Has America taken a self-inflicted, mortal blow? Has it been brought down from within? Fareed Zakaria ponders the question that most Americans refuse to ask themselves.
Partisanship today is more about identity. Scholars Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have argued that, in the past few decades, people began to define themselves politically less by traditional economic issues than by identity — gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation. I would add to this mix social class, something rarely spoken of in the United States but a powerful determinant of how we see ourselves. Last year’s election had a lot to do with social class, with non-college-educated rural voters reacting against a professional, urban elite.
The dangerous aspect of this new form of politics is that identity does not lend itself easily to compromise. When the core divide was economic, you could split the difference. If one side wanted to spend $100 billion and the other wanted to spend zero, there was a number in between. The same is true with tax cuts and welfare policy. But if the core issues are about identity, culture and religion (think of abortion, gay rights, Confederate monuments, immigration, official languages), then compromise seems immoral. American politics is becoming more like Middle Eastern politics, where there is no middle ground between being Sunni or Shiite.
I have seen this shift in the reactions to my own writing and my television show. When I started writing columns about two decades ago, the disagreements were often scathing but almost always about the substance of the issue. Increasingly there is little discussion about the substance, mostly ad hominem attacks, often involving my race, religion or ethnicity.
This may not be something that can be mended, healed or cured. With every American blunder and misstep, rivals are moving in to exploit the inevitable power vacuum. When Trump axed the Trans Pacific Partnership, China was there to move in. Now Beijing's "Belt and Road" initiative is crossing South Asia and heading for the Middle East and on into Africa. Chinese banks are now the numbers one and two foreign lenders in Latin America. With Trump's snub of Cuba China is apparently expected to piggyback on any Russian move to re-establish its presence in Cuba.
These changes in geopolitical spheres of power are not easily undone. Perhaps not even another leader of the international stature of Barack Obama could patch the holes Trump has driven into America's bilges, especially not if the American people and their political caste remain so paralytically divided.