Election pains of a polarized America

Election pains of a polarized America

Police tape is viewed around the area outside the Tree of Life Synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in Pittsburgh.

With the arrest of Cesar Altieri Sayoc, the suspect in the nationwide bombing campaign against critics of President Donald Trump who mailed more than a dozen improvised explosive devices to former President Barack Obama and ex-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, to former CIA director John Brennan and actor Robert De Niro, is symptomatic of the serious divides within the United States just before the mid-term elections are due to take place.

Now the multiple shootings at the synagogue in Pennsylvania deepen the divides and there's greater attention on the role of President Trump and what he says and how that inspires others to commit acts of violence. This division in American society is extremely dangerous and unsettling as it affects other key issues as the elections approach. To be sure, more actors will probably be expressing themselves in various ways over the coming days, which will only complicate the poll and the emotions surrounding this critical time in modern American history. 

The opening paragraphs may be dramatic but they are necessary. What comes next is an attempt to look at what appears to be seven national divisions. The first — the order is not significant — is the pro-Trump anti-Trump divide, which is a deep slice across the US political, social and economic landscape. Next is the white vs. minority divide, where race is engrained in thought across the country. There’s also the women vs. men breakdown which covers all gender-related issues and sexual assault. Then there is the red vs. blue divide that continues to contort our daily news. Coastal and urban vs. rural divides are about differences of opinion of intellectual values. Then of course there’s wealthy vs. poor and, finally, old vs. young (on issues such as entitlement and inheritance).

These gulfs are causing seven splits across several arcs of America’s social identity, which is inviting violence and domestic terrorism. The latest bomb threats are but one of the indicators found under several of the above categories. School shootings and other types of violence by external actors complicate the above divides by sharpening debate with the tragic loss of life.

Given the mass media's powerful influence to the point of causing a loss of civil discourse on television and social media, former norms are now in tatters. With one info-op style campaign after another attempting to influence public opinion about a host of issues ranging from voting to the latest Trump statement to the terrorism of the last few days, the impact on the American psyche is acute. Workplaces, public spaces, and commercial outlets are facing more hostile outbursts and temper tantrums. Some households are also affected by divisions that may produce lasting animosities between family members. 

One or more of the seven attributes could have a multi-generational impact. The timeline of the above seven divides depends on a number of variables that will involve perhaps sudden events that may continue to shock or sharpen animosity in more frequent bursts. 

Given the mass media's powerful influence to the point of causing a loss of civil discourse on television and social media, former norms are now in tatters.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Crossing these seven divides are upcoming events in America: the post-US election midterm results, and the potential release of the Mueller Report. What Trump does next is equally critical because of the multitude of possibilities given the results of the November election. The impact of upcoming events will electrify the seven divides enough to have cascading effects. 

Of course the Pittsburgh attack raises two issues: anti-Semitism and gun control. It is a reminder once again that anti-Semitic violence is still to the fore in the US.  Even as shootings in the country reach epidemic proportion, federal level attempt at gun control in this environment is unlikely to be effective in this contemptuous time. Research has shown there is a necessity for more robust gun laws at the local level —  that has to be the road to follow.

Several decades ago Soviet propaganda joked about how eventually America’s divides would allow the Soviet Union to win. Racism, crime, and corruption were major themes of now classic Soviet-era poster art. During the Cold War these posters were prominent features of the Kremlin’s information war. Today many of these ideas are erupting in plain sight. Of course, many of these issues have existed through America’s history in various times of divide. But this cycle is different, and with those variants there is mounting anxiety at what the future will bring.  

Importantly, many of the above splits have been non-existent or hidden from sight. Inequality, poverty, gaps between the wealthy and the poor, discrimination, and hatred have all been part of the landscape. Now these are front and center-stage. Fixing these divides remains elusive but strategies are being thought out. To be sure, American discourse across the country will be more verbally combative and unpleasant until there is a broader awareness of these divides by Americans themselves.  

As the November 6 elections approach the impulse to whip up the political intensity for the clash at the polls will be complicated by political, economic, and social factors in the coming days. Events such as the mail-bomber may very well both aid and complicate the forthcoming American poll.

• Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues. Twitter: @tkarasik

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