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Why is America So Divided?

Why is America So Divided?

Monday, 2 November, 2020 - 12:00
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

As next Tuesday’s final day of voting in the American election approaches, there are many fears about violence in the streets of some cities. American citizens are buying large numbers of guns. Shops in some neighborhoods are preparing to close or are buying expensive insurance to reimburse for financial losses from damage due to political violence. Our internal security agency, the FBI, announced it is on maximum alert status.


I remember American elections back to 1968 and I don’t ever recall such developments. Many American analysts are asking why has America become so divided and so polarized?


The best answer I think is in the new book from former Democratic Party candidate Peter Buttegieg with the title “Trust”. Buttegieg wrote that American national identity is not connected to ethnic identity because the United States is a nation of immigrants. Instead, he thinks that our national identity is based on a shared agreement about civic values. In the past, there was wide confidence that all American citizens share those civic values. The “greatest generation of Americans” in the words of Canadian journalist Thomas Brokaw went out from America together, Democrats and Republicans, to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan in World War 2.


Now there is no common enemy, and America is facing big social and economic issues. The social status of dominant groups is being questioned. The Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters denounce the police and judicial system. Both leftists, like Democrat Bernie Sanders, and extreme conservatives denounce big companies. Factory jobs are slowly disappearing, and many working-class people feel threatened. Fewer Americans attend church and Christian conservative groups feel threatened. Police violence and arrest campaigns make minority communities and their supporters feel threatened. Many of the signs where I live that praise Trump also say, “No More Bullshit” meaning rejection of the normal political system.


Lilliana Mason in her new book “Uncivil Agreement” said that these confrontations are not about politics but rather involve social, economic and ethnic identities. It makes it easier for one side to claim implicitly that the opposing side is not normal, maybe not even human.


Partisans of one political party do not trust the other party to make any decisions about national identity. An opinion poll from the Pew Research Group in October 2019 indicated that 57 percent of Republicans think Democrats are immoral and 47 percent of Democratic Party partisans think the same about Republicans. This is about values, not politics. In addition, I expect the numbers are higher now in 2020. And the Pew opinion poll showed that less than one half of Democratic Party partisans (45 percent) think Republicans share their values and only 38 percent of Republicans think that Democrats share their values.


When the partisans of the two parties don’t trust each other and don’t think their opinions have any worth, then it is impossible to allow the opposing side to define national values and national identity. And the priority goal of political competition changes blocking the path in front of the opposing side, and not your party’s program.


If you look at the 2020 election, President Trump understands this division. He never announced any plan for his second term if he wins the election. He never talks about his domestic or foreign policies. He only attacks the Democrats. There are signs in my neighborhood that say, “vote for Trump and make the liberals cry again.”


There is a movement inside the Republican Party that worries about these divisions, and it calls itself “Never Trump” and you can see its powerful television advertisements on television and YouTube from the group the Lincoln Project.


David French, a Republican Party thinker from the Never Trump movement wrote in his new book, “Divided We Fall,” that Americans should not assume a democracy across a continent with multiple ethnic groups and multiple religious groups will remain united always. He even imagines a situation where California and the West Coast try to separate from the United States because of central government laws allowing guns everywhere or maybe Texas and some southern states try to separate because of central government laws allowing abortion. You can see some discussion about this on social media. However, domestic political division has not yet reached this point, as French agrees, and there is not yet any serious separatist movement.


One of my favorite journalists, Thomas Ricks, whom I met in Iraq during the war, wrote recently that America will survive this difficult time as it survived its civil war 160 years ago under Lincoln. But no one knows with certainty how to reduce the anger in American politics or how to rebuild America’s political foundation.


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