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PBS’s “Divided States of America” tries to understand political polarization, mostly finds rage

Frontline’s exhausted recap of the past decade (or so) finds two very different countries with the same borders.

The Divided States of America
“The Divided States of America” explains just why Washington struggles to get anything done.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“So many people live in communities where nobody disagrees with them,” says a journalist midway through the second installment of “Divided States of America,” a two-part Frontline investigation into the political polarization that has come to define our era.



That statement might as well serve as a keystone for the entire project. What initially seems like a straightforward dissection of polarization — going all the way back to the George W. Bush years — instead turns out to be a kind of free-floating collage of many of the biggest news stories of the Obama era. But instead of simply laying out the facts, “Divided States” presents them as they were reported and/or discussed by two different entities: mainline journalism and right-wing talk radio.

The result is somewhat surreal: You’ll hear Obama’s rather anodyne reflections on the Trayvon Martin shooting (his famous “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” comment) juxtaposed with the voices of Rush Limbaugh and other conservative pundits saying that Obama is calling for a literal race war.

“Divided States” tries to understand American rage

As always, Frontline is sober and even-handed. It traces some of the divide between Obama and congressional Republicans to a handful of tactical errors made by the former when he was new to the presidency, and it underlines why Republicans have been so horrified by his use of executive orders in his second term.

But there’s also a sense of exhaustion that settles over the proceedings, particularly in the second installment, as every single thing that happens in the Obama presidency is neatly reframed by right-wing pundits as some outrageous scam liberals are trying to pull on the American public. Bipartisan attempts at gun control and immigration reform are defeated by rage, and Obama’s presidency only serves to underline just how stark racial divides still are in the US.

None of this is going to be particularly new to anyone who’s followed politics for the past eight years. But the approach “Divided States” takes in placing news stories side by side and then making you consider the various frames applied to them creates a new understanding of the effect they had on the public.

Above all, the two-parter serves up a series of tragic figures, from both sides of the aisle. So many people really believed in bipartisanship, only to have it founder on the shoals of both parties believing the other might bring about the literal apocalypse. (My favorite is when former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is described as a Labrador retriever who tried to run with a pack of coyotes.)

It’s never clear what those who opposed anything and everything Obama wanted to do were hoping would happen, especially in his second term, when they could no longer stop his reelection. It’s clear they were trying to hamper his every move, but every potential explanation for their intransigence — racial, political, social, even cultural — falls short. The best explanation is also the one that leaves the most unanswered questions: They just wanted to stop the country in its tracks and force it to go backward.

Throughout “Divided States,” Frontline drops in quick flashes of whatever Donald Trump was up to at the moment it’s examining, as he jockeyed for political position. And it ends in the immediate present — with Trump about to take over the presidency from Obama and many Americans wondering how the same country could elect two diametrically opposed men.

But “Divided States” argues that the same country didn’t elect such different men; it argues that two completely different countries, sharing the same borders but very divergent understandings of reality, elected two very different men. But now that the other country will have its hands on the steering wheel of power, what happens next? Can it come up with a governing philosophy other than saying no all the time? And can Trump possibly survive a political movement that seems perfectly adapted to eating its own?

That’s where “Divided States” leaves viewers — on the precipice of a very uncertain future, after struggling through a past that seems just as riddled with uncertainty.

“Divided States of America” airs as part of Frontline on PBS. It will air at 9 pm Eastern on Tuesday, January 17, and Wednesday, January 18, in most markets, but as always with PBS, you should check your local listings.

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