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Don McKenna

has lived through the Great Depression, World War II, desegregation, the turbulent '60s and impeachment proceedings against two presidents.

But he doesn't remember the country ever being as divided as it is today, at least politically.

While pollsters and political scientists debate the extent of the nation's polarization, many older Americans — black and white, Democrat and Republican — say it's the worst in their lifetimes.

"I think the population is so divided that it really scares me," said McKenna, 89, a retired professor of veterinary medicine.

Not everyone agrees, including Trump opponent Anna Merritt of Urbana, 82, founder of the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation. She vividly remembers the 1965 Watts riots and the division over the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon's resignation.

An avid civil rights supporter, she remembers feeling "terrified" as she watched coverage of the riots with her newborn son.

"I thought America was going to fall apart. A lot of cities went up in flames across the country," she said. "People were not only frightened, but they took vehemently opposing positions on a lot of things and what America was really all about.

"Sure, we're divided now, but I'm not scared for my life as I was back then," she said. "It was a truly, truly scary time."

How divided is the country now?

Consider just the last few weeks. College graduates turned their backs or walked out on commencement addresses by Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Alt-right leader Richard Spencer spewed racist hate on national television. Protesters set fires and prevented a provocative conservative from speaking at the University of California. And a Montana congressional candidate allegedly body-slammed a reporter over questions about the GOP health care bill. He won anyway.

National polls frequently show Republicans and Democrats with polar opposite responses on everything from health care to Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. A Gallup poll taken just after last November's presidential election showed 77 percent of Americans, a new high, believed the nation was divided on the most important values. Republicans (68 percent) were less likely to say that than independents (78 percent) and Democrats (83 percent), consistent with the past two polls in 2004 and 2012.

Is the division unprecedented, or just louder than in the past because of cable news and the reach of the internet?

Short memories

University of Illinois political science Professor Brian Gaines said deep political divisions have been part of our history since the country's founding.

Witness the federalism vs. states-rights fight over the Constitution and the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel portrayed in the award-winning musical "Hamilton." Imagine, Gaines said, if Vice President Dick Cheney had shot Bill Clinton's secretary of the treasury in a duel.

And the degree of division over slavery in the run-up to the Civil War "exceeds anything we see now," he said.

Even looking at modern politics, since the early or mid-20th century, Gaines isn't so sure things are worse today.

"People have short memories," he said.

The postwar prosperity and feeling of shared national values in the 1950s were "quite atypical," he said. The rise of radio and national media in the early 20th century had provided a sense that "we're all the same country so we know what's going on," he said.

But the divisions were on full display in the civil rights marches, race-motivated killings and anti-war protests of the 1960s. Merritt remembers frank discussions with local civil rights leaders who warned that more violence would ensue if things didn't change.

Still, some African-Americans say things are more divided now.

"I think today is worse because of the politics and the people who have come through the '60s that did not like the '60s, and now they see it as, 'This is our chance to get back what we lost,'" said Cecelia Jones, 76, who joined friends for bingo Friday at the Douglass Senior Center. "It starts at the top. Things are being said and done, in my opinion, that are leading people who already were kind of negative to be more negative."

Clara Bright of Urbana, who was born in M

ississippi in 1933, said African-Americans have more privileges now but "people got along better back then, not just in government."

"I didn't think this until Barack Obama became president. It looked like everybody just came out of the woodwork. They just didn't care about one another anymore, I'm thinking because of the color of his skin," she said.

No middle ground

Republican Marvin Paulsen, a longtime Champaign Lions Club member, said there's no middle ground in politics anymore: "If you're for Trump, you're over here. And if you're not, you're for Hillary and you're over there," he said.

Gaines agreed: "The thing most people agree with is that the parties are further apart today," with fewer moderates. But there's not a consensus about whether that's true of the general public, he said.

Gaines believes the polarizing persona of Donald Trump is responsible for much of the division.

"He's an unusually strong lightning rod, and it makes it seem like there's a greater division, but a lot of that isn't about policy," he said.

"It's him as a person; it's not about Republicans and Democrats not seeing eye to eye," Gaines said.

There will always be deep differences on abortion, same-sex marriage and guns, but those issues aren't new, he said.

But on trade or the importance of U.S. jobs, for example, supporters of Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders have similar views, he said. And opinions about Trump and possible collusion with the Russians have less to do with actual foreign policy toward Russia than Trump's fitness for the presidency, Gaines said.

