When Richard Nixon’s secret “enemies list” was disclosed in the Watergate hearings in 1973, the country was horrified to learn that the White House was looking for ways “to screw our political enemies.” It led directly to the second article of impeachment against the president. Forty-two years later, when five Democratic candidates debating in Las Vegas were only too happy to boast of their own lists of enemies, the country yawned.
This was despite the breathtaking escalation in the use of the term. The Nixon White House had only 20 people on its original list. The Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, has more than 50 million—including the Republican Party, with its 45 million members, and the National Rifle Association, with its 5 million.
But it took a full week after the debate for anyone to really take notice. It was then that Vice President Joe Biden pointedly protested describing political opponents as “enemies.” To his surprise, his objection was quickly dismissed by some as naïve. In his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, Biden seemed taken aback by the reaction from what he called “serious people” who insist that Republicans “are our enemy.”
What explains the sharply contrasting reactions to the use of the term “enemy?"
“Everything has changed,” contends Bill Schneider, a George Mason University professor and leading analyst of American politics and elections. “There is total polarization now. The town has changed. There are two warring camps now.”
He added, “The deep-felt antipathy between the parties, the hatred that Hillary Clinton was referring to—that is something that has been building slowly since the ‘60s, and it’s accelerated since the Clinton wars, which she was very much a part of.”
In the debate, Clinton started out seriously in responding to the question of the enemies she was “most proud of.” There was the National Rifle Association, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, and the Iranians. Then, with a laugh that indicated she was joking, she added, “Probably the Republicans.”
To many partisans, though, she was speaking the truth. Even while lamenting the lack of civility in our national discourse and stating that Clinton should not have fallen into the trap, Schneider, who is a moderate Democrat, said she is correct in her assessment. “The Republicans have been pretty merciless in their attacks on her and her husband,” he said. “While she might have said it jokingly and there might have been some exaggeration, the fact is that to many Republicans, she is the enemy and so is Obama. They are a resistance movement to everything that the Clintons and President Obama stand for.”
Republican pollster Frank Luntz was not at all surprised that the Democratic candidates were quick to list their enemies, though he expected Clinton to be savvier in her response. “A good politician would have rejected the question and refused to answer. They would have said the only enemies we have are outside our country, that there are none here.”
But the answer she gave is similar to what he hears all the time now in the focus groups he convenes around the country. What he hears goes a long way toward explaining why talk of enemies in 2015 doesn’t have the impact of an enemies list in 1973. “We are an angrier society today. We are less trusting, more cynical, and more willing to believe that others are evil,” he said. “It’s a real problem. It’s what I hate most about politics. And it’s getting worse.”
There was no public outcry after the debate because, Luntz said, “We’ve become so accustomed to that kind of horrible, partisan, divisive language. It no longer strikes us as being extreme. And that’s a tragedy.”
He sees a big change in his focus groups from when he did his first one in 1988 and started doing them regularly during the 1992 campaign. “It is much more negative and much darker than 1992,” he said. “You have a segment of the electorate—almost a third—that doesn’t want to find common ground. They want to fight.” Now, when he throws out names, people in his groups “immediately cast negative assertions about others that they disagree with without even setting up the context. It’s such an ugly environment out there. It makes politics a blood sport.”
That environment poses a real challenge to the candidates appealing to the 2016 electorate. It has always been a given of American politics that a new president seeks to do what Abraham Lincoln promised in his second inaugural address: to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and show no malice toward foes. When Nixon won after a divisive 1968 campaign, he pledged on Election Night to “bring us together.” Twenty years later, a triumphant George H.W. Bush promised a “kinder and gentler” administration. In 2000, his son, George W. Bush, promised to be “a uniter, not a divider” after a bitter recount of the vote in Florida.
More recently, Barack Obama burst onto the national scene with a ringing denunciation of “those preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.” To rising applause at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama declared, “I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”
But it’s clear that there is a liberal America and a conservative America. “We’ve now had four presidents in a row who promised to bring the country together, to unite the country,” said Schneider. “They all failed.” It was the promise that made Obama so appealing in 2008, even to many skeptical Republicans. “He was supposed to be bipartisan and biracial,” said Schneider. “But he also failed.”
Now, the results of these failures can be seen in debates about enemies and the increasingly dyspeptic mood of the presidential campaign. And while optimism is an enduring American trait, it is difficult to be optimistic that the eventual winner will be able to succeed where the last four presidents have fallen so short in uniting a country that doesn’t seem to want to come together with fellow citizens they view as enemies.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.