Stand up and join the fight for freedom
Take The Oath with General Flynn.
Freedom isn’t free. It’s always only one generation away from being lost. Evil can only prevail when good men do nothing. The world is going through historic changes.
Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last Wednesday, the U.S. Capitol was attacked by a mob of President Trump’s supporters, many of whom had very explicit and not so explicit ties to right-wing extremism in the U.S. There are reports now, too, that there could be subsequent attacks in state capitals this weekend. President Trump’s time in office has undoubtedly had a mainstreaming effect on right-wing extremism, too, with as many as 20 percent of Americans saying they supported the rioters. But as we also know, much of this predates Trump, too. Right-wing extremism has a long, sordid history in the U.S.
The big question I want to ask all of you today is twofold: First, how did we get here, and second, where do we go from here?
Let’s start by unpacking how right-wing extremism has changed in the Trump presidency. How has it?
ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): Well, the first and most obvious thing is that Trump has spoken directly to right-wing extremists. That is to say, using their language, condoning previous armed protests at government buildings and explicitly calling on them to support and protect him. And that, probably unsurprisingly, has emboldened right-wing extremists and made their extremism seem — well, less extreme.
That goes for a wide array of extremists in the U.S., too. I’m thinking, of course, about Trump’s comment after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he said there were “very fine people on both sides.” But Trump has also encouraged white Christian nationalists, anti-government extremists and other groups and individuals that I certainly never thought I’d hear a president expressing sympathy or support for.
jennifer.chudy (Jennifer Chudy, political science professor at Wellesley College): Absolutely, Amelia. And while the actual extremists may represent a small group of the public, the share of Republicans who support their behavior, whether explicitly or implicitly, is not as small. This is, in part, due to mainstream political institutions — like the Republican Party, with Trump at its helm — helping make their mission and behavior seem legitimate.
maggie.koerth (Maggie Koerth, senior science writer): I’ve been talking to experts about this all week, and I think it’s really interesting how even the academics who study this stuff are kind of arguing over the role class plays in it. People like Christian Davenport at the University of Michigan have argued that we should understand that all of this is happening in the context of decades of growing income inequality and political stagnation. In other words, he contends that there are legitimate reasons to be angry at and mistrust the government. But it also seems like this crowd was not even close to being uniformly working class and probably contained people from a range of different backgrounds. And that’s why I liked one of the points Joseph Uscinski at the University of Miami made: We might be seeing a coalescing of two groups: the people who have been actually hurt by that inequality and are angry about it AND the people who are doing pretty well but who feel like somebody might come and take that away. And, of course, both those positions can dovetail very easily into racial animus and white supremacy.
ameliatd: That’s interesting, Maggie. As you alluded to, though, it’s important to be clear that economic anxiety — which was used in the aftermath of Trump’s election to explain why so many Americans voted for a candidate who framed much of his candidacy around animus toward nonwhite people — doesn’t mean that racism or white supremacy isn’t a driving force here, too.
Part of what’s so complex about the mob that attacked the Capitol is that it was a bunch of different people, with somewhat disparate ideologies and goals, united under the “stop the steal” mantra. But underlying a lot of that, even people’s anger over economic inequality or mistrust in institutions, is the fundamental idea that white status and power are being threatened.
jennifer.chudy: There is also just a lot of evidence in political science that racial attitudes are associated with emotions like anger. Two great books, one by Antoine Banks of the University of Maryland and the other by Davin Phoenix of the University of California, Irvine, consider this point in depth. Insofar as right-wing extremists express anger at the system (in contrast to fear or disgust), their anger appears more likely to be motivated by racial grievances than by economic ones.
Additionally, the Republican Party’s base has, for years now, become more racially homogeneous, in part because of the party providing a welcome home to white grievances. But some have argued that this has also been exacerbated by the Democratic Party speaking more explicitly about racial inequality in the U.S., something that wasn’t the case in the 1990s. Regardless, a more racially homogeneous base can make a party’s members more receptive to this type of extremist behavior.
We also can’t underestimate the role that COVID-19 plays here. As Maggie and Amelia suggested in their article from this summer on militias and the coronavirus, many folks are at home and glued to their computers in ways that facilitate this type of organizing. They can burrow themselves into online communities of like-minded folks which may intensify their attitudes and lead to extreme behavior.
Kaleigh: (Kaleigh Rogers, tech and politics reporter): Polling has shown that ideas that previously had been considered extreme, like using violence if your party loses an election, or supporting authoritarian ideas, have definitely become more mainstream.
This is partly due to Trump’s own rhetoric, but also due to the effects of online communities where far-right extremists and white nationalists mingle with more moderate Trump supporters, effectively radicalizing some of them over time.
