The Disease of Polarization

November 3, 2020

Four years ago, in a post titled “Middle East in the Grip of Polarization” I said:

“The Middle East, in the grip of polarization, is going through a most violent period… Throughout the region the mentality continues to be “winner-take-all. This is what we witness in Syria where coming to the table to stop the bloodshed is seen as a concession whereas it should be clear to all the parties, at least by now, that there is not going to be a military solution to the conflict. Differences are of course diverse and extreme. They extend from religion, ethnicity, world outlook and politics to culture. Furthermore, they are increasingly characterized by an element of hate. Worst of all, Syrians seem to have lost sense of direction. The silent or silenced majority may regret what they have been going through but those who appear to be in charge see no further than the tip of the gun barrel… Some Syrians may think it is too late; that they would not be allowed to change course even if they wanted to. Others may still be determined to fight to the bitter end. And sadly, the latter may prove to be right because there is little hope of a happy end to this tragedy. Such is the disease of polarization. If it does not kill you, it leaves you maimed…”

Four years on, the world is fighting Covid-19. On the one hand, there is a race against time for vaccines. On the other hand, a worse disease, polarization is spreading in countries far away from the Middle East and tightening its grip. And since it does not kill in a matter of days or weeks there is no big rush to find cures. Some even see it as a blessing to perpetuate power. Nonetheless worries are on the rise. A case in point is the US.

Last week two Washington Post articles carried the following titles: “Americans hate each other. But we aren’t headed for civil war,” and “The united hates of America, we’ll still be divided after Trump. But the fault lines will move.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times titled “The Day After Election Day”, Ron Suskind, an investigative journalist who has written about the presidency and national affairs for more than three decades, having interviewed some two dozen officials and aides, several of whom are still serving in the Trump administration said,

“… They are worried that the president could use the power of the government — the one they all serve or served within — to keep himself in office or to create favorable terms for negotiating his exit from the White House. Like many other experts inside and outside the government, they are also concerned about foreign adversaries using the internet to sow chaos, exacerbate divisions and undermine our democratic process.

“Many of those adversaries, they report, are already finding success in simply amplifying and directing the president’s words and tweets. And they’re thoroughly delighted, a former top intelligence official told me, “at how profoundly divided we’ve become. Donald Trump capitalized on that — he didn’t invent it — but someday soon we’re going to have figure out how to bring our country together, because right now we’re on a dangerous path, so very dangerous, and so vulnerable to bad actors.”[i]

He said it is possible, of course, that this will be an Election Day much like all other Election Days. Even if it takes weeks or months before the result is known and fully certified, it could be a peaceful process, where all votes are reasonably counted, allowing those precious electors to be distributed based on a fair fight.  He then added, “Or not.”

Indeed, today may be just another Election Day. But can all the foregoing be fake news? No. Were such concerns expressed on earlier Election Days? The 2008 presidential election was about sending an African American to the White House for the first time. Were Americans worried about the possibility of political chaos the day after? No. But they are now.

Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue, authors of the book “Democracies Divided” say, severe polarization damages all institutions essential to democracy, routinely undermines the independence of the judiciary, as politicians attack the courts as biased or pack them with loyalists. It reduces legislatures either to gridlock or to a rubberstamp function. In presidential systems, it frequently leads to the abuse of executive powers and promotes the toxic view that the president represents only his or her supporters, rather than the country as a whole.[ii]

The impact of polarization on countries varies.

At the end of President Trump’s four years in the White House, the US is showing many of those symptoms. This explains largely, though not fully, America’s global decline.

Today’s Turkey is a case of acute polarization. And healing the disease remains a greater challenge than Covid-19, the economy, and Syria.

——————————————————————————————————————


[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/30/opinion/trump-election-officials.html?smid=em-share

[ii] https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/01/how-to-understand-global-spread-of-political-polarization-pub-79893

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