How to heal America’s dangerous divisions
A year after the attempted coup on Capitol Hill and a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, American society is as troubled as it was twelve months ago — if not more so, with divisions deepening on numerous issues that are crucial to the future of the Union.
This discord in US society and politics runs too deep for a president and his administration to be able to quickly heal. And it cannot be done by just tweaking the system, but only by courageously overhauling it and addressing the root causes of the schism.
First and foremost, it must be acknowledged that on some of the most fundamental issues that make a state and a nation, there is very little commonality between large sections of US society and its political system, and that elected representatives are in many cases widening the rifts instead of healing them. Thus, it is to my mind a crisis that calls for a “Philadelphia moment” — although not the writing of a new constitution, but reforming the present one to fit the purposes of a major international actor of the 21st century rather than an emerging state in its infancy, as it was in 1787 when it became apparent that without a more robust central government the nascent American project was in danger.
Drafting a constitution did not prevent a civil war in the mid-19th century, but this should serve as a clear warning that allowing the current situation to fester, and constantly glossing over it, is likely to lead to a breaking point. In this sense the Trump years have done the US a favor, serving as a litmus test of what glues the nation together; for the first time in a very long time, that president’s period in office made it clear that there was less commonality between its citizens and between different parts of the country than is necessary for a state and a political system to operate with any semblance of unity, direction and purpose. Instead, those four years demonstrated how susceptible the country is to such a hollow, nationalistic populism that took hold of the entire discourse.
Biden’s recent speech in Atlanta, calling on the US Senate to change its filibuster rules, was more than anything else an outburst of sheer frustration by a president who after decades in politics, as a senator and as vice president, has reached the top of the decision-making pyramid only to discover that his country has become almost impossible to govern.
The president’s annoyance with the filibuster rule, which requires a 60-vote Senate majority to pass a legislative bill, is understandable, as the filibuster is a partisan way to disrupt and delay the executive branch and basically sabotage and cripple the administration for party political considerations. On this instance Biden’s irritation is aimed at Republicans in the Senate who are blocking the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, legislation whose sole objective is to make it possible for all Americans to vote, and to curb a number of states that are attempting to limit ballot access by targeting minorities who mainly vote Democrat.
This discord in US society and politics runs too deep for a president and his administration to be able to quickly heal.
But the main question that Americans should ask themselves goes beyond these specific pieces of legislation: How is it possible at all that after nearly two and a half centuries of independence there is no federal law that guards this basic right and guarantees the integrity of the voting system? Worse still is the gerrymandering, a fraudulent process which allows states’ politicians to draw the borders of their political districts and by doing so be able to rig the will of the people. Yes, American political philosophy objects to a too-powerful central government, but if this means that the will of the people can be distorted and minorities can be discriminated against, then there must be a mechanism to protect the right to vote over and above the autonomy of individual states.
One of the reasons for the failure to bring about change is America’s obsession with what is basically a two-party system, while a multiparty one might serve it better. In an ideal world, having two major parties allows each to include a wide range of opinions and still project a united and coherent ideology. But in reality this is a recipe for stalling, if not paralysing, the entire political process, and it is especially unsuitable for a fast-moving world that requires timely, decisive and often urgent decision-making on the most crucial issues.
Instead, a multiparty system, one that presents voters with more distinct options, and empowers the nationwide parties, may yield better governance that is capable of seeing the bigger picture and would be less parochial and less susceptible to its extremist margins. It beggars belief that a year has passed and there are still so many elected Republicans who are prepared to question the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, and equally unwilling to condemn the violent attempted coup of last January that was actively encouraged by a sitting president in the dying hours of his presidency. This points to a political system that is severely ailing and in need of more than a Band-Aid.
One of the ideas floated last week by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman — although perhaps partially tongue in cheek — was to emulate the current Israeli government, which is a diverse coalition, and look for a presidential ticket of complete opposites such as Joe Biden and Liz Cheney. The Israeli experiment, conducted mainly out of necessity, is far from proving to be a magic formula ready to be imitated elsewhere. And pairing two candidates who have little in common, especially considering the imbalance of power between a president and their second in command, hardly offers a means for the US to build a consensus.
Any Philadelphia moment should go beyond local anesthetics. It should courageously reassess, in the spirit of America’s founding fathers, the constitutional arrangements when it comes to the most basic issues that divide the nation. It should discuss issues such as whether presidents should be elected by a majority vote instead of through the current electoral college system; the interpretation of the Second Amendment; the right to free or at least affordable health care; abortion; abolishing the death penalty; and how foreign policy is conducted.
A national conversation about these and other issues could be a first step toward healing America’s dangerous divisions before things get out of hand.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg