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From the Center

One of the all-time guilty pleasure so-bad-it’s-good entertainment experiences is the late 20th century movie Independence Day, in which Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman team up to save the earth from alien invaders from outer space. ID4 was actually the top-grossing film of 1996, although the critics condemned it harshly.  But buried in that camp classic, in addition to the high-tech battle scenes and incomprehensible techno-dialogue, is actually a valuable lesson about real-world politics and coalition building.

Toward the end of the film, after the plucky earthlings figure out how to penetrate the invaders’ defenses, all the countries of the planet come together under American leadership to defeat their common enemy. The credits roll as fireworks light up the 4th of July sky, resulting in a perfect interstellar happy ending.

Out here in the real world, this dynamic isn’t nearly so seamless. But successful leaders understand that one of the most effective ways of unifying an otherwise disparate group of potential followers is to identify a common foe against whom to consolidate their efforts. In our country’s history, this type of external threat has almost always had the effect of encouraging us to put aside partisan differences — albeit temporarily — until the danger had passed. It’s not a coincidence that U.S. military engagement against a foreign power has stimulated a more cooperative domestic political environment, at least at the beginning of those wars before the “rally-round-the flag” sentiment dissipated in the face of prolonged economic and human sacrifice.

A similar dynamic exists in other countries, as we can currently see in Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan (as well as Russia, China and Gaza). In each of these wartime situations, the combatants’ leaders are able to marshal a heightened level of civic accord, if not unanimity.

As we consider the current polarization and hyper-partisanship that has gripped our nation’s politics for the last several years, we have often asked each other what it would take to break out of this sclerotic gridlock that has stymied necessary progress on so many important matters. The most pessimistic among us worry that it might require a major confrontation — military or otherwise — with one of the world’s other great powers. Recent global events suggest the likelihood of that eventuality might be growing.

It has become clear in recent years that one of the few issues on which a badly divided Congress can agree are their increased levels of animosity toward the People’s Republic of China. A more aggressive approach from Chinese President Xi Jinping forced a reconsideration in both parties here regarding the bipartisan consensus that had existed among U.S. politicians for many years as to the benefits of outreach and engagement with China. Large majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike now see China as a belligerent force on the world stage.

Donald Trump’s unique feelings about Vladimir Putin and his animosity toward Ukraine have obscured a similar bipartisan attitude about the potential menace that the Russian presents to the U.S. and its allies. For several months, many congressional Republicans have fallen into line beyond Trump, putting continued U.S. aid to Ukraine at severe risk. But last week, we saw two examples of Putin’s belligerence that brought out the animosity that most Republicans feel toward him in a way that the Russia-Ukraine stalemate has not.

First, news broke that Russia was working to develop a space-based nuclear weapon. A day later, it was reported that longtime dissident Alexei Navalny had died while being held in a Siberian prison. In both cases, leading Republicans spoke out forcefully, even while Trump himself remained silent. While it’s impossible to predict whether the Trump Era in American politics will conclude at the end of 2024 or four years later, both instances suggest that the former president’s influence on the GOP, while potentially lasting on many fronts, may not extend to his relationship with Putin beyond his own time as the party’s leader.

The U.S. will face serious challenges with both China and Russia for years to come. Hopefully, those difficulties will remain in the diplomatic and economic spheres and not escalate into military confrontation. The first of those two options could allow us to transcend our current polarization by encouraging Americans to come together to confront such a difficult international situation. The latter could create a sense of domestic unity too, but at a much greater cost.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: Tim Mossholder / Pexels