America’s dysfunctional politics

America’s dysfunctional politics

Dread is on the rise across the United States as the nation slides toward its next tempestuous election. The mood is dark. Just 23% of Americans say the country is on the “right track,” according to a New York Times poll published on August 1, and 65% say the nation is headed in the “wrong direction.” President Joe Biden’s approval rating stands at about 40%, and half of voters who align with his Democratic Party don’t want him to seek re-election next year. Also on August 1, twice-impeached former president Donald Trump was indicted for a third time, in this case for trying to steal the 2020 election. His national approval numbers are even lower than Biden’s.

Despite all this, a Biden-Trump rematch next year appears increasingly inevitable, given the lack of credible alternative candidates within their respective parties. That same New York Times survey found national support for the two candidates deadlocked at 43% each.

This is just the latest bit of headshaking evidence that, for all its cultural dynamism, innovative energy, and resilient economy, politics in the United States over the past 25 years has become more dysfunctional than in any other wealthy democracy – and the problem is getting worse. America is now what Abraham Lincoln called “a house divided.” The worldviews of urban and rural voters, of those with traditional social values vs those more progressive, and those who are more globalist in their outlook vs those more populist, now have vanishingly little in common.

These gaps in perception have predictably created a deep polarization among elected officials in Washington. Today, because the political debate is so polarized, there is far less ideological overlap between the most liberal elected Republicans and the most conservative Democrats, leaving politicians with less political incentive for cross-party compromise, much less collaboration.

The nation’s pessimism and partisan furies are not the result of a struggling economy or genuine threats to the nation’s security. Despite fears of a slowdown, or even of recession, the US economy now has both the highest growth rate and lowest annual inflation rate among the G7 group of industrialized nations. The official unemployment rate stands at its lowest point since the 1960s. Economic inequality, though still a problem, is narrowing. In July, US consumer sentiment surged to a two-year high. There have been no major terrorist attacks in the US in years, and the immigration crisis at the US southern border has quieted. Most Americans support Ukraine in its war against Russian invaders, but the conflict’s dangers and worst economic effects feel far away.

Instead, Americans have experienced a cascading flood of both misinformation (undiluted media injections of partisan political propaganda) and disinformation (deliberately false reporting designed to sow confusion and anger among voters). The average American now consumes information from media outlets, people and institutions that confirms his prejudices, and he hears few unfiltered voices that question his assumptions – about life in America and the world beyond.

US allies and partners know they cannot trust the next US president to follow the path created by the current chief executive

This trend was driven first by political talk radio starting in the 1980s, cable news since the 1990s, the blogosphere since the early 2000s, and now social media algorithms. This newest media platform draws advertising dollars from content designed to provoke strong emotional reactions, a process fundamentally incompatible with a well-informed and emotionally healthy society. It’s a business model that maximizes profit with the use of bots and trolls, promotes extremism and deliberately spreads false information. Making matters worse, neither the tech companies that profit from this anger nor the politicians who raise campaign cash from angry citizens has incentive to limit the inevitable damage to American society.

This trend has sharply undermined American public confidence in virtually all the country’s leading institutions. In recent surveys, fewer than half of Americans say they have confidence in the nation’s police officers, doctors, religious leaders, education system, trade unions, banks, judges, technology companies, or the media itself. But the effects of the bitter partisanship stoked by misinformation and disinformation in the United States aren’t limited to election results or political discussions. Americans are now far less likely to form and keep close friendships or to date someone sympathetic to the other party. In 1960, just 4% of Americans said they would be unhappy if their child married someone from another party; by 2021, it was 40%. Just 4% of marriages today occur between a Republican and Democrat. Politics has become tribal as never before.

Finally, America’s polarization isn’t just a problem for Americans. US allies and partners know they cannot trust the next US president to follow the path created by the current chief executive. Throughout modern US history, power in Washington has oscillated between the country’s two major parties. But Republicans and Democrats once agreed that US alliances were crucial to the nation’s security, that cross-border trade boosted prosperity, and that the integrity of America’s most important political institutions must be protected. These certainties are gone. The differences between Biden and Trump – and between Democratic and Republican voters – over both America’s identity and its role in the world are becoming starker.

One more ominous sign worth watching: A survey published in June by the University of Chicago found that 12 million Americans say they would support violence to help return Donald Trump to power, and 22 million Americans say violence would be justified if it could restore abortion rights that were sharply limited by recent Supreme Court rulings.

In short, 2024 will be a dangerous year for politics in America and for the nation’s relationships around the world. But the toxic impact of the nation’s polarized media guarantees that these problems will remain no matter who wins next November. 

Ian Bremmer is the president and founder of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, and the author of “The Power of Crisis.”

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