During moments of rhetorical generosity, politicians will give lip-service to bipartisanship or working across the aisle. Another favored metaphor of both Democrats and Republicans is “bridging the divide,” which, once upon a time, would actually happen on major legislation. With the Biden administration now calling for cooperation on infrastructure and other bills, Bob reflects on the fact that not all bridges are well built. Sometimes they collapse.
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TEDDY ROOSEVELT: Surely, there never was a fight better worth making than the one which we are in.
BOB GARFIELD: Welcome to Bully Pulpit. That was Teddy Roosevelt, I’m Bob Garfield. Episode 2: Bridging the Divide.
MAN1: My talk today is gonna be about how to bridge political divides.
WOMAN: President-Elect Biden has made it very clear that he wants to reach across the aisle.
MAN2: And then that’s gonna be us turning towards each other and seeing a common humanity that we struggle to see now.
MAN3: We need to stop talking about them so much and start talking with each other and about our shared condition, and our shared condition is one of deep divides.
Well, gosh, who can argue about that? Who doesn’t want two adversarial sides to come together, like warring tribes on opposite shores, connected at last by a bridge of understanding? That’s the premise, for example, of Nathan Borney’s new book, Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age. And also for the Listen First Project, aimed at healing America by quote, “building relationships and bridging divides.” It’s just so eminently reasonable.
NARRATOR: The magic of a bridge is that in a way it allows you to walk on air. Bridges provide pathways through the sky so that you can get from here to there sort of flying over, without going through the river or down into the valley or across those railroad tracks.
OK, that’s from a documentary about actual bridges, many of them now crumbling from decades of neglect. But, yes, in the political context, too, imagine: walking on air, having all obstacles magically averted — not with trusses or girders or cables — but common interest and goodwill.
Because I suppose there is no dispute too thorny that opposing sides can’t, with courage and foresight, broker a deal.
Yep, in 1939, evidently people actually shouted “hooray.” The cheers were for British Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain, returning to London from Munich, where he had bridged the divide between Great Britain and Nazi Germany.
CHAMBERLAIN: This morning I had another talk with the German chancellor Herr Hitler, and here is the paper, which bears his name upon it as well as mine.
Also, for all the folks hunching over their radio sets, politicians of the day spoke very, very, haltingly — especially when they were walking on air and wanting every syllable understood. Chamberlain believed history would reward him for “peace in our time.” But what history heard was Britain bartering the freedom of three million Czechs for Hitler’s promise to end European aggression, which is sort of not how it played out, Third Reich-wise. Chamberlain’s craven devil’s bargain is now virtually synonymous with appeasement.
There are less notorious, but nonetheless catastrophic examples in more recent history.
CLINTON: We must be bound together by a faith more powerful than any doctrine that divides us — by our belief in progress, our love of liberty, and our relentless search for common ground.
Fresh off a failed impeachment in 1998, Bill Clinton desperately needed to broaden his support, reaching across the House aisle to Newt Gingrich’s brand new Republican majority.
CLINTON: We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there's not a program for every problem. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means. … For too long our welfare system has undermined the values of family and work, instead of … I challenge every state to match federal policy to assure that serious violent criminals serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. … Criminal gang members and drug dealers are destroying the lives of decent tenants. From now on, the rule for residents who commit crime and peddle drugs should be one strike and you're out.
Spending cuts, paring welfare rolls, ruinous Wall Street deregulation, mandatory sentencing — it was the strategy called triangulation. They now call it neoliberalism. In terms of social and economic justice, it should have been labeled Czechoslovakia.
When Clinton spoke to the nation, his political nemesis Gingrich sat behind him, grinning and madly applauding. When a bridge is built without understanding of the forces at play, calamity follows. White flight. Poverty. The subprime disaster. The incarceration state. Until finally collapse.
NARRATOR: Tacoma Bridge Washington, opened only a few months ago, was built at a cost of over six million dollars. But misfortune overtakes the great structure. These are some of the most amazing pictures ever recorded by a newsreel — the actual collapse of the world’s third largest suspension bridge.
Bill Clinton’s Chamberlain moment at least happened in the good old days, when the adversary was merely fixated on small government, deregulation and the creation of a prison industrial complex. Now the Republican Party has turned into the QAnon Klux Klan, a cult governing —and inciting and fundraising — by Big Lies and their countless corollaries. Here’s Sen. Rand Paul responding to ABC’s George Stephanopoulous, who had referred to the rulings of 85 courts, 50 state secretaries of state and Trump’s handmaiden Attorney General William Barr that the presidential election was not influenced by fraud.
SEN. PAUL: But at the same time, I’m not willing just to sit here and say, Oh everybody on the Republican side’s a liar and there is no fraud. No, there were lots of problems and there were secretaries of state who illegally changed the law and that needs to be fixed and I’m gonna work hard to fix it and I won’t be cowed by people saying, Oh, you’re a liar. That’s the problem with the media today is they say all Republicans are liars and everything we say is a lie.
This is what comes of tying your party’s fortunes to the killer clown, Dr. Clorox.
TRUMP: It’s gonna go way … this is gonna go away … it’s gonna go, it’s gonna leave, it’s gonna be gone … well, I feel about vaccines like I feel about tests, this is gonna go away without a vaccine … it’ll go away at some point, it’ll go away … at some point this stuff goes away.
Same guy who told the Proud Boys to stand by, and whose cabin boy Sen. Lindsey Graham has just had it with the 1619 Project and Black Lives Matter.
SEN. GRAHAM: So, our systems are not racist. America is not a racist country.
And then there is the January 6 insurrection.
REP. CLYDE: There was an undisciplined mob, there were some rioters and some who committed acts of vandalism, but let me be clear. There was no insurrection and to call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a boldfaced lie.
Are you going to believe Republican Congressman Andrew Clyde of Georgia, or your lying ears?
NEWSCASTER: Then, sheer terror (screams). An officer crushed against a door frame, pleading for help (screams).
They’ve spent decades denying climate calamity. They trade in lunatic conspiracy theories about Democratic pedophiles. They deny Covid’s death toll and the need for vaccines and masks. They tell their base that the media and the left want to enslave them. They use the Big Steal lie to pass racist laws suppressing the Black vote in red states. And now they try to gaslight the world about the Capitol insurrection we all saw live on TV.
Tell me again, why do we want to be civil with these people? As the Tacoma Narrows Bridge proved, civil engineering can lead to disaster.
And by no means is the politics of going it alone a novel approach. Each episode we begin Bully Pulpit with a clip of Teddy Roosevelt. This episode, let’s end with Teddy, as well.
ROOSEVELT: I would prefer to work with moderate, with rational, conservatives, provided only that they do in good faith strive forward toward the light. But when they halt and turn their backs to the light, and sit with the scorners on the seats of reaction, then I must part company with them. We the people cannot turn back.
Or, put another way:
MUSIC: Bridge to Nowhere by Sam Roberts
Ok, we’re done here. Bully Pulpit is produced by Mike Vuolo and Matthew Schwartz. Our theme was composed by Julie Miller and the team at Harvest Creative Services in Lansing, Michigan. Bully Pulpit is a production of Booksmart Studios. I’m Bob Garfield.