Polarization Is a National Security Threat

Martin Kariuki
April 4, 2022

Often, we conceptualize political polarization as an exclusively domestic issue. But it’s not. And as our national resolve dwindles in the face of divisive tribalism, our adversaries become bolder – and we increasingly compromise our ability to combat them successfully.

Of course, polarization as a phenomenon is in no way confined by our national borders, but it is a distinctly American issue in many ways. Studies show that polarization in the United States has grown exponentially, increasing more than in any other country throughout the last few decades. Per the Pew Research Center, partisanship now surpasses “age, race and ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, religious affiliation, or other factors” that commonly create social rifts in our country.

How is polarization an international relations and national security issue? Well, our inability to compromise or unite on basic foreign policy presents weakness to belligerent adversaries like China and Russia. America’s “Cold War consensus” is long gone, given our relatively unchallenged diplomatic and economic domination since the collapse of the USSR, and while events like the recent invasion of Ukraine attract temporary bipartisanship, our leaders and policymakers struggle to sustain any kind of legislative progress.

China continues to occupy islands south of their borders, and to take advantage of our economic dependence on its production and manufacturing industries. Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain on track to pose a serious threat to the global community. Russia gave signs of military adventurism long before attacking Ukraine.

Why do we struggle so much to respond to these combative actors and behaviors? Primarily because our politicians are now afraid to misstep on any contentious issue for fear of alienating or losing voters. It’s easy to see this happen in real-time – every policy introduced to act on these international relations issues is immediately met with counterargument by whichever political party sits diametrically opposite to the one in power; counterarguments which are consequently ignored to protect political ground even when they are perfectly logical.

Moreover, partisan legislation now primarily takes the form of monolithic, simplistic solutions to complex problems that ultimately require much more nuanced solutions. Democrats and Republicans alike adopt their positions based on how easily they can rally their bases against their opposition, looking for low-effort, high-reward ideas to sell to voters – and, usually, fail to address the problem entirely, leaving us fixated on unnecessary political acrimony.

Still with me? Here’s what our argument looks like so far:

1. While democracy is grounded in the free competition of ideas, today’s disagreements usually originate from contrarianism rather than good-faith difference of opinion.

2. The current American electoral system forces politicians to prioritize their own electability over legislative expedience, resulting in oversimplified policy that fails to have any meaningful effect on the issue it’s intended to address.

3. Unsurprisingly, our adversaries have discovered this weakness and continue to exploit it to their advantage.

Take, for example, the ongoing Russian disinformation campaign focused on amplifying controversial topics to divide the American public and kill off any chance of productive political discourse in the country. If you’ve spent any time on social media lately, chances are you’ve seen the automated bots and trolls espousing contentious takes on issues from both sides of the aisle – Russian “troll factories” are paying lackies thousands of dollars to advance various causes strategically chosen to provoke political hostility and compromise our ability to govern.

According to former U.S. Department of State advisor and current New Knowledge CEO Jonathon Morgan, “the broader Russian strategy is pretty clearly about destabilizing the country by focusing on and amplifying existing divisions, rather than supporting any one political party.”

Our adversaries realized they could drive the wedge deeper in American society through misinformation, ensuring an environment conducive to malign influence.

Or consider Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. It’s almost certain that their military operations and strategy took several years to develop, and Putin has shown his hand to the world multiple times in the last decade – and yet, we still have no action plan for a coordinated response. Democrats and Republicans alike were so focused on their sports-like, aggressive rivalry that they failed to address an immediate threat, and now we have to deal with the consequences of that inaction.

We ignore threats like China and Russia indiscriminately until some catastrophic event forces us to acknowledge them, at which point whichever administration happens to be in charge applies fragmented, knee-jerk, uncoordinated policy that is rarely effective in the long run. Meanwhile, our adversaries are united, singularly focused on undermining our nation by exploiting our domestic division. They set their own agenda at home, distracting us with party-line politics.

Political partisanship is crippling our national American democracy, and our ability to protect ourselves or respond to external threats. It’s an enormous problem.

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