After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States rallied together and was arguably more unified than ever before. However, nearly twenty years later it seems as though the United States cannot achieve a unified front on anything. This is largely due to polarization taking precedent over democratic ideals, which is evident in leading republicans’ criticism to democratic president Joe Biden’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Since the onset of World War II, the United States has substantially been able to put partisan, political interests aside for the good of the nation during some of the country’s worst times and threats, whether they be direct or indirect threats.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the nation was united and the republicans did not blame Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt. The same can be said about republicans during the rest of World War II, even Democratic President Harry Truman’s decision to use two atomic bombs to end the war. Similarly, during the Cold War, when major events occurred such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, the opposition party did not blame the party in power for these events. In the post cold war era the same can be said for 9/11.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States rallied together and was arguably more unified than ever before. However, nearly twenty years later it seems as though the United States cannot achieve a unified front on anything.
The domination of partisanship in American politics is particularly dangerous to democracy for a multitude of reasons. Partisanship makes it very easy for an “us versus them” mentality to emerge, which is notably used by populist leaders to come to power. In addition, it is not uncommon for polarization and a mistrust in the government to grow together which are also conditions under which a populist leader could thrive under. Conditions such as these have allowed the door to swing open for a plethora of democratic undermining actions in the United States. Overall, the difference in responses to 9/11 and America’s response to Ukraine are just two examples that clearly exhibit the changes the United States has gone through in the past twenty years.
While the level of patriotism and bipartisanship that followed 9/11 was obviously not a surprise as it was the first attack on United States soil in decades, it still fostered an unprecedented level of patriotism as well as large bipartisan actions. Congress passed a bipartisan forty-billion-dollar disaster relief bill and then the Patriot Act. President Bush’s approval ratings also soared to ninety percent after he began military operations in Afghanistan (History.com, 2010). Most importantly, democrats did not blame the republican president, Bush. These events clearly show putting partisan politics aside for the greater good.
When contrasted with President Biden’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there are vastly different responses. Of course, Ukraine’s invasion and 9/11 cannot be equated. However, they were both major events that attacked and threatened democracy. As the United States prides itself on spreading and defending democracy, an invasion by an autocratic leader to their sovereign democratic neighbor should be a clear indicator of where the United States should stand.
After Russia invaded Ukraine it was clear that the United States public opinion was divided in numerous ways. Republicans have concluded that Putin decided to attack Ukraine during a Biden administration rather than during Trumps because as they put it he is weak. Republican senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has said that Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has given autocrats an invitation to do whatever they want.(Martinez, 2022). A Quinnipiac Poll found that eighty percent of republicans say President Biden has not been tough enough on Russia (McCormack, 2022). One republican even said. “For America, President Biden may be the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of this century”. (Morgan, 2022). It is evident that there is lots of criticism of President Biden’s response to the Russian invasion among the republican party, this is a large difference from the bipartisan response to the attacks on 9/11.
While many republicans have criticized President Biden’s actions while still maintaining the position that the United States should still support Ukraine, some republicans have questioned this stance. Former President Trump has called Putin a genius and has spoken more of how this could never happen during his presidency than actually condemning Putin’s actions. Tucker Carlson of Fox News has even said Americans only hate Putin because democrats told them to. He also suggested the United States is only supporting Ukraine to repay personal debts to Ukrainian oligarchs for President Biden. (Carlson, 2022).
The contrast between America’s unified response to 9/11 and the response to the invasion of Ukraine is significant because it marks a huge weakness and demise of American democracy. Almost no matter what President Biden does, republicans will claim he should do the opposite. This is not about condemning his actions for the good of democracy but rather to paint the other side in a bad light to advance their own position to win future elections. When political gain becomes more important than doing what is good for democracy that is an indicator of a democracy in demise. When polarization becomes more important than maintaining democratic values that is a telling sign for democracy.
