New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – “DISUNITED THEY STAND.”

These days, most Canadians hold unfavorable views of the United States. According to a recent survey, only 35% of my fellow citizens have a positive attitude toward our next door neighbour. (Pew Research, August, 2020) This contrasts sharply with an almost two-thirds favourability response in 2015, the last year of the Obama Presidency. One does not need any research to conclude what—or more specifically who— has caused this dramatic shift in attitude over these past four years.

Internally, Americans are equally dissatisfied with the state of their union. Polarization has replaced a desire for the common good; Divisiveness across racial, economic and political battlegrounds shouts with far more strident voices than fervent pleas to find a unity of purpose. The lack of a bi-partisan strategy against COVID is a prime example.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the United States. A traditionally generous country, its Marshall Plan enabled war-ravaged Europe to rebuild in the 1940s, while bringing about the restoration of healthy, stable democracies in defeated Germany and Japan. In the Sixties, President Kennedy inspired a generation of young men and women to personally demonstrate that same spirit of generosity by serving in his Peace Corps. For me, as a foreigner, it was an invitation to attend an American university on an athletic scholarship, a generously-opened door which changed the course of my life. It is understandable to see why the formerly-admired USA has now found itself struggling with such internal angst over recent years, but nevertheless, it is still sad to witness.

How has the Trump Presidency led to such a crisis of disunity across the country? In a recent scholarly article, Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman, each an American political science professor, systematically present their case (“The Fragile Republic,” Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2020)

They acknowledge that the USA has faced similar crises of rigid polarization earlier in its long history, (The Civil War, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Nixon’s Watergate.) Yet the writers assert that this current unrest is a new and uniquely perfect storm of four destructive trends:

POLITICAL POLARIZATION: The article makes reference to a humorous, but revealing survey. Americans were asked in the 1950s whether it would matter if their child married a Republican or a Democrat. A large majority, about 72%, either did not answer or replied that it wouldn’t make a difference. In 2016, about 55% said they would certainly have a “partisan preference.” I typically get my American news from both CNN and Fox. One might conclude that each network lives on separate planets. While switching back and forth helps me to find a balanced perspective, most viewers apparently prefer to remain loyal to the news source which confirms their own already-established bias. President Trump has rejected any press criticism, dismissing it as “fake news.”

Washington politics currently features a paucity of bi-partisan cooperation. There is little across-the-aisle dialogue to find that commonality of purpose. Achieving that goal would require skills of facilitation, not confrontation, emanating from the Oval office.

WHO BELONGS IN THE POLITICAL PROCESS? Historically, the United States has led most of the world in extending the franchise to all its adult citizens. Admittedly, this democratic process of granting the right to vote was a painfully gradual one to eventually include: all white men, white women in 1920 and, finally, to all Black voters in1965.

There has always remained resistance to these advances from those whose power and privilege would have to be shared with expanding voter lists. The Klan (KKK) arose across the South after the Emancipation Proclamation gave voting rights to former male slaves. In 1960s Mississippi, I witnessed how Blacks were intimidated as they tried to register on voting lists. Currently, one can discern similar, albeit much more subtle, attempts to discourage African-American and other minority voters. Notice that ten hour wait in line to cast a vote in some predominantly Black communities.

ECONOMIC INEQUALITY: It could have been assumed that those struggling on the bottom of the economic ladder would organize and bypass the democratic process in favour of more radical forced change, as in 1917 Russia. Mettler and Lieberman remind readers that, in fact, it had been those on the top rung who have better organized to maintain their privilege. This powerful minority, currently Trump’s affluent supporters, will support whichever party that promises tax breaks to the already-wealthy. For example, compensation for executives of major corporations has dramatically risen between 1978 and 2017, jumping from 30 times the pay of an average worker to 312 times their wage over that period. That is quite a polarization! Ironically, Trump still retains much support from white blue-collar workers.

AN IMPERIAL PRESIDENT: The Founding Fathers created a political system featuring those “checks and balances” we all studied in high school American History. This structure can lead to partisan divisiveness as reflected in the angry debate over the recent nominee for the Supreme Court. When frustrated by Congressional roadblocks, both Obama and now Trump have resorted to bypassing Congress and created policy through executive orders.

In “The Fragile Republic,” Mettler and Lieberman view Trump as fanning the flames of polarization. His vicious character assassinations of every opponent, both within his own party during his 2015 campaign for the nomination and now targeting “Sleepy Joe” Biden; his attempts to limit access to voting for minorities; his tax breaks for the wealthy (and himself); his arrogant style of leadership have each led to this current crisis of extreme partisanship — the ‘Disunited States of America’.

We too live in “glass houses.” Canadians should be cautious in throwing rocks across the border. Instead, we can learn from the American experience and strive to cling to what unites us, rather than focus on what divides us. On Tuesday, we will watch with the rest of the world to see whether the USA will take a major step toward healing that corrosive divisiveness which threatens their fragile Republic.