What’s interesting to me about all of these different factions, though, is there is actually a lot of division among these groups: Many members of the Proud Boys aren’t fans of the QAnon conspiracy, for instance. And a lot of white nationalists don’t like Trump, but they still end up uniting against a perceived common enemy. That’s why you saw people in the mob at the Capitol waving MAGA flags alongside people with clear Nazi symbolism. They are not all white nationalists, but they’re willing to march beside them because they think they’re on the same side.
But in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, those divisions are becoming more stark in these online communities. I’m seeing a lot of infighting over whether planned marches are a good idea, whether they are “false flag” events or traps or whether they should be armed. There just seems to be this heightened anxiety as they draw closer to an inevitable line that they can’t come back from: Biden’s inauguration.
sarahf: That’s a super important point, Kaleigh, on how different extremist groups have rallied behind this. But given how much Trump has directly spoken to right-wing extremists, as Amelia mentioned up top, can we drill in on the violence, as wellIt’s not just that different factions have united or that these views have mainstreamed under Trump, but also that there’s been an actual uptick in violence, too, right?
ameliatd: One thing Maggie and I heard from experts on the modern militia movement is that these groups’ activity levels depend on the political context. The uptick in violence under Trump is real, but it’s not something that’s only happened under Trump. There was a surge in militia activity early in Obama’s presidency, too, for example.
maggie.koerth: Very much so, Amelia. The reality is that the right-wing extremism we’re seeing now is a symptom of long-running trends in American society, including white resentment and racial animus. And on top of that, you have these trends interacting with partisan polarization, which means the political left and right (which used to have fairly similar levels of white racial resentment) began to diverge on measures of racial resentment in the late 1980s and now differ greatly.
Kaleigh: Exactly, Maggie. That’s also why the FBI and other experts are particularly concerned about planned militia marches ahead of the inauguration. These groups tend to be much more organized and deliberate in their actions than the mob we saw last week. And because of that, they’re even more dangerous.
ameliatd: Right, so this violence isn’t new. But I do think it’s fair to say that Trump has raised the stakes so dramatically for right-wing extremists that we’d see a throng of them storming the Capitol. A lot of them see him as their guy in the White House!
So when he says, look, this election is being stolen from me, and you’ve got to do something about it, they listen.
jennifer.chudy: That’s true, Amelia, but work in political science shows just how much of this change was afoot prior to Trump’s election. Some tie it to Hillary Clinton talking too much about race during the 2016 election — they argue that this drove away some white voters who had previously voted Democratic (and could do so in 2008 and ‘12 because Obama, despite being Black, did not mention race much during his candidacy). But Clare Malone’s article for FiveThirtyEight on how Republicans have spent decades prioritizing white people’s interests does a great job of tracing these roots even further back.
maggie.koerth: Yeah, I’m really leery of the tendency I’ve seen in the media to act like this is something that started with Trump, or even that started post-Obama. Most of the experts I’ve spoken with have framed this more like … Trump’s escalation of these dangerous trends is a symptom of the trends. We’re talking about a lot of indicators that have been going in this direction since at least the 1980s.
jennifer.chudy: True, Maggie, from the beginning of the Republic, I might argue! But one reason the tie to Trump and Obama is so interesting is that Trump’s baseless claims around Obama’s birth certificate correspond with his debut on the national political stage. So even as there is a long thread of white supremacy throughout American history that has facilitated Trump’s ascension, there may also be a more proximate connection to recent elections, too.
ameliatd: Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke University, has done some really compelling research on white identity politics — specifically how the country’s diversification has created a kind of “white awareness” among white Americans who are essentially afraid of losing their cultural status and power.
This is a complicated force — she’s clear that it’s not exactly the same thing as racial prejudice — but the result is that many white people have a sense that the hierarchy in which they’ve been privileged is being upset, and they want things to return to the old status quo, which of course was racist. And the Republican Party has been tapping into that sense of fear for a while. Trump’s departure was that he started doing it much more explicitly than previous Republican politicians had mostly done.
So yes, Maggie, you’re absolutely right that it’s not like Trump came on the scene and suddenly right-wing extremism or white supremacist violence became a part of our mjui78 political landscape. Or partisan hatred, for that matter! FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman has written about the effect of political polarization and how it’s created intense loathing of the other party, and he’s clear that it’s been a long time coming. It didn’t just emerge out of nowhere in 2016, as you can see in the chart below.
On the other hand, though, it’s hard to imagine the events of last week without four years of Trump fanning the flames.
maggie.koerth: Right, Amelia. Trump is a symptom AND he’s making it worse. At the same time.
