Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
A study published by the More in Common initiative titled Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, attempts to map out the state of the US polity and also to chart ways out of the current sense of political impotence.
According to the researchers, America is divided into Progressive Activists (8%), Traditional Liberals (11%), Passive Liberals (15%), Politically Disengaged (26%), Moderates (15%), Traditional Conservatives (19%), and Devoted Conservatives (6%), which paints a picture of a divided America with a fairly sizable middle block of passive or utterly disengaged electorate, but with the liberals holding a slight edge over the conservatives, and naturally with each of these segments having its own preferred set of political opinions.
In historical terms, US politics are nowhere near as violent or divisive as they used to be. Considering the violence of the pre-Civil War United States, with its “Bleeding Kansas” and the occasional brawl in the US Senate between proponents or supporters of slavery, or the late 19th-Century Gilded Age with violent labor strikes, two successful presidential assassination attempts, and even more violent police reaction, the 1920s Red Scare when the US police forces could arrest thousands of “subversives” on a single day, or even the early 1930s “Bonus Army” which shut down Washington D.C. and required a military response, today’s United States is still something of an island of stability. There is no underground militancy, or even violent civic unrest comparable to France’s Yellow Vest movement that could shut down Paris.
But that does not mean the situation cannot escalate. In the past, whenever divisions reached a boiling point, the US political system moved to defuse the problems through appropriate social policies in the form of Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society. The one exception was the US Civil War, when the system clearly failed to address the deep divide—in fact even the war itself failed to address it. Only the frontier expansion, at the expense of Native America tribes which were exterminated and/or herded into reservation, ultimately provided the safety valve that made the post-Civil War “healing” possible.
Therefore, if one is to use US history as a guide, it is evident that whenever the social tensions threatened to boil over, the US political system responded with expanding the police state, experimenting with social democracy, or expanding into a frontier or some collapsing empire, starting with that of Spain in the late 19th century. But the authors of the study seem unaware of the role of government policies with perceptible, tangible impact on ordinary citizens when it comes to building a sense of shared identity under which violent internal conflict is unlikely. Instead of looking back upon history to see how earlier US leaders dealt with the fraying of the US polity, they limit themselves to calling for political leaders to use uniting rather than divisive rhetoric, activists to appeal to underlying shared values, philanthropists investing in “thousand points of light”, and other palliative pseudo-solutions. Which means they have not grasped the core of the problem.
For the last nearly three decades, expansion has been the order of the day, with “American Exceptionalism” being the ideology justifying US use of force to advance its economic interests around the world. Indeed, some three-quarters of the individuals polled for the study agree or strongly agree that United States are a “better country”, suggesting that “American Exceptionalism” is deeply ingrained, and the waging of war on other , “worse” countries is seen as a perfectly normal state of affairs. The project fails to note the impact of RussiaGate on US politics, which is an unfortunate omission because with this issue being absent from discussion, it makes it look like the only xenophobic faction of US politics are the conservative-leaning anti-immigration activists, and the omission might be a reflection of an unconscious bias on the part of the researchers. But since America’s RussiaGaters are predominantly Obama- and Hillary Clinton-supporting liberals, the difference between liberals and conservatives in this study amounts to little more than the flavor of “American Exceptionalism”—induced xenophobia each wing of the US polity is advocating.
But the vacuum of power that the end of the Cold War created three decades ago is now closing. Most of the countries of the Soviet sphere of influence have been digested by Western economies and are now threatening to become a permanent burden rather than an economic asset. Russia’s recovery and China’s growth moreover mean that the US now has some pretty stiff competition even in regions it has complacently regarded as its own to rule, including the Middle East, South-East Asia, the Pacific Region, and even the Latin America which has been viewed as America’s exclusive preserve ever since the “Monroe Doctrine” has been promulgated. So now if the US wants to throw a few sharp elbows, it would not be against the collapsing Yugoslavia of the early 1990s, but against a great power boasting a strong conventional arsenal and a reliable nuclear deterrent. In other words, game over.
If expansion has run its course, what about experimenting with social democracy once again? Here the results of the study leave very little indication the US political system can move in that direction. Among the respondents to the survey, liberals are actually wealthier than the conservatives. It means that even though they may often think they are socialists (and the conservatives do not hesitate in labeling them as such), in practice they vote with their wallets for people who do not threaten to empty their contents. People like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi who are very much the creatures of the wealthy elites and the very embodiment of the term “limousine liberal”. Even when the Democrats control all three branches of government, they can’t deliver anything other than bank bailouts and the lackluster Obamacare. The conservatives, on the other hand, are ideologically opposed to redistribution which likewise makes them unlikely to pursue policies overtly contradicting their professed ideals.
Therefore, practically by default, the most likely way by which national unity can still be produced that is within reach of the US political system is some form of a police state. In fact, the US has been sleepwalking in that direction ever since 9/11. But while at the time the Patriot Act, the warrantless surveillance, Guantanamo, all manner of violations of civil liberties may have been dismissed as temporary aberrations induced by the terrorist emergency. The selection of Russia as America’s new enemy and the ensuing creeping censorship of the social media suggests that the US powers that be have already settled on a way to ensure national unity, but it is not one that the authors of the study have yet noticed.