Despite being an advanced developed democracy, the United States has become the most politically divided and dysfunctional country. The divisions are evident and touch upon a range of social, economic, cultural, religious, and historical aspects. Upon examination of the phenomenon, it comes to a status quo that has been decades in the making, a combination of factors converging to create a highly polarized, toxic, and divided society. Some of the primary issues causing divisions in the United States are extreme partisanship, the legacy of race relations, and information and media consumption, as these elements serve as underlying drivers to people at all levels failing to come to a consensus and compromise on solutions.
Partisanship is best defined as a firm and sometimes blind adherence and prejudice in favor of a particular cause, ideology, and political party. Unlike most other countries, the US only has two major political parties, with Democrats covering the left or ‘liberal’ part of the political spectrum. At the same time, Republicans embrace the right or ‘conservative’ side. While people in the US can have a wide range of opinions throughout the political spectrum, they tend to support and vote for the majority of issues based on party ideology and policy. Partisanship has always existed in US history, as the two parties consistently wrestle control from one another to drive policy. To some extent, this was by design, as supported by the Constitution and other concepts of governance; for example, the filibuster requires a party to have 60 votes in the Senate for major bills. However, for decades, including modern history, the parties tended to work together and potentially compromise to find solutions.
In recent years, arguably since the early 2000s, the US saw a rapid shift towards partisanship. Both policymakers and voters saw increased partisan enmity and polarization, to the point where the US system became dysfunctional. Each party seems to push highly polarizing policies when they are in power, while the minority party seemingly concentrates on creating barriers to achieving this. It has become absurd to the level that the US government had to shut down several times in the last decade and has come extremely close to default because of political hostage-taking. Partisanship has driven the divides so deep that it has become inherently dangerous to US democracy itself. After the 2020 election, the majority of the Republican party refused to believe or accept the Democrat victory, which led to the infamous storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2020. Partisanship is by nature divisive; it influences and pressures people to believe only one point of view, completely disregarding others and often refusing to cooperate with the opposition.
Legacy of Race Relations
The history of race relations in the US is difficult and painful. Slavery was part of a horrible past, and subsequently, including to this day, African Americans and other racial minorities faced segregation, discrimination, and demonstrations of hate based on the color of their skin. The US is not the only country that has struggled with race issues, but it has continuously largely failed to address them on a national level. The structural legacy of racism was not dealt with at the policy level until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and although there has been some legislative progress since, it has not been enough. For example, the recent Black Lives Matter Movement, which emerged as a reckoning for the police brutality and killings of innocent black people, highlights that the concept of race has not been addressed in law enforcement despite decades of such incidents and formal investigations. Race seems to be such a sensitive issue that it is often not recognized as a point of tension and division in various contexts. The country does not want to face its past and admit wrongdoing based on shame and the continued existence of racism, resulting in an underlying element of division among people.
The legacy of race relations is challenging to address because whole social classes, mainly white rural Americans, believe that their social status is threatened by racial reckoning and changing demographics. As a result, the US sees inherently racist behavior and policy. One example is gerrymandering and the slew of voting laws passed in primarily Republican states in recent years. These measures always take away agency from racial minorities, including their ability to vote or the representation that those votes will influence. Race is part of virtually every aspect of life in the US, ranging from socioeconomic aspects to politics to even fundamental areas of life such as access to clean water and healthcare. Racism is woven into the country’s fabric, neglected for decades, and then driven to new levels by emerging political populism, creating deep divisions across racial lines.
Information and Media Consumption
As part of the modern world, media consumption and the ways people attain information have drastically changed. There are now social media, numerous websites, multimedia tools, and traditional newspapers and television. This has led to a tremendous fracturing of the media landscape, but that has come with its consequences, including a lack of regulation on the information that is being provided. The availability of the Internet means that anyone can create and put out a source of information, let it be via a social media post, YouTube video, or others. Meanwhile, modern algorithms, seeking to increase ad revenue, drive people to these platforms and show them information that fits their worldviews. It creates a dangerous precedent, as people see confirmation of their belief and use it as justification for their perspective, which can be highly inaccurate and hazardous in reality.
Currently, the world lives in the so-called information age, as data is the driver of virtually everything. Those controlling the flow of information hold tremendous influence, such as social media platforms or even traditional media companies. It is well-known that all try to use this phenomenon to their advantage, seeking to gain views and user participation to increase revenue in this oversaturated and highly competitive market. This has led to some highly questionable and unethical manipulation of information and how it is shown to the audiences. Currently, there are few laws for this, and companies themselves are unable to or unwilling to regulate the flow of information to exclude dangerous ‘misinformation.’ This has come as the consequence of a lack of a healthy and informed civil population, but instead forces misinformed extremism, polarization, and dangerous behaviors, as can be seen in virtually every example provided in this paper, driven first and foremost by the information the people perceive.
The concepts of partisanship, race relations, and information consumption are just some of the underlying causes driving divisions across a range of issues in the US. Many of these are a result of US history and structures; others are purposefully planned and manipulated elements meant to empower certain social classes over others. It is inherent that these issues causing divisions are intertwined, such as misinformation is intended to fuel partisanship, and partisanship fails to address the racial tensions, sometimes fueling them further. There are no easy solutions for these underlying problems, but it is possible to address them through human behavior and policy. By considering other perspectives, much can be learned as to why fundamental division problems arise in the United States.