The year 2020 has brought a series of challenges that have tested residents of the United States in many ways. People are experiencing a multitude of hurdles including climate change, heightened racial injustice and the pandemic.
The increased stress created by all of these events has left citizens tired, stressed and more on-edge than ever before.
Nationwide stress seemed to reach a tipping point amid the 2020 presidential election. This election looked dramatically different from previous years.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a significant increase of mail-in voting to prevent public gatherings. This altered the election process, as all the votes could not be counted before the end of Election Day.
Instead, the country waited five days while votes were counted. Finally, President-elect Joe Biden surpassed the 270 electoral vote threshold to be named the winner Nov. 7.
While some Americans rejoiced at this outcome, others were devastated. Ultimately, the United States is currently more divided than it has been in a long time.
As the Westminster College community processes this historic event, professors and alumni reflect on how this division came to exist.
Marie Staniforth, Ph.D., a professor of political science, said there are several factors making America so divided right now.
“The fact that we have a two-party system in the first place creates this ‘us vs. them’ mentality,” Staniforth said. “If you look at countries, like Norway for example, there’s lots and lots of different parties represented in government so it creates a much more cooperative and collaborative system.”
While the two-party system creates more division, the growing influence of social media is also fueling the fire.
Jeff Nichols, Ph.D, professor of history, said the social media atmosphere that has emerged in recent decades has influenced the division.
“I think what’s different now is the social media landscape,” Nichols said. “There were always partisan newspapers and things like that, but not that many people read them. Now it’s so easy for all of us to find our own little bubble and the algorithms themselves which were basically designed to sell us the same opinions. Reinforcing ideas and misinformation and partial information. That’s what’s different and scary right now.”
Staniforth also said social media is contributing to the division.
“Social media adds another layer because we create our own little echo chambers and when we do try to talk to each other, it often descends into very unproductive, destructive conversations,” Staniforth said.
Despite these new technological factors creating a polarized nation, this is not the first time America has been extremely divided.
Jon O’Brien, alum of Westminster’s history department, said there are a few notable times America has been similarly divided.
“We were certainly divided during the Civil War in the 1860s,” O’Brien said. “And the period of reconstruction right after the Civil War, we were very divided as well.”
O’Brien isn’t the only one to make this observation. Several Westminster students shared memes on Election Day via social media that America was about to enter the next civil war.
Although these memes and jokes might be funny to students, they are also frightening to some individuals.
“I find it kind of distressing that a lot of people are sharing on social media a line from Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural address ‘We must not be enemies, but friends,’” Nichols said. “Okay, that’s a wonderful sentiment, and boy did it entirely fail because within weeks we were plunging into the worst war we’ve ever had.”
While it is easy to speculate about the similarities in the polarization of the country now and the past, it is also true that 2020 is unique in its divisions.
“I don’t know that I even want to compare the context that we’re in to any point in history,” Staniforth said. “There’s an urgency about what we’re seeing now. So, climate change is an example I think that adds to the polarization because it’s an issue that needs to be addressed now. There isn’t room to share opinions on it and think about it.”
Climate change just brushes the surface of the multitude of issues creating division. Nichols said there are many big cultural divisions.
“Reproductive rights, abortion rights and gun rights have become more polarized,” Nichols said. “The place of religion in the public square I think is sort of a big thing, and then big underlying structural things like growing wealth inequality.”
“Unfortunately, the current pandemic — which is a national emergency — is not uniting our country even though it is the kind of thing that could.”
Jon O’Brien, alum of Westminster’s history department
So now the question is: What needs to happen moving forward?
O’Brien said sometimes, tragedies have the ability to unite the country in challenging times.
“Sometimes division can be mended by finding a common goal or purpose, as when the country came together after the terrible 9/11 tragedy,” O’Brien said. “Unfortunately, the current pandemic — which is a national emergency — is not uniting our country even though it is the kind of thing that could.”
However, this could change with the shift of leadership from President Trump to President-elect Biden Jan. 20, 2021.
“President-elect Biden is very skillful at working both sides of the aisle and trying to create compromise,” O’Brien said. “Going forward he’ll probably find common ground with both parties in fighting the pandemic and other challenges that lie before our nation. He’s a great uniter and he’s not inflammatory.”
This won’t be an easy task for Biden. Staniforth said Americans are so inundated with the idea of fake news and conspiracy theories that people don’t know what to believe anymore. Ultimately, politicians need to restore faith in the idea that our leaders are telling the truth.
“Politicians need to restore faith in political institutions and truth and scientists,” Staniforth said. “Especially in the context of the pandemic, people need to know that the virus is real and that we need to wear masks.”
Nichols said that ultimately, the country needs a win to inspire mending the division.
“Personally, I think what’s really gonna work for Joe Biden is success,” Nichols said. “If we get a handle on the coronavirus, if we get a successful vaccine, the economy recovers. That in itself is going to calm people down. That’s going to be an enormous benefit to the country and politically to the Biden administration.”