Opinion: the current polarisation in the US represents growing fundamental differences within the country

For only the third time in over 200 years, an American president has been impeached by the US House of Representatives. Listening to the debates in the House of Representatives preceding the vote illustrated vividly the polarisation of the United States. Republicans and Democrats appear to be living in totally different realities, with the Democrats completely certain that the evidence warrants removing Donald Trump from office and the Republicans completely certain that the whole exercise is a sham.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Weekend On One, Marion McKeone, US Correspondent for the Business Post, discusses Donald Trump's impeachment

How did America end up in such a mess - and what can the rest of the world learn from their experience? First, there is the elephant in the room, namely Fox News. Founded by Rupert Murdoch, this channel was unabashedly designed to appeal to a conservative audience. Part of the consistent message of Fox is that other news media are biased in favour of liberals and that only Fox can be trusted. There is an element of truth in the critique that the traditional news networks were somewhat more liberal than the US population at large, but they were rarely as explicitly political than Fox.

Americans have been increasingly political in their choice of media in the last 20 years, with conservatives depending almost exclusively on Fox News and liberals depending almost exclusively on consistently liberal sources such as MSNBC or CNN. Liberals and conservatives are increasingly likely to dislike and distrust one another and it would be unthinkable to marry outside of your political tribe in many families.

It is easy to blame this polarisation on a few people like Murdoch, but the current divide in the US probably represents more fundamental differences. In particular, there is a substantial urban-rural divide in US politics and culture, with the cities being consistently more liberal in their politics and culture. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Carole Coleman reports on US efforts to tackle the nationwide opiod crisis

Like Ireland, the US population, wealth, opportunity and political power is concentrated in a relatively small number of urban areas, while much of the country is sparsely populated, poorer, less likely to succeed and less likely to influence national policy. In the US, this urban-rural divide has fuelled feelings of disrespect (most of the power and wealth is concentrated on the east and west coasts, and the rest of the country is often dismissed as "flyover country") and despair. Rural America is suffering disproportionally from a rise in opioid addiction and an increasing rural-urban health gap

The declining health and economy of rural areas compared to many major cities where progress is palpable has helped to fuel political divides. The presence of explicitly political media almost certainly fuels this divide by creating competing visions of reality for people who restrict their viewing to one side of the debate. These conditions also increase the appeal of populist politicians, whose increasingly demagogic appeal drive home the message that the other side cannot be trusted and that your own side is unfairly treated.

Are there lessons for Ireland in the current American polarisation? I think there are three. First, the concentration of wealth, population and political power in Dublin creates the same potential for urban-rural divides in Ireland as in much of the rest of the world, but a case can be made that the Irish situation is somewhat unique because both sides feel aggrieved. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke show, we often hear commentary that suggests Dublin is favoured over rural Ireland when it comes to investment, but is it actually true? 

Dubliners complain about poor planning, a housing crisis and out of control costs, while rural Ireland justly complains about underemployment, low incomes and diminished opportunities. The challenge facing Ireland is to manage the long-standing problem of Irish rural economic development before the urban-rural divide become so poisonous that it can no longer be bridged.

Second, populism and demagoguery are always with us in one form or another, but Ireland has not recently been saddled with strong men at a national level who claim they can solve all your problems in exchange for surrendering your liberty. The better the Irish electorate gets at spotting and rejecting demagogues, the less likely that extreme polarisation will take hold. Like all countries, Ireland has political parties that are sometimes at each others' throats, but so far this has not translated into the sort of polarisation currently seen in America.

Finally, media matters. I've spent the last three years living in Ireland. Whenever I come back from the US, where there is a 24-hour news presence and it's all Trump all the time, I find I appreciate the less intense nature of the Irish news media. It is likely that the advent of 24 hour news channels contributed greatly to polarisation in the US.  here is often not enough news to fill the hours, and this has led to non-stop political talk shows, each tailored to a narrow ideological audience. I am all for boredom!


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