The Ideological Balkanization of the United States

I watched a fascinating program yesterday on al-Jazeera English. In what was I guess a part of a recurring series, the program looked at the political malaise facing the small European country of Bosnia-Herzegovina (normally called Bosnia). Bosnia is one of the breakaway republics from the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and is in seemingly perpetual deadlock.

The program took the form of a roundtable “discussion” at a café in the city of Mostar and included politicians, political activists, security analysts, and other individuals discussing—often hostilely—the problems currently facing the small state. In case you don’t know your history, Bosnia is the country that erupted into a civil war between its three main ethnic groups in the early 1990s. Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks waged a war of ethnic cleansing against each other that eventually necessitated international intervention.

One could easily sense echoes of this past in the discussion at the café. Being a Bosnian is secondary to the status of being an ethnic Bosniak, Serb, or Croat. The constitution of the state itself precludes any mentality of national camaraderie from taking shape. By building ethnic quotas into the political framework of the state, a certain number of Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks are required to be a part of the governing apparatus, thus placing ethnic identity at higher value than national identity. In fact, in order to participate in the political process or campaign for elected office, a person must publicly identify with one of the three main ethnic groups. National unity, reconciliation, and political compromise are constitutionally impossible and it is for that reason that Bosnia as it is will never become a successful nation. Until the people of Bosnia are able to look past their ethnic identities and view themselves as part of the same nation, the state itself will never be anything more than a forum where each people group fights tooth and nail to make sure they get what they want for themselves.

This sort of fragmentation can take many forms. It can be ethnic, as it was in the Balkans. It can be geographical, as it was in the split of West Virginia from Virginia during the Civil War. It can also be ideological, which is something I see happening in the United States. Whatever seminal factor is at play in its formation, this sort of fragmentation has very similar results: a large group of people begins to fracture along points of contention into smaller and smaller groups. The group itself loses its shared identity and functionally ceases to exist.

While a person could make an argument on dozens of bases that the U.S. is increasingly fragmented, I would submit that ideological polarization is threatening to render our political system completely impotent–if it hasn’t already–and destroy our sense of shared identity. Whether it’s a result of the wildly variant political beliefs held by people in the U.S. or because of a loss of mutual identification among Americans (or for some other reason), the outcome is a system that simply can’t work. Willingness to compromise is fundamentally a consequence of shared identity; in other words, when people and our relationship with them have a relative value that supersedes ideological disagreement. It doesn’t negate the disagreement, but places the survival of that unity above any resolution.

Perfect examples—amongst hundreds—of this phenomenon was plainly evident in the recent political battle over the national debt ceiling and, earlier in the year, over the federal budget. Both political parties pushed our nation to the brink of economic oblivion in an effort to get as much of what they wanted as possible.  Standard and Poor’s listed this as one of the reasons they downgraded the United States’ national credit rating. In their official report on the downgrade, S&P said:

“The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year’s wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and, as we see it, the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently.”

Tea Party people fascinate me. Whether or not their beliefs are true (assuming there are any large-scale shared beliefs between them), the main voices of the movement have neglected to adhere to one of the fundamental tenets of a democracy; namely, that no one ever gets everything they want right when they want it. Instead of seeking to change the political paradigm through shaping a national discussion, they stormed into Congress like spoiled children tired of not getting their way with the intent to force people to do things how they wanted them to or not at all. Democrats aren’t without significant blame either and the only real victims are the people who have to decipher how much of the whining, blaming, and accusing they hear on the 6 o’clock news is true and how much is rhetorical bullshit. The merits of any one side’s ideology notwithstanding, a democratic system whose main factions are driven not by a quest to compromise but by ideology is one that cannot survive in the long term. 

When I’m part of a group and getting what I want becomes more important than the continued unity of the group, the group has become dysfunctional. When everyone in the group reaches the point where individual needs supplant corporate ones, the group has effectively ceased to exist. It’s become instead a court of arbitration where resources—tangible and otherwise—are no longer shared but distributed and where shared identity becomes conditional. Put simply, the group existence has no meaning beyond serving the interests of its individual members.

The ideological balkanization of America probably isn’t the result of any one decision made by any one person; or, by any hundred thousand persons for that matter. How does one measure a shift in national attitude? How would a person even determine when such a shift took place? And, ultimately, there’s really nothing that can be done to address it until—or for that matter, unless—you can force the nation to put aside partisan bickering and political theater long enough to ask itself, “Is maintaining our shared identity more important than getting what each of want for ourselves?” And make no mistake, I do not mean to suggest an answer. This is not a question of fact but one of value. In short, what do we, as a nation, value? Do we value our shared identity greater than or less than ideological integrity? How we answer that question will determine if the American system continues to work as it is.

The Balkans and the United States have completely different histories and any similarities drawn between them should include a healthy understanding of this fact. That said, the region’s history stands as a stark portent of what happens when shared identity, no matter how pronounced or muted, is abandoned. In fact, the greatest obstacle to the future functional integrity of the United States is not a default on the national debt, the institutionalization of gay marriage, or the reelection of Barack Obama as President. It isn’t our dependence on fossil fuels, the federal budget deficit, or the debate over whether or not people have the right to buy energy-wasting incandescent light-bulbs. No, the greatest threat we face is making the outcomes of any of these or other fights a condition of maintaining our shared identity.

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