A drive from New York City, down to Washington D.C. and through America’s rural landscape reveals a cavernous gap in living standards.
New York draws an economic class that is exponentially better off than many rural Americans, and the suburbs of Washington D.C. over the past few years have seen an explosion of newly constructed homes whose starting price sits at around 800,000 U.S. dollars.
That’s a sharp contrast with rural areas nationwide, where jobs are scarce, and where once idyllic small towns now look like rural ghettos.
The stark political divisions, compounded by a raging COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020 elections, between urban Americans — many of them liberal — and rural Americans — many of them conservative, were not there overnight, but run deep for years, even decades.
“The rising polarization has unfolded slowly over the last 40 years,” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Darrell West told Xinhua.
In different ways, each president going back to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton increased partisan antipathy and made it more difficult to work across party lines, said West, “Trump elevated polarization to new heights, but the trend developed long before him.”
“The loss of jobs and the challenges of providing sufficient economic opportunities to many Americans is a major problem in our current political divisions,” West said.
“People feel like they are not doing well and jobs are going abroad and this makes them angry and feel like the system is rigged against them.”
Liberal and conservative divisions were further intensified with the advent of social media.
West said digital technology “makes national divisions worse because it enables extremism and polarization and creates echo chambers of like-minded individuals.” Clay Ramsay, a researcher at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, told Xinhua that social media platforms have a business interest in keeping people on digital devices for hours.
Companies have found that letting each click offer new links that go farther in the same direction is effective for retaining users, Ramsay said. “So the algorithm itself nudges people toward extreme views, and then toward fact-free, conspiratorial notions,” he said.
Meanwhile, right-wing and left-wing politicians have utilized cyberspace more effectively than others. “The algorithms complement these politicians’ tactics,” Ramsay said.
Critics charged conservative media with providing a cheering squad for President Trump, while the president’ supporters said liberal media reporters become unhinged and hysterical at the mere mentioning of his name.West said coverage is “more polarized than in the past and that makes it harder for people to distinguish fake from real news.”
LONG WAY AHEAD
Polarization is deep-seated in U.S. society, but experts said it may subside somewhat.
Sally Radcliff, a retired health professional in rural New Jersey, said she left a major city because of high crime rates to move to a more rural area of New Jersey.
She is a big Trump supporter, as are many of her neighbors, who proudly displayed Trump signs in their yards during the campaign. In Washington D.C. and New York City, Trump signs are a rarity, and draw visceral reactions from locals.
But once the dust cleared, the elections showed that Americans desired normalcy above all else, and yearn for more economic opportunities in rural areas and low-income parts of inner cities. “In order to reduce polarization, leaders have to address the root causes of voter dissatisfaction,” West said.
At the same time, divisions between conservatives and liberals are not as intense as they might seem.”Survey research suggests that around a third of Americans don’t identify with either label, and hold varying views on various issues,” Ramsay said.