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Year in Review: Politics of polarization dominated U.S. news

Martin Desmarais
Year in Review: Politics of polarization dominated U.S. news
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive for an official dinner at the Presidential Palace in Dakar, Senegal, June 27, 2013. (P

Author: John BrewerCrowds gathered in Dudley Square on Sunday night to protest the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

On the national stage, the politics of polarization were on display with Democrats and Republicans locking horns over the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, voting rights laws and myriad other issues.

Nothing embodied the partisan divide as much as the government shutdown that held the nation hostage this fall. While the shutdown technically ran for 16 days from Sept. 30 to Oct. 17 — five fewer than the last government shutdown in 1995 — the political battles between the Democrats and the Republicans leading up to, during and after the shutdown left most of the American public with little confidence in the government’s ability to solve problems.

Technically, the shutdown was a result of GOP lawmakers holding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act hostage, despite its passage in Congress in 2010 and survival of a Supreme Court challenge in 2012. The shutdown was ended after Senate Democrats and Republicans agreed to extend funding for government services until January 2014 with only minor adjustments to the law, which has become known as Obamacare.

President Barack Obama talks with Tom Grilk, head of the Boston Athletic Association, as he greets first responders and marathon volunteers at Cathedral High School in Boston, Mass., April 18, 2013. The President and First Lady Michelle Obama traveled to Boston to attend an interfaith prayer service dedicated to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Even after the Congressional battle over the Affordable Care Act and the resulting government shutdown were resolved for the time being, the launch of Obamacare did little to quell doubters when the program went online and was immediately plagued by delays, glitches and long waits to enroll. The main website launched to handle enrollment but suffered technical difficulties, causing frustration for millions of users.

Beyond partisan politics, the other defining divide of 2013 was economic — the growing divide between the top ten percent of wage earners and the rest of the nation. Wages for the middle- and working-class have hit a 40-year low, while unemployment rates for African Americans have remained at near Depression levels.

Race issues take center stage

Thanks to a slew of prominent whites with a seeming inability to filter their public utterances, race remained a hot topic throughout 2013.

In June, celebrity chef, cooking show host and prolific cookbook author Paula Deen became embroiled in a racism controversy when a discrimination lawsuit brought against her by a former employee led to a deposition in which she admitted to using the N-word. Though Deen said she hadn’t used the word in a long time, her nonchalant attitude toward the use of racist epitaphs and their history in the South angered many. The blowback was quick and fierce.

President Barak Obama visited Boston in November to promote the Affordable Care Act, which was plagued by delays and computer glitches on its website.

The Food Network announced it would not renew Deen’s contract when it expired. Smithfield Foods dropped her as a spokeswoman. Other companies including Walmart, Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, Novo Nordisk, J.C. Penney, Sears and Kmart have terminated or suspended endorsement deals with Deen. Her book publisher, Ballantine Books, cancelled its five-book deal with her.

Cooking queen Deen wasn’t the only face in the media in a controversy surrounding the use of the N-word. The NFL had its own racism controversy in October when reports emerged out of the Miami Dolphins organization that veteran white player Richie Incognito was accused of using racial slurs and threatening second-year African American player Jonathan Martin, which led to Martin’s decision to quit, citing concerns about not feeling safe with the team.

The ensuing national debate focused on use of racial epitaphs such as the N-word and had several scratching their heads as many current and former NFL players seemed to condone such behavior as part of “locker room” culture. For its part the NFL and the Miami Dolphins were quick to condemn the behavior, but with both Incognito and Martin out of the game for the time being, the incident discouraged many in the way the latter was ostracized for standing up.

This summer, many Americans anxiously awaited the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial as he faced second degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The neighborhood watchman’s claim of self-defense from the Feb. 26, 2012 incident in Florida during which he shot and killed the unarmed teenager had many bracing for a controversial verdict. And when a jury acquitted him of all charges, it triggered nationwide protests and had President Barack Obama acknowledging that he could have been Martin 35 years ago.

For a country questioning racial discrimination in the legal system, the ruling in August that New York Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” program was unconstitutional and the directive to change the program was welcome news. The police practice of searching pedestrians for weapons and other contraband has long drawn criticism and protest that more African American and Latino males are stopped than anyone else.

However, the celebrations were relatively short lived. In October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit blocked the order requiring changes to the NYPD stop-and-frisk program and removed presiding Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case. But the legal battle is still ongoing and most are hoping that new Mayor Bill De Blasio will keep his campaign promise to reform the stop-and-frisk program.

Another legal shot to civil rights in this country was the Supreme Court striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in June. That provision of the landmark civil rights law had dictated that changes to voting laws have to be cleared by the federal government or in federal court. This part of voting rights has been credited with stopping policies that prevent minorities from voting. Critics of the Supreme Court decision said the move effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act and delivered a serious blow to democracy.

Looking back

While 2013 delivered some challenges to race relations, the year also offered several opportunities to celebrate the efforts that have been made to promote racial harmony.

Author: (AP photo/Simon Dawson)The world mourned the departure of former freedom fighter and South African President Nelson Mandela.

On Aug. 28, tens of thousands of people attended the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington, which was led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. President Obama spoke and was joined by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The commemoration of the march was celebrated with a week-long slate of events. Other speakers included: Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Martin Luther King III.

The year ended with a touching goodbye to one of the greatest champions of human and civil rights the world has ever known when Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95 on Dec. 5. The former South African president, Noble Prize winner and conqueror of apartheid was fondly remembered throughout the world and the United States with a number of tributes and memorials for the man who championed reconciliation and embodied South Africa’s long walk to freedom.