Young and old, black and white, Republican or Democrat, so many in the area found accord on the notion of discord — even if the lens through which they viewed this division was filtered by their own unique perspectives and experiences.
Madeline Abbitt, a lobbyist who works in Richmond but lives in Appomattox County, sees polarization as a rural vs. urban issue. ‘‘I could look at the people in my condo unit (in Richmond) and I bet out of about 300 people, two might know what a deer is,’’ she said, only half-joking about those who likely oppose hunting and groups such as the National Rifle Association. ‘‘And you get out here, and you may know two or three people who know a gay couple.’’
Joe Day, the African-American chair of the Appomattox County Democratic Committee, views America’s differences through the prism of race. He recalls the slurs scrawled across Obama signs in 2008 and finds little progress in race relations four years later, even with the president’s re-election.
‘‘It’s still racism,’’ said Day, bemoaning the percentage of black teens in detention centers and a lack of black faces in city jobs. ‘‘Mr. Obama might be the first black president and we might've seen history. But there’s no unity in America.’’
Jan Greene, visiting the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park on her way to a convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, sees parallels between what divided us in the 1800s and today. ‘‘I think especially in the South we are still very resentful of big government,’’ said Greene, who lives in Bradenton, Fla. ‘‘Washington has taken over more and more aspects of our lives.’’ Still, she added, ‘‘The South doesn’t have the strength to rise again.’’
Brickhill, the lawyer, lives in nearby Lynchburg, home to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church. Before the election, The Lynchburg Ledger newspaper published a column called ‘‘Can a Christian Vote for a Mormon?’’ — making the case for why those in the local Christian community could vote for Mitt Romney for president, even if a ‘‘Mormon would be unacceptable’’ in any leadership position in a Christian church.
Brickhill finds his community polarized along religious lines, certainly, but also ‘‘politically, socially, socio-economically. We’re polarized by our affinity for local collegiate teams. It’s either Virginia or Virginia Tech, and we are on the dividing line here.’’
Perhaps these deep divisions have always been there, stemming from long-ago wounds that never mended or stereotypes formed via our peers or our parents or the place we call home.
Perhaps we just feel more divided because, as Elder suggested, we are more exposed to our dissimilarities in this very loud Facebook, Twitter, anonymous-online-comment-driven world, where everyone seems more emboldened to point out our many differences no matter the consequences.
And yet there are consequences, and so the question begs asking: Where is the line between a polarized America that is productive and one that is destructive?
Among the many lines dividing us, where and when do we draw this one in the sand?
‘‘Democracy is not about achieving agreement. It’s about figuring out how to live together when we don’t agree,’’ said social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote a pre-election column in The New York Times dishearteningly titled: ‘‘Look How Far We've Come Apart.’’
Haidt is among those who believe that polarization itself isn’t a bad thing. ‘‘The competition between ideas can be healthy,’’ he noted, ‘‘or it can turn toxic.’’
Unfortunately all signs before this election were pointing toward toxic. He cited a few studies, including research showing that Congress is more ideologically polarized than at any time since the end of the Civil War, a downward spiral that began with the cultural wars of the 1960s and ‘70s during which the Democrats became ‘‘the party of civil rights’’ and the Republicans aligned themselves with the religious right.
Of course it’s tempting to write that off as a Washington problem among the so-called political ‘‘elites.’’ Not so. Everyday Americans feel more hostility and dislike toward those from the opposite party than at any time since the American National Election Studies began polling on the subject in the 1970s.
And these feelings go beyond where one side or the other comes down on any particular issue.
‘‘Politics has become a litmus test now for all kinds of things,’’ said Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford whose research on polarization finds the lines blurring between political differences and how one chooses to relate on a personal level.Continued...