A big part of why America isn’t working is because far too many Americans neither know nor care how it’s supposed to work - William Cooper

A frenzy of polarisation and misgovernance has overtaken American politics. Actors and institutions—on both sides of the political divide—are silencing speech. Prosecutors are criminalising politics.

The Republicans are undermining the electoral system. And a new breed of social-media celebrities in Congress is failing to address numerous public-policy failures, from a broken immigration system to hugely expensive and dysfunctional healthcare to staggering economic inequality.

All around the world people are asking: What’s wrong with America? Why isn’t it working?

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The answer isn’t one of the common partisan narratives. It isn’t the ‘radical progressives’ who want to tear the system down. Nor is it the ‘deplorable conservatives’ who want to punish America’s elites. It’s not a dysfunctional, gridlocked Congress. Nor is it a right-wing, reactionary Supreme Court. It’s not an ever-older Joe Biden. Nor is it an ever-angrier Donald Trump (though he sure isn’t helping).

Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York in May. PIC: Michael M. Santiago/Pool Photo via APFormer President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York in May. PIC: Michael M. Santiago/Pool Photo via AP
Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York in May. PIC: Michael M. Santiago/Pool Photo via AP

The answer, rather, is broader than any narrow category or single person. The answer is the American people themselves. A nation is, above all, the hearts and minds of its people. And Americans are becoming increasingly untethered from both reality and the essential principles and traditions that have shaped their nation’s historic success.

A big part of why America isn’t working is because far too many Americans neither know nor care how it’s supposed to work.

The root cause of this mania is the combination of three things. The first is tribalism. Americans, like all humans, have deep tribal roots. This expresses itself in powerful biases in favour of one’s own political clan—and searing antipathy for the other side.

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The second is social media. Sophisticated algorithms behind major online platforms exploit Americans’ cognitive vulnerabilities and intensify their tribal prejudices.

And the third is the structure of the US political system itself. The two-party system exacerbates tribalism by pitting two juggernauts (Democrats and Republicans) against each other in a bitter, all-consuming rivalry—and gerrymandering, closed primaries, and the Electoral College only make things worse.

This flywheel spins faster every day. And it’s culminating in two overlapping threats to the American experiment. The first is the criminalisation of politics, as prosecutors from around the country set their sights on partisan rivals. Since every political salvo must be met with greater opposite force, this has set in motion a pernicious dynamic which may spiral into catastrophe.

The second threat involves the central premise of American government: the sanctity of the vote. America’s election system is under attack. And not just by ineffectual zealots at the margins of power or howling mobs in the street, but by the Republican party’s undisputed leader, Donald Trump, and his loyalists throughout federal and state government.

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The election in several months will reveal a lot about the current state of the nation. Given that neither candidate should hold the job for the subsequent four years (albeit for differing reasons) it will be not only a bumpy ride till November but a tumultuous four years from there.

William Cooper is an attorney and the author of How America Works … And Why It Doesn’t.

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