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Political Divisiveness Is a National Security Threat

by on March 22, 2018 5:00 AM

At any given time in our history, the leaders of our country have sought to define the biggest threats to our national security. In December 1941 or when the guns of Charleston fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, it was pretty obvious. In 2018, it is hard to know all the dangers in a world full of asymmetrical threats.

Threats seem to loom everywhere from Middle East instability to military threats from hostile nations to radical terrorists or even cyber warfare. One of the biggest threats to our republic comes from the outside but is completely within our power to control.

Our nation is threatened by fears of confrontation with others in open discourse about the issues of our times. Our hardened positions and the distrust we have for our fellow citizens has opened us to assault from shadowy outside forces propped up by hostile nations.

In the runup to and in the wake of the 2016 election, we’ve decided to retreat to ground where we’re surrounded only with like-minded people. We block or lose friends on social media and we don’t discuss issues in person. The American people are retreating into cocoons of like-minded people reinforcing the ideas we hold in our minds, beliefs whose truth we dare not question.

We ignore what Carl Sagan once said: “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

We no longer view progress as having the courage to accept what is true over what we want to be true. To protect our side, we fight to shut down dissent.

This is not a right-wing or left-wing phenomenon. It has happened on campuses that, despite valuing free-speech, choose to reject speakers espousing extreme or offensive views. They’ve even acted against accomplished respected people with whom they simply disagree. In 2014, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out of a commencement speech at Rutgers after students and faculty protested.

Two years later President Obama spoke at the Rutgers commencement and he addressed the mistake they’d made:

“But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former Secretary of State, or shutting out what she had to say -- I believe that’s misguided. I don't think that's how democracy works best, when we're not even willing to listen to each other. I believe that's misguided.”  

In our earliest days we had far more radical disagreements than we now face. Yet men of contrary opinion worked with and listened to each other and even fought at times. They spent weeks and months away from their homes and families. Their work founding our nation endures in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Today in the comfort of our own homes we can’t even stand reading social media posts from a friend with an opinion that runs counter to our thoughts. It seems that every family Holiday gathering comes with the warning “We are NOT going to talk about politics.”

So we shout at each other across the growing divide where the threat looms.

If a renewed Cold War is looming with Russia, a national security weakness they’ve penetrated is the division of our politics. They’ve fueled and fed the monster of bitter division. And in the absence of meaningful engagement it continues to breed our contempt for each other.

In a Washington Post interview, a former Russian government troll factory worker talked about the assault on America: “But for Americans, it appears it did work. They aren’t used to this kind of trickery.”

The trickery worked because a foreign power was able to pour water into our political cracks to subtly erode that which binds us. That erosion was fueled by a troll-fed deluge of inflammatory rhetoric on all sides of issues.

Seeing others with similarly radical views gave credibility and a voice for those who agreed. Conversely those opinions stated publicly allowed people who were opposed to believe the worst about their political opponents. The weeds of Russia’s deception found fertile ground in our willingness to believe the worst about each other.

If we are to survive as a nation, we must recognize that our divide can be a threat. We should talk and listen across the divide seeking information from sources across the spectrum. We must stop the kneejerk dismissal of information we dislike as #FakeNews.

While we must never be a nation where uniformity of thought is the goal, we must not fear common ground and the truth that comes from the tough questions.

If we stay locked in our entrenched opinion fortresses, the no man’s land between our camps will be exploited by our true adversaries’ social media wars against our democracy. Their tactics will create in us a nation where we become increasingly isolated from our fellow Americans.

That is a true threat to our national security.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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