Politics & Policy

When Polarization Gets Dangerous

Putin-themed protest signs outside a meeting of electors in Harrisburg, Pa., December 19, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
We know we’re alarmingly partisan when Democrats hate Putin and Republicans love him.

All it took for Vladimir Putin to improve his standing with Republicans was to hack Democrats’ computers.

All it took for Putin to get Democrats to hate Russia was to hack Democrats’ computers.

American polarization has grown so bad that for millions of Americans, a geopolitical rival and strategic foe of the United States can redeem itself if that nation helps Republicans win elections. Conversely, Democrats who shrugged their shoulders at Russian aggression and Russian hacks are now at the political version of DEFCON 1 because the DNC couldn’t maintain the IT security level of a moderately sophisticated middle school.

In other words, we’re starting to dislike each other more than we dislike a nation that has not only been actively working to undermine vital American interests in the Middle East in Europe but has done so in part through aggressive military actions that have indiscriminately killed civilians by the thousands.

Four years ago, Barack Obama famously mocked Mitt Romney’s warnings about Russia by saying, “The 1980s are calling, they want their foreign policy back.” Since then, Putin’s regime has invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, intervened in Syria, menaced the Baltics, buzzed American ships, and launched relentless cyberattacks on the United States. All of those actions are directly hostile to our strategic interests. Each of them makes true great-power conflict more likely.

And how have Republicans responded? After weeks of WikiLeaks’ releases and months of Trump apologetics for Russia’s dictator, the Republicans nonetheless view Putin more favorably than their own president. Between 2014 and today, Putin’s approval ratings with Republicans have almost quadrupled, from 10 percent to 37 percent. His net negative rating is a mere ten points. By contrast, the GOP net negative rating for Barack Obama is a whopping 64 points.

Across the Web, “conservatives” fill Twitter timelines and comment boards with pro-Putin comments. Some of this is Astroturfed straight from Russia. Much of it is not. “At least WikiLeaks is doing what the mainstream media won’t” (as if it’s the media’s job to hack computers). “Putin disrespects Obama, not the United States.” “Well, at least Putin hates Islamic terrorists” (well, other than his close Iranian allies, the world’s leading state supporter of Islamic terrorism).

We are seeing the terrible result of what the Pew Foundation has documented as negative partisanship. Americans dislike the opposing political party more than they like their own tribe. They’re willing to believe the worst possible things about their political opponents.

Republican voters are used to Democrats’ calling them racist, sexist homophobes, but that’s mild compared with the staggering number of Democrats — more than half — who once believed that a Republican president attacked his own country or knew that the 9/11 attacks were coming and did nothing to stop them. And while I know of no similar widespread GOP belief that Obama is committing mass murder against his own citizens, the entire Obama presidency has fed a conspiracy-rich environment on the right.

While America has always been a partisan place, the modern trends are terrible. It’s one thing to see polarization in charts and graphs, as in the charts below from Pew, but it’s another thing entirely when you see members of the GOP shift decades-old positions on Russia because the Russian dictator also seems to hate your political opponent.

These trends simply cannot continue if we wish America to remain reasonably unified and capable of functioning with any degree of rational consistency in foreign or domestic affairs. As power is centralized in Washington, we will lurch from tribe to tribe — counting mainly on our nation’s structural restraints rather than on the integrity or goodwill of our leaders to reign in excesses. It’s a formula for continued polarization. It’s ultimately a formula for division.

In the meantime, however, we face a number of immediate, practical difficulties. The Russian ambassador to Turkey was just gunned down in Ankara. Photos and videos are racing around the Internet. This is a grave diplomatic crisis. A NATO ally has failed to protect Russia’s ambassador, a failure that comes months after that same NATO ally shot down a Russian aircraft. At the same time, the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo is escalating as American and Russian warplanes share the same Syrian skies.

#related#Now is the time for wisdom, prudence, and a meaningful strategic vision. Obama’s vision has failed. The world stands at greater risk for great-power conflict than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Donald Trump won’t get the benefit of a learning curve. The world is already coming at him hard and fast, and the idea that he or any Republican feels any degree of goodwill toward Putin for Putin’s conduct during an American election is chilling indeed. Trump’s political standing is irrelevant compared with American national interests. It’s time to squelch any American regard for Putin, to stop viewing our national interests through an entirely partisan lens, and to face up to the real challenge: protecting our nation from threats that could render the 2016 election a mere footnote to a sad and terrible history.

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