As I type these thoughts, my mind wanders to events from last year. The assault on the capitol surpassed the greatest fears of many including myself. Some will note the Republic did not fall. The election was ultimately respected and upheld. Yet, very few thought the collapse of American Democracy was a realistic possibility. Commentators frequently refer to decline but almost never hint at collapse except in the darkest dystopian fictional accounts. So, the events of January 6th crossed a line many pessimists never imagined as a realistic possibility until it happened.
Deep forms of affective polarization led supporters of Donald Trump to demand Republican lawmakers to overturn the election. They referred to a stolen election, but very few cared about the technicalities of election administration. Rather the election was stolen simply because they lost. At the same time, it’s surreal to imagine conservatives sparking a riot to overturn the political order. Conservative politicians focus heavily on a commitment to the constitution in speeches and articles. Yet when the constitution faced its greatest challenge after the Civil War, they supported those who challenged it.
At the same time, many conservatives stood up to pressures from their political party. Moreover, many conservatives never accepted Trump’s assertion of a stolen election. Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger held firm in the midst of pressure from members within his party. Vice President Mike Pence followed his constitutional duties. Finally, the United States Congress did not raise any credible objections to interfere with the electoral college. In other words, American democracy proved resilient. A new book, Democratic Resilience, explores the challenges of American democracy during this era of pernicious polarization, but also considers why democracy endures despite its many challenges.
Polarization is not unique to American politics. Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue write, “Political polarization, particularly in the United States, tends to be studied as a unique national pathology. Yet… it is a widespread phenomenon, with common negative consequences for democracy across diverse national contexts.” Of course, political division is natural in a democracy. Skeptics of democratic governance rightly contend democracies foster political divisions. However, scholars distinguish between a healthy polarization necessary for elections and a pernicious or severe polarization that tears at the fabric of society.
Severe polarization feeds upon itself in a democracy into what Lee Drutman calls a doom loop. He writes, “Once the parties polarize in a two-party system, polarization becomes a self-reinforcing dynamic…. The more extreme the other party, the more vindicated your side feels in taking strong, even radical, action in response.” Moreover, polarization becomes dangerous when it evolves from disputes over ideology into deep personal dislikes. In other words, polarization moves beyond politics into social and cultural aspects of society. Shanto Iyengar among many others call this affective polarization.
Throughout its history the United States has encountered cycles of severe polarization. The earliest episodes involved contests between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans during the Washington Administration. But the most severe episode culminated in the Civil War and extended as late as the 1890s. The current era of polarization likewise did not happen overnight. Robert Lieberman, Suzanne Mettler, and Kenneth Roberts write in their introductory chapter, “The trends that endanger American democracy are not the product of a single presidency; rather, they have been on the rise for decades and they threaten to persist well beyond the Trump administration.” But this does not explain why it’s gotten worse or how it can improve.
Political polarization is mistakenly viewed as a problem at the far extremes of both political parties. Conservatives look to the “Squad” as evidence of polarization on the left, while liberals refer to Marjorie Taylor Green for polarization on the right. But Congress has always had extremists among its ranks. Moreover, dangerous extremists have even held important positions of authority. For example, Joseph McCarthy held immense power in the Senate during a period of limited political polarization. During this period the political parties cooperated on a range of political projects most notably in foreign affairs.
The difference today is not among extremists, but the inability of moderates to bridge the political divide to find compromise. The failure of moderates to cross party lines empowers extremists. Perhaps no better example exists than the challenges surrounding the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill. It passed easily in the Senate where the Senate Minority Leader even voted in favor. However, Republicans largely opposed it in the House. This gave leverage to the Progressive Caucus in the House to demand passage of a partisan social spending bill alongside the bipartisan bill. Had a third of House Republicans supported the bill as they did in the Senate, it would have easily passed the House.
Republicans have played an increasingly dangerous game of political hardball that makes it difficult for moderates to “moderate” legislation. Lieberman, Mettler, and Roberts write, “The competitive dynamic on economic issues was arguably one of unilateral radicalization rather than bilateral polarization.” But the Republican Party has shifted on more than just economic issues. Many observers fear the Republican Party has turned undemocratic. It’s no longer simply about issues, but their assault on the political process that raises concerns.
Democratic Resilience in Spite of Polarization
Polarization raises the stakes in electoral contests. Both sides fear the consequences from the loss of an election. The recent victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia Gubernatorial race raises many of these concerns. Democrats worry about the implications of Youngkin’s victory. Pundits had largely regarded Virginia as a safe state for Democrats. Youngkin’s victory indicated a loss of support for Democrats among their most ardent supporters.
But the larger worry involved its implications for democracy itself. It centers around the narrative of the Republican Party as undemocratic. Would voters support a political party that denied the legitimacy of elections when they lost? Would Republicans change if they continue to win elections? At the same time, Youngkin’s victory proved elections are uncertain in a democracy. Moreover, Youngkin’s victory demonstrated to Republicans they can still win in a democracy. Indeed, it’s possible Republicans might sour on liberal democracy entirely if they believed they had no chance to win in free and fair elections.
So, this brings us to the real conundrum that champions of democracy face today. What are we supposed to do? Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy describe the paradox many of us must confront, “In an attempt to defend ‘democracy’ against the ‘undemocratic others,’ people may begin to undertake actions or employ discourses that end up undermining democracy and advancing authoritarianism, whether intentionally or unintentionally.” In the end, democracy will depend on its people. As Nate Persily and Charles Stewart, III ominously foreshadow, “How the country interprets the 2020 election will, in many respects, shape the future of U.S. democracy.”
Further Reading on Democratic Resilience
In the book Democratic Resilience: Can the United States Withstand Rising Polarization? Suzanne Mettler, Robert C. Lieberman, and Kenneth M. Roberts bring together multiple perspectives on American polarization, its effects, and possible solutions. Robert Lieberman, Kenneth Roberts, and David Bateman join the next episode of the Democracy Paradox to discuss political polarization and democratic resilience in the United States.
Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue (eds.) (2019) Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization
William Galston (2017) “The 2016 U.S. Election: The Populist Moment,” Journal of Democracy
Matthew Graham and Milan W. Svolik (2020) “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review
Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Sood, and Yphtach Lelkes (2012), “Affect, Not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization,” Public Opinion Quarterly
Ezra Klein (2020) Why We’re Polarized
Robert C. Lieberman, Suzanne Mettler, and Kenneth M. Roberts (eds.) (2021) Democratic Resilience: Can the United States Withstand Rising Polarization?
Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman (2020) Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy
Nathaniel Persily and Charles Stewart III (2021) “The Miracle and Tragedy of the 2020 U.S. Election,” Journal of Democracy
Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy (2018) “Déjà vu? Polarization and Endangered Democracies in the 21st Century,” American Behavioral Scientist