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The Fractured Power

8 26 47

When the United States looks abroad to assess the risk of conflict, it relies on a host of tools to understand other countries’ social and political divisions and how likely they are to result in unrest or violence. These techniques reflect decades of research, in both government and academia, into the root causes of civil disorder and state failure. The idea is that by better understanding those causes, policymakers can prevent conflict before it breaks out or, failing that, help states recover quickly once it does.

One such tool is the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Conflict Assessment Framework, which is designed to illuminate the underlying dynamics of countries in various stages of civil strife. Analysts use the CAF to understand local grievances and divisions in a particular country, the resilience of the country’s political system, and events that could trigger violence. The process can require dozens of personnel and take months to complete. Diplomats and development experts scrutinize confidential cables in secure facilities in Washington and conduct public surveys in conflict-prone countries. They interview local stakeholders on the ground and consult experts in capitals around the world. They make every effort to understand fractured societies in granular detail, both to predict potential conflicts and to propose interventions to stop them.

For most of recent history, Americans have deployed such frameworks elsewhere, reserving concerns about instability or conflict for countries other than their own. When applied to the United States in 2021, however, the U.S. government’s own tools paint a damning picture of American politics. The contentious 2020 presidential campaign laid bare deep divisions in American society, exhibiting precisely the kind of tribal politics—when strict loyalty to a foundational identity (such as race, religion, clan, or region) is the organizing principle of political life within a country—that sets off alarm bells when seen abroad. The campaign looked less like a contest of ideas and more like a battle between tribes, with voters racing to their partisan corners based on identity, not concerns about policy.

These divisions, moreover, are coupled with a growing belief that U.S. political and social institutions are no longer functioning as intended. According to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center, over 60 percent of Americans believe that declining levels of trust, both interpersonal and in government, are making it difficult to solve the country’s problems. Tools such as the CAF also note the importance of the longer-term context to understanding the likelihood of violence. And the context in the United States is troubling. The FBI has reported that in 2019, the United States saw more racially and religiously motivated hate crimes—including 51 murders—than it had at any point in the previous two decades. Sales of firearms reached new highs in 2020, with African Americans, worried about becoming the targets of racial violence, purchasing guns in record numbers. The killing of George Floyd in May 2020, and the summer of reckoning that followed, brought racial tensions in the United States to their highest levels in a generation.

Hardened ethnic and ideological identities affixed to political parties. Political leaders exacerbating sectarian divisions. Public institutions that are distrusted by more and more citizens for their failure to deliver policy solutions. The capitol stormed by rioters for the first time in over 200 years. A heavily armed society in which a defeated head of government claims that the election was illegitimate yet continues to enjoy the loyalty of nearly half the electorate. If American diplomats and aid specialists found this fact pattern elsewhere, they would call for diplomatic intervention. But just as experiences from elsewhere offer a reason to worry about American tribalism, they also provide valuable instructions for how to overcome it. If they learn the right lessons from their counterparts abroad, U.S. citizens, civic groups, and leaders can bridge the country’s tribal divisions and begin to revive American democracy.

Tribalism, and the conflict that it can produce, is often understood through facile comparisons between primitive villages and civilized cities or between the West and “the rest.” Contemporary U.S. politics, however, resists this simplistic dichotomy. Tools such as the CAF demonstrate that tribalism, and its potential to ignite conflict, is a general force that connects one’s identity to one’s politics—regardless of location or political system.

The more tribal a society is, the more closely membership in the tribe is policed and the less one is permitted to cooperate with outsiders. Such forces did not disappear with the advent of the modern nation-state, and they aren’t limited by nationality. Modern........

© Foreign Affairs

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