Another bitter battle has played out in the US Congress – and amounted to nothing. US Republicans have yet again used the filibuster to thwart legislation aimed at countering new voting restrictions around the country, and Democrats have failed to change filibuster rules to get it passed. The saga exemplifies the turmoil, polarization, and paralysis that have engulfed American politics and will undoubtedly shape November’s mid-term congressional elections. This state of affairs should worry the rest of the world.
In recent years, American society has been riven by misunderstanding and mistrust. By creating algorithm-driven “echo chambers,” social-media platforms have compounded these problems, reinforcing people’s existing views, discrediting opponents, and facilitating the emergence of an over-zealous “cancel culture.” The honest self-reflection and open dialogue needed to enable reform and reconciliation have become all but impossible.
As political leaders have learned to capitalize on polarization, the situation has deteriorated further. Former President Donald Trump’s populist, isolationist, and capricious rhetoric and policies exacerbated polarization and stoked volatility. Now, political scientist Barbara F. Walter warns, the United States is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.”
I have no desire to preach to Americans about what is in their political interest. That is a long-standing habit of Europeans, and it is patronizing in the best of times. It is all the more inappropriate at a time when Europeans are confronting our own brand of extremism and deadlock.
But the fact is that the fracturing of US society affects us all. Most obviously, America’s polarized politics are shaping its economic, climate, defense, agricultural, and foreign policies. The recent Republican-led initiative to impose sanctions on the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline – despite the threat this would pose to both US President Joe Biden’s Russia strategy and America’s relationship with Germany – is a case in point.
But the problem runs deeper than any individual policy. After decades of emphasis on economic considerations, geopolitics has again taken center stage globally, with ideology-driven great-power competition intensifying at precisely the moment when liberal democracy has lost its shine and authoritarianism is gaining ground. This competition is playing out in various geographic arenas (Ukraine, Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Taiwan), and even bleeding into the economic sphere (as with Nord Stream 2 or the Chinese tech giant Huawei).
The last time geopolitics defined world affairs, the US stood tall as a global leader and champion of Western interests and democratic values. Today, as the ongoing crisis on Ukraine’s border shows, the world needs America to reprise that role. Yet the US is a shell of the leader it once was, and domestic polarization is largely to blame.
There is no silver bullet. But a number of ideas have been advanced, from straightforward calls to stop giving extremists platforms to detailed proposals for revitalizing citizenship through compulsory national service. In some ways, the latter scheme gets to the heart of the challenge.
Americans need to reconnect with a sense of shared ownership of their country and its trajectory. They must take responsibility for their future, including by contributing directly to the process of charting a path forward. Otherwise, popular buy-in will remain elusive.
The European Union is well-acquainted with this imperative. Like the US, the EU is becoming increasingly fragmented, as it has struggled to clarify its raison d’être in the modern age. To tackle this challenge, the EU has launched the Conference on the Future of Europe. The brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron, the Conference entails a series of citizen-led conversations focused on clarifying Europe’s challenges and priorities and helping to “shape our common future.”
As appealing as the concept may sound, however, the Conference looks a lot like an idealistic fig leaf covering bureaucratic inefficiencies. In any case, for the US even to attempt such an initiative, it would first have to achieve some consensus on what it means to be an American.
Here, Republicans and Democrats currently subscribe to sharply contrasting visions, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear. If Americans cannot agree on a shared understanding of their present – including, crucially, their country’s position in the world – how can they even begin to discuss a common vision for their future?
The US has been here before. In the years leading up to World War II, the US was deeply divided, both by national policies which greatly changed the landscape (such as the New Deal) and by conflicting opinions of what US involvement in the war should entail. Yet WWII is now remembered as a “moment of American domestic comity.” While this shift can be partly attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s deft political leadership, it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that secured broad public support for the US to enter the fray.
But a common enemy works to unite a country only if everyone agrees on who that enemy is. Given that COVID-19 – a foe shared by the entire world – only hardened America’s partisan divide, it is clear that this is easier said than done.
In clarifying America’s role in the world, an outsider’s perspective may be of use. Non-Americans tend to have a clear idea of what the US has historically represented: ingenuity, generosity, and democracy.
The path to a reunited America, acting as a credible global leader, will be neither smooth nor straight. But, given how many actors are eager to take advantage of America’s decline, Europe must do everything it can to help the US make progress. Just as the US sought a “Europe whole and free” after the Cold War ended, Europe today needs to support an America healed and reconciled.
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