Fast forward and imagine it is January 5, 2025. Joe Biden was declared winner of the 2024 election in December, defeating Donald Trump once again. But Trump-loyal militias have mobilized, kidnapping election officials and demanding they confess to fraudulently manipulating vote totals. In Arizona, where the most kidnappings have occurred, the governor refuses to call in the National Guard. Tens of thousands of armed activists march on Washington D.C., surrounding the capitol. Biden calls in the military to defend the Capital, with lethal force if necessary, and Trump orders them not to. The United Nations offers to intervene with peacekeepers and election monitors.
Welcome to the victory party for Russia and China.
Both adversaries are fighting a new kind of war that doesn’t rely on traditional weapons. Instead, it seeks to defeat adversaries—like the United States—from the inside, rather than the outside. This “sneaky war” sows internal discord by, among other things, conducting cyber-attacks to foster general unease, and using disinformation to sway and undermine trust in elections across the U.S., EU and UK.
While the U.S. is spending $1.7 trillion on F-35 airplanes for use abroad, Russia and China are manufacturing and weaponizing hyper-partisanship at home in ways F-35s cannot defeat. Building on existing “Red” versus “Blue” fissures in American society, these foreign powers use covert and provocative disinformation to ensure every week leading up to the election (and beyond) is a partisan “hate week.” Their objective is not to destroy the U.S. outright, but to rupture it internally so it becomes a first-world country without first-world power, like Italy.
And it’s succeeding, thanks to our willing participation. A recent poll shows 80% of Republicans and Democrats believe the political opposition poses a threat that, if not stopped, will destroy America. Democrats are far more likely to consider Republicans a greater threat than our foreign adversaries. Republicans feel the same way about Democrats. This is how democracies die: in extreme polarization. Winning and losing becomes more important than preserving democracy, and eventually one side turns to violence to “save the country.”
The U.S. military is politically polarized, just like the country, in ways not seen since the Civil War. Letters denouncing or supporting elected leaders and signed by retired generals are routine. In 2020, 780 retired generals and former national security leaders spoke out against Trump, while more than 200 retired military leaders endorse him as “proven leader.” Now active duty generals are speaking out, and one was recently rebuked for taking on Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Twitter. The Defense Department does not help with its vague and contradictory guidance. The White House recently rejected promoting a general involved in the Capitol riot response. The senior ranks of the military are becoming politicized. Would they refuse orders from a Commander in Chief they thought fraudulently (re-)elected?
The lower ranks are polarizing, too. Almost one-third of U.S. troops refused the COVID vaccine when ordered to take it. The military could not court martial them all without rendering itself non-operational. Imagine if these troops are ordered to subdue right-wing militias, but instead decide to join them. If our enemies wish to divide and conquer, we have already done the dividing for them.
The core problem is structural. Our nationalized two-party system artificially divides and pits us against one another. Our winner-take-all election system creates existential crises for both sides, which have grown deeply distrustful of the other. Divide any group into two competing teams, set them against each other, make the prize total power, and the zero-sum struggle flips an ancient switch in our brains that sees only binary: friend or foe. This is the “doom loop” of American politics. It’s playing out among voters, among political leaders, and within institutions like the military. And it’s a soft target for our foreign adversaries.
However, we can escape the doom loop. We can break the binary by allowing for additional parties that can collaborate in more fluid arrangements, breeding stability and ending the zero-sum battles of binary politics. It’s a truth that political scientists have long known; the key to preventing civil strife is constantly re-jumbling political alignments so no enemies become permanent. In an open letter to Congress, over 200 democracy scholars warned that our two-party structure has “produced a deeply divided political system that is incapable of responding to changing demands and emerging challenges.”
If we move to a proportional voting system that allows multimember districts, new parties will form, followed by new coalitions that can break up the hyper-partisan gridlock that makes us vulnerable to foreign adversaries. Importantly, this does not require a constitutional amendment. Article I, Section IV of the Constitution gives Congress the power to set the rules of its own elections.
Some will object, assuming additional political parties means more instability, noting the two-party system was previously stable. It was – but only because it contained overlapping coalitions within it. In a sense, the U.S. had a hidden four-party system for much of the 20th century, with liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats alongside conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. The collapse of this flexible four-party system into rigid, non-overlapping binary camps in the mid-1990s has rendered the U.S. vulnerable to foreign manipulation. By contrast, a modest multiparty system, with five or six parties, allows for coalitional flexibility and fluidity that can keep politics from becoming binary and brittle.
Hyper-partisanship is a top national security issue. Foreign adversaries like Russia and China foment polarization through clandestine, provocative disinformation as a strategy to defeat us, like a virus killing its host. Ultimately, the solution lies in addressing our rigid two-party system and electoral institutions that keep us divided and vulnerable. But it won’t be resolved by 2024. If the domestic peace collapses, it will be the military’s problem. If the military is too polarized to function, it may induce a crisis that amounts to a Russian and Chinese victory. Better to start addressing it now, while there’s still (a little) time.
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Inside the White House Program to Share America's Secrets
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- Long COVID Doesn’t Always Look Like You Think It Does
- Column: The New Antisemitism
- The 13 Best New Books to Read in March
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time