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Regardless of who wins, US politics will remain in crisis

America is deeply divided in a way that even the two major parties cannot control. This election may change little.

In 2004, I wanted John Kerry to win, but I also remember hoping at one point that, whatever the outcome, the election would be decisive.

After the "hanging chads" debacle of 2000 and the partisan rancour that preceded and then intensified after the Bush-Gore contest, I just wasn't sure that the United States could endure another election if the outcome and legitimacy were again in doubt.

This year, I fear, the situation has worsened. For four years, we have witnessed not only partisan obstruction and gridlock, but a persistent campaign to delegitimise the very person of the president - raising questions about President Barack Obama's birthplace (and therefore his eligibility to hold the nation's highest office) and his religion (and therefore implicitly accusing him of lying about his Christian faith). The race-baiting and venomous attacks against Mr Obama have been extreme.

The United States is a nation in crisis, so deeply divided that the situation might even be likened at times to a rhetorical civil war on simmer. Of course, Americans have witnessed contentious politics and partisanship before, but this is different. In the first place, the warring components on the extremes of the electorate are more empowered than in the past.

In previous elections, angry, white, middle-aged, middle-class voters were taken for a ride. This demographic included the "Reagan Democrats" whose support the Republican Party would woo with hints of race resentment or so-called social issues.

The Republicans would exploit the hot-button issues to court them for their votes, then let them down. But now, with the advent of the Tea Party in American politics this crowd is no longer just along for the ride. They are behind the wheel and charting the course for US conservative politics.

After being courted, organised and even funded by the mainstream Republican Party, the Tea Party has in many instances turned on its patrons, striking fear in the hearts of those in the Republican establishment. In the last two election cycles, Tea Party candidates have defeated party stalwarts, and the party base has helped to elect politicians who are as angry, resentful and unwilling to compromise as are the party faithful.

On the liberal side of US politics, there is intensity as well - emanating from the African American, Latino, women's and gay and lesbian political action groups, as well as organised labour. These constituencies fear that the hard-fought gains that have been won over the past several decades may be at risk.

As a result, these groups are demonstrating a willingness to fight in the political arena in a way that has not been seen since the days of the civil-rights movement.

Added to this liberal wing are elements on the left - such as the "Occupy Movement" and several progressive online organising communities - that have declared their independence from the traditional Democratic Party establishment.

On both sides, factions are organising on their own, separate from the leaders of the two major parties, and are pressing their respective agendas, mirroring each other in intensity. Additionally, each side can tune in to (or log on to) their own national media, which fuel their rage and their mistrust of each other.

Listening to both sides, it has become clear that each has its own definition of being "American" that in many ways denies the legitimacy of the other.

To blame the president for this state of affairs, as some have, is patently absurd. He has been the victim and target, not the initiator, of the politics of division.

With polls showing that the national race will be close - and that as many as five states may be so close as to require recounts - I worry that there will be an even deeper crisis at the end of the election, whatever the outcome.

Instead of coming together, it seems that the United States will be pulled further apart. I worry, as well, that the next four years will witness even more rancour than the previous four. The model of obstructionism, championed by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell and Congressman John Boehner, remains obsessed with "victor and vanquished" politics.

If that becomes the new modus operandi of politics in Washington, the anger and the deep mistrust that have come to define the political landscape will continue to prevent political leaders from working together after the election to accomplish the nation's business.

 

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

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