“America at a Crossroads,” a new one-hour documentary from the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, explores what everyday Americans think about the state of the country. Watch at 9 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Dec. 19, on your local PBS station or on YouTube.
I started my “America at a Crossroads” reporting project last January with the goal of meeting with and listening to as many Americans as I could, to try to understand why we’re so divided. In all my years of covering politics, I don’t remember a time like this, when people not only hold different views, but in many cases, can’t stand those who disagree with them.
Eleven months, 14 states and 21 reports later, I’ve seen examples of people trying to bridge the partisan divide, but I’m still dismayed by the division and the vitriol.
I’ve learned a lot about what that division looks and sounds like, but still struggle to understand what’s driving it. It’s not easy to know at what point people move from having strongly held political beliefs to negative partisanship, labeling people on the other side as ignorant or immoral.
What causes a long-time friendly rural community around Saegertown, in Western Pennsylvania, to break up into bitter factions over banning books in school libraries and dictating what teachers can discuss about the history of race in America?
Judy Woodruff reports on a district in Pennsylvania where policies around books, gender, sports, race and history have divided some community members.
We weren’t able to speak with the School Board member pushing to scrub books in that community. But one parent, Teresa Barickman, pointed to “political rhetoric that we have heard on the national level has empowered people, and let them feel like it’s okay to say these not-so-nice things about people.”
In our reporting, we found that our own industry – the news media – plays a big role. Whether it’s hearing angry talk on the TV or radio, or reading it on social media, people we spoke to said this news environment has swayed more Americans to hold exaggerated negative assumptions about folks “on the other side.”
Some people see through this.
What I remember vividly from our sit-down in Cleveland this year with a mixed partisan group of voters who’ve joined the bridging group “Braver Angels” is something Mark Nieberding, a Republican, told me: “If you tell me who you voted for, I can very easily identify you, and I can discount you as a person right way, which is antithetical to what this country should be.”
In that same “Braver Angels” conversation, Democrat John Shi pointed a finger at “a bigger problem … our leaders not representing their constituency in the majority sense … polarized voices shouting the loudest or special interests with funded campaigns, to get their messages and opinions heard.”
This no doubt contributes to the declining trust people place in Congress and other institutions, and it worries me. I know there are elected officials who do think about what’s good for the American people.
But that doesn’t come across every day as people watch news emanating from Capitol Hill, especially as lawmakers struggle to approve legislation on crucial items like government funding and border security.
And history teaches us what can happen when people carry the darkest views of government. This year, we traveled to Oklahoma City to report on how that city is coping in the aftermath of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building.
Dennis Purifoy, a survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing, talks with Judy Woodruff about what he remembers from that day, and why he’s worried about extremism now.
What motivated a young American, Army veteran Timothy McVeigh, to latch on to an anti-government ideology and carry out that horrific act that killed 168 men, women and children?
We want for there to be healthy and vigorous debate in this country. It’s one of the freedoms our founders pinned their hopes on. But, as long as those debates are within the boundaries of our democratic system, is it possible to do so without thinking the worst thoughts of, looking down on, or feeling aggrieved by, those on the other side?
That, along with questions about the other structural, political and cultural forces that are driving us apart, will be some of what we focus on for “America at a Crossroads” in the coming year.
I enter 2024 – an election year likely to further deepen divisions — still with many questions, and still dismayed by division in too many communities, between too many people. But I’m determined to get out in the country and to listen to Americans from every walk of life, knowing if there are answers, we’re more likely to find them there than in Washington.
See all pieces in the “America at a Crossroads” reporting project here.