It should not be a shock that politics are polarised in the United States. It is nothing new. In fact, it could be seen as the norm for much of the country’s history.
So entrenched have been previous battles between the two parties that, in 1861, it ended in Civil War trenches. What is going on now, with Democrats and Republicans coming from seemingly implacably opposed positions, could really be described as a ‘cold civil war’ – and a far bigger threat than there has been in 150 years.
So entrenched have been previous battles between the two parties that, in 1861, it ended in Civil War trenches
This time, with the US set to vote this week in their midterm elections, do the disagreements spell disaster for the country? If, as is expected, hundreds of people are elected in the Congressional and Senate vote who believe the last Presidential election was rigged, is there any possibility of healing the rift and bridging the polarised gap?
In fact, it is possible to argue there is not really that much dividing the two parties. They are a lot closer together on many issues, including gun rights and abortion, than it might appear at first glance.
Last week, on the Rothermere American Institute’s Last Best Hope podcast, I talked to the esteemed US political scientist James Morone, Professor of Political Science at Brown and the author of the recent Republic of Wrath: How American Politics Turned Tribal, from George Washington to Donald Trump.
[It is argued] the big issue in the US is actually inequality....20 years ago, the US was on the same lines as France or Sweden, in terms of social equality, now it has levels of inequality more usually found in South America than Western Europe
Professor Morone maintains the big issue in the US is actually inequality. And there is ample evidence. While 20 years ago, the US was on the same lines as France or Sweden, in terms of social equality, now it has levels of inequality more usually found in South America than Western Europe.
Professor Morone argued, if they want to win votes, the Democrats should focus on this, rather than ‘culture wars’, which are proving so divisive. It was an extremely popular platform for Bernie Sanders, who ran for the Democratic nominee and was narrowly beaten by Joe Biden.
As for Republicans, he said, if they want to win voters, they ought to reach out to voters from ethnic minorities, who currently vote Democrat, but who share the Republican’s more conservative social attitudes. In effect, fight the culture war with non-white support.
Professor Morone was basically appealing for a return to ‘normal politics’ – a politics defined by battles over tax and spend, not about whether elections are legitimate. And it is possible to be optimistic. US politics has been deeply polarised in the past but the tensions have eased when one side definitively wins – as the Republican Party did in the aftermath of the Civil War, or the Democrats did when Franklin Roosevelt won a landslide victory in the 1932 presidential election.
In the 21st century, social media has driven polarisation...On the current trajectory, it is not difficult to see the US ceasing to function as an effective democracy
In the 21st century, social media has driven polarisation. With no American equivalent of the BBC, people in the US are even more divided into alternative ‘fact-worlds’ than in this country. On the current trajectory, it is not difficult to see the US ceasing to function as an effective democracy. And yet the reality is, compromise, on most issues, should be possible. Even on the touchstone divisive issues such as abortion or gun control, most Americans occupy a position in the middle ground, even while they are shouted down by the extremes on either side.
Abraham Lincoln most famously used the phrase “the last best hope of earth” to describe the United States. This exceptionalist claim is amazingly powerful, beguiling, frustrating, arrogant, and inspiring and it has pervaded US life from the beginning.
Later in this series, we look at an incident in the 1850s, when the US sent gun boats to forcibly open up Japan to the rest of the world. Today, we can look at Japanese documents from the time, which show how the Japanese saw the American invaders – they had no idea what was coming. Another episode explores the history of the second amendment – that bit of the Constitution that gives gun owners the ‘right to bear arms’ (albeit, some think, only if they are a member of a ‘well-regulated militia’, which, the Amendment states, is necessary for the preservation of free society).
The Last Best Hope? podcast is now in its eighth season, is frequently in the top five UK history podcasts, and has been described by the BBC America correspondent Nick Bryant as the “must-listen US podcast”. You’ll notice there’s a question mark in the title – is America the last best hope? Probably not, but we want to understand why people have thought so, because understanding America – from the outside in – remains an essential task for our world.