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Amid pandemic, politics needs to resume in its core sense — politicians, parties need to connect with people – The Indian Express

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Written by Suhas Palshikar
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Updated: May 23, 2020 7:34:50 am

In Opposition, non-BJP parties have been lazy in not responding politically at all. It took two full months for the UPA and some other non-BJP parties even to think of talking formally to each other.

The past two months have thrown up an incongruous image of the politician and the political party. They are the wielders of power, they talk of the “people”, but betray an instinctive choice of “law and order” and a techno-bureaucratic idea of governance. Most parties have been on a holiday. Politics was never a dirtier word than it is today. At best, it is the season of social work or “constructive criticism”. Except for some moral indignation uttered on social media, most “Opposition” parties have remained both clueless and pathetically silent in the midst of this unprecedented crisis which is only worsened by callous policy and a bureaucratic cobweb of regulations.

Where they are ruling in a state, non-BJP parties have made the usual noises about discrimination and neglect by the Centre. But unlike the Left Front in Kerala, they have rarely come up with a robust alternative route to governance. In Opposition, non-BJP parties have been lazy in not responding politically at all. It took two full months for the UPA and some other non-BJP parties even to think of talking formally to each other. Even that meeting is marked by the absence of the BSP, SP and AAP.

While the Congress finally took the initiative in calling the non-BJP party meet, the “grand old party” has been in the forefront of the syndrome of non-political wait and watch. The Congress has manifested its usual indecision, lethargy and incomprehension in its response. It has been wary of being seen to be opposing the government. This may be partly due to the pressure of public perception. But one suspects that the party itself subscribes to the idea that moments of crisis are moments of non-political and non-contested governmental authority. Another problem for the Congress is that it is a ruling party in some states where its governments are happily using all the powers that the lockdown has extended to governments. In its approach to governance and politics, the Congress fails to distinguish itself from the BJP.

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The biggest worry for the Congress, however, is its indecision over how much to cater to the middle classes. This is a genuine dilemma. The middle classes control public discourse. The Congress keeps hoping that by talking the language of governance it can woo the middle classes. Hence, it took two months to take up the issue of the suffering of the vulnerable sections and migrants. And when it did, it was not sure who leads the party and what other party stalwarts are supposed to be doing.

Yet, there are two elements in the latest Congress approach that indicate the return of politics at last. One is the decision to focus on migrant labour and their plight. Though it decided to take this line eight weeks too late, this emphasis allows the party to sharply contrast itself to what the government did or did not do. If the Congress were to sustain this, the party would be moving towards a social coalition of the lower half of society that it has for some time shied away from.

The second element — very weak for the moment — is the political action such an approach will require. Over the past few weeks, thousands of helpless workers have been struggling to reach their homes. This has been chronicled mainly through valiant journalism. It is a shame that such a gigantic tragedy and human suffering has not stirred the politicians out of their comfort zones. Rahul Gandhi’s nominal outing may just symbolise what the political actors need to be doing. Unless party workers hit the roads, talk with suffering workers, walk with them, they will not realise that taking a stand also means mixing with the people. What Rahul Gandhi did the other day was hugely inadequate and far too late and yet, very important — a message to (his) party workers that politics needs to resume in its core sense — connecting with the people. If leaders of state parties were also to take a cue, an opening up of the political arena might be facilitated in these times of political quiet. Given the fact that many state parties have more active cadres locally than the Congress, much of the political action and agenda setting will depend on state parties.

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On its part, the BJP, too, is caught in the trap of regulation and denial. Its inadequate political response to the pandemic has been three-fold. First, it hoped that Modi magic will turn the virus away. If one listens again to the first speech by Narendra Modi (March 19) when he announced a day-long Janata curfew, one would be aghast about the naiveté publicised by it. But it is also about the collective willingness to believe in the impossible. The claim that a 14-hour-long curfew, and then, a 21-day lockdown will break the “chain”, constituted the BJP’s initial response (the lockdown did break many a life chain, but the claim was about chains of infection). The BJP went about doing what it does best: Turn everything into an event feeding into pseudo-nationalist sentiment. Thus, outworn clichés about national pride, war, etc kept circulating.

Cut to the PM’s latest speech on May 12 indicating the second and third response. That speech was significant for its careful underplaying of the COVID issue and its frantic effort to divert attention to India’s glorious future by adopting an “atmanirbhar” approach. Suddenly, COVID was a non-issue and India’s march to power was the issue. The third stage of the BJP’s response followed immediately – and was, in fact, included in that speech. It consisted of a combination of claims of massive financial relief package and “reforms”.

