Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 26, 2022
The US: A Democracy Waging War with Itself This article is part of the series—Raisina Edit 2022
During the Civil War, the US reached an inflexion point that shaped it into the country we know today. The Civil War was won by the Union under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, the US’s first Republican president. Lincoln ran for presidency on the anti-slavery agenda and eventually abolished slavery. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, supported slavery and opposed civil rights. In what could be the greatest political ironies, former US President Barack Obama is from the party that supported slavery and his successor Donald Trump is from the party that abolished it. Lincoln’s national political journey began with his nomination for the US Senate in 1858, speaking at which, he famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. In many ways, the US of today is so polarised that it is not just divided but is probably at war with itself.

Democrats and Republicans not only disagree on key issues, but nine out of ten Americans in both camps believe that electoral victory by the other will result in lasting harm to the US.

In his first speech as president-elect, Joe Biden pledged to bridge the deep and bitter divisions in the US. But by then, the country was not only tearing itself apart at a faster scale compared to other advanced democracies, but had also become more divided than ever. Democrats and Republicans not only disagree on key issues, but nine out of ten Americans in both camps believe that electoral victory by the other will result in lasting harm to the US.

A Long Time Coming

For average Americans and political experts, Trump remains the US’s principal polarising force. However, back in early 2012, much before Trump publicly entered the political arena, Obama was rated as the most polarising president ever. A president who ran on the promise of being a ‘president for all’ ending up as the most polarising president (till then) betrays a lot about the people. Trump’s power to polarise the American public comes from his ability to exploit the divide that was decades in the making. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Democrats and Republicans viewed the economy on identical lines; in fact, many Republicans viewed the economy more favourably than Democrats.  Figure 1: Views on the US Economy Under Five Successive Presidents d Source: PEW Research Yet Clinton was seen as more polarising than Ronald Regan, and starting with Clinton, every subsequent president has been more polarising than his predecessor.  Figure 2: Approval of US Presidents by Party Affiliation Note: The difference in approval ratings between ‘among own party’ and ‘among other party’ indicates the polarisation level
Source: PEW Research The 1950s was the era of political consensus, during which there was not much ideological difference on core issues between the Republicans and Democrats. However, the 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, sexual revolution, and the second feminist movement. These were started by average Americans and apolitical public figures, with politicians catching up after the movements attained mass momentum. In fact, Personal is Political was the defining slogan of the second feminist movement. Given the widespread participation of the public in these movements, and counter consolidation of those opposed to what they represented, a political alignment along these issues was inevitable—the personal indeed became political. Starting with racial inequality, religious affiliation, and economic policies, average Americans began to get divided, with the Republicans representing the conservative and Democrats representing the liberal sides of the divide. The rise and usage of 24-hour news channel and social media platforms by politicians and polarising opinion makers has contributed to Americans being presented two versions of truth on every subject, leading to further mistrust and social divisions. Today, Americans are not only deeply divided on something as outlandish as a wall between Mexico and the US or on complex issues like electoral integrity, but also on what would be non-issues in other nations—mask mandates, vaccinations, reproductive rights, school education, sports, among others. Americans view everything from a partisan standpoint, resulting in an amplification of the divide. Such widespread division allows for swift national prominence and the rise of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Trump, and the mainstreaming of their populist positions. Support bases along these positions push their parties to the extremes, leaving very little scope for any middle ground. The consequence of such divide is not merely a deeply polarised society, but vitiation of the room for nuanced discussion on critical policy issues.

A House Divided

The judiciary, executive and legislature are key pillars of a functioning democracy. And in most democratic nations, the judiciary is bipartisan. However, the system of appointment and confirmation of judges by elected political leaders makes the American judiciary deeply partisan and often divided. The acrimonious confirmations of conservative judge Brett Kavanaugh and liberal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson were public spectacles that further eroded the already-low trust in the judiciary.
Elections in the US are losing credibility because elected officials are in-charge of election administration, and they tend to tilt in favour of the party they represent, an unfortunate phenomenon ratified by the US Supreme Court.
Fair elections and a peaceful transition of power is a defining feature of any functioning democracy. Over the last few years, the legitimacy of election outcomes have come under question from both Republicans and Democrats. Elections in the US are losing credibility because elected officials are in-charge of election administration, and they tend to tilt in favour of the party they represent, an unfortunate phenomenon ratified by the US Supreme Court. To a vast number of Americans, the perception of a Russian collusion in the 2016 elections and the allegation that 2020 election was stolen does little to restore the executive’s legitimacy. The US’s legislature is fractured, not just between the two major parties, but also within themselves. Democrats in the US Congress opposed to Biden are derailing his governance agenda. Republicans in the Congress opposed to Trump are feeling the heat from his supporters and their fellow colleagues from the party. But the US legislative is more dysfunctional in the states than in Washington, making it difficult for any meaningful law-making. Consequently, since 1997, trust levels in the federal government and its branches have fallen sharply. Figure 3: Americans' Trust in Levels of Government vs Historical Average
Components of Governments in the US 1997 - 2021 Average 2020 2021
% % %
Federal Government
Federal Government handling global issues 59 48 39
Federal Government handling domestic issues 53 41 39
Federal Government Branches
Judicial branch 68 67 54
Executive branch 52 43 44
Legislative branch 47 33 37
State and Local Governments
State Government handling state problems 62 60 57
Local government handling local problems 70 71 66
Source: Gallup In addition to the legislature, executive and judiciary, the US’s global standing is central to its national politics and the liberal world order. While its global standing eroded precipitously under Trump, the slide began much earlier, and Biden, with his low approval rating, has not reversed the tide either.  Figure 4: Perception of US Global Image Source: PEW Research Despite his repudiation of Trump’s ‘America First’ approach to global diplomacy, Biden followed through on this predecessor’s deal to withdraw from Afghanistan, much to the chagrin of the US’s NATO allies. Biden scuttled France’s US$40 billion submarine deal with Australia, prompting a backlash. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine breathing life into NATO, his approach to the conflict does not seem to improve his standing among his allies or the  American public. While its domestic divisions caused an erosion of the US’s global standing, the reverse is equally true and puts the country in a steady downward spiral. At a time when the US is no longer the only big kid in the geopolitical arena, the power of its statecraft is being severely tested. China is unabashed in its ambitions, flexing its muscles and expanding its global prominence. Unlike Washington, Beijing is not constrained by the domestic politics pulling it from all sides. With an increasing number of people in democratic nations expressing dissatisfaction with democracy as a principle of governance, the US, the oldest and most prominent champion of democracy, is at a new inflexion point. The factors that define the American governance structure are heavily consumed by domestic distrust and partisan divide, which not only adds to the global disenchantment with democracy but will leave most Americans on the losing side of the war within themselves.
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Prasanna Karthik

Prasanna Karthik

Prasanna Karthik is a strategy consultant and public policy professional based out of New Delhi. He is a Fulbright as well as Clinton Global Initiative ...

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