Most of Thomas Edsall's NY Times columns amount to conversations with social scientists about some major issue in the news. He reads their papers, then calls them or emails them for comment. I think it's a great format, and the most recent installment is very interesting. Edsall has been asking people about "affective polarization," which means that voting behavior is driven mostly by hatred and distrust of people in the other party. Everyone agrees that this has increased in the US, and some say it is increasing worldwide.
Edsall's questions have to do with how much is explained by affective polarization. Edsall starts from a major paper that appeared in Science last year, arguing that it is driving our political disfunction:
The political sectarianism of the public incentivizes politicians to adopt antidemocratic tactics when pursuing electoral or political victories. A recent experiment shows that, today, a majority-party candidate in most U.S. House districts — Democrat or Republican — could get elected despite openly violating democratic principles like electoral fairness, checks and balances, or civil liberties. Voters’ decisions to support such a candidate may seem sensible if they believe the harm to democracy from any such decision is small while the consequences of having the vile opposition win the election are catastrophic.
Following this argument, it would seem that affective polarization is driving things like laws limiting ballot access, election "audits", and violent attempts to undo election results.
But others say, not so fast; they think that while affective polarization exists and is a problem, it doesn't seem to explain anti-democratic feelings or practices. They have done experiments to show that the degree of affective polarization is relatively easy to manipulate up or down, but they find that this has no effect on attitudes toward voting restrictions etc., or especially on violence. Support for political violence, which is very much a minority attitude, seems oddly disengaged from hatred of the other party.
(This would fit with a theory I have defended here in other contexts, that violence is its own thing, feeding mainly on itself rather than on other sorts of conflict.)
In response to these findings, the scientists Edsall queries have four sorts of responses:
- This type of research is irrelevant, and in the real world affective polarization and anti-democratic views absolutely do go together;
- We have no idea what is driving the turn against democracy, and this is worrying;
- The explanation is elite behavior, especially that of Republican leaders, and Americans are turning against elections because Trump and his allies keep attacking election results and vaguely advocating what a Fascist would call "direct action";
- It must have something to do with race and racism, because, I mean, what about American politics doesn't have something to do with race and racism?
I think that as far as the events of the past year go, 3) is mostly correct; most of the anti-democratic acts we have seen have been Republican, and that this absolutely goes back to Trump and his friends. Which means that at some level 4) is also involved.
But this doesn't explain everything. There is also an angry left, embodied by anarchists in Portland but also in the form of various people I know. Polls show that young people across the western world are much less likely to call democracy "essential", and in one Pew survey 46% of young Americans said they would prefer government by experts to democracy.
I think that while Trump & Co. are leading the assault on democracy, they only have support because of a widespread sense that democracy is failing us. In fact I think widespread anger about systemic failure explains how Trump ended up in the White House in the first place. There are a range of issues –immigration and industrial decline are prominent on the right, racism and climate change on the left – that leave many Americans feeling like their government has turned against them. Since elections seem to produce no meaningful change in how these issues are dealt with, the temptation to try other options rises.
In the short term what is required is to oppose the Trump crowd and defend elections against their machinations. The long term issues may prove much harder to resolve.