Kaleigh: What you said, Amelia, also speaks to just how many Trump supporters don’t consider themselves racist and find it insulting to be called so. A lot of Trump supporters think Democrats are obsessed with race and identity politics, and think racism isn’t as systemic of a problem as it is. There are also, of course, nonwhite Trump supporters, which complicates the image that only white working-class Americans feel threatened by efforts to create racial equality.
ameliatd: That’s right, Kaleigh. We haven’t talked about the protests against police brutality and misconduct this summer, but I think that’s a big factor here as well — politicians like Biden saying that we have to deal with systemic racism is itself threatening to a lot of people.
sarahf: It does seem as if we’re in this gray zone, where so much of this predates Trump, and yet Trump has activated underlying sentiments that were perhaps dormant for at least a little while. Any child of the 1990s remembers, for instance, the Oklahoma City bombing and Timothy McVeigh, who held a number of extreme, anti-government views, or the deadly standoff between federal law enforcement officials and right-wing fundamentalists at Ruby Ridge.
And as Jennifer pointed out with Malone’s piece, the thread runs even further back. It’s almost as if it’s always been part of the U.S. but maybe not as omnipresent. That’s also possibly naive, but I’m curious to hear where you all think we go from here — in how does President Biden start to move the U.S. forward?
maggie.koerth: Honestly, that’s the scary part for me, Sarah. Because I don’t really think he can. Everything we know about how you change deeply held beliefs that have to do with identity suggests that the appeals of outsiders doesn’t work.
jennifer.chudy: Yes — one would think that a common formidable challenge, like COVID-19, would help unite different political factions. But if you look at the last few months, that’s not what we see.
maggie.koerth: Even Republican elites who they push back on this stuff get branded as apostates.
ameliatd: And there’s evidence that when Republican elites are perceived as apostates, they may also become targets for violence.
Kaleigh: But we also know that deplatforming agitators helps reduce the spread of their ideas and how much people are exposed to/talk about them. Losing the presidency is kind of the ultimate deplatforming, no?
jennifer.chudy: Is it deplatforming, though? Or is it just moving the platform to a different setting? I don’t know the ins and outs of the technology, but it seems like the message has become dispersed but maybe not extinguished.
sarahf: That’s a good point, Jennifer, and something I think Kaleigh hits on in her article — that is, this question of … was it too little, too late?
maggie.koerth: I think it has been a deplatforming, Jennifer. If for no other reason than it’s removed Trump’s ability to viscerally respond to millions of people immediately. And you see some really big differences between the things he said on Twitter about these extremists last week and the statements he’s made this week, which have had to go through other people.
It’s not so much taken away from his ability to speak, but it does seem to have affected his ability to speak without somebody thinking about the consequences first.
ameliatd: There is an argument that Trump’s presidency and the violence he’s spurred is making the underlying problems impossible to ignore. I’m not sure whether that makes it easier for Biden to deal with them, but it does make it harder for him to just say, ‘Okay, let’s move past this.’
Lilliana Mason, a professor at the University of Maryland who’s written extensively about partisan discord and political violence, told me in a recent interview that while someone like Biden shouldn’t be afraid to push back against Trump or his followers because it will lead to more violence (an argument against impeachment that’s circulated in the past week), she does think pushing back against Trump and his followers probably will result in more violence.
So that leaves us, and Biden, in a pretty scary place.
Republicans are in a bind, too. Electorally, many of them depend on a system where certain voters — white voters, rural voters, etc. — do have more power. So yeah, Sarah, that doesn’t make me especially optimistic about a big Republican elite turnaround on Trumpism, separate from the question of whether that would actually diffuse some of these tensions.
sarahf: One silver lining in all this is we don’t yet know the full extent to which Trump and Trumpism has taken a hit. That is, plenty of Republicans still support him, but his approval rating has taken a pretty big hit, the biggest since his first few months in office in 2017 — that’s atypical for a president on his way out the door. More Republicans also support impeachment of Trump this time around.
There is a radicalized element here in American politics — and as you’ve all said — it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but I do wonder if we still don’t fully understand where this goes next.
Kaleigh: What gives me some peace in this time is looking back at history. America has dealt with far-right extremists before. It has dealt with violent insurrectionists before. We have continued, however slowly, to make progress. Sometimes the only way out is through.
By Galen Druke and Perry Bacon Jr. and Galen Druke and Perry Bacon Jr.
More: Apple Podcasts |>ESPN App |
On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 232-197 to impeach President Trump. Ten Republicans broke with their caucus to vote with the Democrats this time — a more bipartisan vote than Trump’s first impeachment but still representing just a sliver of the GOP. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, HuffPost polling editor Ariel Edwards-Levy joined Galen Druke and Perry Bacon Jr. to discuss why the votes broke down the way they did, what the different camps are in the GOP and what will happen next.
You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen
The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.