After two difficult months of lockdown, India stands humbled — by the virus, but more than that, by the treatment meted out to its most vulnerable sections; humbled, also, by the fact that a large lower stratum of so-called middle classes will have lost its source of livelihood. At a moment when governments needed to be more deliberative, we have a government beset with uncontrollably delusional self-belief. When governance needed to be more responsive and democratic, we celebrate the culture of obedience, inculcate bureaucratic authoritarianism and are happy with platitudes.

Resumption of democratic contestation is a must. Our main challenge is to revive and build politics. If at this historic moment Opposition parties truly engage in politics, they would be ensuring a possibility of a political response to the pandemic. Politics alone can be survival therapy for democracy — perhaps in doing that Opposition parties would be ensuring their own survival too.

This article first appeared in the print section of May 23, 2020, under the title ‘The political therapy’. The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics

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The Class of 2020 Is Missing Out, and So Are Politicians – The New York Times

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The event comes with a captive audience of thousands — Republicans, Democrats, “apolitical” relatives, little siblings too young to vote. Everybody sits trapped in their bleacher seats. After 20 minutes, they dutifully applaud.

For a politician, a commencement speaking gig offers the kind of advertising that money can’t buy. “You have people of all different backgrounds gathered,” said Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, who delivered two dozen virtual commencement speeches this spring. “It’s a time of extraordinary diversity.”

Mr. Booker recalled that when he was chosen to give the address at the University of Pennsylvania in 2017, there were Republican trustees “pooh-poohing” the choice of such a partisan speaker. (He won them over, he said, with his focus on “our common values” and “the larger body politic.”)

College graduation ceremonies are fittingly focused on the graduates, but for some 20-odd minutes the spotlight turns to the illustrious speaker. Ideally the audience, in what Mr. Booker called its “extraordinary diversity,” might inspire a speech that transcends ideological divisions, as some of the most memorable ones have. The Apple founder Steve Jobs earned his spot in the commencement hall of fame with a 2005 speech at Stanford University reminding students that “you are going to die.” But when a politician steps up to the lectern, the message tends to veer away from death and toward politics.

This was no exception for the class of 2020. While isolated at home in their pajamas because of the coronavirus pandemic, graduates were saluted in virtual ceremonies headlined by government figures and entertainers. Former President Barack Obama celebrated the more than 27,000 graduates of historically black colleges and universities in May, and on Sunday he is set to join Lady Gaga, Malala Yousafzai and others in a “Dear Class of 2020” event hosted by YouTube, a lineup that even the most ambitious real-life commencement would find impossible to replicate.

One class of graduates will get its celebration in person: the 1,000 West Point cadets, who will be addressed by President Trump on June 13.

Tia Humphries, a Howard University graduate from Orlando, Fla., watched Mr. Obama’s virtual address with family in her living room, which her parents had decorated with streamers and balloons to mimic what Howard’s gymnasium would have looked like for the ceremony.

It quickly became clear the speech was not just for Ms. Humphries and her friends. The speech, given on May 16, weeks before Mr. Obama addressed the nation on the killing of George Floyd and the protest movement that followed, still used the momentous occasion as a way to reach beyond the graduates and their families.

The former president made headlines by using the opportunity to criticize the country leadership’s response to the coronavirus. He urged the graduates to take responsibility in the midst of the crisis, when political leaders “aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”

Mr. Obama’s words followed in a long tradition of graduation speeches, landing in moments of national crisis, that are partly for the graduates and partly their country at large.

President John F. Kennedy called for a nuclear test ban treaty at American University’s 1963 graduation. President Lyndon B. Johnson created the framework for affirmative action policy at Howard University in 1965, the year after the Civil Rights Act passed. In 2002, President George W. Bush told graduates of the U.S. Military Academy that the country should be prepared for “pre-emptive action” in Iraq.

These speeches form a presidential ritual as familiar as it is peculiar: addressing the nation through its newly minted adults.

Leland Shelton, a 2013 graduate of Morehouse College, recalled his experience with the personal milestone turned political. Mr. Shelton had spent the months before his graduation lobbying class leaders to pick Ray Lewis, a Baltimore Ravens linebacker, as the commencement speaker. Instead, they chose their president, Mr. Obama.

Midway through the speech the improbable happened. “Where’s Leland?” Mr. Obama said. The president went on to praise Mr. Shelton, a foster care child with a mother in prison who was Phi Beta Kappa and Harvard Law-bound. Mr. Shelton stood up to thunderous applause, listening in disbelief and wishing his mother was present.

