US elections : tension at its peak

While Joe Biden is about to take on his role as 46th president of the United States, this article first published in November takes you back to the election days of this unique presidential campaign. 

Everything now sets them against each other. The two big American political parties, Democrats and Republicans, although historically accustomed to cohabitation and compromise, have been moving further apart in recent years. They embody the ideological fracture that divides the country and holds out the prospect of an increasingly uncertain and divided political future. 

The opposition of the two parties is felt on a daily basis. Luke Grzywacz, former student in Politics at Hillsdale College, now working in state level politics in Michigan, gives his impression : “Politics has penetrated nearly every level of life in America. Even when people do their best to avoid it, it somehow finds its way in.” The polarization of political debates and opinions breaks up many families. Such is the case of Brendan Descamps, a graduate in history and political science at the University of Augsburg in Minnesota : “My outspokenness in public and my efforts to debate with family have left me effectively ‘disowned.’ I do not speak to many of my immediate family members.”

People proclaim their support near the site of the vice presidential debate Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer - AP - 7/10/2020

These conflicts can be explained by the increasingly opposed ideals of the two parties. Luke explains : « Positions on policy have changed so much that the left and right in this country are really remarkably different. Globalism v. Nationalism, secularism v. Christianity, inclusion v. celebration. » The cause : extreme politicians on both sides of the political spectrum like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, the socialist candidate in the Democratic primary, are now leading figures.  

The country is facing a movement called negative partisanship : choosing a party not out of faith or conviction, but out of aversion to the other. This movement has also been fueled by the electoral strategies of the two candidates, who bet above all on the missteps of their opponent. Following this strategy, Brendan made his choice : « I chose to vote for the status quo candidate, Joe Biden, because I believe he is a lesser evil than Donald Trump ». Luke nuances : « Most people actually refuse to side with a party even if they always vote for the same one. People are sick of the partisanship but they still have their positions.”

This loyalty to a camp, which has become the norm, can be explained by various factors. According to Luke, the mainstream media tend to amplify and increase discrepancies  between groups of people and ideas to take advantage of political instability and polarization. He adds that on the Internet, users generally remain within their own circle of influence, where their ideas are reinforced and opposing viewpoints are poorly or not at all addressed. Brendan has another explanation for this increasingly brutal political engagement : « Every year the millionaires and billionaires increase both their income and wealth while the majority of Americans are seeing a decrease in or a stagnation of their income and wealth. » Indeed, it is worth remembering that the USA is one of the most unequal Western countries in the world. 

The polarization of the debate and political ideals is now giving rise to real violence. Thus, on January 6, the day of the Electoral College vote count, a mob of Donal Trump supporters attempted to disrupt the transfer of power by storming the US Capitol. The numerous scenes of looting and riots perpetrated, according to the police, by members of the extreme-left « antifa » movement, especially after the assassination of George Floyd, show that the left is also becoming more aggressive. The white supremacists, however, remain the deadliest American terrorist threat in 2020. 

The future and the political stability of the United States thus seem to be at stake. Luke explains that American politics could become increasingly violent : « Many Americans view a civil war as a distinct possibility. » According to the International Crisis Group, both Republicans and Democrats considered the stakes of the election to be existential and were therefore more inclined to use violence if necessary.

The inauguration day will be held on January 20th as is tradition. The security protocol for the ceremony will be more important than ever this year, with increased screening at airports and more National Guard officers stationed in Washington, DC. Regardless of the transfer of power, political tensions are not likely to  die out any time soon. 

Lili BENTZINGER

Cover : Luci Gutiérrez – Wall Street Journal – 10/11/2016

A warm thank you to Brendan Descamps and Luke Grzywacz for their time !

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