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Chances are one of the following statements rings more true to you than the other.
Example #1: "The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs - the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs - still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors and acting like we should thank them."
Example #2: "What did the taxpayers get out of the Obama stimulus? More debt. That money wasn't just spent and wasted - it was borrowed, spent and wasted.... You would think that any president, whatever his party, would make job creation, and nothing else, his first order of economic business. But this president didn't do that. Instead, we got a long, divisive, all-or-nothing attempt to put the federal government in charge of health care."
The first statement was by Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last week. The second was by Wisconsin's Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., the week before.
We are a deeply divided nation. It isn't just that we want different things; we have two completely different world views, with a completely different sets of facts at our disposal.
Byron Shafer, the Hawkins Chair of Political Science at UW-Madison, has gone to every national convention since 1980. He agrees that polarization is increasing. The parties, he says, "look at each other as the embodiment of evil."
Shafer says the conventions are fascinating to him because it's the only time when the parties lay out their vision of the world. He's learned that there are actually two conventions. There's the physical one, where delegates from around the country gather, and the virtual one, which is given an hour or two of coverage on television each night.
"When a convention is really aimed at a general public, it's going to shoot toward the middle," he says. "But when the party is talking to itself, it's going to talk to the activists, and they're going to be much more to the right or left."
Madison's community radio station, WORT 89.9 FM, has a tradition of covering every national political convention. When Molly Stentz, WORT's news and public affairs facilitator, invited me to be part of the station's convention team this year, I was intrigued. Although I generally hate media frenzies, it seemed like a chance to look at our political madness up close. I also wondered if I would be able to find any common ground between the Republicans and the Democrats.
Inside the perimeter
Searching for anything at the conventions is not easy. Security is tight, with little difference between the Republicans and Democrats. The conventions don't actually take place in the cities' convention centers, but at larger, nearby arenas. Instead, the convention centers are reserved for the massive media operations that have descended upon both cities. In both Tampa and Charlotte, security forces set up a fortified corridor around their respective convention centers and arenas.
Miles of fencing are erected like Habitrails that delegates and journalists file in and out of each day. Credentials are checked numerous times by thousands of police. Security is taken to Dadaist extremes. At the Republican convention in Tampa, for instance, no whole fruit is allowed inside the convention center.
Journalists are given access to the floor - where the delegates sit - at both conventions. We must trade our credentials for a floor pass at a media station and are given a 15- to 45-minute limit for how long we're allowed on the floor.
What happens if you don't come back by the end of your allotted time - or how the guards could possibly find you to drag you out - is unclear. I never disobey my time limit.
The scene on the floor is usually chaotic. Journalists clog the aisles, doing quick interviews with delegates. Or we jockey for position. At the Republican convention during Paul Ryan's speech, I loiter in the aisle near the Wisconsin delegation. Several cameras point at Gov. Scott Walker during the speech, and we are all ready to pounce on the delegates when it ends, scrambling for quotes.
At one point a cameraman tells me I have to move from the spot I have staked out near a Republican I know. When I refuse to budge, he tells me, "I work for ABC." I respond: "I don't care."
And when delegates are called on for quotes, they always know their part, even if some are a bit leery of the press. The prepared responses don't help to break down the walls between political camps.
A few delegates court attention. At both conventions I encounter delegates from Wisconsin - Kevin Kopplin at the DNC, Sol Grosskopf at the RNC - wearing foam cheesehead hats. Kopplin is slightly out of breath when I interview him: "You're my third interview in a row," he confesses. I grab him not long after Tammy Baldwin's speech, and he had just spoken with Time magazine and a French radio station.
Throw the platform away
Leonard Spearman is a bit of an anomaly at the Republican convention. Of the 2,286 delegates, he's one of the few who is African American.
"I've caught a lot of flak for being a Republican [from other African Americans]," admits Spearman, director of the Center for Government Law Leadership at Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law. "My students tend to be amazed that I'm a Republican."
There is no denying that the Republican delegation is a very white bunch.
But ideologically, at least, there is diversity here. The WORT team spends time in Tampa talking to Republicans who have opinions out of step with the party. We talk to pro-choice women, gay Republicans and Republicans who believe global warming is real.
