a bipartisan detente among the actual voting population more than among the political élite in Washington. In fact, tenet of more than just a couple of prominently featured interviewees is that the political and media culture have done a lot to exaggerate and exacerbate cultural devides which are actually far less severe and generally in a process of further decline in the population at large.

    The real problem I see with this optimistic outlook is that there is no middle ground on some issues, especially cultural ones. The choice between outlawing abortion or not is clearly a binary one. Banning certain types of abortion isn’t going to make the issue go away for fundamentalist Christians and only enrages the Democratic base. The only real hope is that over time these issues will become less divisive. And that – as the film points out correctly – also has a lot to do with the media culture and the tendency to try and polarize the debate as best possible.

  5. Leon

    “I have massive respect for their political strategists. Selling someone like George Bush to the public is a stroke of evil genius.”

    I assume you’re being facetious when you write this kind of stuff. This kind of banter is neither particularly irreverent nor particularly original. This was the mainstream position in American cable commentary for quite some time in America. Karl Rove was considered a “genius” for precisely the achievement you describe. Regardless of the morass his candidate had driven the country into, his success vindicated him, like Reagan a generation before. But if success alone has the ability to vindicate, then we might admire effective aerial bombing campaigns, regardless of their morality. Luckily, in America we do exactly that.

    Even assuming that you are the kind of hack simply fascinated by campaigns as sporting events, even then your admiration would be misplaced. You see, as political strategists, the people who sold George W. Bush failed miserably. It was their aim to bind a generation to the Republican party; instead they lost a generation to the democrats and rendered their miserable party unelectable. Much to admire there…

    Surely the media exacerbate cultural divides; they often do this is by overemphasizing what little divide there actually is. Contrary to your assertion, abortion is a great example of this exacerbation. If you look at the polls, the number of Americans who think abortion should be outlawed are in a small minority (20% or so). The number of people who want it to be legal with greater restrictions* on the other hand, is about as big as the number of those who want the current laws to stay in place (40% a piece). What that means is that there are gray areas on the abortion question, gray areas democrats like Obama have been pandering too quite successfully with their campaign rhetoric (“No-one likes abortion.”) So, the abortion question is far from a binary one. But watching cable news, one wouldn’t know of this middle ground.

    *It ought to be noted that America has relatively liberal abortion laws, (especially compared to a country like Germany) so this isn’t as radical a position as it may seem.

  6. Chill, man, we’re on the same side of the issue here. No reason to go all attack-addy on me…

    OK, so ‘respect’ was probably slightly misphrased since you seem to feel so strongly about it. I think it’s a minor point, since you clearly could tell what I was saying, but clearly I meant it more in terms of ‘wonderment’ without the moral judgement you imply.

    I’m unsure as to why you think that campaign strategy and political rhetoric are such a negligible field of study. I’m pretty sure I share the magnitude of your negative feelings toward the Bush years, but that certainly doesn’t preclude analysis – not just to see how distasteful and intellectually dishonest the Bushies were, but also to learn how to beat them. And just to be clear, by ‘learn’ I am refering to campaign strategy, not how to start illegal wars killing countless innocent people and then allowing your own cronies to rebuild the infrastructure of the country you just flattened.

    And I do think you can be impressed with the former without showing any respect for the latter. ‘Winning’ an election with an obviously inferior candidate is impressive despite the way they went about it. Destroying a country with a particularly vicious and disproportionate bombing campaign isn’t impressive at all. It’s downright despicable.

    But regarding the substance of your argument – I’m perfectly willing to agree that a strategy of polarizing the electorate has the potential to backfire, but the circumstances have to be right. The Democrats are exceedingly lucky that Bush turned out to be the inept fool that he was. Because had his modern day crusade proved more successful or his so-called economic policy actually (admittedly miraculously) worked out better, then I can hardly imagine there being anywhere near the kind of backlash. Yet.

    In parallel to the bubbles bursting all around us economcally speaking, the Republican administration represented a bubble in its own right: the vast majority of mainstream Republican policies are obviously counterproductive, unsustainable and can never work. But as long as they are perceived as being successful, they are very hard to dispute.

    But then a lot of the time, the issues placed left, right and center in Republican talking points were divisive cultural issues. Abortion is a prime example of course.

    My point here was that the issue can’t go away because it can’t be conclusively resolved. There will always be people on both sides of the aisle fundamentally unhappy with the status quo. I do not mean that you can’t have a moderate position on abortion. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s one of the issues where having a completely congruous position with anyone else is very rare indeed because so many factors and considerations come into play.

    But at some point, legally, there is an either/or decision to be made. Can this specific abortion be carried out or not? At what point in a pregnancy and under what circumstances this question occurs can undergo shifts, but the question as it applies to each individual case doesn’t go away. Now everyone is aware of this and no prominent Republican figure, believe it or not, wants to completely outlaw abortion. When they favor overturning Row v. Wade, the idea is generally to return to issue to the states, in effect reestablishing the unjust patchwork system that existed pre-1973, denying abortion to poor rural Southerners while leaving it easily available to affluent New Englanders. Others want to establish it as an individual issue, allowing doctors and pharmacists to opt out of any birth control procedures for ‘moral reasons’.

    Now I wish you’d share your sources for your numbers, as they don’t exactly match the recent polling I found (cf. Gallup polls / Pew Research Poll). However, when you say some people (40%?) want greater restrictions – these can of course range from slight adjustments in the medically antiquated trimester rule advocated in Justice Blackmun’s majority opinion in Roe to outlawing the practice generally for any reason except a risk to the mother’s life. So those numbers are amazingly fuzzy too.

    To sum up again where I think you were (slightly on purpose may I add) missing my point: On the macro-level this is (obviously) a complicated grey-area issue with lots of room for both parties to go pandering around to their constituents. On the micro-level on the other hand, when the law is actually applied in each individual setting, the question is binary, whether or not the procedure can go ahead.

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