No presidential candidate can unite the country

No presidential candidate can unite the country
© Getty Images

Calls for a Democratic presidential candidate who can “bring this country together” wrongly assume a candidate can wield such power.

Presidents rarely unite the country. When they do, it’s often in the face of crises like foreign attacks on U.S. soil or other national tragedies. Such unity requires a leader eager to lead and a populace eager to follow. It demands a national dialogue in which Americans across ideologies, demography and experiences can participate.

But these days no national dialogue can connect America’s splintered factions.

ADVERTISEMENT

Some hardcore liberals disparage compromise while remaining infuriated with the ways Republicans like President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE treated President Barack Obama. Some hardcore conservatives view Obama as an illegitimate president, and others wouldn’t rule out continuing to support Trump even if he publicly admitted to being a racist.

How exactly would a Democratic presidential candidate bring these two sides together? What perfect speech or charisma or heroism is needed?

The “unite the country” crowd is well-meaning. Some reside in the moderate wings of their respective parties. Others are true independents, embracing a balanced approach to governing that puts sound policy above politics.

But solutions in vacuums are not solutions. Yearning for the idyllic is not a strategy.

We are a nation of two-pronged anger. And true, this is not the worst it’s ever been, though some believe we might be headed in that direction.

ADVERTISEMENT

In today’s climate, cross-party animosity cannot be easily untangled. Shared mistrust and disdain permeates political and social structures. Rancor among elected officials is on the rise. Media personalities stoke outrage daily. Families are being torn apart, not just physically at our southern border but emotionally, in cities and suburbs and towns across the country.

This march toward unwavering mutual contempt is illustrated in Gallup’s presidential job approval ratings — namely, the support gap between respondents of a president’s party and respondents from the opposing party. For example, Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s average GOP approval was 88 percent, while his average approval from Democrats was only 49 percent, giving him a support gap of 39 percentage points among the two parties.

In the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, the average support gap ranged from a low of 27 percentage points (Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterTrump spends big in Texas, raising questions about whether he's worried Here's how senators can overcome their hyperpartisanship with judicial nominees A plea to progressive political pundits: Stop wringing your hands MORE) to a high of 41 points (Richard Nixon). Beginning in the 1980s, with the exception of George H. W. Bush (38 percent), the support gap steadily grew with each succeeding president: Ronald Reagan (52 percent), Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe magic of majority rule in elections The return of Ken Starr Assault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress MORE (55 percent), George W. Bush (61 percent), and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaForget conventional wisdom — Bernie Sanders is electable 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care Obama shares summer reading list MORE (70 percent).

Donald Trump’s average support gap is 78 percent. Intensifying partisan madness has grown more dangerous and damning, but it’s not new and won’t fade when Trump’s presidency ends. 

To those who believe ideological moderation is the key to electoral success, the past 40 years of presidential elections prove otherwise. Reagan’s strident conservatism crushed moderate southern Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980, while the deeply conservative George W. Bush defeated moderate southern Democrat Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold Gore2020 Democrats release joint statement ahead of Trump's New Hampshire rally Deregulated energy markets made Texas a clean energy giant Gun safety is actually a consensus issue MORE in 2000.  

Obama — one of the nation’s most liberal U.S. senators — beat center-right “maverick” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire Graham promises ObamaCare repeal if Trump, Republicans win in 2020 MORE (R-Ariz.) in 2008. And while Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAre Democrats turning Trump-like? The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE was perceived by many to be sharply liberal, her Senate record indicated otherwise: a left-center ideology upended by Trump’s hard-edged conservatism.

So if “bringing the country together” is a pipe dream, and if centrist thinking is not a reliable recipe for electoral success, where does this leave us? How can we reverse course and retrace our steps toward some semblance of comity and restraint? 

A threat to our two-party system would be the surest way to end this political morass. It could come in the form of a strong and sustained third-party movement. Or if the Democratic or Republican Party loses enough power — for a sufficient period of time — it will face its own existential crisis: change or die. This latter scenario would force the party to transform its ideals and broaden its appeal. It would mean competing for more of the other party’s voters, instead of branding them as un-American. It would create opportunities for both parties to champion the same causes, fostering more collaboration.

There are no quick-and-easy answers to the question, “How can we bring the country together?” No one — not even a “perfect” candidate — can undo what continues to be done. The sooner America understands this, the sooner we can all look inward and take personal responsibility for our role in this war against hate.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.