By Michael Rowan
Two alternative things just happened on America’s election-day. Half of America believes that Joe Biden won the presidency. And half of America believes a massive fraud was perpetrated to deny Trump a second term.
Half the population believes that Biden won 77 million popular votes and more than the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. That half is supported by science, facts, reason and law produced by modern society and democracy. However, that half of America is comprised of a diverse and fragmented coalition of constituencies. They believe in the US system only to the extent of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The other half of the population has a deep grievance against the system. They feel displaced in the modern economy, replaced by immigrants with darker complexions, misunderstood, unwanted and disrespected. This half feels the system is rotten the core: its science is false, its facts are fake, its reasoning is stupid, and its norms do not speak for them. This half is solidly loyal to the disruption and delegitimization of the system. For them, the baby is already out the window with the water.
Today’s polarization is not new. It has recent roots in the conservativism of Barry Goldwater in 1964; the racial Southern Strategy of Dick Nixon and Pat Buchanan in 1968; the optimistic but corrosive anti-government presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s; and 21st century fears of dark-skinned immigrants sparked by terrorism. Older roots go back to the days of slavery, Indian wars, women’s servitude and white immigrants only.
But in the last five years of Donald Trump’s presidency, polarization has dramatically calcified. Today, each half of America’s schizoid personality talks only to itself, believing it is uniquely onto the truth.
This is not conventional politics. Republicans versus Democrats is conventional politics. But a movement to disrupt and deny democracy, science, facts and reason is not politics as much as it is a rebellion against the American system.
There is no dialogue between the two Americas, which is split into two tribal enemies in a death match. Each wants to purge the American system of the other’s influence, power and perhaps presence.
American society is polarized for three proximate reasons: First, America lives in geographically different worlds. The traditional white and Republican population dominates rural areas and the suburbs where change is slow. They feel threatened by being outnumbered and replaced by the elite, cosmopolitan, populous, browning of America’s cities, which are considered dens of corruption and crime.
America’s traditional Democratic populations are heterogenous, browning, and living a rapidly changing urban life. City people have their own complaints about America but little idea what the aggrieved white rural population is talking about.
Second, America lives its life in two distinctly different media worlds. TV, internet and cell phone media stir tribal fears and disinformation in the brainpans of alienated audiences living in bubbles of bias confirmation. During the Trump presidency, the Washington Post documented 25,000 falsehoods which Trump’s base sees as 25,000 truths. Alienation is complete.
And third, the Republican party has a demographic problem with a disturbing solution. For several decades, Republicans have been running out of white voters. The only Republicans elected to the presidency in this century lost the popular vote (Bush in 2000; Trump in 2016). The Republican solution is to turn out loyal white voters and suppress the votes of non-white voters which is exactly what Trump did par excellence.
The deeper socio-economic and psychological roots of polarization are being studied, such as the history of Indian wars, slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights; political and economic inequality, which is a worldwide human crisis; the local push-back against global complexity, which is bitterly felt in rural areas; the rise of populism, tribalism and authoritarianism in democracies in this century of terrorism and migrations; and the chaotic information overload of the electronic world which has eroded critical thinking and human cooperation, among others. On top of all these pitfalls, the pandemic, economic depression and global conflicts are also threatening world peace and trade.
The immediate issues in America are the peaceful transition to the Biden presidency, and then the Biden strategies to unify the country, to contain Covid19, to rebuild the economy, and to renew America’s leadership role in the world.
If the transition goes OK – a big if – Biden will face mind-boggling tasks. Unifying the country will take a National Commission and perhaps a decade or generation of person-to-person work. Biden needs a unification strategy that undermines the populist distrust in government. If he were to partner with the richest 1% to invest directly in the households and small businesses of the bottom 70% of society – what I call the Shark Tank strategy – he might succeed. But will the Democrats and Republicans support him if he proposes it?
Covid-19 and the economy can only be fixed if Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell cooperates, and McConnell has already announced (as he did when Obama was first elected) that all he’s interested in is Biden failing. Whether the Democrats can win two Georgia senate seats in the special election of January 5, which would put McConnell in the minority, is doubtful.
More trouble for Biden will come from Trump, who is already running the “fraud” campaign to delegitimize Biden’s presidency. Following Trump’s outrageous but effective “birther” campaign to delegitimize Obama, which gave rise to Trump from 2011 to 2016, the “fraud” campaign against Biden will never end while Biden or Harris are in the White House.
Finally, Trump holds a very big stick over the head of Republicans and it is this: Trump found the light at the end of the tunnel underneath the massive mountain of a browning America: it is a white-bricked road that turned out every white vote with a grievance about the American system. Trump can and will do it again to get revenge for the “fraud” of his loss.
The Biden victory was monumental for America. The role of black Americans who made the critical difference for Biden, and who still believe in the American dream, democracy and justice, after all that has happened to black people in history, are a tribute to spirit and hope comparable to what Nelson Mandela brought to South Africa.
But will Trump’s base even consider working with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? It’s hard to imagine that happening. But one thing’s for sure: If the polarization of 2020 extends to the next four years, very little will be done as America continues to decline.Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America and the just released How to Prevent Trump from Doing to America What Chavez Did to Venezuela, published by Amazon Books.