The more urgent question is not what has made America become so polarised but why it hasn’t broken out into continuous ethnic violence. The sight of “America’s burning” in police and race riots and all those weird white guys armed to the teeth add up to a potent threat, if episodes like Charlottesville and the Capitol storming are joined up into continuous action. The US’ s rhetoric of law and order so stoutly professed by Republicans in particular will be put to practical test. The Capitol “insurrection” uncovered more than a one -off vulnerability. With 200 arrests so far, agencies like the FBI and Homeland Security will dig deeper but they are sure to encounter federal, state and local obstacles on the way. There will be doubts that local police forces and the National Guard who are part time territorials would be able or willing to hold the line or even the regular Army who voted in droves for Trump. Treating the whole phenomenon as purely a crisis of law and order would be an obvious mistake.
While it would be silly to extrapolate too far from the historic experience of tiny Northern Ireland, the ingredients seem to be all lined up and ready to go. Long term real grievances persistently denied provoking demonstrations brutally handled by institutionally biased police forces, a demagogue whipping up a backlash, a chronically divided political system and historic memories revived of outright civil war; the political settlement that made the United States is a lot more fragile than it seemed even a few years ago. Obama’s inspirational “Yes We Can” has been succeeded by the disillusioned No We Didn’t.
True to form the New York Times has published optimistic and pessimistic essays on the the ability of the Biden presidency to turn the course of events. A pessimistic essay in particular caught my attention, asking my basic question in another form: Is America ungovernable now? by Thomas B Edsall:
If recent history provides a guide, the pessimists may well carry the day. The key dynamic in U.S. politics right now is political civil war dividing the white middle strata between those who want to be part of a multiracial, inclusive future, and those who fear and refuse that….When groups within American society believe in two different sets of rules on how to play the game of democracy, it cannot be played and we become ungovernable.
Harold James, a historian at Princeton says theree are striking parallels with countries which are breaking down or on the verge of civil war — the United States in the early 1860s or Germany after 1919 or the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Biden, James wrote, “is the anti-Trump, with a personality that is soothing, healing, not combative,” but, he cautioned, “having said that, it is the reality of the performance, in the short run on combating the pandemic, in the longer perspective on building better access to resources rather than the benign nature of the personality that will dictate the character of the legacy.”
Brian Schaffner, a professor of political science at Tufts, cautioned that Republicans hold the whip hand, that the governability of “America going forward depends in large part on whether Republican politicians return to an unequivocal adherence to democratic norms, or whether they decide to continue further down the path of Trumpism… The likelihood that Republicans, or a substantial share of them, will change course is not high… The past few elections have helped to demonstrate just how difficult it is for America to overcome the longstanding racism and ethnocentrism that increasingly defines the division between the two parties.
All very sobering. Even more serious to contemplate is if what happens on the ground becomes unresponsive to representative politics. Worse than the deadlock described is the development of armed mass movements linked by an ideology, organised and willing to use force. Political violence doesn’t make reform more urgent along the old established lines ; it changes the very nature of the politics and makes recovery massively more difficult and slower.
While there are plenty prepared to parade armed to the teeth and the Capitol was indeed stormed, they don’t seem to have crossed the Rubicon. But it isn’t hard to imagine that they might. Handling this will need careful policing of a high order that America hasn’t begun to contemplate.
I’ve always found it amazing that black militancy hasn’t morphed into terrorism. Why are both sides holding back? On the African-American side, no small thanks to the Martin Luther King tradition of non violence winning out and imposing a discipline that can never be taken for granted ; and the response in the mid 1960s of the wily Democrstic Congressional wheeler dealer and old school southern racist Lyndon Johnson forcing through the Voting Rights Act in the full knowledge that it would lose the South to the Republican Party.
Although the Voting Rights Act passed, state and local enforcement of the law was weak and it was often outright ignored, mainly in the South and in areas where the proportion of Black people in the population was high and their vote threatened the political status quo. Still, the Voting Rights Act gave African-American voters the legal means to challenge voting restrictions and vastly improved voter turnout. In Mississippi alone, voter turnout among Black people increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969. In 1970, President Richard Nixon extended the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and lowered the eligible voting age for all voters to 18.
While we saw the benefits of the Act at work in the presidential and Congressional elections in November, no such single major initiative like that seems open to Biden today.
Among whites slow decline and outright poverty has turned the American dream into a nightmare of disillusion. In response James Harding in the Tortoise blog explains that..
Mr Biden has already chosen his first fight over the political economy. He is proposing to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 from $7.25. This is popular with the public – a similar proposal just passed in Florida – and it is loved by his Democrat base. But it’s already rallying Republicans and the Conservative commentariat who warn that it will deter businesses from hiring: they cite the minimum wage proposal as Exhibit A in the argument that the Democrats will hurt the people they hope to help.
In time, there’s going to be tax. If the decade after the financial crisis is anything to go by, the coming years of low interest rates will, once again, boost the fortunes of the wealthy. Trump’s response was a cheerful shrug: he cut taxes and pumped the stock markets. Biden, on the other hand, is proposing to increase the top rate of tax from 37 per cent to nearly 40 per cent, as well as corporate income tax from 21 per cent to 28 per cent. Of course, whatever the president suggests will be very different from what Congress ultimately agrees. But, as with debt, jobs, inflation and wages, his proposals on tax foreshadow the fault lines in Biden’s America
The economic route may produce a political dividend in the long run. But it’s the American Dream itself not white poverty that is providing the grounds on which white extremists are posturing for a fight. Are Maga, the Proud Boys and the rest of them for real? Yes the Capitol building was stormed but the threat of mass protests at state capitols throughout the country on Inauguration Day didn’t emerge. They have yet to be fully tested. It’s worth noting that in the vox pops many of them aren’t screaming abuse; they think they’re being reasonable. Jacob Anthony Chansley ak.a. Jake Angeli, the the guy sporting the buffalo horns is a sometime bit part actor who uses words like “ symbiosis,” suggesting education and self awareness at least.
It may be that at this stage a good deal of it is acting out to test how far they can get without full on conflict. The Capitol storming looked as if it took most of them as much by surprise like everyone else, as much the result of incompetent or compliant policing as implacable invasion I’m not convinced by the claims of Lenin-style insurrection. If there was pre-planning it was improvised in action. How many of them really believe the drivel? Perhaps they believe like the fundamentalist Christians they often are in accepting the literal truth of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection not as rational belief but as articles of faith on which to hang their view of Creation, otherwise “America”. The questions harden that have yet to be resolved: do you want to fight or not? Can the white masses fearful becoming outnumbered by a new multi-ethnic majority and calling for rights for the unborn be detached from people who look like that?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London