'Elections are over. And now it is time to turn the page. To unite. To heal.'
These are the words of Joe Biden. In the aftermath of his thumping victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential election, he called for a new beginning for America, to let bygones be bygones. Sure, they were pious wishes, but proved unattainable. Turning a new page was the last thing on Donald Trump's mind. Literally, within two weeks of Biden's high-minded and aspirational proclamation, Trump led an insurrection on Capital Hill with the sole purpose of scuttling the peaceful transition of power.
It was a day that will remain in infamy forever in the annals of US history.
The Capitol Hill insurrection and its aftermath have left such a deep mark on the political psyche of the American people that the country remains deeply divided. There are many in both camps who believe the country would be better off drawing a line right in the middle. There are many who even think the country is so irreconcilably divided that a civil war - between Red and Blue - is inevitable.
This is exactly what John Adams, who succeeded President George Washington, had warned against. In his words, 'a division of the republic into two great parties is to be dreaded as the great political evil.'
Alas, after 247 years as a functioning democracy, that great political evil has become a reality.
There are probably many factors dictating this growing division in America, of which three are most glaring: the unresolved issue of racism, the growing disparity between rich and poor and between rural and urban, and demographic changes. Add to that the growing chasm caused by unrelenting immigration - or in the words of Donald Trump, the 'invasion' from 'shithole' countries - causing tremors in the minds of those who fear loss of their 'white privilege'.
Everyone in the US has a theory about how to address the divide. Each successive political regime, dictated by their ideological and political preferences, has tried to follow this prescription or that, and they all have only led to the deepening of the divide that haunts America today. This division, many think is basically 'tribal' in nature.
The foundation of governance is political compromise, which necessitates a readiness on both sides to accept what is feasible rather than what is ideal. Unfortunately, that is not today's reality in America. Living on opposing sides of the divide, the members of each group value their tribal loyalty more than the interests of the Republic as a whole.
The proposed immigration bill, which handles the growing migrant crisis, is the most recent example of this harmful tribal loyalty. For several months, a bipartisan group of senators have worked to draft the strictest sets of immigration laws and regulations. President Biden, under tremendous pressure from both sides to do better on border control, has thrown his full weight behind the bill. The problem: Donald Trump.
Sensing that Biden might score points on the contentious immigration issue, the former president has warned his supporters not to support the bill. Right on cue, the Speaker of the Republican-led Congress has declared the Senate bill is dead on arrival at the House.
This is a blatant example of tribal allegiance taking precedence over national interest. As American author and journalist George Packer, in a powerful article in The Atlantic, lamented, 'tribes demand loyalty, and in return they confer the security of belonging. They're badges of identity, not of thought.'
Comparing the political culture of Bangladesh with that of the United States may seem ridiculous, even comical. However, there is no denying that there is an equally pronounced and deep divide that prevents any room for compromise between Bangladesh's two major political parties and the organizations that support them.
This is a recipe for disaster, particularly for a nation like Bangladesh that is plagued by numerous problems. Addressing them will require not just endorsement but also some form of ownership by all, including the opposition. Given the political class's intransigence, is it possible to transcend division and unite around the most basic of issues? We may get some hints from the experience in the US.
All reasonable people in America agree that the country will only deepen its division and prolong crises if the two sparring sides do not cooperate on the most important issues, such as immigration, gun control, and climate change. Despite their hardened partisan positions, there are enough people on both sides who agree bipartisan approaches are not only possible, but essential to move forward. One such example of bipartisanship is the immigration bill that was previously mentioned. Yes, in spite of Donald Trump's shrill opposition, the bipartisan Senate group continues to work on the bill and argue for its adoption. The road ahead maybe difficult and arduous, but some are ready not to give up. We may call that a genuine spirit of bipartisanship.
Similarly, numerous bipartisan groups, commonly referred to as "problem solving caucuses," exist who quietly work to address common problems. Such efforts continue outside the political sphere and into the broader public space. According to Time Magazine, over 8,000 "bipartisan" organizations are working to bring people together through community discussion, teach-in and campus rallies. Some notable groups identified by Time are Search for Common Ground, Hope in the Cities and Essential Partners. All are working toward a common purpose: creating a climate of political accommodation.
The tribal loyalty that makes it so hard to find political accommodation in the US is a familiar story in Bangladesh. And to overcome such tribal intransigence, it too needs its political and civil society leaders to peek their heads out of their bunkers.
With Bangladesh's elections now concluded, this is the ideal moment to make a change. We can, at the very least, start the process by creating rooms for political dialogue. The prime minister has expressed her willingness to learn from past mistakes. Such pronouncements must now follow with visible and earnest actions.
In its diagnosis of Bangladesh's ongoing ailment, the nonpartisan think tank International Crisis Group has called for immediate communication between the opposition and the ruling party. While the ruling party may hold on to power in the short term, it writes, the opposition is likely to persist its actions. Political and economic pressures could mount, with potentially violent repercussions. 'The two parties should engage in dialogue to chart a way out of the stalemate,' it notes.
Good advice, but are there people in power ready to pay heed?
The writer is a journalist and author based in New York.
7 February 2024, New York
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