Can a perpetually divided America continue to lead a world in crisis?

Fluctuations in power have been baked into the American political system. A country with only two major parties sharing an executive branch and a bicameral legislature seems almost destined for permanent political volatility.

History can attest to this. Of the 82 congressional sessions the United States has held since 1857, only 47 (slightly more than half) have resulted in a unified government in which the House, Senate, and President are all controlled by the same party. And these unification periods themselves are roughly evenly divided — Democrats have 22 unity governments and Republicans have 25.

It is best to think of modern American political history not as chapters controlled by Democrats or Republicans, but as periods of unity or division. Over the past 30 years, 10 out of 16 governments have been divided between political parties, which is undoubtedly a period of division. With the results of the U.S. midterm elections ending Wednesday more or less cemented, it’s clear that the 117th Congress will see the trend continue. With Republicans already firmly in control of the House of Representatives, securing the next two years of Democratic President Joe Biden’s term will be a perpetual headache.

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This is not to say that nothing has changed. Power shifts are normal in the United States, but the way the public has conducted and received power shifts in recent elections has not. Ahead of this year’s midterm elections, authorities across the United States have warned of the potential for violence, especially from some supporters of the far-right who may refuse to accept any outcome that does not meet their wishes. Those concerns were compounded by a violent break-in last month at the California home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Mrs. Pelosi was not at home at the time, but her husband was briefly held captive by a man with apparent political grievances.

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Abortion rights activists protested outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington in June.AP Photo

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of origin of the conspiracy mentality that has taken hold and given new forms to American political division. Some point to prominent Republican agitator Sarah Palin for the 2008 presidential and vice presidential elections, while others date back to the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton. Today’s traffic is undoubtedly unpleasant. That much was clear when on Tuesday, Mr Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who has backed several candidates in the midterms, hinted to a cheering crowd that he would expose harmful information about Ron DeSantis – the freshly re-elected, rising-star Republican Governor Florida — if he can get so bold that he aspires to be president.

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There are still plenty of signs that most voters remain unconvinced by extreme personalities and rhetoric, which is cause for cautious optimism for anyone watching America from a distance. The ruling classes of both parties will also become more diverse, both in terms of race and age, but also in terms of ideology — a direct opposite of the unanimous pressures sweeping Democrats and Republicans alike.

American leadership at home and abroad depends on party leaders and Mr. Biden doing what their country was once known for but is becoming increasingly difficult: evoke unity in diversity and find strength even in division. With the world in the throes of a recession and ongoing armed conflict in many places, U.S. leadership matters, and few will patiently watch the parties in Washington fail to come together to make it happen.

Published: November 10, 2022 3:00 AM


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