Rob Sisson, the president of Conserv-America, is trying to push the Republican Party to take more interest in environmental issues like climate change.
"The anti-science rhetoric that portions of our party spout is turning off a lot of the younger college kids who haven't identified with a party yet," Sisson tells me in Tampa. "We need to have a discussion on this, or we're going to get left behind and have solutions from the left that we don't like."
Ideas like this are still the exception in the party. Spearman thinks that both parties are moving to extremes, and that moderate ideas are less popular as a result.
"There was a time when moderates and people on the far right could get along," Spearman says. "There's an assumption that if you don't go along with everything, then you're not a true Republican. The same thing is true with the Democratic Party."
The extremism is evident in the Republican platform, which, unlike the one approved in 2008, never mentions global warming. But the UW's Shafer says the platforms are increasingly inconsequential.
"The platform is something [the parties] really do want to happen off-hours, so the general public won't see it," he says. "You expect a fair amount of social conservatism [at the RNC], but you got very little of that. The answer was stick it all in the platform and throw the platform away."
Clothes make the man
When I told my mom I'd be going to the conventions, she asked, the way a mom would, "Do you have to wear nice clothes?"
No, I said, without elaborating. Unless they're TV anchors or maybe work in the presidential press pool, journalists are usually a shabbily dressed bunch. Camera and tech guys often wear shorts and T-shirts, sometimes impressively ratty ones, as though they're competing to be the worst-dressed person in the room, which is another sort of status seeking.
The dress standards for Republicans and Democrats are generally similar. Business suits are common, but so are polo shirts and jeans, and even shorts. It is hot in both cities, after all.
Most days at the convention, I opt for black jeans and a button-down shirt. When I meet the Pulitzer Prize-winning David Maraniss of The Washington Post at the Democratic convention, he is wearing blue jeans and a blazer, without a tie. I think of my mom and find it reassuring that my pants look nicer than his.
None of this means appearances are inconsequential.
After the first day of the Republican convention, a woman in our group comments that she feels like everyone is scrutinizing her. No doubt this scrutiny is worse for women, but I notice it too, at both conventions. This is because we are among thousands of politicians and journalists, two groups that are constantly compelled to make snap judgments about people. People are measuring everyone else up, trying to determine their place on the social and economic ladders. Who is worth talking to? Who is a waste of time? So it's common to see dismissive gazes leveled at you.
Conventions are about networking, of course. Many people only want to network with those higher up the food chain than they are. Some sources continually blow us off. Others who have no reason whatsoever to give us the time of day are gracious and accommodating.
Occasionally I catch myself sizing up others' appearances, trying to figure out how I should label them. I am a middle-aged journalist, a white dude searching for easy prey to interview, always on the lookout for someone to exploit for an easy story. Who can be of use to me today?
'This is rejuvenation'
Maraniss, who lives part of the time in Madison, says what strikes him most about the Democratic convention is the diversity.
"You walk the streets here and you see the diversity of America," he says. "It's such an obvious, almost clichéd thought, but it moves me nonetheless, when I see all the different types of people who are here."
Excitement is a difficult thing to measure. The Wisconsin Republicans in Tampa are clearly riding an emotional high from all the attention they're getting with Ryan on the ticket and Gov. Scott Walker's major victory in the recall election. The Wisconsin Democrats aren't treated with the same reverence, but they're clearly fired up.
"I'm so excited to be here," says Susan Van Sicklen, co-chair of the Iowa County Democratic Party, who has never been to a convention before. "When I get home, I will be able to bring back the energy I'm getting from the convention.... I'm hoping to influence Iowa County Dems and independents. This is rejuvenation."
There is both excitement and despair among the Democrats. They are fired up by the speeches and energy, but terrified about the prospects of a Romney victory.
"I'm really concerned about women's issues," says Van Sicklen, a retired schoolteacher. "I believe in pro-choice. I'm very concerned about what would happen to women if the Republicans took over. It would be back to the 1920s."
Digging our heels in
While the UW's Shafer can tick off some reasons for the increasing polarization in American politics, he is unable to offer a unified theory explaining it. One factor is that the conventions used to be methods of organizing hierarchical structures in the parties, but that's not the case anymore.
