As the nation comes out of what can only be described as an historically terrible year, the public and political focus remains on the pandemic, its economic and social affects, and the new presidential administrations plans to deal with these enormous issues.
Unfortunately, the political and social context existing at the time the pandemic first appeared in the U.S. in January, 2020 was already in a state of chaos as the Trump Administration entered it’s final year. The previous three years had been ones of extreme political conflict including rabid personal attacks by both sides and their allies in the media as Democrats and the Left turned their shock at Trump’s upset defeat of Hillary Clinton into a program of hate and “resistance”. This of course was exacerbated by Trump’s reliance on daily hyperbolic Tweets and his thin skinned public hostility to any criticism. Democrats initially staked their hopes of an early demise of his Administration on a twenty-two month long investigation of allegations of Russian interference and possible collusion with the Trump 2016 election campaign. While the investigation finally found no evidence of “collusion”, the political divisions and hostility it engendered remained.
Since then the nation has endured a “dead on arrival” politically motivated impeachment and trial attempt by the Democrat controlled House of Representatives in December, 2019; the full onslaught of the Covid19 pandemic and angry debates over school and business closings and mask wearing. Months of race based protests, violence, destruction, looting and attacks on police and demands to eliminate or “de-fund” police departments were followed by the outrageous and disgusting mob attack on the halls of Congress, and now a second futile, politically based process to impeach and convict a former, none serving President despite the unambiguous language of the Constitution’s Article 2, Section 4 which says “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States” shall be removed from office if convicted in an impeachment trial of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
The political divide has become a chasm. Emotions have conquered reason, tolerance for opposing viewpoints on public policy is non-existent.
Now comes President Joe Biden whose first words as President conveyed a sense of conciliation and a goal of “uniting” the nation”; not to overcome deep seated political differences but to supposedly to seek compromise on some of the less polarizing legislative issues, and a return to some measure of civility. Unfortunately the warm glow of his words lasted about one day as they were exposed as mere platitudes. The Trump presidential era is over but his 74 million supporters remain. The Congress is almost evenly divided although the Democrats have a narrow majority in the House and a Vice Presidential tie breaker in the 50/50 Senate.
Even with strong and persistent presidential leadership, reducing the intense level of partisan based mutual contempt would be a long and difficult process. But when the new President, like Trump, becomes and agent of division there is little hope for any measure of reconciliation.
Biden’s first working day of “unifying” the nation was taken up by signing a pre-prepared stack of Executive Orders. Even though he and the Democrats control all three branches of government and can, with party discipline, pass any legislation they wish, Biden felt it necessary to send a theatrical “on day one” message to the “progressive” far Left while sticking a political finger in the eye of conservatives who supported Trump’s positions. Out went border control and deportation of millions of illegal immigrants; construction of the border wall; energy leasing on government lands and sea beds; travel bans from Muslim nations identified as sources of terrorism; restrictions on the military’s ability to exclude costly and dysfunctional enlistment of trans-genders; the completion of the Keystone pipeline with Canada on which over a billion dollars has already been spent and which would provide huge economic benefits to workers, state governments and oil storage and refining centers in Illinois, Texas and Oklahoma. Gone is the order excluding illegal immigrants from the census based on the assumption that they won’t now be deported. He also restored the ability for collective bargaining (unions) for federal workers and ended federal contracts with private prisons (without specifying what will be done with the thousands of federal prisoners confined there.)
Biden’s message was clear; revoke the four year Republican-Trump policy agenda and steam roll the progressive agenda over night.
But even with presidential leadership if it was to be a political priority, there is much more to the problem of “unifying”, or even modifying the divisions in both the Congress and state legislatures and in the wider culture.
The nation’s education systems from K-12 to it’s colleges and universities are busy teaching revisionist American history and a curriculum of divisive “multiculturalism”, “victimization” and “oppression”. Of course the “victims” are all racial and ethnic minorities and genders. The “oppressors” are heterosexual, politically conservative, white males. Even white females can’t escape the viral nonsense and unscientific condemnation of Critical Race Theory which is spreading through the education system as well as the corporate world.
