Politics The United States of fragility
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Much is made of the possibility of electoral violence in other countries. Kenya recently held elections amidst fears of violence. Chileans unhappy with the outcome of a constitutional referendum took to the streets, at times violently. But what about the possibility of electoral violence in the United States, especially at a point of historic levels of division and mistrust in institutions?
I have devoted the better part of my 23-year career analyzing political situations around the world — and in the United States — through immersive professional experiences. Many people do one or the other, but few have done both. For example, I recently trained women candidates in Armenia and upon returning home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, canvassed in one of the bellwether areas of the United States where I ran for Congress in 2016.
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I fear that the United States is dealing with more state fragility than many realize. People do not trust their government, and surrounding institutions — including the media — are doing little to earn back that trust.
In my years with Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute, I supported people around the world to build and strengthen the capacity of their civil societies and to advocate to state institutions and elected officials. Whether dictatorships, recovering dictatorships, former colonies or some combination thereof — places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan — the fragility of peace is ever-present.
Colonization and the Soviet Union caused much of the original pain by arbitrarily defining borders and grouping communities together in ways that benefited ruling classes and by establishing forms of government meant to oppress people. However, when the iron fist went away, older people hadn’t forgotten their past grievances and younger people had learned that the government’s role was to take from the people and punish them. Subsequent regimes were built on power, control and corruption based on ethnic or familial lines, all rooted in decades of trauma. Most of these countries have seen continued unrest over the past three decades.
Can Democrats break the GOP stranglehold on the states?
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Trust in government, the basis for a healthy democracy, breaks down when the foundation on which a government is built is shaky, especially if there is unresolved trauma and corruption in government is rampant. Anti-democratic forces chip away at what trust exists. This leads to weaker democratic institutions, more autocratic behavior, less peace and a greater likelihood of conflict.
Why trust is absent at home
Despite being a mature democracy, that same erosion of trust means that those same types of fragility exist in the United States today. This is problematic, especially in the run up to the 2022 midterm elections.
The general population in the United States currently perceives there to be in a; people do not believe that the government is resting on a strong foundation, in part due to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, our collective unresolved trauma about our past, including slavery, and the view of most Americans that government is corrupt.
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The United States is a large and diverse place; but Pennsylvania provides a useful, purple-colored case study. And in Pennsylvania, most people with whom I have spoken can agree on only two things right now: our democracy is falling apart, and corruption is rampant.
Regardless of party affiliation, most people I talk to want term limits for politicians and believe that every politician is “on the take.” They have lost trust in the system and in our institutions. While people might agree on the problems, they disagree on the causes and thus the solutions, which in turn further entrenches polarization.
From the reversal of abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade, to immigration, to guns and gun control— most Americans have a “tribe” with which they are aligned with very few people in the middle. This tribalization has created a palpably tense situation in our country and people feel so unheard and unseen that it’s rare to pass a car that doesn’t clearly declare their stance on an issue. (One I passed recently was “pro-golden retriever,” which seems like the best stance to take.)
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One reason for the growing mistrust and polarization is the media. I have worked in plenty of countries where propaganda and media are regularly manipulated to turn people against “the other.” We see this regularly in the United States as, which may be skewed to scare — even if threats do not actually exist and people have not experienced them personally.
Politicized responses to the COVID-19 pandemic added fuel to the fire such that current levels of tension and uncertainty are starting to come to a head. Random gun violence has increased, there is a rise in the number of suicides, and more everyday interactions seem to be escalating in ways that seemed unimaginable a few years ago. Peaceful adjudication of conflict is no longer a given.
America is fragile.
The way forward
The United States is worth saving. The choice seems to be between doing the hard work of healing and further descent into violence, so healing is the only way forward. Other countries that have overcome incredible hardship peacefully offer useful lessons. South Africa’s post-apartheidfacilitated a difficult healing process between white oppressors and Black and brown people who were violently oppressed for hundreds of years.
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Charles III is far more interested in the benefits of traditional English hedgerows than the great, global glory of Britain. His orientation seems more national than international.Today, Charles is more obviously the inheritor of British Tolkienism than of his mother’s Elizabethan globalism. Like Tolkien, Charles’s conservationism is both romantic and confounding, so Tory in its instinct that it ends up having far more in common with modern left-wing environmentalism than the free-market ideology of today’s right. The growth-at-all-costs Liz Truss yearns for more tall chimneys, not fewer.
While a nationwide commission might not be the right solution here, across the United States, people are gathering in their communities and churches to discuss the issues of the day. Rotary clubs full of white men are reading and discussing“White Fragility.” An organization in my town recently hosted Hannah Nicole Jones, the author of the “1619 Project,” to a packed house. A local church held a conversation on the dangers of Christian nationalism. Another came together to civilly discuss their diverse views on abortion and concluded that they would not want to take the choice away from others, even if they would not make the same choice for themselves.
These actions and conversations may seem small and insignificant, but they are the ones that matter most. They connect neighbors, build community and engender trust. They are the building blocks to a stronger, more resilient foundation. At its heart, democracy is community represented in government. We need to begin again to do the hard, slow work of rebuilding trust amongst ourselves and rebuilding that trust in our institutions if this 250-year-old experiment in democracy is to rebound from this period of fragility. Our goal should be to avoid conflict, survive and eventually thrive.
Christina M. Hartman has worked in international and domestic politics, policy advocacy and democracy and equity advancement for nearly 25 years through her work at Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute as well as a candidate for Congress and Pennsylvania auditor general. She is currently a senior associate (non-resident) at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
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