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A cancer worse than Watergate

A cancer worse than Watergate is infecting American politics. It has taken decades to metastasize. And the damage done to the nation’s political and social health is potentially existential. One consequence is that America’s government has become incapable of providing equitable governance to all its citizens. And too many Americans are angered and enraged over this failure. 

Three intertwined and often incestuous forces form the DNA of this cancer. The first is the demise of trust, fact and candor from politics. The second is the seemingly intractable polarization and politicization of American society that’s inflamed by social media. The third is a Constitution that can work only when civility and compromise thrive, when one party has veto-proof control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, or when a crisis unifies the nation. None of these conditions is present.

This malignancy is exacerbated by the public’s profound lack of trust and confidence in its government, leaders and many of its institutions, including the media, corporations, police, Boy Scouts and Catholic Church. The dismissal of truth and fact and the extent of societal polarization and politicization exacerbate each other, producing destructive politics. Politicians of both parties increasingly exploit and manipulate divisive elements of society to gain power and in so doing accelerate divisions that in turn provoke more vicious politics filled with inflammatory charges often unhindered by truth or fact. And both parties have gravitated to more extremes of “left” and “right.” 

As the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964 that led to the Vietnam debacle began the demise of trust in government, the Gingrich Revolution of the late 1980s would turn American politics into a coliseum in which both sides embraced a fight-to-the-death mentality. Eventually neither political party could show weakness by retreating from any position regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the issue. In this process, civility and compromise were replaced by attack politics to humiliate, deprecate and crush the opposition unrestrained by truth and fact. 

The 2000 election, in which a majority Republican-appointed Supreme Court awarded the presidency to George W. Bush by ending the Florida recount, consigned the Democratic Party to a perpetual war against Republicans. The 2003 Iraq War, launched over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and overwhelmingly supported by both parties, accelerated public distrust in government.  

While the 2008 election of Barack Obama held great promise with the first person of color occupying the White House, one of the destructive consequences was greater polarization in part inflamed by the lie that the president was born in Kenya. By 2016, the political divisions in America approached those before the Civil War. 

Donald Trump bears a certain responsibility for intensifying this cancer. Trump was clever to understand and exploit the anger and resentment arising from a deeply polarized nation. But he purposely used highly incendiary language and often invented outright untruths to rally his base of angry and disenfranchised Americans. This base won Trump the presidency in 2016. Trump’s distortions and false claims reinforced the sense of grievance. Ironically, a self-proclaimed billionaire attracted the working class and his thrice-married status still captured the conservative religious vote.

This cancer reached a critical stage on Jan. 6  with the assault on the U.S Capitol. The root cause was the combination of these three incestuous forces ignited by Trump’s false assertion that the 2020 election was stolen and his landslide victory negated by massive fraud. A large majority of Republicans still believe this fabrication, as did the thousands who marched on the Capitol despite impeccable evidence to the contrary. 

The political parties are now locked in political warfare. Is this simply politics today? Or has the United States reached a crisis point in which this hyperadversarial conflict has produced a government that can no longer govern equitably for all its citizens? 

The prognosis is not good. Unlike cancer, where cures such as radiation, chemotherapy and immune-based drugs exist, no apparent solutions to reversing this political form of the disease seem imminent. That a pandemic in which nearly 600,000 Americans have perished has further divided the nation is an unmistakable danger sign.

President Biden wants to unify the nation. But Congress seems incapable of passing serious bipartisan legislation that will benefit all Americans. The Declaration of Independence offers a stark warning: “When government becomes destructive, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and establish a new one.” We are not there yet. But we were in 1776. 

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D., is United Press International’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book due out this year is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World.” 

Tags 2000 election recount 2020 election fraud Barack Obama civility Donald Trump January 6 Capitol attack Joe Biden political polarization Stop the Steal rally Watergate

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