A polarized America still showing little sign of unity

Divided United States

As Joe Biden approaches the end of his first year in office, his policy record is impressive on paper and in line with his campaign promises. History may one day define him as a leader who transformed Americans’ expectations of government, created structures for reducing persistent, high levels of inequality, and redefined the US role in the world.

But today, the story looks very different and Biden’s approval ratings are hovering at around 40 per cent. The president’s popularity appears impervious to his successes in passing legislation, even for measures with high levels of public support for a long period of time.

Congress has passed the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal to rebuild roads, bridges, ports, internet and public health systems and, in 2020, the Chicago Council found 66 per cent of Americans supported expanding the budget for infrastructure investment.

The difficult truth of US democracy today is that, regardless of whether Biden’s legislation delivers to ordinary Americans, it may have little impact on how these same Americans evaluate his leadership. Partisan narratives have become increasingly locked in and the US is more polarized than at any point in its recent history.

Polarization at home also affects US influence abroad, as talk of hedging against an uncertain America will continue among its European allies – and so it should

And it may take more than even the best and most rational policies to heal internal division. A 2020 Pew Survey found more than 80 per cent of both Republicans and Democrats view the other party as a threat to the nation’s wellbeing, compared to just less than 40 per cent in 2014. By this measure alone, America appears to have become far more divided during the period of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Intense partisan division

On certain key issues, divisions between Republican and Democrat voters are stark. Turnout among known Trump voters in the recent elections for the Governor of Virginia was higher than during the 2020 presidential election. These voters were mobilized on the issue of education – a source of intense partisan division after months of debate about appropriate social distancing restrictions in schools and the role of parents in determining the content of education.

But the most difficult issue right now in the US is clearly racial justice. Reactions to the announcement Kyle Rittenhouse – the white teenager who shot two white men with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin – had been acquitted were refracted through a polarized America. The political right saw the court decision as a vindication the defendant has been subject to unfair attacks by the political left, while the left saw it as confirmation the US justice system is racially biased.

As President Biden’s first year in office comes to a close, he remains focused on his main policy promises. He hit his goal of 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in 100 days with a week to spare, and 70 per cent of Americans are now fully vaccinated, while the economic recovery continues with the unemployment rate reaching a 19-month low in October and more than 500,000 new jobs being created.

His Build Back Better bill, which promises $1.7 trillion for social spending, has quickly been taken up by the Senate and – if passed – promises to provide free early childhood (pre-K) education, investments in climate initiatives, and potentially numerous other social benefits. Taken alongside the COVID-19 measures adopted to support ordinary Americans over the past two years, the US is witnessing a dramatic shift in state intervention.

The difficult truth of US democracy today is that, regardless of whether Biden’s legislation delivers to ordinary Americans, it may have little impact on how these same Americans evaluate his leadership

But despite these investments, the overall confidence Americans have in the economy remains low, which is puzzling given the direction of travel appears to be good with unemployment declining and jobs being created. But in the aftermath of a long pandemic, and ongoing uncertainty, it is perhaps less surprising.

The disappointment Americans seem to feel is also partially a reflection of how Biden has gone about his work – for instance, a majority of Americans supported his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan but many disapproved of the way it was handled.

Polarization brings deeper problems

A divided electorate raises grave warnings, not only for a president but US democracy more broadly, and underscores that Biden’s most important message during his campaign – that the nation needs to heal and the need for unity is essential – is still a distant hope.

Polarization at home also affects US influence abroad, as talk of hedging against an uncertain America will continue among its European allies – and so it should. A polarized US electorate impervious to rational or material policies does not portend well for the future, so Europeans have good reason to fear an uncertain future and to plan accordingly.

The future of democracy, and of democratic stability, in the US is currently far from certain and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recently evaluated US democracy as ’backsliding’. But America’s power and attractiveness of its partnership has never been limited to what it does beyond its borders. It is deeply and intimately linked to what America is, and what it represents, at home.

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri is a Reader (Associate Professor) in International Relations at SOAS. This article was originally published by Chatham House

Share this post