Another feature that was reinforced during my trip to the US was America’s continued political polarization. The Obama administration has not brought people together, and in the process lost much of the support it received in the historic 2008 polls. The Democratic Party is heading for a serious drumming in the upcoming congressional elections in November, where the Republicans are expected to win back the House and possibly the Senate. The Tea Party movement will undercut some of the gains and weaken the Republican’s image as a responsible national leader and fragment the party, but ultimately it will likely add to the number of seats under the Republican “brand”. While the election is over a month away, the political and social forces that have come out of America’s woodwork in the last few months reinforce the deep divisions in the American electorate.
What are these divisions and why have they taken such a polarized form? The political map of the United States has been largely “blue” (Democrat) and “red” (Republican) since the 1990s, with the coastal states carrying the blue majorities and the south and central states, arguably less culturally diverse and globalized and with a more empowered conservative religious right, in crimson red. The social structure and power of different social organizations contribute to different political outlooks. Yet the fault for the contemporary divisions lies with the tactics and political decisions of politicians. It was not, however, until the Clinton era when Bill Clinton tried to embrace the “middle ground” and moved the Democrats ideologically to the center on issues such as health care and welfare reform that the ideological divisions widened. To differentiate themselves, the Republicans developed more strident ideological positions, tied to limited state involvement, trickle-down economics and religious conservatism. Leaders in the party pushed the party further toward the right and labeled others not in line with their positions as the other pole. The Clinton administration fueled the divisions, as it adopted similar “us or against us” tactics. The Bush administration followed this pattern, even going as far as demonizing alternative voices as “unpatriotic”. The middle ground in individual political parties and nationally evaporated as the political costs for being in the center increased. Many “moderates” were pushed out of office.
Obama was to bring in a new style of politics. Instead he has been haunted by old divisions, as Republicans have refused to put aside ideological differences to work with him. Many have continued to adopt the demonization strategy which has taken the form of the “Birther” movement, denial of Obama’s US citizenship. The rallying point of controversy has been health care reform. The Obama administration has not helped, as it has not adequately provided incentives and disincentives for a polarized position. Its lack of experience has shown itself as it has closed ranks rather than broadly engaged. It has not provided a clear road map politically and prioritized issues to maintain the focus of its base. In the one area that has supposedly been its focus, the economy, it has lost confidence among broad sectors nationally. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not maintained its appeal to the American public’s “middle ground” – the young and supporters who rejected a return to the Clinton era and voted for “change”. In the midst of Obama’s disconnect with its base, a new lost voice, a social movement now political party movement of Tea Partiers, has emerged, who use even more polemical tactics to gain support. The end result is greater polarization. Sadly, America cannot adequately address its challenges in this state of division.