We are in a state of political disunion

We are in a state of political disunion
© Greg Nash

As President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos claims he was pressured to sign plea deal Tlaib asking colleagues to support impeachment investigation resolution Trump rips 'Mainstream Media': 'They truly are the Enemy of the People' MORE delivers his State of the Union address tonight, he will be staring out at the most complete assemblage of our national political leadership. The annual State of the Union is the annual gathering of the firmament of our political system, of leaders all directly or indirectly chosen by the American people. The ability of the select few in that room to reach compromise on basic governance reflects the health of our body politic.

Thus, no matter what style of presidential rhetoric is employed in the speech, the dire state of our political union cannot be ignored. The price of this disunion is most easily seen in the loss of faith in our institutions brought on by extreme dysfunction in Congress. Before the 2016 election even took place, a survey showed that 46 percent of Americans had either lost faith or never had faith in the American democratic system.

We can apply a more recent survey and break it down by those present in the room tonight. It’s good to be one of the bemedalled members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as 87 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence or quite a lot of confidence in the military. As for the equally and prominently-seated justices of the Supreme Court, 59 percent of Americans have the same confidence in the highest court of the land, and 51 percent for the court system as a whole. After that, it drops off to 43 percent for the presidency, and I doubt anyone in Congress will rise to applaud its 25 percent. The media in the gallery can take little solace in their score of 30 percent.

This lack of confidence is easy to understand as politics is often considered a sideshow. A media circus that thrives on political drama has added to the tenor of American politics. A long period of economic growth and growing employment endures despite our politics. It would be more accurate for political leaders of both parties to thank the creativity, industriousness, and capacity of the American people than to claim success for one economic agenda or another. Shutdowns, unpredictability, and instability are now the norm in Washington. It is all part of the brinkmanship that is now the daily norm of politics.


This business of politics now thrives on building barriers between groups of Americans. The political disunion we experience is incentivized by a growing willingness to tribalize ourselves based on political and cultural differences. Partisan media and punditry profit from furthering these political gulfs, and in self-sorted gerrymandered districts, most representatives fear backlash, rather than expect reward, for bridging the divides.

These divides go far beyond the simple left versus right. In fact, throughout American history, left versus right allowed for some overlap in which compromise could be formed. In the past, that allowed for great compromises on tax, immigration, trade, or entitlements, as well as bipartisan support for our military, intelligence community, and national security. Today, it is considered a great achievement just to keep the government open three more weeks.

One need not venture too far into today’s traditional media and social media to see the divides. Beyond Republican versus Democrat, there are interparty squabbles over orthodoxy. On some campuses, intellectual political debate appears to have been replaced by a proliferation of stifling ideological safe spaces and those who seek attention for increasingly offensive stunts and speech.




The rural-versus-urban divide has always existed, but its modern tone has Americans in each area questioning the fundamental values and character of those in the other. The strength of the professionalism of an all-volunteer military has also furthered a divide between those who serve, veterans, and those in civilian life. Generational tensions between baby boomers and millennials reflect the cost of maintaining a status quo and kicking the can down the road on many significant national challenges.

With a media environment that reinforces these divides, often with algorithms now making sure we see only what we want to see, misinformation seems to rule the day. We have seen how these divides not only discourage cooperation among our own politicians, but also invite foreign actors to further diminish confidence in our institutions and weaken America on the global stage.

Except the years before the Civil War, it is hard to find a time in history when it has been so easy to divide the American people across a wide range of factors. It is incumbent upon us — the people who chose those seated in the room tonight — to ask why we have incentivized such divisiveness. Can we find a way to encourage our representatives to work together at least for the functioning of our government and the security of our nation? That would be the first step to restoring confidence in our institutions and rebuilding our political union.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C.