unizeit Schriftzug

Slim prospect of reconciliation in the U.S.

Donald Trump as president is history for the time being. But how could he ever become a political reality? Political scientist and U.S. expert Professor Torben Lütjen has been analysing the deep division in American society and predicts little to rejoice about.

Zwei USA-Flaggen, in gegensätzliche Richtungen wehend
© JordiStock / iStock / Montage pur.pur

"America in a cold civil war - how a country loses its centre" is the translated title of a 224-page book written by social scientist Torben Lütjen, who was acting Professor of Comparative Politics at Kiel University until the end of March and had previously taught as Professor of European Studies and Political Science at Vanderbilt University for three and a half years. The Northern German, who was born near Bremerhaven, experienced the U.S. first hand as his job took him to the middle of Nashville, Tennessee. More liberal than conservative and therefore a Democratic stronghold like all the other major cities in the country, while at the same time capital of the traditionally deeply Republican state of Tennessee – and as the cradle of country music also a popular destination for masses of the more traditional: this turns the city with its roughly one million inhabitants into what could be considered to be a "mini America".

The professor certainly did not experience a lack of encounters with representatives of the diverse sections of society. And even more so, since he liked to venture out of the city and explore its rural surroundings in his free time. "I was rather the exception among the teaching staff there, however," Lütjen remarked. "Most of them tended to remain among their own group pretty much all the time."

This observation could actually be a part of the American problem, albeit not its cause. According to the expert, it is mainly three historical conflict lines that have led to this situation where the U.S. is so extremely divided and there seems to be either the one side or the other and nothing in between. The first reaches back to the 1950s when Martin Luther King and other activists founded a movement that loudly called for an end to the discrimination of the non-white population, including some spectacular campaigns. Since the end of the 1950s, federal laws were introduced that prohibited racial discrimination. Nevertheless, "segregation continued in the American South," Lütjen explained. In the Republican Party, however, hardly anyone had a problem with this. And given their conservative base in the South, the Democrats did not step up either. "Everybody knew it, but nobody did anything," the political scientist concluded.

"When the black protest movement finally broke the silent agreement, this naturally had a polarising effect," Professor Lütjen described the development, which he still believes was necessary. In Germany, we saw a good fifty years ago how the academic youth and other groups pushed the older generation to eventually face up to the Nazi past. And in a similar way, the civil rights movement forced people in the U.S. to start thinking about racism, and also slavery and other historic injustices.

The second conflict line in U.S. society is caused by the religious "Culture War" from the 1970s, according to the expert. The seculars fought for the right to abortion, while the decidedly Christian stood up with holy zeal for what they defined as the right to life. Once again two camps were formed that fought bitterly about the theory of evolution, homosexuality and other topics.

The third and latest conflict, according to Lütjen, can be described as an urban-rural conflict and has a lot to do with globalisation. Those who live in the cities tend to benefit from the mega trend, while those who live in rural areas tend to feel left behind and wish for a return to better days. According to Lütjen’s analysis, the fatal aspect inherent in all three processes is the fact that they have been far from leading to any form of consensus, but on the contrary, have further increased and sometimes also added considerable fuel to the division. And everyone staying firmly put in their own camp, no matter which side, doesn’t help either. This goes for the real world as well as for the virtual one. The expert calls it a "paradoxical individualisation". People have more opportunities to get information than ever before, form their opinion and voice it. However, this does not lead to more tolerance and a commitment to diversity, but to silo thinking and condemnation of those who think differently.

The extent to which people’s lives are sometimes divided in the U.S. is highlighted drastically by simple observations. As such, Lütjen describes how a social science survey asked Republican and Democratic supporters about their favourite television shows. Its findings: there was not a single overlap between each side’s twenty favourite programmes.

The expert doubts whether the reconciliation sought by the new President Joe Biden can succeed. "This cannot be achieved by one person alone," is Lütjen’s concern. The situation could at best ease somewhat in the longer term, according to Lütjen, if the fundamental conflicts were to subside, for example aided by targeted programmes for the lower and middle classes. If this should not be successful and another populist figure is flushed to the top, who does not act predominantly on gut feeling like Trump but with cold strategy, the U.S. could possibly slide much deeper into crisis, in his opinion.

The political scientist, who took up his new role researching and teaching at the University of Greifswald in April, also observes trends towards a division of society in Germany. However, he believes that there is a much stronger political and social core in Germany. In order for it to stay that way, Lütjen believes that we need policies that defend the rights of those left behind by globalisation but also calls for society "to make sure that we also interact with people who do not, or do not seem to, have anything to do with our own social bubble and our view of the world."

Author: Martin Geist