But to Mr. Shelton, being included in the speech was also complicated. Mr. Obama spent several minutes urging the Morehouse graduates to be good parents to their children.

“I was thinking, ‘You’re talking to an audience of 550 black men going on to some of the best professional schools in the country,’” Mr. Shelton said. The message seemed to “harken to stereotypes about black men not being good fathers, which I don’t think are true.”

Some political commencement speeches evoke far more than mixed emotions. In 2014, Condoleezza Rice had to withdraw from the Rutgers commencement after students staged a sit-in condemning her foreign policy at the university president’s office.

Kathleen Sebelius, former secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration, was interrupted by a heckler at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute in 2012, and a small group protested her appearance at the university’s front gate. Georgetown’s president said it was the decision of students at the institute to invite Ms. Sebelius as a speaker.

Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university in Daytona Beach, Fla., had its 2017 commencement interrupted when some students turned their backs on the speaker, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Student leaders said they were protesting comments Ms. DeVos made three months earlier that referred to historically black institutions as “pioneers” of “school choice”; they were established at the height of racial segregation.

For Fedrick Ingram, an older alumnus of the university who helped coordinate the protests, the disruption was the highlight of the ceremony. “It was electricity,” he said. “It was almost like 1968 with the Freedom Riders.” The university president had threatened to withhold degrees from students who disrupted the ceremony, but dozens booed Ms. DeVos anyway.

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  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 5, 2020

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


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Political commencement speeches aren’t always mired in drama, but for many students and families they evoke a simpler question: Why draw politics into a day that’s otherwise festive and uncontroversial?

That was a question on Michael Agnello’s mind, when the University of Massachusetts, Amherst announced Elizabeth Warren as its undergraduate commencement speaker, in 2017. Mr. Agnello was a fan of the Massachusetts senator, but he knew his more conservative family members would be skeptical of the university’s decision. He decided to bring some levity to the day by creating “Elizabeth Warren’s Commencement Speech Drinking Game.”

The rules Mr. Agnello designed were straightforward. For a mention of “the disappearing middle class,” he advised readers to “fight fire with fire and rip that Fireball.” For a discussion of “student debt,” the rule was to “quell such injustice” with “a nip of Smirnoff.”

But he was not expecting the senator to stumble upon his game online and refer to it directly — which she did midway through her speech, with a reference to Fireball that delighted his conservative relatives.

“By the time we walked out of the football stadium I had 30 texts on my phone like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that just happened,’” Mr. Agnello said. “My family was cracking up.”

Politicians, for their part, realize the difficulties of imparting wisdom to an audience with lots of competing concerns, from family drama to last hurrah hangovers. “It’s always a crapshoot with graduating seniors because a lot of them might have been out super late the night before,” said Cody Keenan, a speechwriter for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama gave more than two dozen commencement speeches while in office — at military schools like West Point, state institutions like Ohio State and private ones like Barnard. Over years of commencement speechwriting, Mr. Keenan developed rules of the road. The speaker should be funny and self-deprecating. He should not over-index on the political, even in an election season.

Most important, Mr. Keenan said, is that speechwriters not fixate on producing a speech that becomes an instant classic.

“One of the mistakes people make is that they’re like, ‘I want to break through,’” he said. “‘I want to be Steve Jobs in 2005.’ Steve Jobs broke through because he was dying and explicitly talked about that.”

Kendra Grissom, who graduated from Spelman College last month, was looking forward to the many rites of commencement weekend: marching through the alumni arch, dressing up for senior soiree, passing down the class cymbal. Instead, she said, she spent it propped up in bed watching a parade of digital speeches from “Debbie Allen, some executive from Chase and a basketball player.”

But Mr. Obama offered some assurance for graduates like Ms. Grissom: “The disappointments of missing a live graduation, those will pass pretty quick,” he said. The greatest solace, according to the former president: “Not having to sit there and listen to a commencement speaker isn’t all that bad. Mine usually go on way too long.”

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Amid protests, US faith leaders engage racism and politics – Rimbey Review

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Amid protests, U.S. faith leaders engage racism and politics

NEW YORK — As days of anti-racism protests sparked by police killings push Americans toward a national reckoning, religious leaders are stepping more directly into the politics surrounding discrimination, entering into a dialogue that cuts across lines of faith and colour.

Groups from multiple denominations across Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths have publicly called for action against racism, aligning with peaceful demonstrators’ goals following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Even beyond those statements, the amount and diversity of religious involvement in the ongoing protests suggests a possible sea change for faith-driven engagement in racial justice issues.

