How did US politics become so intensely polarized?

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US politics has become of merry-go-round of antagonism where neither party has shown restraint nor a desire to de-escalate.

A man and a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump exchange words during a march around the perimeter of the White House after the President's campaign rally on the South Lawn in Washington, U.S., October 10, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)

A man and a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump exchange words during a march around the perimeter of the White House after the President’s campaign rally on the South Lawn in Washington, U.S., October 10, 2020.

(photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)

US politics is a mess. It’s a headache to cover and the subject is bound to start an argument with peers. A primary reason for this was the anticipated Trumpification of the presidency, since he was polarizing before setting foot in the Oval Office and continues to be so to this day. His bombastic attitude, impulsive tweeting, impeachment and more have made him a walking scandal played out on the 24-hour news cycle.

It was a safe bet to predict that a Trump presidency would have led to increased polarization. But even the most morbid predicators couldn’t have anticipated the current state of affairs. At present, everything in America has become politicized, from the novel coronavirus response to wearing masks to showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. While many point the finger at POTUS for the mess, the unfortunate reality is that the distribution of blame can be set on numerous sets of shoulders along both sides of the political aisle.

To understand how US politics have become a circus, it can’t be analyzed by political theory, but instead through the prism of insurgency. When militants take up arms and become the governing force of a population, a government’s reaction falls between two strategic paradigms. The first choice is to fight back – while honoring all legislation respecting human rights and the laws of armed conflict – against an opposition that has no intention to abide by the same rules. Or follow the second option, to match and even surpass insurgents in brutality to break their will.

One side of the paradigm has the state fighting with an arm tied around its back, and the other side blurs ethical lines between actors, legitimizing the validity of the belligerent’s struggle. By looking at the power struggle between Trump’s Republican Party and the Democratic Party through this lens, one can understand and rationalize actors’ motives and actions.

US President Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to the presidency was against immense odds on both sides of the political aisle. Even his victory was by the finest of margins – for only the 5th time history – by losing the popular vote yet wining the Electoral College. As an outsider to the political arena, Trump’s victory was a referendum against status-quo-politicians, who focused on social issues for electoral favors. This, while blue-collar regions became devastated from the loss of manufacturing jobs going to foreign competition and due to automation; their people turned to using opioids as a coping mechanism.

This antiestablishment victory began the political insurgency where the Trumpified Republicans were pitted against the status-quo-Democrats. Furthermore, this set the stage for a hostile relationship where an abrasive Trump must cooperate with an opposition which has actively questioned his legitimacy through congressional investigations and more. While it can be argued that the continuous negative coverage and congressional actions are a result of Trump’s rhetoric and executive behavior, the precedent for his administration was set during his campaign; he never expressed interest in operating within expectations and norms of the US presidency.

On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic National Committee’s leadership is full of established politicians such as US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, representing high-class professionalism and competency within their ranks and across bipartisan lines, juxtaposing everything Trump is perceived to represent. But in the face of a Trumpified insurgency, the Democrats choose the tactic to break his will by meeting him in political brutality.

This is epitomized by the interaction during the State of the Union between Trump and Pelosi. When Trump refused to shake Pelosi’s hand, it was a disrespectful and unprofessional action that doesn’t live up to the norms of presidential etiquette. However, this action is in line with his norms. But when the career politicians such as Pelosi stoop to that level, it breaks the norms of professionalism on which she built her career, both damaging her political integrity and legitimizing Trump’s antics as acceptable.

In conclusion, US politics has become of merry-go-round of antagonism where neither party has shown restraint nor a desire to de-escalate. While there isn’t overt political violence between the parties, this is concerning nevertheless because the political goal is no longer centered on public service to their constituents. Rather, the goal becomes domination over the opposition in the fear that their opponents will ruin the country beyond repair.

This dynamic erodes compromise and bipartisanship, the essential gear of American governance, replaces that model with contrariness as an ideology, “contrarianism,” and the politicization of everything. During normal times this is irritating, but currently, the fractured union is plagued with a myriad of challenges including managing the public health crisis caused by COVID-19, economic consequences of the pandemic, months of racial demonstrations, pressure to defund the police and civil unrest in Portland and Seattle. All of which is exasperated by the upcoming presidential election, which has become more pressing following the death of supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg; the next president is likely to appoint the replacement for her seat. When an insurgency grips a nation everyone loses. In this dangerous game of politics turned insurgency, the ends justify the means in the pursuit of power.

The writer is an American history and geopolitics enthusiast, and a researcher of innovative Israeli foreign policy and Middle Eastern security.

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