We entered 2020 much like the years preceding it: consumed by partisan politics and tweet-harassed daily by a President drunk on power and attention. The source of the President’s power is derived not only from the office he holds but also from the praise he receives from those empowered by his bellicose rhetoric. The feelings of division within American society began well before 2016. Socioeconomic and demographic trends — driven primarily by globalization, technology shifts, and access to information (factual and otherwise), combined with a fractured political class concerned more with self-preservation than self-actualization — created ideal conditions for a resentful citizenry. Such resentment is inevitably directed at someone or something, often by different groups at different targets.
In America, determining the direction where maximum societal resentment may be aimed has become an effective political strategy. The result is a culture of “us and them,” where tribal allegiance is determined by a confusing intersection of political affiliation, race, socioeconomic status, religion, and other attributes beyond the simple commonality of humanity. To be clear, no ideology or political affiliation has a monopoly on exclusionary behavior. Dehumanization of those we oppose is, sadly, a common story in our history books.
The past year has been the culmination of years of damage to American society. We experienced mass death, isolation, and despair as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which reminded us that infectious diseases know no political, ethnic, religious, or cultural bounds. We witnessed the impeachment and acquittal of our President, who openly flouted legal and moral standards. We held an election even more divisive and corrosive than the last. Most recently, we saw the result of a concerted effort by the President, along with his supporters in Congress and the media, to promote conspiracy theories alleging a fraudulent or stolen election, as a mob of his supporters attacked, infiltrated, and desecrated the United States Capitol. This saddening and enraging series of events resulted in physical harm, including death, to individuals and inflicted a deep wound to our national sentiment.
The President fanned the flames of division during a time of national upheaval in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arbery and other Black Americans who have been victims of police brutality. In addition to addressing the issues of police brutality and systemic racism head-on, protests across America last summer attempted to shine a brighter light on the marginalization and mistreatment of minorities generally and instigated challenging conversations on diversity and inclusion. Aided by the President’s rhetoric, much of the media painted these protesters with a broad brush, mischaracterizing them as the outliers who took advantage of the instability by looting and encouraging violence, thus further stoking resentment among the citizenry.
In the meantime, other groups continue to be attacked from all sides. Consider, for example, America’s Jewish community. Elements of the extreme right see Jews as a race that is “less than” and expendable, while the extreme left sees white-passing Jews as beneficiaries of white privilege, and complicit in the subjugation of the masses to social and economic exploitation. The American Jewish community has grown disturbingly accustomed to headlines describing attacks against and murders of Jews in Poway, Pittsburgh, Monsey, Jersey City, and Brooklyn. The FBI reported that hate crimes against Jews in the United States rose by 14 percent in 2019 from the year prior and comprised 62 percent of all hate crimes based on religion, whereas Jews represent just under 2 percent of the U.S. population.
Less overt and more pernicious than physical violence are the efforts by some to shrink the Overton window, limiting acceptable discourse in American society. A priori assumptions about what constitutes “equality” or “justice” in the eyes of some render words, phrases, and ideas as cause for expulsion from academics, business settings, or public life, leaving intellectual discourse to suffer. Often, the redefining or decontextualization of ideas or historical facts in the name of social justice foments tribal animosity and, ironically, racism.
American politicians, however, tend to tackle these various forms of hate in a partisan way, ingenuously lambasting only what they see across the aisle, while ignoring the hateful elements of their own. This behavior is then emulated and reinforced by media and ordinary citizens alike. We are all, to one extent or another, players in this childish game.
The source of division in America does not rest only on ideological, racial, or religious enmities. Economic disparities are felt across the political spectrum, yet still serve as both a symptom and driver of division. America’s infrastructure is crumbling, wages are stagnated, and workers are being left behind without the skills necessary to compete in the 21st century. Our tax framework favors capital over labor, while the stock market is decoupled from the real economy. Most glaringly, our federal government is incapable of providing the support Americans need in the face of the economic conditions caused by the pandemic. Months of standstill by the federal government, resulting in a measly, single $600 payment for a portion of Americans who have reached their economic breaking point is an embarrassment. In the meantime, a sliver of society increased its wealth. To put this in perspective, while American workers experienced widespread layoffs and economic hardship, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos increased his wealth from $111 billion in March 2020 to $185 billion in December. We have surely not seen the full socioeconomic ramifications of these disparities and failures, and one may suspect a deep resentment and distrust will only become more acute.
President-elect Biden ran on “Build Back Better.” To realize the goals implicit in this slogan, he will need to advance policies that are rooted in equality and inclusion. To reunite Americans, there must be a reinvigorated belief that we are all created equal, deserving of both equal treatment before the law and equal access to the opportunities necessary to live a dignified life. It is not just President-elect Biden, however, who must lead by example. It is incumbent upon all of us, as Americans who believe in these truths to be self-evident, to be more conscious of our thoughts, words, and actions. Only with the understanding that we are all “us” and there is no “them” can we build back better. Otherwise, divided we continue to fall.