Trump, Partisanship, and Democracy | Council on Foreign Relations

The House committee investigating the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, has done a great public service in fleshing out what happened that day and who was involved.  

There were the cosplay simpletons, of course—such as Aaron Mostofsky, the bespectacled Brooklyn caveman, and Jacob Chansley, the QAnon Shaman. (According to Chansley’s lawyer, “A lot of these defendants…are people with brain damage.”) There were the angry young males in ideological street gangs, such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. There were the random citizens who got sucked into conspiracy theory rabbit holes and ended up dying for it, like Ashli Babbitt and Roseann Boyland. There were the drunks, cranks, nutters, grifters, and pillow manufacturers who peddled farcical conspiracy theories about a stolen election. And there was the guy pushing the conspiracy in the first place, the president himself, who kindled the blaze and then fiddled while Washington burned. 

Viewing the massive amount of evidence and compelling insider testimony the committee has presented, a disinterested Martian would have little trouble understanding the timeline of events, the culpability of the participants, and the seriousness of the attack on American democracy. Not many Republicans would concur, however, since they and their favorite media outlets have generally ignored, downplayed, or opposed the investigation and its findings. The Republican National Committee said that the House committee was an attack on “legitimate political discourse.” More than half of Republicans believe the attack on the Capitol was led by left-wing activists in a false-flag attempt to make Trump look bad. Seven in ten of them think the 2020 election was stolen, even though every attempt to show that has failed. 

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Some old-timers might find this surprising. Fifty years ago, after all, Republicans turned on President Richard Nixon when the congressional hearings on Watergate indisputably tied him to the scandal. Today, most of the party continues to stand by Trump and treats him as party leader, despite more evidence of greater crimes. Why the difference? A rise in partisanship. 

Partisan Warfare 

Between 1972 and 2022, American political partisanship has steadily increased, to the point where Democrats and Republicans now occupy fundamentally different mental worlds. As Ezra Klein puts it

The parties used to be scrambled, both ideologically and demographically, in ways that curbed their power as identities and lowered the partisan stakes of politics. But these ideologically mixed parties [of the mid-twentieth century] were an unstable equilibrium reflecting America’s peculiar, and often abhorrent, racial politics. The success of the civil rights movement, and its alliance with the national Democratic Party, broke that equilibrium, destroyed the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party, and triggered an era of party sorting. That sorting has been ideological. Democrat now means liberal and Republican now means conservative…. But that sorting has also been demographic. Today, the parties are sharply split across racial, religious, geographic, cultural, and psychological lines. 

As the parties sorted themselves into mutually exclusive rivals, the basis of political identification shifted from policy to identity—more Yankees vs. Red Sox than differences over marginal tax rates. Each side increasingly came to associate with its own kind and live in its own reality. Little wonder, then, that today’s congressional hearings met with a very different reception than the Watergate ones—a reception that depended less on the facts revealed than on the social and psychological context of the viewer. 

Not only has partisanship increased, however. It has also become entrenched and self-reinforcing. As Paul Pierson and Eric Schickler observe,  

Today, many different actors across institutions see their interests as dependent on the success of the party. Put more ominously, they see the costs of the other party’s success as unacceptable. Interest groups, state and local parties, rank-and-file politicians, campaign donors, and media outlets that in the past had exercised—at least in part—a centrifugal influence on party politics increasingly contribute to a single, nationalized, polarized politics. 

In these circumstances, politics becomes not simply an arena for debate over competing visions of public policy, but a master identity that triggers basic human instincts, such as bonding strongly with an in-group and hating and fearing an out-group. Such affective polarization increases the perceived stakes of the game and reduces the possibilities of compromise across the divide. 

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Why the Republicans Are Different 

These trends have changed the behavior of both parties, but the Republicans even more than the Democrats. The big sort left the Republican Party smaller, more geographically concentrated, and more demographically homogenous—dominated by whites outside cities who face little local political competition yet are structurally over-weighted in national politics. Democrats, meanwhile, are more numerous, more diverse, and concentrated in cities that are structurally under-weighted. Republican candidates can win with narrower, targeted appeals; Democratic candidates need to attract larger and broader coalitions. As a result, while both parties live in bubbles, the red one is thicker and more opaque than the blue one—because it can be. 

Over time, political and media entrepreneurs such as Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and Roger Ailes created an ever hotter, angrier, and polarized discourse on the Republican side, and as it succeeded, the broader party followed. Democrats made similar moves in the opposite direction, but not nearly as large. The result was what political scientists call asymmetric polarization. As Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann put it in 2012, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”  

And then came Donald Trump. In many respects, Trump represented the continuation and culmination of trends that had been operating in Republican politics for decades. Yet his outrageousness, shamelessness, and disregard for conventional practice allowed him to go further than anyone had gone before—and when he got away with it, the political landscape was transformed. La Rochefoucauld said that “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.” No hypocrite, Trump refused the homage and brought vice out into the open. And once he captured his party, he remade it in his image. With each transgression he forced his followers to accept, he corrupted them further. From the Muslim ban, to the Access Hollywood tape, to fake news, to impeachment and beyond. The myth of the stolen election and the storming of the Capitol to prevent it were only the last steps down into the gutter.  

Hamilton’s Choice—and Ours 

The current situation is not entirely unprecedented. As the election of 1800 played out, Alexander Hamilton faced a dilemma. His hated political enemy Thomas Jefferson had just beaten out John Adams for the presidency, but because of a glitch in the system, Jefferson remained tied with his running mate, Aaron Burr. In January 1801, the election went to the House of Representatives for a decision. Who should Hamilton support—his national rival, Jefferson, or his local New York rival, Burr? Jefferson would be a disaster, he thought

I admit that his politics are tinctured with fanaticism, that he is too much in earnest in his democracy, that he has been a mischievous enemy to the principal measures of our past administration, that he is crafty and persevering in his objects, that he is not scrupulous about the means of success, nor very mindful of truth, and that he is a contemptible hypocrite. 

But Burr would be an abomination: 

He is a man of extreme and irregular ambition…he is selfish to a degree which excludes all social affections…. He has no fixed theory and…his peculiar notions will easily give way to his interest…. He will never choose to lean on good men because he knows that they will never support his bad projects: but instead of this he will endeavor to disorganize both parties and to form out of them a third composed of men fitted by their characters to be conspirators, and instruments of such projects…. The truth is with great apparent coldness he is the most sanguine man in the world. He thinks everything possible to adventure and perseverance. And though I believe he will fail, I think it almost certain he will attempt usurpation. And the attempt will involve great mischief. 

Given the choice between a hack politician with misguided principles and an adventurer with none, Hamilton didn’t hesitate. He threw his weight behind Jefferson and swung enough votes to give the Virginian the decision in the House on the 36th ballot. (Burr never forgave him and killed him in a duel three years later.) 

Two and a quarter centuries on, the nation faces a comparable choice. There will be many candidates for president in 2024. Many voters will see them the way Hamilton saw Jefferson—as deeply flawed. But there will be only one Donald Trump. Like Burr, Trump is a man of extreme and irregular ambition. He, too, thinks everything possible to adventure and perseverance. And it is almost certain that if elected, he will once again attempt usurpation. For Hamilton, it wasn’t a close call. Nor should it be for us. 

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 4.0 License. Some rights reserved.

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