US ex-presidents unite after divisive week

Allies: Carter, Bush Snr, Bush Jnr, Clinton and Obama won eight presidential elections. © Getty

Can America ever be united again? At a time when everything from the national anthem to the military to hurricanes becomes politicised, many fear this age of partisanship will never end.

On Saturday the five living former US presidents met in Texas for a concert in aid of victims of the hurricanes that have ravaged the country this year.

The sight of three Democrats and two Republicans gathering together was a powerful symbol of American unity. All held their hands to their hearts as they sang the national anthem.

But the five men have a combined age of 384. They are the past. And the age of politics that has followed them is being defined by rampant partisanship where, as George W. Bush put it, “Disagreement escalates into dehumanisation.”

Take last week. After falsely accusing President Obama of not calling the families of fallen soldiers, President Trump made such a phone call himself. According to Democratic congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson, Trump told the soldier’s widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for”.

Trump angrily disputed that account, and the White House accused the congresswoman of politicising a sacred ritual after Trump initially said she “fabricated” it. Brian Flood of Fox News accused the Democrats of “weaponising” military families.

Once, the military was a uniting force for Americans, regardless of people’s politics. But events in recent months have eroded that sense. This latest dispute, Trump’s ban on transgender troops, and the row over Bowe Bergdahl have turned the military into a political football.

Then there is Hollywood and the national anthem, two more symbols all Americans once took pride in. But the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #TakeAKnee protest have divided Americans. Even the country’s favourite sport is now ridden with political undertones.

Politico came up with the term “negative partisanship” to explain this feverish atmosphere. “Over the past few decades, American politics has become like a bitter sports rivalry, in which the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team,” it wrote.

Liberals blame Trump’s rhetoric for this split, while conservatives blame left-wing identity politics. But can it ever end?

Polar opposites

Many are pessimistic. America seems to have lost the sense of purpose and togetherness that defined the decades in which it became a superpower. The two Americas, red state and blue state, rural and urban, conservative and progressive, have stopped talking to each other, while social media has made opinion everything.

“Things are not as bad as they seem,” reply others. America has experienced civil war. During the supposedly happy era of the 1950s, millions of African-Americans were second-class citizens. Politics can bring out the worst in people; in person, Americans remain respectful to one another. These bonds will win, and times will change.

You Decide

  1. When Trump leaves office, will America become less polarised politically?
  2. Over which three issues do you think Americans are most divided?


  1. Talk to someone you disagree with politically, and find three things you agree on.
  2. Come up with a plan for a national event that could unify Americans without touching on politics.

Some People Say...

“America would be happier if it split into two different countries.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
America is divided. The divide is related to economics, but the cultural divide is a relatively new phenomenon. Research has shown that since the 1980s, supporters of both major parties have grown to dislike the opposing party and its elected leaders more than they like their own party and its elected leaders. Almost all public institutions, from sport to the military, have been affected by this divide.
What do we not know?
Whether anything can be done. Most people, whether they support him or not, believe Trump has exacerbated this divide by campaigning on issues that annoy his opponents the most. But it remains to be seen whether the next president, Democrat or Republican, can do a better job of uniting the country.

Word Watch

Combined age of 384
Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are 93, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are 71 and Barack Obama is 56.
George W. Bush
Many saw Bush’s speech as an implicit rebuke of Trump, though he did not mention the president’s name. Despite being a Republican, Bush refused to endorse Trump for the presidency.
Bowe Bergdahl
Soldier who deserted his station in Afghanistan in 2009, and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. He is currently facing a military trial for his actions.
Harvey Weinstein scandal
Weinstein is a committed liberal who helped fund Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Conservatives have attacked the hypocrisy of a leading Hollywood figure who preached gender equality but is now exposed as a serial abuser.
Trump has suggested that players who kneel during the pre-game national anthem to protest against the treatment of African-Americans should be sacked by their NFL franchises.
Identity politics
Defining your politics around your identity, whether it is racial, sexual or social background, rather than traditional party allegiances.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.