As the coronavirus causes mass unemployment and economic devastation not seen since the Great Depression, the US is more politically polarised than ever. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the roots of the bitterness and how they might be overcome
As a young art student and later art history lecturer, all things American fascinated me. Even today, those painters, writers and photographers for whom I hold a special interest are those who worked in the United States during the Great Depression years of the 1930s.
From the photography and journalism of Walker Evans, James Agee and Dorothea Lange, to the early careers of painters like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Ben Shahn, I’ve always thought it ironic how those dark days made for such an enlightened age in American creativity.
This, after all, was a time of immense crisis in the United States when tens of thousands of Americans were losing their jobs and homes.
The very fact that some people – aforementioned artists among them – were able to earn any wage at all was largely down to the remarkable “New Deal” project enacted by then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In fact, it is widely acknowledged that over time and using what was an imaginative programme of public works projects, Roosevelt’s New Deal in great part helped America get back on its feet economically after the ravages of the financial crash.
Now, looking back on that remarkable chapter in US history, many Americans will doubtless find food for thought as today once again their country faces a daunting challenge.
Data released only this month tells an alarming tale. It reveals that the country’s unemployment levels have surged to 14.7% as more than 20 million Americans have lost their jobs, the highest rate since the depression of the 1930s.
On the face of it the coronavirus pandemic would appear clearly to blame, but some see it differently, arguing that rather than the virus “breaking America”, it has only revealed what was already broken.
“When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly,” wrote American journalist George Packer in a searing examination of the country’s crisis in this month’s edition of The Atlantic magazine.
“Chronic ills, a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public, had gone untreated for years,” continued Packer.
“We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity, to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category,” Packer concluded, touching on what for many of his fellow citizens must have been a raw nerve indeed.
Exacerbated by coronavirus, many observers say the sharp realities Americans are now forced to confront are rapidly further dividing an already embittered and angry nation.
They point to the fact that for some time America has been bedevilled by class and religious differences, growing income and racial inequality, a lack of trust in political institutions, an exponential rise in misinformation, a rural-urban divide, and “trash talking politics”.
Commonly depicted as the prevailing traits of American life these days, such polarisation and hyper-partisanship has only accelerated since Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory.
Writing in The Irish Times almost two months ago, the respected columnist Fintan O’Toole pulled no punches in his view that “Trump has destroyed the country he has promised to make great again”.
“It is hard not to feel sorry for Americans … The country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful … who is now looking to the US as the exemplar of anything other than what not to do? How many people in Dusseldorf or Dublin are wishing they lived in Detroit or Dallas?” asked O’Toole.
Many agree, singling out Trump’s callous disregard for democratic norms, interpersonal decency and even truth itself, as being responsible for having turned US political debate into what Mario Benavente, a North Carolina Republican, described on CNN as a “blood sport”.
It goes without saying that all of this has severely hindered America’s capacity to respond to the coronavirus crisis in a collective and meaningful way.
“The concept of “one nation, indivisible” seems ever more elusive, even unattainable, in these anxious days of deadly pathogens, soaring joblessness, and food shortages,” observed The New Yorker journalist Robin Wright earlier this month, as the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic bore down across America.
“For many, the future seems so uncertain. So does survival, a privilege taken as a virtual right by the majority of Americans courtesy of economic and medical achievements since the Second World War,” Wright continued, highlighting the national nervousness that has fuelled some of the anger finding its way onto America’s streets of late.
In coronavirus, Americans face a common enemy. Not one that distinguishes between “ red state” versus “blue state”, Republican or Democrat. This, however, has not stopped many from interpreting the threat in politically-charged and polarising terms, dividing politicians, communities and even families.
It is a noxious political climate, one detailed by Darrell M West, a Brookings Institution political scientist and author of the recent book titled Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyper Conflict In The Trump Era.
As a summary of his book warns, this is a climate “where politicians from the president to state and local office-holders play to strongly held beliefs and sometimes even pour fuel on the resulting inferno”.
It is a polarisation, it says, that has become “so intense that many people no longer trust anyone from a differing perspective”, resulting in a “dangerous tribalism that seriously threatens US democracy”.
Even the act of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has become political, being another way to show tribal colours as liberals urge people to stay at home and conservatives rail against government restrictions.
Nothing exemplifies this more to those of us outside looking in at America than recent television news pictures showing gun-toting demonstrators at anti-lockdown protests.
