Democrats Republicans
A deeply divided American electorate delivered a Congress evenly split Image Credit: Gulf News

No wonder that few Americans showed interest in the proceedings of the two-week summit, which opened on Sunday in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm Al-Sheikh, of the 27th Conference of the Parties, or COP27 — the supreme governing body tasked with making decisions about how best to implement already ratified international treaties — where UN’s Secretary General warned, “Our planet is on course to reach a tipping point that will make climate change irreversible”.

And, as if to ensure that the profound implications of what he said would be amply understood by the more than 100 presidents and prime ministers from around the globe who were in attendance, he added graphically: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”.

Even the gravity of all this appeared to elicit from Americans the kind of indifference one evinces at receiving a late notice from one’s public library.

US midterms
Midterms: Hours after polls closed, dozens of critical House and Senate races remained too close to call Image Credit: Gulf News

Americans, you see, have been preoccupied, indeed obsessed with their midterm elections, considered the most consequential in modern American history, elections that in time will come to define where America stands in the world and what political values Americans really embrace.

Yet, let the record show, these elections took place against the backdrop of political and social turmoil, divisive debate over undocumented immigration, right-wing Supreme Court rulings that upended the lives of countless Americans, broad concerns about (as President Joe Biden put it in a speech to the nation last week) “the future of democracy itself”.

All that came packaged in the form of a public discourse toxic in the extreme between Republicans, symbolised by their “reactionary” blue elephant, and Democrats, symbolised by their “progressive” red donkey, as well as between liberals, defined by their compassionate bleeding hearts and conservatives by their putative cruel ones — with each side accusing the other of being, in the words of a high-profile report released by the Pew Reasearch Center recently, “a threat to the nation’s well-being”.

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Indeed, no one would accuse you of hyperbole were you to suggest that never before, certainly since Reconstruction, have Americans been so divided, effectively fragmented, as it were, into tribes, tied to each other with ever fewer political, social and cultural threads, and — having lost their kinship of vision and communal sense of reference — moving farther and farther apart.

Why has American political culture, which defines the ethos and values of American society, become so polarised, with ordinary, everyday Americans seemingly unable to find common ground?

Difficult to quantify polarisation? I say the devil with the arcane analysis and data presented by political scientists and other researchers, including the odd psychologist or two, who for years have scrambled to understand the roots of this phenomenon.

The US Capitol
In Washington during the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol, crazed insurrectionists roamed the Capitol halls, ransacking its chambers and threatening its lawmakers Image Credit: AP

If you lived in Washington, my hometown, during the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol, and watched crazed insurrectionists roaming its halls, ransacking its chambers and threatening its lawmakers (“Nancy, where are you, Nancy” and “Hang Pence”), you would’ve found for yourself what political polarisation looks and feels like — indeed what political polarisation is.

Peruse the books stacked on the American Politics shelf in your public library or your neighbourhood bookstore and you are likely to to find books with titles like “Must Politics Be War?”, “Angry Politics”, “Fault Lines” and “The Partisan Next Door”.

They describe, as we say, where America’s head is at in our time — an America where, in political discourse, you are required to adopt a hyper-partisan stance and where it’s not politically chic to be politically moderate. Your own political ideology is completely right and that of, shall we say, the partisan next door, is completely wrong.

With such polarisation let loose in the land, with more “us” and “them” stuck in respective echo chambers, Americans are sure to talk at instead of to each other.

Polarisation and hostility

In an essay in June, in which he reflected on the destructive power of polarisation in America’s political system, Thomas Edssal, New York Times columnist, offered this succinct observation: “Polarisation has become a force that feeds on its itself, gaining strength from the hostility it generates, finding sustenance in both the left and the right”.

And, clearly, once polarisation sets in, it typically settles down — settles down as a fixture in society, secreting poison into the blood of the body politic.

Not so long ago, say, in the fifties, the Republicans and the Democrats were hard to tell apart. Sure, they fought over school desegregation, civil rights and communists hiding behind lampposts, who were responsible for water fluoridation in small-town America and for socialist propaganda in filmic art (think Joe McCarthy and the House un-American Activities Committee), but they never engendered anything resembling the kind of pernicious polarisation with which the public discourse is now charged.

In today’s world, America’s post-Cold War dominance has faded. Washington is no longer the only tough kid on the geopolitical block, but — an important but — it remains a global power whose sneeze could give the whole bunch of us a darn cold.

The impact on the world of an America weakened by incessant, relentless and finally destructive polarisation is incalculable.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.