America, on election's brink, is at odds with itself

Saturday, October 30th 2004, 11:44 am
By: News On 6

The battle for Bob James' front yard has been venomous, rancorous, vicious _ a small-scale replica, in other words, of America in the jaws of Campaign 2004.

It started when James, an Army veteran of the Gulf War, planted Bush-Cheney yard signs _ many, many such signs _ on his corner lot on London Road in Duluth, Minn., along with two 4-by-8-foot plywood signs of his own pro-President Bush design.

Then James' son caught a 22-year-old man painting ``war'' on one of the big signs.

Then, that same night, two 17-year-olds tried to make off with some of his yard signs.

Then, at 4 a.m. on Sept. 12, three teenagers defaced the signs, one of them spray-painting a swastika on the sidewalk.

Some might be surprised that this happened in Duluth, a quiet city of 87,000 souls on Lake Superior, in a state so soft-spoken that it is renowned for its ``Minnesota Nice.'' But folks there say Duluth is no different from the rest of the United States these days.

It is angry. It is often uncivil. It is divided.

This is ``the most divided America in the recent memory of our country,'' said John Kerry at the third presidential debate. Typically, the candidates disagreed as to why _ Kerry blamed Bush, and Bush blamed Washington's partisanship.

In Duluth, the division can be measured by Bob James' defaced signs _ but also by Duke Skorich's daily golf game at Northland Country Club, where friends of 30 years' standing can discuss just about everything, except politics. Too close to the bone.

``I think right now it is probably as bad as I've seen it in my 33 years of living in this community,'' says Skorich, a ``Humphrey Democrat'' who hosts a radio call-in show on KUWS.

It can be measured in the deliberations of a group of young leaders convened by the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation to consider the community's needs. The No. 1 issue, according to executive director Holly Sampson: ``Improving the quality of public debate.''

It can be measured in the reaction earlier this year when Mayor Herb Bergson and a deeply split city council, under threat of court action, decided to move a Ten Commandments monument from the spot outside City Hall where it sat for nearly a half century.

There were death threats and hateful phone calls and e-mail messages _ even though the monument was actually a promotional tool for the 1956 movie ``The Ten Commandments,'' and even though it only listed nine commandments (``no graven images'' was missing).

``Some of the language was not Christian language,'' Bergson says. ``It's not OK to curse in the name of God.''

``The roots of grumpiness are deep. It's not just George Bush and Kerry,'' says Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist whose book ``Bowling Alone'' argued that Americans are participating less and less in civic life.

``There's an absence of friendship across borders _ and I think that's close to being the most important problem this country faces ...,'' he says. ``Half of us watch Fox and half of us watch CNN. We don't even live in the same country anymore.''

Of course, the idea of a contentious America is not new. When John Jay helped negotiate a controversial treaty with Great Britain in 1795, a graffiti artist in Boston didn't take it well: ``Damn John Jay!'' he wrote. ``Damn everyone who won't damn John Jay!! Damn everyone that won't put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!''

And older Americans can recall the vitriol aimed at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. ``There were people who would not go outdoors if Eleanor was in town,'' says Michael Schudson, author of ``The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life.''

Still, John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University and author of the forthcoming book ``Attacking Democracy: A Defense of Negativity in Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000,'' says divisiveness has increased in recent years _ and that's not a bad thing.

``The right way to think about it is, as we've grown in our disagreements, along with that comes divisiveness,'' Geer says. ``Thirty years ago, 20 years ago, everybody was complaining that the parties were not different, we had no choice. We have that now, and they're upset.

``There's higher interest, higher voter registration. More bumper stickers, more yard signs. Things matter more. This is all to the good.''

It doesn't always seem that way in Duluth.

``People view the other person as basically stupid if they support John Kerry or George Bush,'' says Andy Peterson, director of public policy for the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. ``When candidates come to town, people get angry at people they know who show up....

``I try to stay away from the politicians as much as possible.''

