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The most dangerous divide in America isn’t what you think

As a more visceral and tribal form of politics takes hold in America, serious scholars and pundits are raising questions that Americans haven’t had to ask themselves since the Civil War era. Is the country approaching a period of political upheaval that could lead to open conflict, disunion or a slide into authoritarianism? Simply put, might we be living through the end of American democracy as we know it? 

In the face of such profound questions, the traditional view of American politics as a partisan struggle between left and right, Democrat and Republican, does not fully capture the historical moment. In recent years, a new dimension of politics has revealed itself, exposing a fundamental divide that defies political labels or traditional policy positions. On one side, those whose single-minded pursuit of partisan interests is driving Americans ever farther apart, and ever closer to a political crisis that the country’s democratic values and institutions may not survive. On the other, those committed to the hard work of bringing Americans together, across political and ideological lines, to forge a common democratic destiny.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol with the intent to overturn the 2020 election remains Exhibit A in any accounting of just how far some elements within the country have strayed from democratic values. But the decline of American democracy didn’t begin on Jan. 6 or with former President Trump’s election in 2016. Progressively more frustrated by the inability of government to address its needs, the American electorate over the years has increasingly exhibited tendencies generally associated with failed, or failing, democracies. 

Evidence isn’t hard to find. About 40 percent of each party now considers the other to be “downright evil.” Nearly 30 percent of Americans (including almost 40 percent of Republicans) have reached a point at which they believe political violence may be necessary to “protect America.” And roughly 70 percent of Democrats and Republicans believe that American democracy only serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

Historians who have studied the rise and fall of democracies have converged on precisely these factors – dehumanization of political opponents, acceptance of violence as a means to achieve political ends and the belief that government is controlled by self-serving elites – as principal indicators of democratic decline and slippage toward authoritarianism.

American democracy rests on the Constitution and the rule of law, and equally upon unwritten rules that keep the system competitive and broadly representative. When these norms are respected, the extensive powers of government are exercised judiciously, with an eye toward deliberation and compromise among diverse interests and constituencies. That’s what makes effective democratic governance possible. Today, a harsher form of politics has taken hold, and both parties have reason for introspection.

For example, both parties have turned to rule via presidential executive order when it has suited their interests. Both have engaged in rampant gerrymandering of congressional districts, contributed to the politicization of the courts and continued to benefit from the ever-expanding role of money in politics. And both have hastened the demise of the filibuster, once a last resort mechanism to oblige inter-party deliberation and compromise, but today considered merely a political expedient to be defended or opposed as necessary for political gain. 

As to which party ultimately poses the “bigger threat to democracy,” Americans predictably are split down the middle, with partisans of each side overwhelmingly blaming the other, and independents just slightly more likely to single out Democrats.

With so many warning signs in evidence, how is the future of American democracy to be secured?  

Step one is to recognize the problem. American democracy is at risk, and its fate won’t be determined by political power plays between Republicans and Democrats. On the contrary, the future of American democracy depends on the willingness and determination of Americans to free the government of the people from the corrosive politics of hyper-partisanship, and to turn its efforts toward the urgent task of renewing, reforming and preserving democracy.

Step two is to come to grips with the forces that have left so many Americans feeling angry, distrustful and alienated from their government in the first place. Restoring Americans’ faith in the democratic process will require upending self-serving electoral and congressional rules that favor entrenched incumbents, monied interests and extreme partisanship. It will mean delivering on economic policies to rebuild the middle class and to ensure opportunity to those left behind by discrimination, economic dislocation and globalization. And it will require that people driven to hate and dehumanize their political opponents to be offered an alternative narrative focused on shared values, hopes and aspirations.

The final and most important step is individual and grassroots action. Strengthening democracy can be as simple as changing how people talk to each other and what they choose to read and share on social media. It can entail direct political action through one of the many groups that have sprung up across the country to seek common ground and enact common sense political reforms. Above all, Americans need to work to elect leaders in 2022 and 2024 – whether Democrats, Republicans or independents – who are willing to do the hard work of listening, bridging partisan differences and making needed reforms that give voice to those feeling left out and left behind. 

With democracy itself at risk, Americans need to choose sides – not between left and right – but between partisan politics as usual and a new American politics dedicated to creating a common democratic destiny.   

Michael Murphy is director of FixUS and chief of staff at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Jay Kosminsky is an advisor to FixUS and adjunct faculty member at New York University, School of Professional Studies. 

Tags Democracy Democratic backsliding Donald Trump Political ideologies political polarization political tribalism Populism

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