Dubbed the “American Patriot Rally”, one such protest earlier this month gathered around the state capitol building in Michigan, calling for state businesses to reopen in violation of state orders to remain closed during lockdown.
Legal as it is to bear firearms inside the statehouse, some demonstrators openly carried guns in the Senate gallery. One senator was quoted by news outlets as saying that several of her colleagues even took the precaution of wearing body armour in anticipation of being confronted by the armed demonstrators.
Reports that Trump threw his support behind the demonstrators at the time, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN”, only further fuelled accusations that his tweets were an attempt to foment insurrection.
“The most dangerous divide emerging from the pandemic is the oldest in American history – over the rights and duties of the states versus the power of the federal government,” noted Robin Wright of The New Yorker.
“We fought a war over the issue a hundred and sixty years ago; it has flared again during the pandemic and now threatens to tear the nation apart in new ways,” Wright added, noting that Trump’s Michigan tweet also told Virginians to “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!””
Uncomfortable and disquieting as the scenes from Michigan and the president’s obvious support for those involved were, they should give no cause for alarm, reassure apologists.
Such things, they insist, are only symptoms of “American individualism”, an inherent national value that prizes personal freedoms, limited government and free will over all else.
Along the way guns and the right to bear arms has, for some citizens, remained symbolic of this “individualism”, even if for many other Americans it continues to be a perverse and troubling national motif.
As CNN’s international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh once wryly observed: “It is extremely hard to understand the American obsession with the gun, unless you are an American obsessed with the gun.”
If the right to bear arms is nothing new then neither are political division and the perils that come with it.
It was the America’s first president George Washington, after all, who, during the foundation of the nation, warned of the dangers of partisanship, stating in his farewell address: “It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and … foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Since then, from the days of the Great Depression to the Vietnam War, 20th-century America has been marked by periods of division over everything from economic inequality, political ideology, civil rights, and the use of military force.
“America has always been an angry nation. We are a country born of revolution.
“Combat on battlefields, in newspapers, at the ballot box, has been with us from the start,” reminded Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Charles Duhigg recently in The Atlantic magazine in an article exploring how anger became the dominant emotion in the politics and personal lives of Americans.
“Even the country’s mythology is rooted in anger: The American dream is, in a sense, an optimistic reframing of the discontent felt by people unwilling to accept the circumstances life has handed them,” argued Duhigg.
But accepting the circumstances that the pandemic has presented and finding a way to work collectively to defeat it has never been more pressing for Americans.
While political division has undoubtedly played a major part in the nation’s evolution so, too, has rallying around the old red white and blue. Americans have long been recognised for coming together when crises threaten as they did after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 or the attack by the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. But the coronavirus pandemic is an altogether different kind of threat.
As Dominic Tierney, political scientist and author of The Right Way To Lose a War: America In An Age Of Unwinnable Conflicts, recently argued, coronavirus will do little to bring Americans together.
“History suggests that rallying Americans requires a powerful human enemy, like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union,” explained Tierney, adding that right now such an enemy is absent. It is a view widely shared by other experts.
“Nothing binds groups together like facing a common enemy,” says Ann Keller, a University of California-Berkeley associate professor who studies pandemic responses. But we’re still treating members of the other party as the enemy rather than the virus,” Keller told CNN last week, speaking of political rivalry ahead of the US presidential election scheduled for November, despite the ravages of the pandemic.
And so it seems that for the time being at least, the sudden emergence of this killer virus rampaging coast to coast continues to emphasise what divides Americans, rather than what unites them. America’s adversaries, meanwhile, have no doubt spotted how this polarisation is the country’s weak spot. Let’s not forget how Russia specifically targeted America’s deepest political divisions in their 2016 social media campaign. America, then, must be wary, not least while in presidential election mode.
For now though the country remains split and hurting in ways that bring back the momentous social upheavals of the past like the Great Depression, out of which Roosevelt’s New Deal was born. A deal that helped give the country fresh optimism and enabled the recovery of its economic health. Currently it would all too easy to dismiss the possibility of another New Deal given the presence of a Trump ideology about as far removed from that of Roosevelt’s as it’s possible to imagine.
But bridging those divisions and forging a new path forward is a challenge America has to embrace if its democracy, warts and all, is to be safeguarded.
It was Winston Churchill who is once reputed to have said: “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else.”
Much closer to home, it was US president Bill Clinton who in his inaugural address offered a thought to his country that it might do well to heed now and in the months and years ahead.
“There is nothing wrong with America,” Clinton said, “that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”