DENVER — If there’s one thing the 2020 election proved, it’s how divided our country has become politically.
From a combative campaign to aggressive presidential debates, the election highlighted a split that’s been growing in our country for years.
“Nationally, the political divide has only widened, unfortunately. Things have gotten a lot nastier,” said Sage Naumann, the communications director for Colorado Senate Republicans. “I think we have Democrats and Republicans who look at each other as the enemy instead of their fellow Americans.”
In the weeks after the ballots were cast, things turned downright hostile with accusations of election irregularities and fraud, spurring dozens of lawsuits from the Trump administration.
All of that political tension finally came to a head on Jan. 6 when insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, resulting in the deaths of five people and one Capitol Police officer. Nearly 140 D.C. and Capitol Police officers were also injured in the riots.
“Somebody has to be the adult here. Somebody has to say, you know what, we're not going to play this game anymore,” Naumann said. “I don’t know that those leaders have stepped up yet and, hopefully, we do because as it gets worse and worse, the stakes will get higher and higher.”
Denver7 takes a 360 look at how deep the political divide in this country and how we can overcome it.
A history of divide
With so much disagreement currently, it’s easy to think that this is the most divided the country has ever been.
However, this is not the first time the country has been separated politically. In fact, historians Jared Orsi and William Ashcraft said there have been many times in the past when the country has been split, starting with the Civil War.
“We fought a war 160 years ago or so over that division. Interestingly enough, that war was caused by some of the same factors we see today — one side very unhappy with the election returns,” Ashcraft said.
Before World War I and World War II, the country also experienced deep internal turmoil.
During those times of division, Orsi said it has often taken an external enemy, such as a foreign threat, in order to unify the nation.
The country has come together to go to war multiple times and keep the wheels of the economy turning. While there was a sort of national unification, Orsi clarified there was still division and entire segments of the population were disenfranchised.
Japanese internment camps during World War II highlighted some of the racism that existed during eras Americans now romanticize.
“Full unity has never been really achieved in American history,” Orsi said.
Both Ashcraft and Orsi said fear has also played an important role in sewing division in the country politically.
“We’re always susceptible and away to politicians who will wage a rhetorical war against any 'ism' — communism, socialism, fascism,” Ashcraft said.
In recent years, the historians said they’ve noticed some of these themes being repeated and even amplified on social media.
“Americans, perhaps without precedent other than the McCarthy era and the Civil War, have really come to the conclusion that they are each other’s enemies,” Orsi said.
Ashcraft attributes that divide in large part to the echo chambers that people have started to form online.
How we got to this point
An echo chamber is a term used to describe the phenomenon of surrounding yourself with only other viewpoints that are similar to your own, whether that comes from people, posts or pseudo news sites.
Social media has amplified the division from partisanship to political tribalism — where people are protective of their parties and candidates — to political sectarianism — where people don’t just love their party but hate their opponents.
State Sen. Kevin Priola believes the COVID pandemic is also playing a role in perpetuating the echo chambers, since people are spending more time at home and interacting with people outside of their social networks less.
“People are social by nature, and, I think, being locked in your house and behind Zoom calls all day, while there is some interaction, it’s not the same,” Priola said. “I think, we’re all becoming a little bit awkward.”
To some extent, over the past couple of decades Colorado has managed to avoid much of the partisanship playing out on a national level. The vast majority of bills signed into law had bipartisan support.
“I think job one for the Colorado state legislators: to model good behavior, to have those robust debates, to have that exchange of ideas, but always maintain respect,” Sen. Dominick Moreno said.
That was due, in part, to the fact that for more than 15 years ago the Colorado legislative control was split with Republicans controlling one chamber and Democrats controlling the other.
However, that changed in 2018 when Democrats gained control of the House, Senate and governor’s mansion. In recent sessions, Republicans and Democrats have begun to experience more tension.
Most notably, in 2019, Republicans tried to slow the legislative process down by having bills read at length, so Democrats had multiple computers speed-read the bills simultaneously to hurry the process along, resulting in a lawsuit.
Throughout the 2019 and 2020 session, there were late nights, bitter debates and a notable divide in the party.
