Midterms are part of larger dysfunction

By Cole Timmerwilke, Columnist

America headed to the polls this week, but the prospect of mending the stark divides in society seems far off. With Democrats retaking the House and Republicans holding the Senate, two more years of divided government and gridlock will only inflame the underlying tensions, rather than soothe them.

The midterm elections centered on the large and important policy differences between the parties, but underneath, there are deep-seated resentments that go far beyond quarrels over mundane things like tax policy.

The first and most obvious is the rise of increasingly rancorous partisanship. A recent book co-authored by University Professor Thomas Rudolph and Vanderbilt Professor Marc Hetherington point out that partisans simply dislike the other party more and more strongly. During the Clinton years, Republican trust in government hovered around 30 percent; under Obama, it had dropped to below 10 percent. A Public Religion Research Institute poll from last year tells much the same story: nearly half of each party view the other’s policies as posing “a serious threat to the country.”  

This total collapse of trust and understanding on both sides makes compromise nearly impossible, as voters will punish those who try to work with the other side, and the gridlock that ensues creates disillusionment with the government. This is especially problematic in our system, which sets power against power and makes decisive action difficult.

The rise of partisanship has been driven in part by other fundamental divides in American society. In the last few decades, we have become much more geographically polarized; most American counties have shifted from relatively equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans to the majority of the country’s counties being dominated by one or the other. This divide, roughly between liberal cities and conservative less-populated areas, makes it difficult to foster understanding of opposing viewpoints. The rise of social media created much the same effect. We self-segregate and listen to only those with whom we agree, bringing out the worst of our tribal instincts.

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    But the cultural divide between red and blue America is perhaps the most intractable. A telling example: On Oct. 8, one segment of the population celebrates Columbus Day, commemorating an intrepid explorer and American hero; another denounces him as a vicious racist and colonialist, and instead celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This is but a microcosm of how there are two Americas, each with their own customs, traditions, heroes and values that seldom overlap. There no longer seems to be a common American culture, which makes political conflict all but inevitable.

    This is not good for us or the world; an America consumed by internal conflict cannot confront immense challenges on the world stage from increasingly assertive rivals like Russia and China. The 21st century might still be an American one, if only we can leverage our many advantages.

    However, mutual trust grows organically, and there is no obvious way to reintroduce it to our public life. The divides in society feel insurmountable, and the “United” States seems more like an aspiration than reality. Calls for civility fall mostly on deaf ears. The new Congress will likely be mired in partisan bickering.

    One can only be hopeful that we will yet find some common ground in order to realize our nation’s potential.

    Cole is a junior in LAS.

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