“I’ve seen people of different faiths coming out and saying ‘this was wrong’ in ways I didn’t see before,” said Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice at the United Church of Christ and an early spiritual leader in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Religion’s role in struggles against racial bias long predates Floyd’s killing, which sparked mass demonstrations across the United States and even in other countries. But a notable shift has taken place this week.

Among those who’ve publicly backed protesters are clergy from the Southern Baptist Convention, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Orthodox and Reform Judaism.

Meanwhile Catholic and Episcopal leaders openly criticized President Donald Trump after peaceful demonstrators were forcefully cleared to make way for his brief visit and photo-op outside the historic St. John’s Church near the White House.

On Wednesday, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, leader of the United Methodist Church’s Washington-area conference, joined Rev. Mariann Budde, the bishop of Washington’s Episcopal diocese, which includes St. Johns, and other faith leaders for a prayer vigil that aimed to orient the religious conversation around fighting racism.

“I think that all leaders that consider themselves to be religious or moral leaders have an obligation to rise and to speak to this moment, because institutional racism and supremacy cannot be dismantled by African American leaders alone,” said Easterling, who is African American. “Those who enjoy the privilege of those systems must rise.”

The vigil was initially set to take place at St. John’s but had to move to a nearby block after local law enforcement extended the security perimeter around the White House.

Budde, who expressed outrage Monday over Trump’s use of St. John’s as a backdrop, said white Americans need to engage more in “the realities of this country that we … are allowed to be blind to in ways that cost people of colour.”

Trump’s visit, in which he held up a Bible and said “we have a great country,” was at least in part intended as a show of solidarity with faith, according to the White House. But the manoeuvr nudged Budde and other religious leaders to wade further into the political realm, airing their disagreement.

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Polarized Politics Has Infected American Diplomacy – The Atlantic

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The Atlantic

Moments of national crisis ought to bring Americans together. Instead, led by a divisive president, our society is being ripped apart, as the country is battered by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and centuries-old pathologies of racism and inequality. The consequences of our division are profoundly troubling at home, but no less worrisome abroad.

The style and substance of our polarized politics have infected American diplomacy. Policies lurch between parties, commitments expire at the end of each administration, institutions are politicized, and disagreements are tribal. The inability to compromise at home is becoming the modus operandi overseas. In the past, a sense of common domestic purpose gave ballast to U.S. diplomacy; now its absence enfeebles it.

Partisan divides about foreign policy are hardly new. I saw my share of them as a career diplomat, from the battles over Central America policy in the Reagan era to the war in Iraq two decades later. We’ve had plenty of painful fractures, bitter policy fights, and dramatic about-faces between administrations.

But as Stanford University’s Kenneth Schultz demonstrates in an important study, partisan animus and schizophrenia are more and more the rule, not the exception. Once a regular phenomenon, Senate approval of international treaties grew ever more tenuous over the last few decades. By the Obama administration, it had become nearly impossible. Even when Bob Dole—grievously wounded in World War II, and later a Senate majority leader and GOP presidential candidate—sat in his wheelchair on the Senate floor in 2012 and asked his fellow Republicans to ratify an international disability treaty modeled on U.S. law—nearly all of them walked past him to vote nay, bent on denying Barack Obama a victory of any kind.

If that seemed like a new low in reflexive partisan opposition, President Donald Trump—as with most everything else he does—proved he could dig even deeper. He has scrapped one agreement after another, with disruptive glee and no regard for Plan B. The Iran nuclear deal (“an embarrassment”), the Paris climate accord (“very unfair”), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“a rape of our country”), all negotiated by the administration of his Democratic predecessor, wound up on the trash heap. New START, following the president’s exit from the Open Skies Treaty, may be next. Meanwhile, the administration is channeling General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, threatening to resume nuclear testing and spend rivals “into oblivion” in a new arms race.

If Representative Mike Pompeo’s Benghazi hearings showed the power of weaponizing foreign policy for domestic purposes (where polarization is the end, not the means), Secretary of State Pompeo’s tenure has been marked by the weaponization of domestic politics on the world stage. The impeachment scandal—the distortion of Ukraine policy to pursue what Fiona Hill aptly termed “domestic political errands”—is not the only example, just the most dramatic.

The erosion of the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus in itself is not a tragedy, given its innumerable flaws, blind spots, and uneven track record. But the intense divisiveness and scorched-earth tactics that have poisoned our domestic politics over the past decade are crippling American diplomacy as well. The consequences are severe. Three in particular stand out.

