American Tribalism, Australian Reflections

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The emotions I feel as an American watching the presidential election from Australia? So far, at least, it’s been a mix of surprise, disappointment, confusion, a dash of hope and some embarrassment.

The American process of democracy — with no independent election commission, with wide variations on voting procedures, with an Electoral College that sometimes contradicts the majority — certainly looks like an antiquated mess after covering efficient elections in Australia and New Zealand.

But in a year of Covid-19, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the divisions in America and the threat that widening divides pose to all democracies.

There’s a phrase in Latin that Americans learn as soon as they can read and hold money — e pluribus unum, which means “from the many, one.” It’s all over American currency. It was the motto proposed for the seal of the country by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in 1776, and it was first used on an American coin in 1795.

I thought of it again this week as I listened to President Trump tell crowds at his final rallies that “I am your voice.” Was he trying to make himself the one to arise from many?

Historians tell us the founding fathers saw the phrase as a broader call to unity for America’s disparate states, and for a population that hailed from several different countries. It was not a person. It was an ideal.

These days it feels increasingly like a lost aspiration.

Americans are woefully divided — just as divided, if not more so, than they were four years ago, when President Trump surprised the world with his victory. The 2020 election tally so far shows not just a close contest with higher voter turnout in red and blue states, but also in heavily red and blue counties, where in some cases more than 80 percent of voters aligned behind President Trump or Joe Biden.

Such intense local unanimity points to a country where many people rarely if ever meet or get to know someone they might disagree with; where they rarely if ever develop a respect or working relationship with someone who sees the world through a different political lens.

This is not a Trump phenomenon. It’s been building since the end of the Cold War.

In 1992, around 40 percent of Americans lived in a county where more than 60 percent of the vote went to one presidential candidate.

In 2016, those single-minded communities were where most Americans lived: More than 61 percent of voters cast ballots in counties that gave either Clinton or Trump at least 60 percent of the major-party vote. Experts expect 2020’s results to show the trend further accelerating.

In Manhattan, for example, 84 percent of the votes went to Biden; in Wallace County, Kansas, 93 percent went to Trump.

This is not just an American problem. In the last Australian election, the 10 districts that leaned most left were all in cities; the 10 that leaned most right were all rural.

That’s a common divide, and it shows that many Australians also live in a sea of political homogeneity, making it easier to misunderstand and demonize opponents. Smugness and certainty metastasize like a tumor without interaction and familiarity.

I sometimes wonder if cleaving, conflict and collapse are where all democracies naturally head. The first iteration of demokratia, around 500 B.C. in Greece, devolved from a system of assemblies and independent courts to an aristocracy led by General Pericles.

It took just a few generations for Athens to start shifting toward what President Trump has promoted, what Herodotus called “the one man, the best.”

The U.S. celebrated its 244th birthday as a democracy this year. Scholars usually mark the end of Greek democracy with the arrival of the Romans around 350 years after the people’s rule began.

What does it take to combat division and democratic decline? How does something like geographic and political segregation get fixed?

I don’t have many answers, and I’d love to hear yours.

Send us your thoughts at

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