In the last couple of years, there have been numerous debates by historians, political scientists, and journalists about whether the current political polarization in America is any worse than it has been at other times in the nation’s history. Some say what we are witnessing is nothing new, and that partisanship has always been a feature of the American political landscape. Those who disagree with this view point to the inability of today’s ideological opponents to even agree on basic sets of facts. They contend that this has historically been uncharacteristic of America.
On the one hand, it is quite admirable that amidst the political chaos of the last couple of years, ordinary Americans have gone about their business normally. There is seemingly little worry about the long-term damage these partisan tensions could potentially cause to the country’s institutions. This lack of concern is mostly due to Americans’ confidence in the durability of their institutions. But, could that be placing a little too much faith in them?
At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the Founding Fathers were themselves said to have been concerned about the fragility of the institutional architecture they had put in place for the young nation. In response to a questioner in the crowd gathered outside Independence Hall who inquired whether the Fathers had set up a republic or monarchy, Benjamin Franklin reportedly said, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The late University of Pennsylvania history professor Richard Beeman invoked Franklin’s concern to express his own fears about how the current turmoil in American politics might weaken the country in the long term. He questioned Americans’ assumption that “principles of democracy and national harmony somehow naturally go hand-in-hand.” Citing the struggles of many countries around the world that have attempted to transition to democratic governments in recent decades, he argued that peaceful coexistence and universal justice cannot be taken for granted as inevitable outcomes of marches toward democratic governance.
Countries can become ungovernable, leading to deterioration in the quality of life for citizens, when their institutions are gravely weakened by dysfunctional politics. Sometimes, such countries ultimately become uninhabitable for millions of their peoples. In many ways, that is what has happened in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which constitute the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America. The dire economic situation and rampant violence in those countries are forcing thousands there to flee north to Mexico and the U.S.
One could argue that those countries never had strong institutions to begin with, leaving them vulnerable to such socio-economic upheavals. While that is probably true, the mere fact that weak or malfunctioning institutions can impact life so negatively within a country should be enough reason for every American to worry about the current political environment.
The diffusion of political power in America makes it unlikely that the actions of one person—or a small group of people—can wreck the country’s institutions to the same extent as occurs elsewhere, particularly in the developing world. Americans are largely a self-governing people; many of the decisions that impact everyday life are taken at local and state government levels. That is the primary reason why, despite the bitter divisions at the national level, there has been little noticeable change in most people’s lives within their communities.
The concern though is that these divisions are starting to puncture those local shields. Numerous articles published over the past few years have described how American families are being torn apart by ideological differences. A recent study showed that in 2016, Thanksgiving dinners were shorter by 20 to 30 minutes nationally. People left family dinners earlier than normal because they wanted to avoid unpleasant political conversations. If even members of a family can be so divided by politics that they do what they can to avoid each other, then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect some erosion of the quality of local governance systems sooner or later.
President Obama liked to remind Americans at every opportunity that, regardless of their party affiliations, they were on the same team. Anyone who has played a team sport knows that cohesion is an essential element for victory. Teams that are divided on the playing field because of infighting rarely win games. Unfortunately, we currently have a president whose words and actions are often divisive, rather than unifying. That means America risks losing many games on the geopolitical battlefield.
During the last few presidential election cycles, some Americans, mostly celebrities, threatened to leave the country if the candidate they supported lost. Even though the opposition candidates won in some cases, no one carried out the threat. But I always found it interesting that anyone would even contemplate such a move.
America is not a particularly great place to live relative to countries like Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland, according to the latest Happiness Index, which measures the level of satisfaction of a country’s people with the overall quality of life inside their country. The U.S. ranked 19th. In spite of that, America remains the country to which most people around the world want to emigrate. Data from the United Nations International Migration Report show that in 2017, the U.S. hosted 49.8 million international migrants. In comparison, Saudi Arabia and Germany, the next two countries on that rankings table, hosted 12.2 million each.
It is no wonder that people from developing countries with oppressive governments are attracted by the free nature of American society. What I have found quite surprising, from my conversations over the years with many citizens from advanced countries in Western Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, are the numbers of them who would prefer to live and work in America if they had the chance. There surely must be good reasons for those preferences.
Most likely, the celebrities who are so disgusted by American politics to make them want to live somewhere else, would move to some of those advanced countries. If they did, it is possible they would find the grass there not quite as green as they thought.
Immigrants like me who have lived in societies that were once stable and functional but are now disorderly, have learned not to take anything for granted. Perhaps that is one important lesson we can teach our fellow Americans who are native born. The Founding Fathers’ fear of the inability of future generations to do what it takes to preserve the fragile republic should motivate all Americans to treat our institutions with the care they deserve. If they were to weaken, or worse, collapse, there would be no guarantee that the country would find the same caliber of leaders to put the system back together, or design a comparable substitute.