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A Visit to the Balkans Casts Light on the Divisions in America

Balkan-like partisanship in the U.S. set to get more intense, experts say

The “Warrior on a Horse” statue in downtown Skopje, Macedonia. American politics has increasingly taken on a Balkan flavor with party affiliation coming in the way of finding policy solutions. (Boris Grdanoski/AP file photo)
The “Warrior on a Horse” statue in downtown Skopje, Macedonia. American politics has increasingly taken on a Balkan flavor with party affiliation coming in the way of finding policy solutions. (Boris Grdanoski/AP file photo)

SKOPJE, Macedonia — A statue depicting an ancient soldier, thrusting a sword skyward, on horseback, rises in the main square here. Across the Macedonian capital’s famed Stone Bridge is another, of Philip II, urging on his son.

But locals are quick to provide visitors to the Balkan nation this advice: Whatever you do, “do not” refer to the equine-mounted fighter as Alexander the Great. The statue is known simply as “Warrior on a Horse.” For now, at least.

The statue is more than a reminder of Macedonia’s past. It also is a 92-feet-high, 30-ton symbol of the centuries-old conflicts and disagreements that still complicate the politics of the Balkans.

The Greek and Macedonian governments are locked in plodding negotiations that locals expect will allow Alexander’s name to officially be slapped on the statue. But such inter-country and inter-ethnic disagreements don’t stop there.

From the number of sun rays Athens finds acceptable on the national flag of its northern neighbor to Macedonia’s new official name to the birthplaces of historical figures such as Alexander and Mother Teresa to a temporary visa stamp in a passport, the Balkans is a region defined by political and ethnic disputes.

The new Balkans

Nearly 6,000 miles away, America’s politics increasingly take on a Balkan flavor, with one’s political affiliation — Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive — typically more important than finding actual policy solutions. And that was before Donald Trump.

As a candidate, the polarizing president cast himself as a once-in-a-generation uniter — but he has governed in a manner that has only further Balkanized his country’s political and legislative systems.

A prime example came on May 16, when Trump responded to a sheriff’s complaint that existing laws prevent him from acting as aggressively as he would like against suspected MS-13 gang members. The president’s instincts returned him to the kind of verbose rhetoric he used as a candidate.

“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in,” Trump responded. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”

His supporters heard one thing: To them, an accurate condemnation of a violent criminal organization. But his detractors heard the opposite: A sitting U.S. president describing anyone who seeks a better life in America’s “land of opportunity” as wild beasts.

And that rhetoric has only intensified in the current border crisis, with the president referring to immigrants as invaders and people seeking to “infest” the United States and being unworthy of judicial due process.

Welcome to the Balkanization of America — or at least the ongoing slide toward a kind of American political tribalism. Such black-and-white stances increasingly mirror those in southern Europe.

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Parallel universes

During a recent trip, a reporter’s driver, a Macedonian citizen, expressed fears that ethnic Albanians would “ruin” his country. “They’re going to turn it into another Kosovo. I hate Kosovo,” he said as he piloted the car toward the Macedonia-Kosovo border. Later, a local tour guide, a Kosovo citizen who self-identifies as an ethnic Albanian, warned the reporter about “Macedonian propaganda,” saying his country’s southern neighbor was paralyzed by “a lot of problems they aren’t able to solve on their own.”

Experts and lawmakers warn that America’s Balkan-like partisanship will likely only get more intense, creating more legislative gridlock — and even more awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversations.

“I try to be as sober a social scientist as I can be, but I’m really troubled by this time in history,” said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, citing research for a new book with co-author Jonathan Weiler on what they dub the country’s “great divide.”

“Politics in the United States is not about just politics anymore. It seems much more life and death,” Hetherington said. “Before, you could meet in the middle on these issues. In the New Deal era and post-New Deal era, there were things the two parties could get together on. But today, it’s the way the parties are so divided that matters most.”

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, called the Balkans’ troubled ethnic and political landscape “a cautionary tale.”

“The United States certainly is becoming more superficially tribal and sorted,” Grumet said. “The median Republican is more conservative than 95 percent of Democrats. And something like 85 percent of Democrats and Republicans have negative views of members of the other party. In fact, most say don’t have friends in the other party.”

Stalled agenda

On Capitol Hill, the growing divisions translate into legislative gridlock.

“The answer is yes,” said Oklahoma Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe, who entered Congress in 1987, when asked if he saw the United States becoming tribalized along party lines. “I would use as an example everything that’s happening in the Senate,” he said, accusing Democrats of “objecting to everything just to object to it — then everybody votes for it.”

According to Inhofe, Democrats are only using those floor tactics out of animosity toward the other party. Inhofe, who managed the defense authorization bill on the floor recently in the stead of ailing Armed Services Chairman John McCain, even got a taste of this from his own party, when some members objected to efforts to streamline consideration of the measure and sank his attempts to add amendments to the bill.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia said he, too, is concerned about whether divisions into Team Republican and Team Democrat are preventing major legislation from passing to solve problems both parties agree exist.

“Yeah, we’ve got to get some civility back in this place,” Manchin said. “This place has got to work. The rule of law has to matter to all of us. The Constitution has to be our holy grail, and that has to be preserved.”

Manchin is a holdover from a different era: a Democrat from a conservative state. Despite personal popularity, he faces a tough re-election race this fall.

Both Inhofe and Manchin were attempting to make points about a Balkan-like divide, but in doing so, both took shots at the other party in yet another example of the country’s increasing political tribalism.

Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, who has served in leadership in both chambers, recently offered what amounts to a pithy summary of what this political environment produces in Washington: “There is so much talent here, it is such a shame we are not taking full advantage of it.”

But the BPC’s Grumet said he does not think politics has worsened much. “What’s different is members of Congress no longer have the kind of relationships with one another to sustain the kind of progress that’s needed in a democracy,” he said.

“Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch had very intense debates, but they knew each other and liked each other,” Grumet said of the late Massachusetts Democratic senator and the retiring senior GOP senator from Utah. “So they could come back and find some common ground. … With cable news coverage 24-7, we’re basically asking members of Congress to plan their holiday vacation plans with both sets of in-laws in the room.”

Worlds apart

Increasingly, like the Macedonian driver and Kosovar tour guide, many Americans “just don’t have anything in common with each other,” Hetherington said.

“We have virtually no or very little contact with people who are different from us. Mix in how worldviews more and more influence everything from our political affiliation to what neighborhood we live in, and when we see people who aren’t like us, they’re monsters,” he said.

Enter Trump, whom Grumet said is both “a cause and a symptom of this sorting.” The 45th president, he said, has “made things so much more personal” — in part because of his “you’re either with me or you’re against me” demeanor.

“This White House certainly hasn’t done things with the basic level of grace and dignity we’re used to,” Grumet said. “Whatever you feel about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, there was a sense the presidency was a real jewel the nation shared together and should be treated as such. There is a near-term cost to that loss of dignity: It is very polarizing and just drives people to their corners with other members of their tribe.”

Bennett also reported from Pristina and Prizren in Kosovo; and Washington.

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