"I'm still not sold that it's the kind of division that can't go away," Gaines said.

It feels differen

t from the Vietnam era, he said, where "people were at each other's throats" about the morality and justification of the war, with opposing sides calling each other communists or murderers.

At Wednesday morning's coffee group at the Stevick Senior Center in Champaign, Richard Nohmer said money in politics is part of the problem.

Bob Lumsden blames politicians who put "party over country."

"That's where the divisiveness comes a

bout," agreed Bob Espeseth of Savoy. "They have their strong individual agendas and the hell with working together to come up with something that'll help everybody."

Cathy Wright said the internet has pushed the boundaries of the debate.

"Prior to that, people didn't really have much of a voice, except through their vote. Now, everyone has a direct voice to everyone else," she said.

Trump and the media

Many of those interviewed blame a polarized media, especially Fox News and other cable channels. The debate is superficial and often consists of people yelling at each other, they said.

"This is the first time I've ever heard of 'alternative facts,'" McKenna said, referring to Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway's infamous line.

Too many people listen to one news source, which feeds the divide, he said.

"I listen to MSNBC and then I listen to Fox News, and you would swear they're not talking about the same story," he said.

That is one clear difference with earlier periods, Gaines said. People can choose not to hear the other side.

"There's more of an echo chamber in politics," he said, though studies haven't shown a huge effect on polarization from partisan media.

Rich Wooley, former Cham

paign Central teacher and coach, agreed that Trump's bombastic rhetoric is to blame, and said the national media cover him more than any previous candidate to get ratings.

"It's like every day there's breaking news, and it's always Trump, Trump, Trump," he said. "I can't remember any president that was on TV every day."

"I think the country is more polarized than we've seen in my lifetime because we've never had a president this extreme before, and I think the principles that he stands for are offensive to many Americans," Wright said. "Name-calling doesn't really help the polarization much."

Navy veteran Floyd Bailey, a Trump supporter, blames "knucklehead" Democrats who can't get over losing the presidential election to Trump.

"I'm going on 90 and I have never seen it so bad as it is right now," he said. "They're worse than a bunch of little kids. They're just a bunch of idiots."

He criticized those who refuse to acknowledge Trump as their president and "can't seem to accept anybody else's opinion." But he said he felt that way about Barack Obama — though not until his second term.

"It just really bothers me that so many people feel so anti-everything," he said.

Maggie Miller of Champaign said the country has "more liberal people than there ever were, and I think they are more outspoken than conservatives are."

"When Obama won the presidency, we didn't protest, we didn't yell and scream and holler and do all the things they're doing now. And even the ones that disagreed, it was a short time, and he's the president, and we respected that," she said.

Miller, who advocated for POW/MIAs during the Vietnam era, argued that those protests were "nothing compared to what they're doing now."

Healing the divide

So can America get past it? What will it take?

Term limits and getting money out of politics, Nohmer and others said. Politicians have to put country first, and the national media need to change, they said.

People can also effect change on an individual level, by getting involved in politics or volunteer work, voters said.

"I think giving back helps people feel like they're not powerless," Wright said. And being politically active "gives you the feeling that you can do something about what's happening with our country, regardless of which side you're on."

Whenever developments seem too "troubling," Merritt tells herself: "OK, I cannot change any of those things. But I can do something in my own little world and will work hard at that. That gives me hope, because I know there are thousands, probably millions, of people who are doing that all over the country."

Conversations also help. The congenial Stevick group recalled lively political debates in years past, with one local Republican referring to the other party as the "Damnocrats."

The Champaign Lions Club has a rule about not talking politics at meetings, and there are clearly members who have political views "dramatically different from mine," said Jay Hoeflinger, a self-described liberal.

"But my experience has always been when you get to know people and talk to them on a personal level, you can get along with just about anybody, even the people who have completely different political thoughts than you do," he said.

Lions Club member David Hunter, a staunch Republican, downplays today's differences and believes the country would unite quickly against a common threat, as it did in World War II. He vividly remembers listening to President Franklin Roosevelt on the radio on Dec. 7, 1941.

"The country came together," he said.

The soft-spoken Jones said she believes God is "still in charge" and remains "hopeful and prayerful."

"I'm very prayerful about the country, and about the man who was elected president," she said. "You have to have hope."


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).