Political gaps widen in the ‘Divided’ States of America

Divisions are widening between the right and left, and polarisation is becoming a key political engine

Sebastien Thibault

Political gaps widen in the ‘Divided’ States of America

The November 2022 elections in America proceeded smoothly without serious violence and without the same kinds of questions about legitimacy from elements of the Republican party who raised doubts about Donald Trump’s loss in the November 2020 election.

This doesn’t mean that the deep political divisions in American society are ending. In fact, big arguments inside the Republican party about choosing a Speaker of the House of Representatives show that polarisation is a key political engine.

A total of 19 Republican representatives refused to support representative Kevin McCarthy to become House Speaker because they expect he will make agreements with Democrats over issues like the government budget, and they reject any compromise with the Democrats.

Some of McCarthy’s allies in the House of Representatives started calling these rejectionists “the Taliban 19.”

In fact, a faction of the Republican party has long welcomed the extremism label. The Republican presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, in the 1964 presidential election told voters that “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice.”

Goldwater rejected the expansion of American government programmes to regulate business and help the poor. He also rejected laws to protect the civil rights of minorities.

Drift to far right

The senator lost the 1964 election, but he successfully started the Republican party’s drift to the far right. A movie actor who had political ambitions in 1964 named Ronald Reagan gave speeches in support of Goldwater. After he became president in 1981, Ronald Reagan often said that government was the biggest problem in America.

Republican party rhetoric heated up in the 1990s when Congressman Newt Gingrich and his young allies in Congress started calling the Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton traitors, corrupt tyrants and anti-American.

According to analyst McKay Coppins in an article about Gingrich in the November 2018 issue of The Atlantic magazine, Gingrich and his allies turned boring political debates in Washington about programmes and policy into battles of good against evil.


The language Gingrich started continues today.

For example, a congresswoman from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Green, in early January urged Republican representatives to unite behind Kevin McCarthy to fight the real “enemy,” the Democrats. On 6 January, California Governor Gavin Newsome called Republican conservatives ‘hijackers’ of American freedoms.

This kind of language produces more polarisation: Pew Research opinion polling shows that in 1994 21 per cent of Republicans had “very unfavourable” views about Democrats but in 2022 the figure had grown to 62 per cent.

Similarly, in 1994, 17 per cent of Democrats had “very unfavourable” views about Republicans but the number rose to 54 per cent by 2022. In an October NBC poll, about 80 per cent of Republicans and Democrats said that if the other party gains control of Washington it would “destroy America as we know it.”

Worse, the Pew survey showed that 71 per cent of Democrats would not accept a Trump supporter as a friend and almost half of Republicans would reject any friend who voted for Hillary Clinton.

The Pew survey showed that 71 per cent of Democrats would not accept a Trump supporter as a friend and almost half of Republicans would reject any friend who voted for Hillary Clinton

Personal relationships impacted
A December 2021 survey by Ipsos showed that a third of Americans say political divisions make relationships with friends and family more difficult. 

There was a time when newspapers gave advice about cooking turkeys in an oven for the Christmas holiday. Now they give advice about avoiding discussion of politics at the dinner table with family and friends and finding safe subjects like travel and sports. 

But where does this anger and fear come from? 
On the Republican side, social changes in America have alienated many communities from the American government. 

In a popular book from 2017 Strangers in Their Own Land author Arlie Hochschild said that most working-class families hope to find financial security and stability. They pay their taxes to the government but many of them believe that the government gives money and employment advantages only to minority groups, such as black people. 

Therefore, white working-class communities reject government programmes that they think do not help them. I saw this exact viewpoint in my state of Maine. 

A small business owner near my home who led a political group loyal to Donald Trump told me last April that he and his friends have not had an increase in their salaries, and they could not afford to buy a house or send their children to elite private schools. 

He highlighted hopelessness, anger and drug addiction. They blame the government and political elites from both parties for not resolving economic and social problems. He asserted that big companies lobby the government to protect big business interests and that he and his friends reject ‘big money’ in American politics. At a local festival last July, a construction worker wearing a Trump shirt told me that money from big business and private interests is corrupting politics and government. 

Dwindling confidence
A July 2022 opinion survey by the Gallup survey organisation showed that citizens’ confidence in American institutions, including Congress, the media, the presidency and the Supreme Court, is at the lowest level in the organisation’s 40 years of surveys. 

Gallup called the current situation a “crisis.” And in this crisis, people such as the two Trump loyalists I met liked Trump’s tough language and his promises to tear down the existing system. They don’t want compromise. 
The so-called Taliban 19 and other extreme conservatives exploit this anger. Their refusal to compromise with moderates from either party gives them media attention and financial donations to their political campaigns.  
Compromise is even harder in American politics because of the influence of the Christian nationalist movement in the Republican Party — a movement that sees little difference between Christian identity and American identity. 

Compromise is even harder in American politics because of the influence of the Christian nationalist movement in the Republican Party — a movement that sees little difference between Christian identity and American identity.

