The magnification of American politics

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After four years in the US Navy and, over the decades that followed, a steady consumption of modern American media – books, movies, TV, the Internet – I assumed I was indeed inoculated – with boosters! – any shock that a chance encounter with the word f could produce.

Nonetheless, I recently performed a heartbreaking double take while driving through a nearby neighborhood and spotted a 4-by-7-foot sign declaring, in one-foot-tall letters, “F—Biden.”

The shameless posting of this crass message was not isolated during a white supremacist rally or insurgency. The neighborhood is upper middle class, the grounds are well kept, and the house is a large, well-kept home on a large lot. The incongruity was striking, but should it be alarming?

After all, this is not the first time that our politics have taken a turn towards the crude and the vulgar. Yet a quick internet search for the appropriate words yields an astounding array of merchandise filled with ingenious iterations of the yard sign’s crude message, from flags to gun-shaped F-word t-shirts to doormats on which you can wipe your feet. President Joe Biden’s face to scrolls that let you do the same with other parts of your anatomy.

On the other hand, an ebb tide causes all boats to descend. Replace “Trump” with “Biden” in your search and you’ll discover the same creative collection of raw merchandise with the opposite message. And then there’s Robert De Niro’s infamous “F—Trump” speech at the 2018 Tony Awards.

Amusing or alarming? Is it just sticks and stones, reflecting a nation in a grumpy mood? Or is it something more insidious?

In an article titled “The Fragile Republic,” published in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, political scientists Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman assess the nation’s political health in terms of four threats: “political polarization, conflict over which belongs to the political community, high and growing economic inequality and excessive executive power.

Mettler and Lieberman argue that when one or more of these threats are present, “democracy is subject to decay”. They argue that for the first time in US history, all four are present at the same time. Moreover, all are currently exacerbated by the importance of social media and the pandemic.

Is there a relationship between the rude sign in the street and political polarization, one of the factors which, according to Mettler and Lieberman, tend to erode democracy? Are citizens rude and vulgar because they are polarized? Or are they polarized because they are rude and vulgar?

I suspect that the distinction between the two questions is irrelevant. It’s hard to say what causes what, but the result is a self-perpetuating downward spiral into hardened tribal positions that make negotiation, compromise, and even dialogue impossible.

The opposition becomes so demonized that any means of defeating it, even anti-democratic means, is justified. And the body politic can become so polarized that conflict becomes the focal point. It becomes a fight just for the sake of fighting.

Last week in Ohio, JR Majewski won the Republican nomination to run against Democrat Marcy Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives. Majewski is a strong believer in QAnon, he associates himself with people who have been banned from social media for promoting violent conspiracy theories, and he was present during the January 6 uprising.

Majewski caught the eye of former President Donald Trump when he painted his lawn to look like a Trump re-election banner. Trump did not endorse Majewski, but expressed his public support in these telling words: “…he’s a great guy and he fights in this for everything he fights for.” I do not care.”

In other words, it is not about politics or governance; it’s about the fights.

Trump bears a lot of the blame for the crassness of American politics, but if you want to argue that the Democrats are equally culpable, I won’t argue with that. Human nature being what it is, neither side is likely to stop on its own.

Thus, our republic drifts on dangerous seas. As Mettler and Lieberman conclude: “The situation is dire.”

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