Disagreement is a fundamental part of politics, but the extent to which America has become defined by its political and ideological cleavages is unprecedented and could have worrying consequences.
The theme for Joe Biden’s inauguration this week is ‘America United’, and with the most votes for any President in American history, Biden would seem to have a historic mandate for the beginning of his tenure as President. However, in the 2020 election, Trump received the second most votes of any Presidential candidate in history, showing that American’s care more than ever before about politics, a result of the continuing polarization of ‘we the people’. The historic turnout in the 2020 election and subsequent Georgia run-off election shows just how salient identity politics has become. Often, election results suffer from widespread voter apathy, and many political campaigns over the years have consistently tried and failed to change this. In order for turnout to increase in elections, voters need to care enough to vote, and believe enough that it is important that they do. So, in the 2020 election, the fact that Donald Trump as the loser got more votes than any President ever (apart from Biden) shows just how historically significant the election results were for Americans.
In the US, a wide range of socio-economic and political issues are collapsed into two ideological lines under the umbrella of the two main parties, and partisan identity is more than just opinions about fiscal and monetary policy, it is also formed on the basis of fundamental ideological issues such as race and rights. As well as this, such a strong two-party system creates an environment, in which the winner-takes-all, and the loser-takes-nothing. This leads to a high stakes political environment in which the costs of losing an election are not just political for Democrats and Republicans, they are ideological. This has been hugely exacerbated by the rise of social and mainstream media echo chambers and divisive politicians such as Donald Trump into the mainstream, resulting in a fundamental shift in the core voters of both parties away from the political centre. This becoming even more pronounced and the further apart each party becomes, the more important it is that they do not lose elections.
Voters for each party have become increasingly disenfranchised from those of the other party. In a Pew Research Survey conducted just before the election, 85% of US adults said that Biden and Trump supporters disagree not only on political policies and plans, but on basic facts. This is hugely problematic. As the line between fact and faction blurs, for the core base of each party the cost of losing rises, leading to the occurrence of more extreme behaviour. Never has that been more clearly the case than the continued claims, believed by 84% of Republicans, that the election was stolen. The insurrection at the Capitol last week, and the insistence of Republican politicians such as Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and 147 House Republicans to challenge the certification of the election results, shows the dangerous consequences for democracy that can occur in such a highly polarised and politically charged society. America views itself as the bedrock of democracy and the democratic process, and yet as a result of the continued polarisation of America and the disappearance of common ideological ground, threats to its democracy have become worryingly real.
Whether or not Biden will succeed it ‘Uniting’ America remains to be seen, but if one thing is certain it’s that Americans need to be able to at least agree on what is fact, and what is not.
By Amelia Harbottle
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