"They're now networks of activists" pushing an agenda, he says. "That is a very polarizing effect."
Another part of the problem is me. Or, more accurately, the media. Shafer doesn't believe the media set out to polarize the country, but in targeting specialized audiences, that's been the result.
"You can increasingly live in media worlds that will reinforce your partisanship," Shafer says. "It's easier to hear only Republican or Democratic positions if you want to.... You don't even have to hear about these other people. And what you do hear is they're evil."
When you talk to delegates from both sides, however, they don't call the other side "evil."
Jackie Johnson, who has been active in tea party politics, says "good people can take different routes to try to get to the same place. It's my opinion that the GOP's methods are the best ones. I don't think that means the Democrats are bad people. I just think their methods are different."
Still, she lays more of the blame for the division at the feet of Democrats. "For all of the lip service that's been paid to bipartisanship, I don't believe they've really tried to reach out to the GOP. Obamacare, for instance, was a horrible piece of legislation that was rammed through."
Van Sicklen says the political divisions are worse in Wisconsin than in other states. "In Wisconsin, the recall really opened up a lot of wounds and poured salt into wounds," she says. "I have some very close friends that I could barely talk to about the recall, because our views were so opposite."
She was unable to watch the Republican convention the week before. "It would make my blood pressure go up and make me extremely upset," she says. "I can't go there."
Sue Lynch, past president of National Federation of Republican Women, says at the Republican convention that the divide is simply "philosophy. We believe in smaller government."
And she is resigned to that never changing: "They believe what they believe, and I'm not going to change their mind."
After Michelle Obama's speech, I head over to a downtown Charlotte club called Tilt, where the Wisconsin delegation is having a party. I'm one of the first people there, and I order a beer.
It's been a long week and a half, and I can't muster the energy to approach any of the delegates. Instead, I sit drinking with Stu Levitan, the Madison attorney and radio host, and WORT's Molly Stentz. I'm feeling a bit melancholy, and the songs on the loudspeaker jump out at me: the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," Oasis' "Wonderwall." I have a hard time shutting out the lyrics, which all become political metaphors.
After a few drinks, I finally find the energy to ask Rob Zerban, a Democrat running against Paul Ryan for Congress, if he'll come on the show the next day. He says he thinks his schedule is full and takes me over to his communications guy, Karthik Ganapathy, who is playing darts. Zerban pushes him playfully, messing up his shot, and then introduces us. Zerban seems really happy among all these friends and Democrats.
I can't help thinking, "Poor guy. Does he know what he's up against? Does he think he has a chance?"
It makes me wonder about campaigning politicians: How do they cope with nagging doubts? When it becomes clear that they're going to lose, how do they muster the energy to keep up appearances among their supporters? Is it hard to pretend you're going to win when you know you won't?
Politics of division
Plenty of people I talk to are fired up by the conventions. Van Sicklen, the Democrat, writes in an email to me after the Charlotte convention, "I feel so energized and so focused (but really tired and hoarse!). I am very concerned about Romney's war on women. I'm planning to mobilize my female friends; as Obama said, "FIRED UP, READY TO GO!"
At both conventions, I hear a lot of statements about how this election will matter for generations to come. Says Johnson, the tea party activist, "I feel like our country is really getting to be at a crossroads. Some of the decisions we make in the next few years, fiscally and foreign policy-wise, are going to impact whether we're a success or whether we go the way of Greece or Spain."
It's convenient, of course, for politicians to stoke these fears and frame the election in stark terms. There may, in fact, be a lot riding on this election, but such language has consequences. It can make people increasingly terrified about the future.
If there is anything that truly unites us, it is not a belief in the American Dream or the importance of protecting our children's future.
What apparently unites us is this: despair and disaffection. We all believe, in our own ways, that the system is rigged, and that our way of life is threatened, whether it be by socialist bureaucrats, greedy capitalists on Wall Street, the oil companies, radical Islamists, the Christian right, the intelligentsia or labor unions. Everyone thinks the political system is controlled by one or another group, to their benefit and not ours.
We fight to take back the system or we simply throw up our hands in despair, or some combination of the two.
But of this I'm pretty certain: We will never agree on anything again.