The New President’s Toughest Job: A Polarized America
If the months since the November elections have shown us anything, it’s that the U.S. is more deeply divided than we’ve experienced in a very long time. It’s reached the point where, rather than take pleasure in the success of a politician elected to the presidency, you have to keep your fingers crossed on his behalf.
There are, of course, the partisan differences on the complex challenges that beset this country. Political groups with opinions on these and other issues have become more sophisticated and more aggressive in trying to shape the public dialogue than ever before. And each side tends to be suspicious of the other, viewing their adversaries as attacking the national security interests of the country.
Now in the mix, though, we also have the divisions stoked by President Trump, whose desperation to hold onto power has led him and his followers to traffic in conspiracy theories and to reject the norms, principles, and institutions we’ve relied on for centuries to build this nation. This is exacerbated by our splintered media and social media universe, our rural/urban/suburban divide, and our regional and racial differences. You get the impression that many Republicans and Democrats—Americans all—live in different worlds today.
These are not entirely new issues, but they’ve become sharply more painful. The greater the polarization, the tougher it is to build consensus and solve our problems, even though ordinary Americans tend to prefer cooperation and bipartisan solutions—though even that has been fraying in recent years.
Every indication is that President-Elect Biden identifies himself as a moderate and plans to govern from the center or a bit to its left. His cabinet choices so far have been from the deep pool of centrist Democrats, people with expertise and experience. He believes that he can advance his goals through bipartisanship and cooperation, and Democrats’ tenuous hold on both the House and the Senate may help him on this front, giving strength to moderates in both parties who are willing to sit down together in the interests of governing the country effectively.
With Congress’s divisions mirroring the country’s, maybe there’s room for hope. If a core of legislators of both parties are willing to work with the Biden administration, find common ground, and pass legislation that makes the country better, then perhaps Washington can actually set an example that helps a reeling nation heal.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.