Opening day for the 2021 session also involved a fair bit of drama; Republicans objected to appointing Rep. Alex Garnett as the Speaker of the House, so a roll call vote was called, something that hasn’t happened before in Colorado.
Naumann worries the longer Democrats have complete control, the more polarized the state will become.
“The Democrats are realizing they can do whatever they want, and they don’t need Republican votes, and Republicans get more and more frustrated that they’re not being brought to the table,” Naumann said.
Moreno has noticed a shift in the political dialogue on the state level as well and a growing unwillingness to compromise.
“I’m not sure it’s the worst ever, but it does feel like we’re in a pretty dark place in terms of our civil discourse,” Moreno said.
On a national level, the political tensions are far more palpable. After the election, instead of parties coming together once again, criticism over election integrity and an unwillingness from President Donald Trump to concede brought the country to a boiling point.
On Jan. 6, the tensions boiled over when hundreds of insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, resulting in deaths, serious injuries and property damage. Lawmakers hid in their offices and used underground tunnels to escape the mobs.
Now, lawmakers are demanding answers for how something like this could happen, promising hearings, investigations and action. Trump was impeached for a second time, a first for a president in American history. He will also be the first president to ever face an impeachment trial after leaving office.
In the hours and days after the insurrection, Republicans and Democrats alike condemned the violence. However, the two parties are still as divided as ever.
Where do we go from here?
Despite the tension and partisanship, there are ways for the country to come together. It starts with communication.
“I think we just have to be able to have more rich dialogue to the point that we don’t have to out shout each other. Let’s just listen to each other and see if we can find common agreement,” Sen. Rhonda Fields said.
Communication is as much about listening to one another, and trying to understand where the other side is coming from, as it is about talking.
For Republicans, both Priola and Naumann agree that it starts with more conservative voices speaking up to say the election was not rigged and that President Joe Biden won fairly.
For weeks, Naumann has been using his Twitter account to try to dispel misinformation and encourage others to do the same. He is one of the few Republican voices in the state who has been so vocal about the outcome of the election.
“This is an inflection point for our party, and for me to not say something, I know in five to 10 or 20 years I would regret not using whatever little bit of voice I have to speak out,” Naumann said. “If our party wants to move forward, we need to start recognizing that these are conspiracy theories and that they have no grounding in fact.”
Instead of focusing on the previous election, Naumann said he’d like his party to focus on the future, and instead of focusing on conspiracy theories, he wants to focus on the actual issues that will affect voters, like fee increases.
Priola, meanwhile, wants to see his colleagues work together with Democrats to solve problems and pass meaningful legislation, while understanding being in the minority means making concessions.
“To simply go down to the Capitol and scream and yell and vote no on everything because it’s not exactly what you would want in a perfect world, I think most voters are very frustrated about that, and they’re kind of tired of the fighting and the rancor over everything. I’ve had many of them say, 'can you just get some stuff done?'” Priola said.
For Democrats, one way to help end the partisanship might be to put their political power in check, even while controlling the House, Senate and governor’s mansion and allowing the minority party to weigh in with their ideas as well.
“Democrats are in control of the state level. That does not excuse us from simply exercising our power with no regard for the voices of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle. We need to reach out. We need to listen and understand the concerns of our colleagues and integrate those concerns in the proposed policy solutions,” Moreno said.
Fields encouraged both sides to try to be tolerant of one another and understand things like kindness, courtesy and generosity never go out of style.
For everyone else, Naumann said it’s important for everyone to recognize the role each of us plays in creating the political divide in order to bridge the gap.
“It’s going to require the media to stop fueling this fire, to stop playing into the clicks. It’s also going to require politicians to stop feeding misinformation to their constituents,” Naumann said. “I think what this all comes down to is treating people with more respect and recognizing that we are all Americans. We’re all here, we’re all good people and we’re all trying to do better. We just have different ways of getting there.”
Ashcraft agrees, saying it’s convenient to blame politicians or the media, but, in a free society, citizens play an important role as well with who they choose to support and what news they choose to consume.
In the end, all of us played a role in causing the political divide our country now faces, and it will be up to all of us to fix it.
Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.