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US politics

Why America’s divisions grow ever wider

A smashed figurine during looting in New York in 2020. Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty

For anyone trying to understand America, says The Economist, August 25 was an instructive day. In California, state lawmakers banned the sale of petrol-powered cars from 2035. In Texas, a ban came in outlawing abortion from the moment of conception, with no exceptions even for rape or incest. These two seemingly unrelated developments are “symptoms of an important trend”: while Washington DC is gridlocked, “states are making policies at a furious pace”. That’s partly the point of federalism, of course. With 50 states, America “has 50 laboratories to test which policies work and which do not”. But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, increasingly partisan governors and state lawmakers are “fighting a national culture war”.

One reason is because 37 of the 50 states are now ruled by a single party, a number that has nearly doubled in 30 years. That means almost three quarters of Americans live in places where dissenters cannot stop legislation they disagree with, and where there is no incentive for leaders to reach across the aisle. This is leading to policies that don’t reflect the wishes of voters – most Texans think their new abortion laws are too draconian, for example. And it is creating “a new politics of confrontation”: some states are seeking to punish residents who seek an abortion or transgender surgery in another state; “others offer sanctuary to the same people”. The result is a “nastier, shriller national conversation”. And while speculation about another civil war is far-fetched, fears of further political violence are not.