Mandatory “sensitivity and inclusiveness” “re-education” training i.e. guilt and thought control, and enforcement by government and education administrators, is demanded as the only solution to evidence challenged claims of “white privilege”, “white supremacy” and “systemic racism”, all of which are racist stereotypes themselves. Such broad based condemnation will perpetuate ideological, racial and partisan hostility. Resistance is inevitable as the racialized economic and social agenda and Biden’s own commitment to “identity politics” become legislation.
Social media. Beyond education, each ideological bloc and over lapping political party, contains it’s extremist fringe groups. While these polarizing groups are equally radical, they, and minority political parties, represent tiny percentages of the population. Unfortunately they have a disproportionate public voice enabled by social media and even “main stream” cable and internet “opinion sites”. First Amendment rights protect them but the establishment news and opinion sites feel little responsibility to offer objective analysis or exclude the hysterical or fraudulent content they derive from the fringes as controversy creates readers, viewers and revenues, which overcome social and journalistic responsibility.
The influence of this spectrum of extremism of both the far Left and far Right is thus enhanced beyond their real importance by the political figures and opinion leaders who through simple political malice and ambition or intellectual laziness, insist on stereotyping the broader political parties as reflecting the values and viciousness of the fringes. Thus to many on the Left, Republicans are “racists, “sexists”, “homophobes”, “Fascists”, and “xenophobic” “chauvinists”. Democrats are all labeled as “socialists”, “Marxists”, “communists”, “globalists” and “America haters”.
As members of Congress and state legislatures adopt this inflammatory rhetoric and media figures and celebrities join them, civility and cooperation ends and legislation becomes conflict. Here is former Clinton Administration Secretary of Labor and current professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, Robert Reich, in a recent commentary in the Left wing Guardian journal entitled “Why Biden Must Be Bold & Ignore Republicans”.
“If Biden is successful, Americans’ faith in democracy might begin to rebound – marking the end of the nation’s flirtation with ‘fascism’.
“The worry is Biden wants to demonstrate “bipartisan cooperation” and may try so hard to get some Republican votes that his plans get diluted to the point where Republicans get what they want: failure.”
“Biden should forget bipartisanship.”
So what is to be done? Do the nation’s divided voters really want some level of “unity”, cooperation and civility across society and especially in legislatures tasked with the creation of important public policy that supposedly makes individual lives better? Certainly some do not and for them conflict becomes and end in itself. But polls seem to indicate that nation-wide, people are unhappy and frustrated by the hate and the “victory and defeat” character of the political process.
A 2020 poll by the Hoover Institute at Stanford University shows distinct differences in terms of trust and policies at the party identification level but it also found a more general positive result: “Overall, the results of our poll show that there are major differences between the political parties that will make it difficult for the newly elected president to bring about unity. On the other hand, majorities of both parties say they prefer representatives who compromise on politics and would prefer to be American rather than citizens of any other country.”
The nation will never be “united” on specific public policies. Social policies especially have taken on the character of civil religions in which moral certitude makes compromise impossible. This attitude then spreads like it’s own virus to just about all other issues i.e. the economy and issues of political procedure, environmental and national security. Progress, if at all possible, would seem to be limited in scope to fundamental agreement on the virtues of constitutional government; rule of law, individual liberty, and equality of opportunity. Within that context and with enhanced interaction between individuals not encumbered by demagogues or “group think”, perhaps progress can be made on civility and objectivity.
There is no question that Donald Trump was an instigator and provocateur for whom aggression was a political tactic, albeit a successful one in his upset victory of 2016. But Trump’s election defeat seemed to have a component of “Trump, or conflict fatigue”, especially among “independent voters”. Although President Biden has a different, more traditional political personality, if he continues to define “unity” as exclusionary defeat of non-“progressive” far Left agendas and he quietly supports hate speech by proxy, he will, as the leader of his party and as the public focus of national government, defy his own message of national reconciliation and the chaos will continue.