Extreme Partisanship Is Pushing America Toward a Cliff | Opinion

If you're living in America today, it's hard not to notice the extent to which partisan polarization has made our politics dysfunctional. The latest and arguably most egregious iteration of this polarization is the way the Republican establishment and the right more broadly has lined up to shield Donald Trump from accountability for his assault on American democracy, for absolutely no reason other than that the former president ran on the GOP ticket. But if you take an honest look at the genesis of extreme partisanship—or perhaps partisan extremism—you'll notice that it has been years in the making, and that it is neither a uniquely Trumpian phenomenon, nor has it been one-sided.

Looking back at what has passed for a "scandal" in recent years, there is no shortage of trivial nonsense that was cynically politicized through transparently partisan and purely performative displays of patriotism. There was the Republican meltdown over President Obama's coffee salute, as well as the Dems' outrage over Kellyanne Conway's feet on the Oval Office couch, and the endless adversarial Fox News commentary on President Biden getting ice cream while president.

This isn't just about the cynical opportunism of our political class; it's also a manifestation of the mindless competition over ratings, which turned our news media into sensationalized entertainment instead of giving the public the news we need to be an informed citizenry, a degeneration that's then amplified by exploitative social media environments that rewards toxic and divisive rhetoric.

This constant state of manufactured partisan outrage isn't harmless. It seeps into the minds of Americans and impacts how we deal with issues that actually matter—like a once in a lifetime pandemic. Such an event should bring a nation together. You would expect people to be able in such extreme, life-threatening circumstances to set aside political differences and stand together as Americans.

Sadly, this did not happen. Even an infectious disease that brought the entire country to a halt couldn't shake us out of our hyper-partisan condition. Something as apolitical as science became politicized, causing Republicans to consistently underestimate COVID's risks, while Democrats overestimated them.

During the height of the Delta variant, a friend who works on Capitol Hill noted that you could easily tell Republican and Democratic congressional staffers apart by whether they wore a mask or not.

extreme polarization is tearing us apart
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Could anyone have imagined that we would become so devoted to our ideological or party affiliation that we would effectively determine our personal disease precautions based on them?

We have reached a point where we no longer have genuine political disagreements that occasionally spill into partisan fighting; we now have partisan fighting as the lens through which we force every social, economic and political issue under the sun to use as a cudgel against the other team.

And it gets worse when you talk about trust in American democracy itself. The careless way Russia's real meddling in the U.S. election back in 2016 was talked about in many media outlets led a majority of Democrats to wrongly believe that Russia tampered with the voting machines to fraudulently install Trump as president. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of Republicans believe the lie that the presidency was stolen by Joe Biden from Donald Trump through election fraud, despite there not being a shred of evidence for this claim.

Worse yet, the lie was instigated and promoted by the former president himself, with deadly consequences, as his passionate and misinformed supporters violently attacked their own government on January 6, 2021.

The alarm bells about the perilous state of our democracy couldn't ring any louder, and yet we have a political and media establishment that has no qualms about proceeding down the same divisive path.

So here we are, trying to hold on to what little function remains in our democratic system by seeking accountability for that historic attack on the Capitol, and for a former president who clearly feels precisely zero sense of responsibility for the country he still wants to lead. But instead of responding to news of a criminal investigation into the former President's conduct with the seriousness and gravity it deserves, Fox News personalities immediately turn to glib partisan deflections, with one host going as far as to suggest that the FBI was probably planting evidence to frame Donald Trump, fueling calls for violence.

Is it a surprise then that, later the same week, a man connected to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol would attack an FBI building with an AR-15 and get himself killed in the process?

It is worth noting that many of the same people demonizing the FBI over its Trump investigation position themselves as "pro-law enforcement" in the context of liberal demands for police accountability over racial discrimination, which reveals quite a bit about the partisan motivations of so much of our political commentary.

Worse yet, the partisan divide itself as a recognizable obstacle to progress in America is being exploited to protect the worst offenders dividing America today. Some commentators go as far as to suggest that holding Trump accountable for his assault on American democracy reflects a partisan weaponization of law enforcement, as if the bipartisan and unifying course forward is to allow the Divider-in-Chief, who brought the country to the brink, to be above the law. But the flaw in that logic is self-evident: If attempting to overturn a democratic election through fraud and incitement is to be free of any consequences, then who's to stop the next attempt?

We are a country that no longer has a shared view of reality itself, including science and election results, and where half the population sees a civil war on the horizon.

If our media and political leaders fail to end their complicity in polarization that's pushing us to the cliff, then we have to do this work ourselves from the bottom up.

If you manage to set the hyper-partisan goggles shoved in our faces aside for a minute, you'll notice that we are actually united by a lot more than what divides us. And it's not just those overly broad features of our common humanity, like our desire for a better and more prosperous life for ourselves and our children that bring us together; it's concrete political issues that are not owned by either political faction or party. Americans across the political spectrum believe in the importance of free speech and in the necessity of getting big money out of politics so that our political representatives serve the public good instead of serving special interests.

Americans across the board believe in fairness and due process, which is precisely why it's critical to maintain the independence of our judicial system and of law enforcement, and allow them to put law and accountability above politics.

It's also why we must build the credibility of our institutions and protect the integrity of our elections, to ensure that Americans can trust their outcomes.

This is the work we must demand from our representatives and the investments we have to make if we are serious about protecting our democracy, and creating a better future for our children and a more united America for generations to come.

Omar Baddar is a political analyst and the former director of the Arab American Institute.

The views in this article are the writer's own.