First, America’s credibility, reliability, and reputation for competence are damaged. Credibility is an overused term in Washington, a town prone to badgering presidents into using force or clinging to collapsing positions to prop up our global currency. But it matters in diplomacy, especially when America’s ability to mobilize other countries around common concerns is becoming more crucial, in a world in which the U.S. can no longer get its way on its own, or by force alone.

If our elected representatives won’t give a negotiated agreement a fair hearing, support it, or at a minimum avoid undercutting it even before the ink dries, why would any friend or foe enter into any kind of good-faith negotiations with the U.S.? And why should they have any confidence that the American government will deliver on its commitments if they do? I remember an Iranian diplomat asking me during an especially difficult moment in the nuclear talks why he should believe that an agreement wouldn’t simply be thrown overboard in a different administration. With less than total conviction, I replied that if all parties complied with their obligations, our system would uphold it. I certainly got that wrong.

The U.S. is stuck in the mud of its own polarized dysfunction, its already-bruised reputation for getting big things done suffering badly. Others around the world have always had grievances with America’s policies and its geopolitical weight, but they usually had a grudging respect for our competence, and for the power of our example. Today, the U.S. government can’t pass a budget, let alone bring the world together to stop the spread of a ruinous pandemic. Trump once claimed that foreigners were laughing at us. The reality today is far worse—they pity and discount us.

A second effect of polarization is the demolition of diplomacy’s apolitical role. I served 10 secretaries of state. They all had finely tuned political antennae, or they wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place. All of them, however, were scrupulous about keeping domestic politics out of foreign policy. Pompeo, by contrast, has been the most partisan secretary of state in living memory—systematically sidelining career professionals in favor of political allies, waging a war against an imagined “deep state,” relishing political skirmishes, attacking “opposition” media, stripping away safeguards (like firing the State Department’s independent watchdog last month), and barely concealing his use of the department as a platform for future political ambition.

If the world gets used to dealing with distinct brands of Democratic and Republican foreign policies, the temptation to ignore career diplomats, meddle in our politics, and wait out the clock on seemingly adversarial administrations will grow at the expense of our national interests.

Finally, leaders undercut diplomacy’s potential when the “no compromise” feature of our domestic politics becomes a feature of our diplomacy as well. I remember a story about a mistranslated U.S.-military pamphlet released over Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 2003 invasion. It mistakenly read “Surrender and die” as opposed to “Surrender or die.” The former is a pretty good slogan for much of the Trump administration’s approach to diplomatic negotiations, embodied most fancifully in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

The Trump White House is not the first to embrace lazy maximalism. That has been a ruinous habit of American diplomacy for some time. But in fanning the flames of polarization in foreign policy, the administration has done more than any of its predecessors to suffocate the potential of American diplomacy when we need it most.

Depolarization is hard. As my colleague Thomas Carothers has argued, it’ll be an especially tough challenge in the United States. Ours is a particularly acute form of polarization—it has been around longer than in most other countries, and it’s more deeply rooted and more multifaceted, an amalgam of ethnic, ideological, and religious divides.

The polarization of our foreign policy is still largely confined to the political elite, not the general public. That’s the good news. The bad news is that while polarization may start among elites, it rarely ends there. And once it spreads, it becomes nearly impossible to extinguish.

Partisan divides are stark today over a number of foreign-policy issues, such as climate change and immigration. But on some foundational policy questions, public opinion is far less fractured than it is in Washington. Despite President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, a growing majority of Americans support an active, disciplined role for the United States on the world stage; strong alliances; and open trading arrangements. More important, there is an increasing appreciation for the need to root foreign policy more firmly in the needs and aspirations of the American middle class.

A foreign policy more representative of the American public’s concerns than those of an inbred foreign-policy elite is a good start toward depolarization, but it’s not enough. American leaders will also have to deliver results—with far greater discipline abroad, and the kind of political skill at home that goes beyond just playing to the predispositions and passions of a partisan base.

That will require working with new constituencies—including mayors and governors, who have a decidedly more practical approach to foreign affairs—and renovating institutions charged with advancing our interests. Leaders will need to reinvent a foreign-policy consensus that reflects new global realities and domestic priorities, and avoid the temptation to solve foreign-policy polarization by shoehorning all our concerns into one unifying global crusade—even as central a challenge as our rivalry with China.

Polarization was a pre-existing condition in America, well before Trumpism. Change at the ballot box in November will be a powerful therapeutic, but not a cure. Reaching across the fissures laid bare by pandemic and protests will take time, vision, and hard work. And now, with an unforgiving international landscape, there is far less margin for error.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

William J. Burns is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former deputy secretary of state, and author of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal.

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