The past week of news has shown just how entrenched the state of polarization is in the United States today
By Geoffrey Kabaservice | The Guardian | February 10, 2020
The early 20th-century American entertainer and social commentator Will Rogers once observed: “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Rarely has that aphorism seemed as appropriate as in the wake of this week’s botched Iowa Democratic caucuses.
I stayed up half the night waiting for the Iowa election results, only to find (along with my fellow frustrated political obsessives) that none would be forthcoming, largely on account of a faulty app. With the results still trickling in days after they should have been tabulated, it appears that Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders are in a virtual dead heat for the lead, with Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar rounding out the second tier.
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But no one at this point can say exactly who won or by what margin. A number of media outlets found inconsistencies and errors in the reported results from Iowa, raising the possibility that the actual outcome may never be definitively verified. In any case, Buttigieg and Sanders have been deprived of the momentum they presumably would have received in an unclouded election, while Biden escaped much of the scrutiny his woeful results otherwise would have incurred. Adding insult to injury, Donald Trump and his minions crowed that the Iowa debacle shows that the Democratic establishment is both incompetent and biased against Sanders’ insurgency. Some of Sanders’ supporters enthusiastically endorsed this conspiratorial interpretation.Advertisement
The State of the Union address, the day after the Iowa caucuses, provided an effective showcase for the president to, in effect, preview his re-election campaign. As in his past addresses, he showed flashes of bipartisanship, congratulating members of both parties in Congress for their work on criminal justice reform and imploring them to cooperate on broadly popular issues like public health research funding, infrastructure, paid family leave and reducing prescription drug prices. But Trump conspicuously declined to shake House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand when he arrived at the podium, and much of his speech flayed his opponents for their alleged softness toward socialism, criminal aliens, “failing government schools” and other conservative shibboleths. Trump also was notably ungracious toward the Democratic former president Barack Obama. While he didn’t mention Obama by name, Trump accused him (and to some extent former president George W Bush) of having presided over economic decay, foreign policy weakness and the “downsizing of Americans’ destiny”.
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The reception of Trump’s address illustrated the almost complete polarization that prevails in America today. Republicans considered the address a thoroughly appropriate – perfect, one might say – extended boast about the economic success under his watch. Democrats considered it a divisive, mean-spirited barrage of lies and slander. (Media sources, for what it’s worth, detected dozens of exaggerations, misleading statements and outright untruths in the address.) By the same token, your partisan affiliation will probably determine whether you thought Pelosi’s tearing Trump’s speech text apart was an outrageous and disrespectful breach of decorum or a dissent against demagoguery.
Trump’s strutting demeanor at the State of the Union address no doubt stemmed in part from his confidence that he would be acquitted in his impeachment trial in the Senate the next day, as indeed proved to be the case. The vote, along almost entirely partisan lines, demonstrated Trump’s overwhelming command over the party he leads. And, as conservative pundits had predicted, the entire impeachment episode has only increased Trump’s popularity. According to the most recent Gallup poll, Trump’s overall approval rating now stands at 49% – his highest ever and 10 percentage points above his rating in October before the House impeachment proceedings began. His approval rating among Republicans has reached an astonishing 94%, up six percentage points from last month, and his approval rating among independents is also at or near record levels.
While election dynamics can change enormously between now and the elections, particularly if more incriminating evidence about the Ukrainian caper leaks out, betting markets currently put the odds of Trump’s re-election at well above even. I have no polling expertise, but Democrats clearly ought to be troubled by the depth of the division between their moderate and progressive wings, as well as the likelihood of Sanders and his supporters failing to back any other nominee. Worse yet, total turnout in the Iowa caucuses appears to have been at the tepid levels of 2016, as opposed to the record levels of 2008 when Barack Obama’s candidacy galvanized a huge influx of first-time voters. These results would seem to give the lie to predictions that Democrats are highly motivated to turn out to defeat Trump, or that Sanders’ campaign would bring in huge numbers of young people.
On a personal note, I will forever remember this week, not because of any political developments but because my father died on Tuesday at age 81 after a long illness. Dad wasn’t particularly interested in politics, but he was a brilliant and meticulous engineer who would have been wholly unsurprised by the Iowa caucuses’ app debacle. He had seen all too many examples of systems whose complexity overwhelmed their users, as well as too many hotshot designers mesmerized by new technology and ignorant of how it would be used in actual pr