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Checks and Balance: There is no one “true” America

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  • Checks and Balance: There is no one “true” America

    Weekly newsletter from The Economist for the 2020 election.

    Imagine that you could scrub all mention of Republicans and Democrats from the news but still stay informed about what is going on in America. You would observe a debate about how quickly to go about reopening the country, given the ongoing death toll from covid-19. You would also see states and cities coming up with different answers. In some states, the rules would vary between neighbouring counties, depending on how many cases of covid-19 have been discovered there. You might think that all sounded quite sensible. If you looked at polling (more on that in our subscriber-only analysis below) you would see overwhelming support among Americans for voluntary measures like social-distancing, hand-washing and avoiding large gatherings of people. This is centripetal America.

    Now turn the politics filter off, and allow the mentions of Republicans, Democrats, Donald Trump, Fox News and all the rest to come flooding back in. You would see a president accusing political rivals of heinous crimes and threatening to withhold help from states run by politicians from the other party. You would see debates about whether America is a failed state, or merely in an advanced stage of decadence. You would see public-health experts who have tried for decades to stay above partisanship, hoping to let the science do the talking, chewed up and spat out by the partisan threshing-machine. You would be served with an entirely separate set of facts, depending on where you go for your news. There’s even a brand new “–gate”, a confected scandal to vent about. This is centrifugal America.

    The pundit’s temptation is always to argue that one of these is the true America, but in truth they exist together in constant tension. It is tempting to filter out all the politics and assume that everything will be fine in the end: to live in centripetal America and ignore centrifugal America. In a democracy, though, politics does not cease to have an influence over your life just because you have chosen to ignore it. If we ever needed a refresher in the importance of the federal government, and of state governors and mayors, covid-19 has provided it.

    Yet the virus also hints at what might be possible with different leadership. If the Republican in the White House were not Mr Trump but Charlie Baker, Mike DeWine or Larry Hogan, this could be a moment of national unity, one which better reflects the behaviour of most Americans. Instead, politics is pulling Americans apart even as they are trying to come together.