In the great and not so great submarine war movies, the image of a sonar operator grasping his headphones anxiously listening for the sounds of an enemy U-boat disintegrating in the depths below is almost as iconic as the chiselled appearance of the commanding officer awaiting acknowledgement of the kill. One wonders, metaphorically, if the same sound effect applies to countries. That certainly was true when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union vanished on Boxing Day 1991. Does one hear faintly worrying noises emanating from Washington these days as American politics continue to seem self-destructive in the extreme? President Joe Biden strongly dissents. From his perch, the most critical challenge is that of autocracies versus democracies. He sees the ascent of China and Russia, abetted by Iran and North Korea, as the major external threat to America and its friends and allies. But suppose the president has presented a false dichotomy? Suppose the most profound test facing Western democracies in general and the United States, in particular, is if they can govern. After all, a current snapshot or forensic x-ray of the major Western democracies would portray certain troubling signs of breakage. Most would dismiss this warning. After all, submarines sometimes escaped. The US has endured wars that were both civil and global; depressions and financial crises; pandemics; presidential assassinations; and riots and protests that threatened the nation. Why might today be different? America is headed for dangerously uncharted constitutional waters. First and most importantly, is a constitution created by the best minds of the 19th century fit for purpose in the 21st? A divided government based on checks and balances requires civility, compromise, respect for the law and respect for fellow citizens. At one time or another, all were lacking in various degrees. But never has each been held in such disregard. The public has lost trust and confidence in virtually every institution regardless of sector. The historically low standing of government, now including the Supreme Court, also applies across the private sector. That some 3/4 of the public sees the nation going in the wrong direction and rejects the prospect of a rerun of the 2020 presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump sounds a bit like that depth-charged enemy submarine. Second, normally only one or two critical issues divide the nation at the same time. In 1861 it was States Rights manifested in the debate over slavery. At other times, equal rights, decisions over war and peace and divisions of national treasure held sway. But never before has America and Americans been so irreversibly divided over so many issues at the same time. Exacerbating these divides that reflect party lines, nearly all have equal importance and priority approaching life and death significance. But can any society exist when tensions across so much of it seem irreconcilable? And the stakes for each appear similarly high. Third, as a single pink line in a COVID test portrays infection, relatively microscopic symptoms may reflect a society in crisis. That the US government could be on the brink of an enduring and not a temporary shutdown is infinitely more frightening than changes in the dress code in the US Senate. But allowing members to wear hoodies, shorts and sneakers on the Senate floor may be a more dramatic example of how standards are disintegrating. Fourth, America is headed for dangerously uncharted constitutional waters. Should Trump win the nomination and be tried and convicted in at least one of the four pending cases raises unanswerable questions at present. But as noted in last week’s column, suppose he is elected to a second term and convicted. How does the nation deal with that? Meanwhile, Joe Biden cannot remove himself from the danger zone surrounding his son Hunter, now indicted for illegal possession of firearms and making false statements. Whether Hunter is convicted or absolved, this political depth charge will explode damaging his father as no matter the outcome, Republicans will use this to batter the president. The irony is that many of these issues and potential scandals should not have arisen or proliferated to crisis proportions. And what is the way out? Shakespeare decried that “for the want of a nail.” And he probably had no inkling of how perceptive that observation might prove four centuries later. US depth charges double-clicked before exploding. Is it possible that on our political earphones, the faint trace of a double click may be heard? If so, what might follow? We could find out sooner than we think. He writer is a senior advisor at Washington, DC’s Atlantic Council and a published author.