Carlson, T. (2022, February 23). Tucker Carlson: Americans have been trained to hate Putin, and will suffer because of it. Fox News. Retrieved March 2, 2022, from https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/tucker-carlson-hate-putin-americans-suffer
History.com Editors. (2010, August 13). Reaction to 9/11. History.com. Retrieved March 2, 2022, from https://www.history.com/topics/21st-century/reaction-to-9-11
Martinez. (2022, February 24). Republicans are condemning Putin for the invasion of Ukraine – and criticizing Biden. NPR. Retrieved March 2, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1082954761
McCormack, J. (2022, March 1). Quinnipiac poll: Only 6 percent of Republicans say U.S. is doing ‘too much’ to help Ukraine. National Review. Retrieved March 2, 2022, from https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/quinnipiac-poll-only-6-percent-of-republicans-u-s-is-doing-too-much-to-help-ukraine/
Morgan, D. (2022, February 25). Republicans target Biden for blame over Putin’s Ukraine invasion. Reuters. Retrieved March 2, 2022, from https://www.reuters.com/world/us/republicans-target-biden-blame-over-putins-ukraine-invasion-2022-02-24/
Ana, you alluded to many great points surrounding the current state of democracy in the world, specifically in relation to the ongoing war in Ukraine. I agree that there are multiple signs of democratic erosion taking place right now, and the United States’ position in the war may influence this. The polarization described by the author is indeed a true threat to democracy and should not be taken lightly. The partisanship of the two parties in the United States, though, may have more to do with other deep cleavages, rather than Biden’s decisions regarding the war.
One of the author’s main arguments goes on to highlight the similarities and differences between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the attack on the United States on 9/11. While mentioning that the two will never equate, this comparison seems irrational. Both events are beyond horrifying and saddening and will hold an impact forever. The lives lost will never be forgotten, and I stand with Ukraine as their battle fights on. However, comparing the United States’ unity during that event to our contemporary status is not a fair comparison. It is believed that in times of crisis unification is more likely to occur. But this also means unification within a small group; it is irrational to think the entire world would become unified, hence the current division in the U.S. about our position in the war in Ukraine. A unified front seems to be the case within Ukraine as they battle Russia and looking back it would be easy to say the same about 9/11. But during the attack on the World Trade Center and the time period following, this was not the case for the United States. Just hours after the planes hit the Twin Towers, there were theories circulating country wide that the United States Government planned the attack- conspiracy theories .
These conspiracy theories became more than just theories to a majority of people. Many people were looking for answers- they were scared and wanted someone to blame immediately. There were even multiple theories that the president at the time, George W. Bush, was to blame. The initial incentive to believe these accusations can be forgiven, but the issue began when people took more steps in the direction of conspiracy. There are people that to this day still think that the attack was never even real. This is extremely frustrating for those who were directly involved, especially having lost family, and loved ones. But the theorists do not care because they will look for anything to believe their own narrative. Alex Jones is the perfect example of an extreme conspiracy theorist and has a large following of supporters who pose a threat to democracy .
One of Alex Jones’ public supporters is former president Donald Trump. Not only did Trump go on his radio to be interviewed, but he backed and promoted Alex Jones’ outlandish claims. These claims have been disproven, and still there are followers that will take Trump’s word on them. Another example of a disproved theory being the birthplace of President Barack Obama. The willingness for conservatives to support Trump no matter the circumstances have to do with his populist rhetoric. As a labeled populist, Trump caters to those he knows will listen; he targets an audience that wants to be heard. Described well by Mercieca, Trump uses weaponized communication to gain his following. This portrays him as a dangerous demagogue, with other evidence like his inability to claim responsibility for actions defending this label. Looking to resonate with the Americans that feel left behind, Trump discovered Alex Jones as a perfect ally during his campaign . Together they rallied supporters to believe their declarations, and Alex Jones’ even insists he had a huge part in Trump’s Road to victory. This feeling from some Americans described as being “left-behind” is a thesis explained by Mutz. Essentially, value issues matter more to some voters, so politicians cater to their feelings. This is described as The Great Paradox as well. These are the types of voters that either support conspiracy theories, voted for Trump, or both. In turn, these theories contributed to a political divide that was not repaired even after Trump was elected out of office. The effects of this backsliding over time are seen today and cannot be fully blamed on current decisions .
I partially agree with the author that politics were put aside for the greater good of the country following 9/11. But I disagree with the statement that the country became fully unified, because conspiracy theories thrived during this time, and this was the start down a dark path. This event can be seen as a deep cleavage for the country, as the theories remain in circulation and belief. This cleavage posed a threat to democracy, and its ongoing effects are still seen. Rather than blaming the war, it is important to look at how the country got to this state in the first place.
 Sardarizadeh, S. (2021, September 10). 11 September 2001: The conspiracy theories still spreading after 20 years. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/58469600
 Kirk, M. (2020, July 28). United States of Conspiracy. PBS. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/united-states-of-conspiracy/
 Mercieca, J (2019). Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication. Rhetoric Society Quarterly.
 Mutz, D (2018). “Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote.” (“[PDF] Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential …”) PNAS