“I will work to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify.” Joe Biden’s statement in his first speech as president-elect sets the agenda for his upcoming term in the White House: Unification. It seems like the United States of America has never been so divided as in 2020. But in 244 years of history, it has never really been united either.
The establishment of the United States is unique and remarkable. In eight territorial acquisitions between 1783 and 1867, the US-territory we know today was assembled either by war or acquisition from the British Empire, Spain, Mexico, and Russia. The country was populated through big waves of immigration, first by Europeans, then by Asians and Latin Americans. The transport of nearly 600’000 slaves from Africa completed this cultural fusion of the American population.
The Civil War (1861-1865) between the progressive Union States in the North and the conservative Confederate States in the South proved for the first time how difficult it is for a country this large to live peacefully and harmoniously. The reconstruction, an effort to reintegrate Southern states and the newly-freed slaves into the United States by President Lincoln, was followed by his assassination and the so-called Jim Crow laws. These laws were implemented by the defeated states in the South and enforced racial segregation. The war between the North and the South was over, but the division remained.
A bipolar party-system represents a bipolar society
Fast advancing industrialization, globalization, and later on digitalization have divided the country even more. Urban areas have become more educated, industrialized, digitalized, and more racially diverse than rural areas, which has resulted in a liberal and conservative society. In America, there is no gray area, no in-between, which is most clearly symbolized by the bipolar party-system.
According to the cleavage-theory by political scientists Lipset and Rokkan, political parties result from conflicts between capital and labor, state and church, urban and rural as well as center and periphery. These conflicts (cleavages) were mainly caused by industrialization in the early 19th century and still exist today. While almost every liberal democracy in the world has a multi-party system which provides voters with different political options to choose from, in the United States the choice is either blue or red: The Democratic Party represents capital, state, urban and center while the Republican party stands for labor, church, rural and periphery.
Imagine the political party-system as a gastronomic world: There are only two restaurants in your hometown. If you are happy with one of the two because it serves exactly the food you like at a price that fits for you, that is great because the choice is easy and there is no need to change restaurants. But imagine one day, you get food poisoning from your favorite restaurant, or they took your favorite dish off the menu, and the other restaurant serves food you are allergic to – what do you do? No wonder a new chef in one of those restaurants, a famous but inexperienced extrovert with crazy ideas and even weirder hair, was very popular and attracted a lot of new customers. But the food he cooked made a lot of people vomit and the service was a disgrace. After four long years with countless complaints, the chef was fired, which made him very angry. After all, firing people was his favorite activity.
One flag, different meanings
Bipolar party-systems increase polarization and may therefore catalyze radicalization. This has automatically resulted in a divided media landscape, an effect that worsened in the last four years. If you compare the reporting of the liberal media such as the New York Times and NBC with Breitbart and Fox News, it is not surprising that issues like health care, gun control, or immigration are perceived completely differently by American citizens. If even the sources of information are divided, how can a highly heterogeneous society become united?
The one thing Americans have always been united by is their love for their country and their flag. However, what the American flag represents has a rather different meaning for someone in Boston than someone in Alabama. It is president-elect Joe Biden’s mission to provide American society with an America everyone can agree to. Of course, this is easier written than done.