Millions of our compatriots direct their frustration and anger, which arises from various aspects of our system’s accelerating failures, towards other Americans perceived as internal enemies. This phenomenon is at least partially the result of intentional misdirection by our privileged elite. On the superficial level, the leaders of the two parties that constitute our political duopoly want to rile up their base by demonizing their opponents and their supporters. The economic beneficiaries of our corrupt system pit politically engaged citizenry against each other. Powerful interests continuously reaping monetary benefits regardless of which party is in power – for example, major financial institutions, corporate media, the military industrial complex, and agribusiness conglomerates – receive less popular scrutiny when the attention of the masses is directed against a specific political party, rather than the deeper system. Additionally, various incidental developments, including economic, technological, and social changes, have helped deepen our internal divisions.
Politically-engaged Americans increasingly view partisans of “the other side” as national enemies rather than misguided but well-intentioned, patriotic rivals. Tens of millions of Americans truly believe that people who vote for Republican or Democrat candidates are national traitors corruptly working against democracy. Given the corruption, injustice, and failures of our system, such sentiment is somewhat understandable when it is applied only to elected politicians and powerful partisan bureaucrats.* However, the fear and hatred becomes far more dangerous when it is directed to the common people who vote for the “other” party.
The peril inherent in viewing common Americans with differing political viewpoints as national enemies should be readily apparent. If one sincerely believes that an individual or group is foreign agent threatening national security, prosperity, and democracy itself, then one may justify extreme and violent actions. The intensification and spread of such opinions will bring about dramatically dangerous and destabilizing impacts if even a handful of people take such thoughts to their “logical” extremes. One who sincerely believes that tens of millions of Americans who consistently vote for Republican or Democrat candidates are dangerous traitors can justify stripping them of their rights, engaging in electoral cheating, or even organizing violence to (from their point of view) protect America and democracy. How far would one go to prevent a dictatorial and genocidal government from seizing power? Exactly as far as some of our tribalized polity are willing to go to prevent Democrats or Republicans from winning elections.
While the most extreme political partisans see the rival party as literal traitors, many others simply view electoral politics as a team sport. They are focused merely on trying to ensure that the “other side” loses the competition. Rarely, if ever, do they examine their own ideological positions or consider the best policy choices. Instead they simply want “their team” to win. This competitive frameworks leads to unhealthy behaviors and attitudes like excusing the shortcomings of their preferred party’s lawmakers and policies, meekly accepting the “lesser of two evils” instead of looking for alternatives, and blindly believing that our country’s fundamental and systemic ailments can be cured merely by voting for the “correct” political party.
Our intensified political tribalization is at least partially the result of intentional actions and positioning by our privileged and powerful individuals and institutions. It has been tremendously beneficial to multiple powerful interests to the politically-engaged citizenry focused on fighting the “other side” rather than examining the structural problems and shortcomings that both parties effectively support. Furthermore, monied interests have greater influence and control over two parties locked in perpetual contention and close electoral contests.
America’s powerful interests have been riding the proverbial tiger of intensified and tribalized political hatred, but now the tiger has gotten too big and too unpredictable. As our economic conditions deteriorate, the anger at the system – which is steered towards the rival side and its supporters – grows too strong. Individuals who hate their political enemies are prone to extreme actions. The Trump supporters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 sincerely believed they were defending democracy. Traditional and social media outlets that censored coverage of the Hunter Biden laptop discovery in late 2020 similarly believed information suppression was necessary to save democracy from itself. Additional scandals and upheavals are inevitable as the tens of millions of Americans assume keeping their rivals out of power is a matter of saving democracy, or even saving the country. Partisans will view the actions of “the other side” as existential threats, creating a feedback loop of polarization and reckless escalatory actions.
The most “extreme” elements of the right and the left not only hate each other, but are increasingly losing faith in the American political system as a whole. Regardless of the specific grievances, the concept of a national divorce between “red” and “blue” areas gains increasing legitimacy. Tens of millions of Americans wish their state or region would simply secede from the Union.
When they are kept at a low boil, our tribalized political divisions increase political deadlock, secure systemic bipartisan corruption, and prevent reforms needed to break out of our descent into collapse. Republican and Democratic lawmakers nearly never work effectively together, expect to exacerbate structural failures by funneling additional money to defense manufactures and other large businesses, and facilitating unsustainable American involvement in foreign conflicts. However, as economic conditions continue to deteriorate, further radicalization and violence is inevitable. Radicalization and violence will further disrupt normal economic functioning, in a self-perpetuating loop of chaos and want leading to a point of no return.
Factor Five: Global Overstretch
* More rational Americans may feel disgust towards politicians representing both ruling parties, though depending on one’s ideological inclination, one may perfectly reasonably dislike one party more than the other.
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