They insist their religious interpretations, what they call “family values”, must determine government policies on issues like abortion and education. As they perceive they are protecting religious values, they do not accept compromise. 
They are not a majority in American politics. An October 2022 Pew Research poll showed that two-thirds of Americans believe churches should stay out of politics and only 45 per cent of Americans in the survey said the US should be a Christian nation. 

However, in an America evenly divided politically, this faction often can determine which Republican candidates win primaries and progress to general elections. 

The abortion issue
Regarding abortion, America is more divided than ever.
Republicans’ strong support to stop abortion triggered a sharp response from Democratic voters. Many of the November 2022 election results came from voters whose number one concern was supporting a woman’s right to choose an abortion. 

Moreover, there are big divisions between Democrats and Republicans about immigration, crime and racism. The construction worker with a Trump T-shirt at the local festival last July repeated the Republican party accusation that Biden has opened American borders to immigrants from Latin America. 

He and many like him worry that immigrants take jobs from American citizens. The Republicans also claim that illegal immigrants from Latin America are bringing fentanyl into America thus aggravating the drug epidemic in the country and boosting crime in towns and cities. 

Exploiting fears inside the Republican camp about immigration, in November 2021 Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert suggested that Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar be called “a suicide terrorist.” Her remarks provoked outrage among Democrats but Boebert is a favourite guest on television networks loyal to the Republican Party like Fox. 

Conservative Republicans don’t speak openly about another fact: that immigration will make white Americans a minority around the year 2045. The immigration issue is one where two visions of America are visible. One wants to limit change and one welcomes change. 

President Biden spent 36 years compromising and making deals in the US Senate before he became vice president and then president. Even this experienced negotiator cannot find a clear middle path between Democrats and Republicans on domestic issues such as immigration. 

Acknowledging Republican concerns, Biden has promised to tighten border controls and expel those who enter illegally. Bowing to the leftist camp in his own Democratic party, he also pledged to increase the number of people who can immigrate legally. 

But he can’t win. Republicans won’t accept more legal immigration and Democratic leftists will fight expelling people who seek asylum. 

And it is important to note that, like the Christian nationalists in the Republican party, the leftist camp in the Democratic party will influence Democratic party primary elections before the November presidential 2024 election. 
Already, there is little enthusiasm among leftist Democrats for a second Biden term.  

Race issues
Like immigration, it is hard to find a middle course on the question of crime and civil rights.  The left wing of the Democratic Party emphasises that police departments in many cities often abuse the civil rights of citizens from minority communities and sometimes kill innocent people. 

In some cities like Seattle and Minneapolis leftists called for cutting budgets of the existing police forces. They applauded the Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country and did not criticise protests that disrupted traffic and business in some cities. 

Meanwhile, the Republican party highlights the problem of crime, and it exploits citizens’ fears that Democrats will eliminate police forces. Moreover, many white Americans resent the expression “Black Lives Matter” saying it denies the value of white lives. Sometimes you can hear counter-demonstrators chanting “All Lives Matter.”


Race has been a contentious issue since the beginning of America and even American heroes like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson carry the stain of slavery. 

Now some liberal cities with Democratic party leaders are removing statues of Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves and raped a black woman. Activists say that only understanding racism in America and open discussion in schools can resolve America’s racism problem. 

On their part, American conservatives reject such discussions in middle and secondary schools because they fear it will negatively affect the patriotism of students. 

President Trump said removing statues of Thomas Jefferson shows the American “radical left has gone crazy” and he also said that emphasis on teaching about racism in American society will convince children that America is “founded on oppression, not freedom.”  
Again, the two visions of America clash.

Conspiracy theories
Some of the visions are crazy. In 2020 and 2021 a bizarre conspiracy theory called Q-Anon spread across the internet that claimed that Democrats like Hillary Clinton operated child sex-trafficking networks and worship Satan, but Donald Trump was fighting them. 

A December 2020 opinion survey by NPR-Ipsos showed 17 per cent of Americans believed this and several Republican representatives in Congress repeat the Q-Anon accusations.  

Q-Anon shows how social media makes the fake news problem worse. Companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are making big profits by presenting readers articles that agree with their existing political viewpoints. 

According to an opinion survey in September 2021 from Pew Research, almost half of Americans — 48 per cent — get their news from social media. Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies earn big profits. 

Meanwhile, Pew Research polls show that about two-thirds of Americans have little or no confidence in the quality of television and newspaper reporting. 

Looming civil war?
Political divisions hide this fact: the American political stage is shaped like a horseshoe where the two parties’ extreme wings curve towards each other. 

Mirroring the national stage, my leftist friends in the local Maine Democratic party agree with the right wing of the Republican party that Washington needs to focus on domestic problems, not foreign policy, that the defence budget must be cut, that there is a drug crisis, and that there is too much business money in Washington. 

But these Democrats don’t agree with the extreme right about how to solve these challenges. 
In divided Washington, bold action from the government is rare if not impossible. Some analysts predict that the federal government can stumble along like this for many years as state and city governments adopt measures instead.
Others predict more political violence — worse than what we saw on 6 January, 2021. Two popular books last year even predicted a new American civil war, a topic I will address in a second analysis.

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