This is a city that has always had strong civic participation _ voter turnout for municipal elections routinely reaches 60 to 70 percent, says Donny Ness, a city councilman. As many as 85 percent may vote on Nov. 2.

Duluth already is split historically _ between the west side, where laborers settled when Duluth was a mining and lumber capital in the 19th century, and the east side, where businessmen resided. That split remains to some degree, particularly in battles over development issues.

Add the abrasive voices that are heard everywhere in America, on syndicated talk radio and cable channels. The area has its own homegrown radio shows, too _ among them the liberal Skorich and conservative Lew Latto, whose ``Tabernacle of Truth'' airs daily on WDSM.

``People see civic involvement as getting involved with similarly minded people and having their own views confirmed,'' Ness says. Talk radio, Internet chat and discussion groups ``lead folks down the paths of being more narrow in their perspectives.''

As elsewhere, this year's political campaign is whipping up both enthusiasm and animosity in Duluth, says Craig Grau, a political scientist at University of Minnesota at Duluth.

Perhaps for the first time, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan _ all states within range of the local media _ are closely contested, he says.

So though Duluth itself remains solidly in the column of the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, there have been numerous visits by candidates and their spouses, and there has been a constant stream of campaign ads, many of them negative. Though Duluth is the 136th largest media market in the country, a University of Wisconsin study found it ranked 37th in campaign commercials.

That relentless drumbeat, says Morris Fiorina, may lead some to believe that their society is more divided than it really is.

Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University, believes that the parties and candidates are divided _ not the American public. Most Americans, he says, are moderates, even on hot-button issues like abortion, where they favor choice, but some limits.

Since the 1960s, he says, the political system has come to demand more of its citizens _ more voting in primaries, for example. But most Americans don't want to do more, leaving the field to less moderate elements who move the parties away from the mainstream.

``Bush and Kerry are a lot farther apart than JFK and Nixon were in 1960,'' he says. Given more centrist candidates, he says, most Americans would gladly vote for them.

``The bulk of the American citizenry is somewhat in the position of the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the crossfire while Maoist guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other,'' he writes in his new book, ``Culture War? The Myth of Polarized America.''

So, he says, Americans _ and Duluthians _ check out Michael Moore and watch Bill O'Reilly and endure endless political commercials for candidates and bellicose behavior by some of their neighbors and they come to the mistaken conclusion that these things reflect America accurately.

They don't like what they see.

In Duluth, many are appalled by the vandalism of the signs at Bob James' place; others are appalled by James' refusal to forgive the teenagers who came forward to admit their crime and to apologize, or by James' insistence on putting up such an outsized display in the first place.

``Does that mean to tell me that you're a better American, a stronger patriot?'' asks Skorich ``When you put up that many signs and signs of that size, I'm not certain what kind of a statement you want to make.''

Bob Mars, head of a local family business, is appalled by behavior he sees on the many civic boards he serves. ``Boards are having trouble coming to compromises,'' he says. ``It's as though each person wants to be a winner. They don't necessarily want to solve a problem.''

So at board meetings, Mars hands out wallet cards that list nine tools for civility, ranging from ``pay attention'' to ``give constructive criticism.''

The cards were distributed by the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation as part of a campaign, Speak Your Peace, aimed at improving the quality of public debate.

A local advertising agency donated its labor to make the cards, posters, buttons, a Web site, two television spots and a video. The city councils and school boards of Duluth and neighboring Superior endorsed the program, as did both candidates for mayor.

Speak Your Peace kicked off in August 2003. Has it made a difference?

``I don't think they've had any effect,'' says Andy Peterson.

``Absolutely not. I wish it had,'' says Duke Skorich.

Donny Ness and Craig Grau claim the campaign has resonated in some ways _ for example, in efforts to reduce bullying in the schools. But they acknowledge it has far to go.

It may not be possible, in fact, to stem the sourness in American political life. But there are people in Duluth who are determined to make the effort.

``I have enormous respect for them for trying to do it,'' says Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist. ``You have to try.''