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No Country for Empathy

The ‘Frontline’ documentary series ‘Divided States of America’ explores the crucial impasses that created our current political climate

(Elias Stein)
(Elias Stein)

Despite an auspicious honeymoon period between his election and his inauguration, the earliest months of Barack Obama’s presidency were defined by congressional sabotage and popular resistance. In January 2009, in his first week on the job, President Obama suffered his first Pyrrhic victory as the Democratic Congress passed his controversial stimulus package over total Republican opposition — a counteroffensive that prefigured the Tea Party’s absolutist rejection of Obama’s presidential legitimacy.

On Tuesday night — three days before the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump — PBS aired the first half of its four-hour Frontline documentary special, Divided States of America, a retrospective analysis of the Obama presidency. (PBS will air the second half of the miniseries on Wednesday night.) Framed as a sort of postmortem, the miniseries recounts Obama’s presidency through only its most contentious moments: the Wall Street bailout, the turbulent passage of Obamacare, and the Tea Party insurgency in the 2010 midterm congressional elections. To some extent, the stark and dramatic polarization that defined these conflicts reflects classic American partisanship. On the other hand, these conflicts seem to have permanently increased the volume and temperature at which our politics play out, representing a great empathy gap in perspectives on the ongoing economic recovery, health care reform, and pluralism in American life.

The Frontline miniseries skips the Democratic primary that pitted Obama against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to instead dwell on the 2008 general election contrast between him and John McCain and, more importantly, Sarah Palin. (The first 20 minutes are thus a jumbled account. For instance, the narrator extensively discusses Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a boogeyman in the ’08 primary campaign, despite only briefly mentioning Clinton, Obama’s principal opponent.) In doing so, the miniseries is fast-forwarding to its big thesis: Palin was patient zero for a hyper-theatrical populist revolt that would subsequently galvanize, among others, CNBC host Rick Santelli, South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, and, ultimately, Donald Trump — a man who informally entered U.S. politics by demanding that President Obama turn over his birth certificate, and who then formally entered U.S. politics by characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists with “lots of problems.”

Beyond its assessment of Obama’s backstage maneuverings throughout the global financial crisis, there is very little here that informed voters wouldn’t easily recall themselves. The miniseries hits all the most memorable beats of Obama’s presidency — yes, including the god-awful beer summit with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge police sergeant who arrested the renowned Harvard professor for entering his own home — with an eye toward understanding how the classic protocols and harmonies of U.S. politics could break down so rapidly. In its first two hours, Divided States of America chronicles a populist backlash polluted by furious racial scapegoating.

In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, many American liberals — especially blacks and Jews, the very scapegoats themselves — have come to regard “empathy” for Trump’s pessimistic base as a sort of curse word. In its worst form, “empathy” just means that Democrats should humor the tribal whites who tacitly, if not explicitly, encourage racist policy and anti-black rhetoric as a perverse expression of some deeper, legitimate angst. In this sense, “empathy” is a manner of self-abasement that whites have always demanded of blacks, such as when Maine Governor Paul LePage told Representative John Lewis he ought to say thank you to President Lincoln for freeing America’s slaves. “Millions of Americans are justifiably afraid of what they’ll face under a Trump administration,” writes Jamelle Bouie for Slate. “If any group demands our support and sympathy, it’s these people, not the Americans who backed Trump and his threat of state-sanctioned violence against Hispanic immigrants and Muslim Americans.” In the minds of Trump supporters (and the armchair strategists who suddenly, desperately cherish their votes), empathy is a one-way street.

Empathy is also the basic principle of Obama’s avowed political outlook, a post-partisan magnanimity that has molded his legacy; rather roughly, I might say. Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” style of retail politics, which he used to deliver Democrats from the post-Carter political wilderness in 1992, was all about synthesizing the angst and interests of otherwise disparate factions. This time around, it’s an insight just short of truism for pundits to say that Democrats will need to win back voters that they lost in order to compete in the next round of elections; but the pleas for empathy and reassessment don’t really apply to black voters, whose turnout dipped compared to the past two presidential elections, or to Mexican American and Latino voters, who overwhelmingly supported Clinton but still voted for Trump in greater numbers than they voted for the previous GOP nominee, Mitt Romney. These pleas apply to only white voters, who generally favored Trump, and whose margins of support were crucial to Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

In December, the very notion of empathy — a complex and ancient virtue — came undone once A&E announced the premiere of Generation KKK, a planned eight-part documentary series following camera crews who embedded with Ku Klux Klan leaders in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia. In an early write-up of the series published by The New York Times, A&E general manager Rob Sharenow sought to assure potential viewers that the miniseries would not be an outlet for Klan propaganda, and that the producers had approached their subjects with appropriately critical intentions. Quickly, the network retitled the series — from Generation KKK to Escaping the KKK — only to scrap the series altogether a day later, citing an internal report that producers, acting against network standards, paid cash to subjects to facilitate access.

And so what A&E had prepared to market as an immersive study of classic white American prejudice on the grounds where it flourishes was instead quickly perceived as an attempt to redeem white supremacists in mainstream political discourse and otherwise “humanize” people who trade in the oftentimes violent dehumanization of blacks, Latinos, Jews, and others. For disenfranchised groups who rarely receive such empathy from embattled, middle-class whites, this miniseries was the last straw, and the resentment is mutual.

Where Generation KKK sought to understand our current political moment from the bottom up, Divided States of America starts from Obama on down the Beltway chains of command, featuring congressional leaders such as Senator Chuck Grassley and former Representative Eric Cantor, who can offer little more than the most flattering talking points. In Divided States of America, the Frontline team eschews the sort of field reporting and grassroots comprehension that A&E meant to advance, instead focusing on the figureheads who embody these popular divisions, such as Palin and Trump and the many journalists and advisers who weighed in on President Obama’s most dire moments.

President Obama not only failed to anticipate the surreal upheaval of standing political convention, but he also failed to advance or secure his achievements in the long term. In the stimulus showdown, President Obama misinterpreted his opposition’s priorities and interests: negotiating against himself, he promised the Republicans massive tax cuts in an attempt to get them to work with him; they didn’t, and in fact they’d planned to obstruct the president unconditionally from the moment he was inaugurated. For the rest of his presidency, Obama’s party lost ground in every subsequent congressional election that mattered — not because the Democrats didn’t achieve, but because they didn’t “empathize” in the practical, unsentimental sense: they misread their opponents, they overestimated their supporters, and they underestimated the power of whiteness, which works to the overwhelming expense of everyone else.