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US politics

Has America backed away from the abyss?

Biden with McCarthy before his State of the Union address. Jacquelyn Martin/Getty

America might just be “learning to live with division”, says Janan Ganesh in the FT. November’s midterm elections “passed more or less without incident”. The end of the federal right to abortion “has not sparked civil strife”. And in Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address, some Republicans even clapped. Biden himself is one of the reasons for this: white, old, non-Ivy League and non-metropolitan, he’s “superficially digestible for conservatives”. His programme of “big-government populism”, such as industrial subsidies, is also hard for jingoist Republicans to oppose. And in China, the US now has the “unifying external rival” it has missed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Bellicose Republicans like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy are distinctly “untribal” when the subject is Beijing.

This wouldn’t be the first time America has stared into the abyss before backing away. “At the end of the 1960s, the US was bound for total civic breakdown.” There were political assassinations and riots which devastated cities. But despite any number of flashpoints along the way – Watergate, the Opec oil crisis – things got better, not worse. “By 1984, 49 states were voting the same way (for Ronald Reagan).” The “Great Moderation” was underway. In hindsight, 1968 was the peak of chaos, not the start of it. “America’s challenge is to ensure that the Capitol siege of 2021 comes to be seen in the same way.”