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Sept. 14, 2011

Vol. 112, No. 1


Thoughts on a tragedy: Lessons learned in the decade since 9/11

Published in the September 14, 2011, issue

The power of partisanship

By Julian E. Zelizer

Courtesy Woodrow Wilson School

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. 

After the tragedy of 9/11, many Americans expected that the forces of partisan polarization that dominated Washington would start to subside.

In the days that followed, there were efforts by both parties to demonstrate their good intentions. Democrats and Republicans participated in the familiar ritual of promising to handle the crisis in bipartisan fashion. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton announced Sept. 12 that it was important to be “united behind our president and our government, sending a very clear message that this is something that transcends any political consideration or partisanship.” Republi­cans also promised political peace.

The period of good feelings did not last long. One of the most striking aspects of 9/11 was that even a tragedy of this scale could not tame the partisan forces that shape American politics.

Partisanship flared over one of the most important measures that Congress had to deal with in the fall of 2011: airport security. The administration proposed that the federal government take a larger role in guarding airports, but only if the president granted Congress the power to exempt airport security workers from civil-service protections. The GOP insisted that the government needed flexibility when hiring and firing workers so that it properly could handle security concerns. Democrats opposed the president’s plan on the grounds that, in their minds, President Bush was trying to use national security to weaken unions; Republicans charged that Democrats were holding up the legislation to please organized labor.

Illustration: Francesco Bongiorni

This was just a taste of what was to come. During the 2002 elections, national security became part of the campaign. In one of the most notorious cases, Republicans launched an attack against Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a moderate Demo­crat who had lost his limbs in Vietnam and who challenged President Bush’s homeland security efforts. In one devastating ad, supporters of his Republican challenger, Rep. Saxby Chambliss, flashed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein before attacking Cleland for his positions on homeland security. (Chambliss won the election.)

Beyond national security, 9/11 had no effect on the ability of the parties to find agreement on almost any issue. In most respects, Capitol Hill looked very similar to how it had looked on Sept. 10.

The persistence of the partisan wars even after 9/11 serves as a powerful reminder of how deeply rooted the forces of partisanship in Washington are. Historians and political scientists have pointed to a number of factors, ranging from the 24-hour media, to the decline of centrist voters in congressional districts, to the dynamics of campaign finance and gerrymandering, as the forces fueling the tensions between the parties.

To a political historian of post-World War II America, none of this came as a surprise. Nonetheless, watching the way many of the nation’s leaders handled the aftermath, it was jarring to see just how quickly these political forces reasserted themselves, and the level of ferocity, even as most Americans were trying to recover from one of the most devastating moments in the nation’s history.
Post Comments
4 Responses to Perspective

Peter Suedfeld '63 Says:

2011-09-13 09:23:43

Let me quote: "The Constitution is not a suicide note."

Leanne Tobias *78 Says:

2011-09-13 11:09:30

Chris and I attended the Woodrow Wilson School at the same time, so I especially appreciate his wise words. In this piece, Chris has drawn lessons from September 11 that will allow us to move forward together more powerfully and effectively. Chris's advice on information sharing and coordination within and between groups is relevant in numerous settings, ranging from the family, to the workplace, to companies and government agencies, and between allies.

John Mason '66 Says:

2011-09-27 09:30:02

The sad events of September 11 have been used to underwrite the war in Iraq, with its fiction of WMD's; the erosion of civil liberty, under the peculiar use of "homeland" to refer to our country; and the use of torture by Americans, with expressions of contempt for the Geneva Convention. It is painful to contemplate.

John McKenna '57 Says:

2011-09-27 13:51:07

Because I teach theology, I refer my comments about 9/11 to God with Moses in the Exodus tradition of Israel's history among the nations in God's creation. Moses, it is recorded, had five objections to the Voice interacting with him in the event of the Burning Bush in Horeb. They were: 1) Who am I to go? 2) Suppose I do go and do what you have commanded me, they will want to know your NAME. What shall I tell them? 3) They will not believe me? 4) I do not speak well! 5) Send somebody else! I think as God's servant and Israel's prophet, Moses embodies with his objections the history of Israel among the nations as witness to the Living God the Lord is as the Great I-AM He is. Listening to all the questions and conjectures about God from those who survived and witnessed the event of 9/11 in our nation's history, I heard many of the same objections to Him. I believe we need to understand that He as the One He is as the Great I-AM He is will not be who He is without us, and thus I seek to understand why the event occurred just as Moses and Israel has to seek to understand why the Voice in the Burning Unconsumed Bush is who He is yet among us, who He is as our Savior and Judge. I trust PAW readers will want also to seek Him in these times!
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