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06/13/2024 | Porträts und Geschichten

Trump, Biden, election campaign: "I don't see any polarization"

The world is (once again) watching the election campaign in the USA with rapt attention. The university magazine publik spoke to America expert Prof. Dr. Mischa Honeck about the reasons for the "civil war in slow motion".

Prof. Dr. Mischa Honeck.Image: Studioline.
Prof. Dr. Mischa Honeck holds a professorship for the history of Great Britain and North America at the University of Kassel.

Back in the 90s, it was said that politics in the USA was less ideological than in Europe. Republicans sometimes voted with Democrats and vice versa. Hard to imagine today.

That's right, this "reaching across the aisle" stood for the functionality of the US political system. It was the decade after the Cold War. But that is long gone.

What has happened?

If you take a closer look, you will see that the ideologization was already in full swing back then. The consensus between the Democrats and Republicans at the time was mainly about foreign policy. There was a sense of triumph after the victory over communism and they unanimously saw themselves in the role of the regulatory power. The interventions in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq were supported by representatives of both parties. But domestically, the contrasts between city and country, between "blue" and "red" states were already becoming apparent. The country was arguing about issues such as abortion, the emancipation of homosexuals, multiculturalism and political correctness. It didn't have the drastic tone of today, but a politician like Newt Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995 as Bill Clinton's opponent, openly declared war on liberal America.

But why? Why did the political climate change so much?

In the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans stood united against communism. In the mid-1990s, two things happened: firstly, people turned their attention back to domestic political and social issues. And secondly, the media landscape changed fundamentally. In 1996, the conservative Fox News Channel went on air with the business model of destroying political opponents - a veritable economic goldmine. In response, new, decidedly left-wing media emerged. The intersection of what was generally considered true or valid shrank. The digital media and its bubble formation later acted as an accelerant.

It is not only in the digital world that bubbles form. There are reports from America that people live in different worlds, listen to different music, live in different neighborhoods, attend liberal or fundamentalist churches...

That's true, but it's not a completely new situation. Think of the racist segregation laws until the sixties. What is new is that the white middle class is shrinking. Those who see themselves as ideal-typical Americans are experiencing a rude awakening due to deindustrialization and globalization. This triggers a violent backlash.


"A civil war in slow motion"

When did you last get a picture of the situation in the USA?

I was on a research trip at the end of 2022. My impression: a country on edge and exhausted by the pandemic and the constant barrage of conflict. The storming of the Capitol the year before was far from over. The writer Jeff Sharlet has described this state of affairs as "civil war in slow motion". I find that very apt.

What role do American universities play? The Ivy League has recently been thrown into severe turmoil.

Many universities are bastions of progressive lifestyles. They produce left-liberal attitudes that question the claim to power of traditional white America. This reacts with harsh hostility.

I recently read that the alienation of urban-academic and rural-non-academic milieus is also due to the fact that most students live in halls of residence on campus or in the immediate vicinity. They are, so to speak, detached from the everyday lives of normal people.

There may be something to that. Those who set off from the countryside to study swap their networks virtually overnight and detach themselves from the non-academic world when it comes to ideological issues. Conversely, many students are often told at home that they are being indoctrinated at university. This certainly encourages a certain kind of camp thinking.

You are a historian - what influence do long-standing factors such as Puritanism with its uncompromising attitude or the American Civil War with its North-South divide have?

I don't see a late effect of Puritanism. Our image of this religious movement is in any case an invented, literary tradition. But the Civil War of the 19th century does indeed have an after-effect. There is a divided memory: many people in the South cling to a historical lie. They believe that the southern states fought for a good cause, namely for local or regional self-determination against the encroaching policies of the North. As you can see, this is easy to connect with Donald Trump's campaigns. When the Capitol was stormed at the beginning of 2021, the flag of the Confederacy, i.e. the southern states, was also on display.

The Democrats had dominated the southern states for decades as a conservative, agrarian party. The Republicans were seen as representatives of the modern North. That has completely changed.

Yes, there is talk of a "Southern Realignment". The American parties were never classic platform parties, but rather associations in which communities of interest were formed. In the sixties, the left wing succeeded in getting the Democrats to side with the civil rights movement. That was a decisive moment. The conservative supporters switched to the Republicans, who in turn positioned themselves further and further to the right and, as described, became increasingly radical in the 1990s. However, I think the term polarization is wrong. I don't see any polarization.

Don't you?

Polarization would mean that there is a certain symmetry: The right is becoming more right-wing, the left is becoming more left-wing. But if you look at the positions of the Democrats, you realize that they haven't changed that much in the last 30 years.

Because their change already took place in the sixties?

If you like. The Republicans, on the other hand, initially became a very statist party of big business. For the past 20 years, however, they have been developing into a nationalist, I would almost say in part fascist movement, which does not hide the fact that it dreams of an autocratic century.


"Otherwise the cart will hit the wall"

Has there ever been such a great threat to American democracy?

The American Civil War is often mentioned. But of course, even if Trump wins the election in November, there will be no field battles. Instead, the aforementioned civil war is raging in slow motion, which would mean a torn, dysfunctional state and the loss of a regulatory power. Nobody should be happy about that.

Will there be free and fair elections - in four years' time?

Only the crystal ball knows.

Biden was born in 1942, Trump in 1946. What comes after them?

It is a biological inevitability that there will be a time after them. But not only do we have very old candidates for the presidency, we also have an electorate that is getting older and older. On the other hand, the world is changing ever more rapidly. This tension between accelerated change and an ageing society is here to stay. Many are exhausted. From the upheavals and from what they have personally experienced. Some have had to move house unintentionally, some careers have been ruined, some marriages. And then the simplifiers come along and offer simple solutions and stir up resentment.

The last question I had saved for myself was whether these developments - like so many others - would also befall us in Europe. But we are already in the middle of the answer.

What I have just described are transnational phenomena. In these uncertain times, we have to offer people something constructive rather than something destructive. If I may put it this way, we all need to communicate, especially in science. Otherwise the cart will hit the wall.


The interview was conducted by Sebastian Mense.
It appeared in issue 2/2024 of publik.