You already recognize a way in which this idea has been polluted. Partisan redistricting and the tendency of Americans to move in politically homogenous communities means that there are fewer places where there are real transitions between parties. If you are a Republican in California or a Democrat in Mississippi, you have little hope of being represented in the Senate by a member of your party.
This is a problem that we often don’t recognize. I interviewed Corrine McConnaughy of Princeton University last year, and she expressed concern about the lack of institutions that allow “people to feel represented enough, to feel heard enough.” The bottom line for democracy is that people “understand that losing today is not losing tomorrow”. That there is a remedy to change direction. If people feel that electoral politics cannot bring about change, they look for other mechanisms to do so.
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Now we add another danger to that, exemplified by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin at a rally last week. Palin is running for the Republican House seat safely in Alaska and attended a rally with former President Donald Trump. She expressed her election in clear terms, which, broadly speaking, is not atypical for a candidate. But the formulation used by Palin was moral and existential.
“The life-changing things here mid-term, the changes that are needed,” Palin told the jubilant audience. “And it’s not Democrat versus Republican anymore. It’s a matter of control versus freedom.
Then, a more stark contrast: “It’s good versus evil. It is a spiritual battle.
It’s on the mark for Palin. Her arrival on the national political scene in 2008 was as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, a selection made because McCain’s team believed she could provide an invigorating jolt of energy – and attract more voters to right, often evangelicals, to vote. In the Trump era, evangelical voters have become a driving force behind the party’s success. Palin, of course, already spoke the language.
Trump’s campaign and presidency were centered on widening the cracks inside the country, conforming closely to the demands of his base and working aggressively to score political points against the hated left. Many evangelicals saw this in religious terms. In early 2019, a poll found that half of white evangelical Christians believed God wanted Trump to be president. He was their overt and steadfast defender – not because he necessarily shared their beliefs (although many were convinced he did) but because he understood that standing up in defense of the religious right would strengthen his own political stance. He promised to defend them, and he did. In 2016, he won the Evangelicals by 61 points. In 2020, by 69.
That the country has become more polarized is well documented. Members of every major political party have viewed the opposition in increasingly hostile terms over the past 20 years, as measured by the US National Elections Study conducted in each presidential year. As recently as 2000, the median “temperature” score given to the other party by Republicans and Democrats was above 40 out of 100, with lower numbers indicating “cooler” opinions of the party. In 2020, both parties had medians below 20.
Again, part of this probably stems from our political isolation. We often live close to those of the opposing party, but we don’t necessarily integrate them into our lives. The Pew Research Center found in the summer of 2020 that only about 1 in 5 supporters of Trump or Joe Biden had more than a few friends supporting the other candidate. Four in 10 didn’t know anyone who did.
Such division and skepticism of the opposition makes it easy to portray these other supporters as dangerous or diabolical, a framing facilitated by the country’s increased reliance on partisan media universes. Shortly after Biden took office, CBS News released a YouGov poll finding that about 4 in 10 Democrats viewed Republicans not as political opponents but as enemies. More than half of Republicans said they see Democrats as enemies.
Consider how the intertwining of religion with politics aggravates feelings of political powerlessness. If you think you have little recourse to make your voice heard in the electoral process and do you see your side as a fighter in the name of a divinely motivated cause? Perilous.
It’s not newly dangerous, certainly. In his seminal essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter described the right-wing’s frustration with a perceived political elite more than half a century before the current moment.
“The situation worsens when representatives of a particular social interest – perhaps due to the highly unrealistic and unachievable nature of its demands – are excluded from the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or decision-making, they find full confirmation of their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malevolent.
Palin was speaking to an audience about the dangers of leaders advocating measures such as mask mandates, something for which many Americans had, in fact, no real recourse — besides, of course, simply not standing up. conform. Warrants were, in fact, often portrayed as sinister and malicious. In her speech, shortly after the “good versus evil” part, Palin called the emergence of the coronavirus a “plandemic” and suggested that the elites wanted to overturn the economy.
The particular problem here is that there will be still be a level of governance over which no one has any control. Even if you live in Oklahoma, with conservative House members, senators, and state-level officials, Biden is still president. The House and Senate are still majority Democrats. Even if the Republicans win back a federal trifecta, you have little recourse over, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles. It is the utility of making the government an enemy; the opportunities to make a part of it as despotic are eternal. To throw it away as evil.
Last summer, Pew asked Americans what they thought of their own party leaders portraying other party officials as bad. Most thought this should not be considered acceptable. Just under half of Republicans thought the party should “very” or “somewhat” accept such rhetoric.
If you convince people that elections are battles between moral ends, the consequences of defeat are greatly compounded. If you then claim that the election himself was dishonest, that your side had been “excluded from the political process” (as Hofstadter put it) in an illicit manner, you risk a crisis.
At 4:17 p.m. on January 6, 2021, Donald Trump posted a video discussing the ongoing violence in the Capitol.
“We had an election that was stolen from us,” Trump said. “It was a crushing election and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace.
“Go home, we love you. You are very special,” he later added. And then, enigmatically: “You have seen what is happening. You see the way others are treated who are so bad and bad.
The rioters that day were good; their opponents were evil. Social media sites quickly deleted the video from their platforms, fearing it could incite more violence.