America’s Political Polarization Is About To Get Much Worse

It is no secret that Americans today are glaring at one another across a vast ideological divide.  

We now routinely use labels such as “red state” or “Bernie Bros” to label entire cohorts of voters; the many far less complimentary names for certain types of voters, which I refuse to dignify by repeating here, are also commonly used as political shorthand to denigrate those whose views we find objectionable.  It is now surprisingly—and sadly—common to read of supposedly sane people wishing death, illness, or misfortune upon political opponents, and our invective-laden discussions and characterizations of the views and values of others are now embedded in our daily discourse.

The main problem we now face in our post-Coronavirus world is a simple one: money and the lack of it.  

Over 100 million Americans report suffering job and/or income loss due to the shutdowns and lockdowns, and banks are preparing for a tidal wave of mortgage defaults.  States and cities are dealing with catastrophic losses of tax revenue, which will affect every service from road repairs to public school staffing, and the deep budget shortfalls will soon lead to problems with making bond debt and pension payments.  

It is possible that 1/5 of U.S. colleges and universities might have to close due to the evaporation of enrollment.  Businesses are struggling to stay afloat, and the impact of business closures on commercial real estate values and the industries related to supplying those shuttered businesses will be huge.  The unpaid bills for student loans, rents, credit card debts, auto loans, insurances, medical costs, and a host of other payments due are going to drag down both individuals and the businesses desperate for those payments.

Our “new normal” will be that everyone will owe everyone else money, but everybody will be too broke to pay.

The magic solution to all of our difficulties, according to those now trying to clean up this mess, is that Uncle Sam must now step in and fix every financial problem with gobs and gobs of lovely free money.  However, the federal government has itself been living far beyond its means for decades, having racked up tens of trillions of dollars in debts in order to avoid politically unpalatable cuts to programs and services.  Avoidance of difficult and unpopular choices by legislators who enjoy cutting ribbons and ignoring costs has led to an exponential growth of governmental outlays, and even the idea of trimming back spending due to today’s straitened circumstances  is already sending shock waves throughout the political class.

It is, of course, unsurprising that what is considered a wasteful expenditure by one person will be an essential program or service to someone else, but what has changed over the past few decades is that bi-partisan legislative consensus and a sense that shared sacrifice is sometimes necessary disappeared right along with Disco.  

Any futile efforts to match tax revenues with government spending have long been characterized as heartless attempts to “balance the budget on the backs of” of women/children/veterans/the environment/farmers/the poor/the disabled/ cities/suburbs/large states/small states/the future/manufacturers/hospitals/students/ teachers/the retired/helpless babies/the chronically ill/public safety/national defense/union workers/commuters/etc.  

Lobbyists and interests groups have routinely tapped increasingly partisan actors in journalism, academia, and social media to help fuel the outrage needed to close down any discussions of budget cuts, so deficits—and the borrowing necessary to paper them over—continued to skyrocket with no regard to how the resulting public debts would ever be paid.  Apparently, what might happen tomorrow was somebody else’s problem, and money could continue to be spent without the least concern.

Unfortunately, thanks to the systemic economic shock caused by the Coronavirus shutdowns, tomorrow has now landed with a dull and ominous thud, and we have discovered coffers were long ago emptied in an effort to give everybody whatever their heart desired—or their political muscle could forcefully extract.

What we are left with now are angry and entirely antagonistic battles over a non-existent pile of federal money in a vain attempt to somehow make whole an economy which we ourselves destroyed in an unprecedented moment of panic and fear.  This is rather like rushing over to your neighbor’s home to borrow some popsicle sticks to use to rebuild a house you just burned to the ground while lighting the barbecue grill.  It just isn’t nearly enough to fix the problem that you foolishly created.  

Even the trillions of dollars recently appropriated by Congress will not be sufficient to ameliorate the enormous economic train wreck of the past sixty days.  When we consider our own self-inflicted wound in conjunction with the concurrent economic traumas of our major trading partners, it is impossible to see what will quickly lift us out of the global collapse we now face.  Trying to dig ourselves out of the calamitous problems now ahead will be much like trying to empty the ocean one teaspoon at a time—quick progress should not be expected.

The bloody and brutal partisan political fights ahead regarding what can be done—and who is to blame—will certainly set new lows for both mind boggling mendacity and simple hatred.  The stakes are simply too high for it to be otherwise.  

Both Republicans and Democrats will ruthlessly and continuously claw at one another in order to save themselves from the political ruin certain to follow for whichever party is ultimately held accountable for wiping out a prosperity that was once the envy of the world.  Pink slips in hand, Americans will flock to the polls in November to punish those they believe to be responsible.  The November elections will usher in what is sure to be a grim and cold holiday season for many Americans who have seen their financial security and piece of mind ripped away. 

If the 2016 election can be seen as one that was driven by anger, I suspect the overriding emotion driving voters in 2020 will be revenge.  There will be no “winners” this time around because all a successful election will buy you is the unwelcome opportunity to be a punching bag for a few years.

This year voters will be in a foul state of mind, and it will mirror the foul partisanship leading up to Election Day and the years to follow.  This is going to be a very rough period in our nation’s history, and I expect no one to emerge unscathed from the experience.

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