Will this man heal all wounds?

A recent BBC poll indicates enormous enthusiasm for Barack Obama outside the United States. In 22 countries from Italy to Egypt he leads John McCain by about four to one on average, margins not seen since the last time a Democrat faced a Republican in an American election. It's one more warning to Mr. Obama's domestic supporters that he's not quite the phenomenon they think he is.

This foreign enthusiasm is puzzling. Recent liberal Democratic presidents have performed fairly poorly on security and trade, and if Mr. Obama had consistent positions they might well be protectionist. Meanwhile to many of his American supporters his appeal is less programmatic than spiritual; he will heal America of divisions that allegedly run as deep as any the republic has ever known. Why this prospect would appeal in, say, Singapore or France is not obvious, especially to people who don't like America very much. But in any case it is untenable because based on a false premise.

Barack Obama may be a healer, and the inauguration of a black president would certainly be good for America. The problem is simply that the premise that America is divided as never before does not withstand informed scrutiny. Not on race, not on foreign affairs, not on economics, not on anything.

Compare today with 1800, when the election of Thomas Jefferson prompted a leading member of George Washington's Federalist party, Fisher Ames, to expect "the loathsome steam of human victims offered in sacrifice." The Jeffersonian Republicans in return accused the Federalists of being closet monarchists possibly plotting to hand the U.S. back to Britain, and in 1814 the remnants of the Federalist party did make a politically lethal though otherwise feeble effort to take New England out of the Union. But after a short-lived "Era of Good Feelings," by 1832 president Andrew Jackson was threatening to hang his own former Vice President, John C. Calhoun, over tariff policy linked to states' rights and slavery.

Speaking of slavery, in 1856 Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner was savagely beaten on the floor of the Senate by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks, to general Southern approval, in the lead-up to a civil war that would kill over 600,000 Americans, nearly as many as all America's other wars combined. And the man who saved the Union, President Lincoln, was himself subjected to extraordinary abuse in his day, including unflattering comparison to a baboon by a member of his own cabinet.

The Civil War was obviously the nadir. But how do today's divisions compare with Senator "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman's campaign promise to stab president Grover Cleveland, a fellow Democrat, over bank policy? From a resurgent Klan in the 1920s to Republicans washing their children's mouths out with soap in the 1930s for saying "Roosevelt" to McCarthy-era accusations of treason in high places to "Hey Hey LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?" and "Burn Baby Burn", persistent urban rumours that Nixon would put blacks in concentration camps and ridicule of Ronald Reagan as a senile warmonger, American politics is consistently rambunctious, with a dash of venomous paranoia at least as evident on the left as the right. Even the relatively placid Clinton era saw the president impeached as a wretched cad then acquitted on a bitter partisan vote.

I happen to think the United States has had surprisingly good government under this system, in part because issues get very thoroughly aired. And (speaking for the record as a hard-core conservative) I consider 2008 a fairly unimportant election in which a cranky mediocrity and a charming novice seek to replace a disappointing incumbent.

I can't muster any views more apocalyptic than that. Except that, based on the historical record, enthusiasts for Barack Obama consumed with hatred of George W. Bush are in part imagining and in part creating the very abyss of partisan loathing they claim their man can fix with a few ritual phrases and a laying-on of hands. As for foreigners, they don't get to vote and Americans mostly don't care what they think. Rightly not, judging by that BBC poll.
John Robson has a PhD in American History and is an Invited Professor at the University of Ottawa. He is a regular columnist for The Ottawa Citizen.


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