Divided America imperils national security and economic prosperity

Divided America imperils national security and economic prosperity
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When turning on the cable news or diving into social media, it is obvious that Americans find themselves living in either red or blue realities. From the pandemic response to even relitigating the 2016 election, everything is viewed through political lenses. Such partisanship itself is nothing new. It is as old as the republic itself. But we stand on perilous ground as we let partisanship color our perceptions of the government, the role it plays in our safety and security, and a sense of national unity. It has led us to this grey point in history as we face challenges at home and abroad.

As the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic increases, there is a left versus right divide over the efficacy of masks, the severity of the disease, and believing the fatality rate. Rather than a cohesive strategy to balance the concerns of public health with the economic impact of closures, the debate has become a false choice between public health and economic recovery. Pundits, rather than doctors and scientists, have even spoken about several therapies regardless of possibly fatal side effects.

With millions of Americans out of work, lawmakers are gaming out bills to signal the priorities on one side while the other side argues for a return to fiscal responsibility, a case conveniently absent with past tax cuts. With a looming election and the rhetoric becoming more heated, Washington is locked in a pandemic response filled with political posturing rather than any sense of probity. It has long been known that our national incentives reward partisanship, but that structure has now become so entrenched that one wonders what crisis could possibly shake us out of it.


We risk disease spread and an unclear economic picture with little in the way of a strategy to ensure the country is ready to restart. No amount of cheerleading or gainsaying from either side will defeat the coronavirus. Only testing and treatments will. Lockdowns that were designed to buy critical time for testing, protective equipment, and robust public health responses have turned into time wasted with mismanagement, battles among states and the federal government, and blame game politics. It bodes poorly for when we have a vaccine since that requires a massive logistical effort to make it widely available across the country.

The important roles of law enforcement and the intelligence community are also now viewed through the same political lenses. It would be naive to think that any investigation into the 2016 election would be devoid of partisanship, but the collateral damage to our perceptions of the federal institutions that are crucial to our safety and national security continue to heighten the return on the Russia investment four years ago. Rather than uniting against this common adversary and understanding the nature of disinformation campaigns, partisanship sets us either with our heads in the sand or seeing Russian trolls behind every digital corner.

Applying politics to our investigation of the actions of law enforcement and the intelligence community will serve to tear down their legitimacy and supersede honest debates about the nature of threats and the need to protect civil liberties and the rights of the accused. Seeing the threat posed by our enemies while ensuring the course of fair justice must not only depend on how political patrons and cable pundits align.

From late night firings of inspectors general to legislative oversight that is political kabuki theater, the guard rails for strong governance are growing weaker. The efficacy of government is at stake if the United States returns to spoils system politics and partisanship over basic administration. So a Congress that is more concerned for advantage rather than prerogative ultimately leaves little in the way of true checks and balances.

For Americans who want healthy, prosperous, and secure lives, injecting partisanship to these most important functions of government leaves us sicker, poorer, and in danger. Our top adversaries, Russia and China, see us as fertile ground for sowing further divisions and a weak power ready to be replaced on the world stage. Our friends see the United States not as a beacon of hope but as an ally that has fallen on hard times. With all these challenges, we have to ask what forces at home and abroad profit when we are split red versus blue rather than united as one.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.