'Frontline' examines right-left rift in 'Divided States of America'

'Frontline' examines right-left rift in 'Divided States of America'
A new "Frontline" miniseries, "Divided States of America," examines the increasingly wide rift between left and right. (Andrew Geraci / District 7 Media)

Whatever your political point of view, it seems impossible to dispute that, on the eve of a Donald Trump presidency, the country is intensely divided.

But how did we get here?


"Divided States of America," a four-hour "Frontline" special premiering Tuesday, tackles that provocative question by taking a sometimes critical look at Obama's presidency and the bitter partisanship that defined it.

The central thesis of the two-part special is that Obama, who was elected partially on a promise to heal the rift between red and blue America, instead helped usher in an era of unprecedented gridlock that gave rise to Trump's insurgent candidacy. Likewise, despite the sense that Obama's victory represented the dawn of a post-racial era, his presidency only helped expose a lingering black-white divide.

"Divided States" is equally about the transformation of the GOP from the party of John McCain to the party of Trump, tracing the rise of conservative populism beginning with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008.

What emerges from "Divided States" is the sense that extreme political polarization poses a grave threat to the country, but there's little sense of how we might overcome it.

The miniseries takes a  timeline approach, examining in roughly chronological order the flashpoints over healthcare, government spending, race and gun violence that shaped Obama's White House tenure.

Director-producer Michael Kirk and his team have assembled an impressive array of interview subjects, including top administration officials such as former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner; leading intellectuals like Ta-Nahisi Coates; and a who's who of political journalists from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Yorker.

The first half begins with the 2008 campaign and covers in meticulous detail the first two years of Obama's presidency. It argues that the seeds of our current division were sown in a tumultuous period that saw the financial crisis, bank bailouts and the passage of a stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act. Palin, with her divisive brand of "prairie populism," was a harbinger of the anti-elite tea party movement, which helped Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections.

The second hour moves along at a brisker pace, recounting the birther movement, the 2012 election, legislative skirmishes over the federal budget and the seemingly endless series of mass shootings and racially charged killings that marred Obama's second term in office.

It also delves into the civil war within the Republican Party, torn between tea party insurgents and so-called establishment figures like former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and former Speaker of the House John Boehner. ("Divided States" is especially sympathetic to Boehner, who is portrayed as an old-fashioned deal maker and pragmatist unfairly vilified by both parties.)

Trump sensed the growing resentment among some white voters— "the Archie Bunkers who were uncomfortable with an African American president," as author Michael D'Antonio puts it — and gained influence by embracing the birther issue, which most mainstream Republicans had chosen to ignore.  (He also read the tea leaves earlier than most, submitting a trademark application for his slogan "Make America Great Again" just six days after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election.)

"Divided States" isn't afraid to lay some of the blame at Obama's feet. The president is portrayed as both overreaching, passing healthcare reform and a stimulus package without a single Republican vote, and overly cautious, declining to chastise bank executives after the financial crisis. And despite his vows to reach across the aisle, Obama was naive about the extent of partisan rancor and uninterested in the back-slapping necessary to get things done on Capitol Hill. Part of the problem, it suggests, is that Obama's meteoric rise led to an unrealistic level of confidence.

"His biggest misunderstanding about American politics is that it wasn't polarized," says New Yorker staff writer Ryan Lizza.

But the series also points to Republican obstructionism, beginning with a strategy dinner days after Obama's inauguration where top GOP lawmakers, including Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan, plotted to block the president's agenda at every turn.

"Divided States" does an excellent job pinpointing the moments that helped deepen the partisan divide. As a behind-the-scenes account of legislative battles and backroom negotiations, it is deeply reported and impressive in its range, covering a host of complicated matters in a relatively short time. (Oddly, though, it focuses entirely on domestic issues, with no mention of foreign policy.)


The special is also particularly illuminating when it comes to Obama's complicated legacy as the nation's first black president. It's a distinction that, ironically, forces him to be cautious when speaking out on matters of perceived racial bias, from the death of Trayvon Martin to the murder of nine churchgoers at Emmanuel A.M.E. church.

Perhaps necessarily, given the constraints of time and budget, "Divided States" focuses only on Obama's presidency, though President Clinton's time in office was also marked by toxic clashes between left and right. What's missing from the documentary is the historical and ideological context.

Partisan gridlock is a problem that has been with us since the beginning, but when did governing turn into a zero-sum game? How has D.C. become so dysfunctional that a modest gun control bill sponsored by an NRA-friendly Democrat and a conservative Republican wasn't able to pass in the Senate following the Newtown, Conn., massacre?

In this regard, "Divided States" underplays the role of TV news and social media. We hear numerous clips from conservative talk radio, and there's a brief mention of Rick Santelli's infamous 2009 CNBC "tea party" rant, but there's virtually no mention of Fox News -- or for that matter, MSNBC -- and the growing partisan echo chambers.

The special's play-by-play focus, though gripping, means some of this broader perspective is lost. What "Divided States of America" provides is a detailed breakdown of how we got here, but not necessarily why.

Then again, it might take a few more years to figure that out.


Where: KOCE and KPBS

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)