[Related: Trump Has Been Rebuked Like No Other President — But Really Only By Democrats]
Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, public opinion is souring quickly on President Trump as he enters the final days of his term. Not only do a majority of Americans blame him for the riot at the Capitol and favor removing him from office, but his job approval rating has fallen faster in recent days than at any point in his presidency.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s approval tracker,1 39.4 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 56.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -16.8 percentage points). On Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol attack, Trump’s net approval rating stood at -10.3 points, which means his net approval rating has fallen 6.5 points in just eight days.
It turns out that’s the biggest drop in Trump’s net approval that our tracker has ever recorded. To put this into perspective, there have been only two other times when Trump’s net approval rating fell by at least 5 points over an eight-day period: once in February 2017, after he issued executive orders to begin construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to suspend the refugee program and prohibit entry for visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries,2 and then again in March 2017, after Republicans began their legislative efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.3 But the lack of sharp drops in Trump’s rating outside of these two episodes isn’t all that stunning, considering that both positive and negative opinions of him are largely baked in.
But now Trump’s tumbling approval rating suggests he is losing some support among his party base and swing voters (his approval rating among Democrats was already abysmal). Take Morning Consult/Politico’s latest survey, which found Trump’s net approval at +51 points among Republicans and -35 points among independents; these numbers might not sound that bad, especially among Republicans, but they were down 15 points among both Republicans and independents from mid-December. Quinnipiac University’s new poll also put Trump’s net approval among Republicans at +51, a decrease from +80 in early December, while independents fell to -37 from -15 in the same period. Additionally, a new survey from Marist College on behalf of PBS NewsHour found Trump at +56 among Republicans and -20 among independents, both down from +83 and -14, respectively, in Marist’s early December poll.
There’s also evidence of Trump’s image suffering in polling on impeachment and whether he should be removed from office. Back during Trump’s first impeachment in late 2019 and early 2020, net support for his removal never grew beyond +4. But now net support for removal stands at about +11, with about 53 percent of Americans supporting it and 42 percent opposing it. And while it’s still true that a majority of Republicans do not support Trump’s impeachment, the same pattern we observed in Trump’s approval rating (a dip among Republicans) is true here as well. The first time Trump was impeached, less than 10 percent of Republicans backed removing him from office, compared with 15 percent now. Among independents, the magnitude of the shift is similar, up from the low 40 percent range to 48 percent. And, once again, Democrats overwhelmingly back removal.
As Trump continues to falter, it’s worth noting just how atypical this trend is for a president in his last couple of months in office. Outgoing presidents often get at least a little bump in approval, regardless of whether they were popular or unpopular. For instance, President Barack Obama’s net approval rating rose from about +8 after the 2016 election to almost +20 when Trump took office, while President George W. Bush’s net approval rating rose from -43 in November 2008 to about -30 going into Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. Even President George H.W. Bush, the last incumbent president to lose reelection before Trump, saw his net approval go from -23 after the election to +18 by the time he left the White House. It’s hard to imagine such a huge shift in this more polarized era, but Trump’s net approval has definitely declined more than his predecessors’.
While commentators have often called Trump “Teflon Don” because few of his actions seem to stick and perceptibly alter public opinion, this has its limits. Inciting an attack on the American government is pretty damaging: It has caused a rapid decline in his approval rating, prompted more than half of Americans to support his removal from office, and even impelled 10 House Republicans to back his impeachment — the most members of a president’s party to ever do so.
Americans are understandably concerned about the direction of the country given last week’s news. To that point, Morning Consult found that 81 percent felt the country was on the wrong track, while just 19 percent thought the country was headed in the right direction. These figures mark the most bearish responses to this question in Morning Consult’s polling over Trump’s entire presidency.White identity and grievance politics played a major role in the attack on the Capitol, and 69 percent Americans said they view white supremacists as a very serious (52 percent) or somewhat serious (17 percent) problem, according to new polling from YouGov. Just 21 percent said they were not a very serious problem or not a problem at all. However, broken down by party, Republicans were much more equivocal, with 44 percent calling white supremacists a problem and 49 percent saying they aren’t. And despite the severity of last week’s events, these numbers — overall and by party — are mostly unchanged from those in an August 2019 YouGov survey.Gallup’s annual report on Americans’ ideological views found that more people identified as conservative and moderate than liberal in 2020, in keeping with findings from previous years. According to the pollster, 36 percent described themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 25 percent as liberal, numbers that were largely unchanged from 2019. Overall, Republicans were more likely to be ideologically similar, with 75 percent identifying as conservative, whereas Democrats were a bit more mixed, as only 51 percent identified as liberal.Americans continue to experience a lot of online harassment, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. Forty-one percent of U.S. adults said they’ve been attacked in some way, which was identical to Pew’s 2017 polling, but this time there was a reported increase in harassment across six specific types of abuse. Of the two less serious types, almost a third of Americans reported offensive name-calling and a quarter reported attempts at “purposeful embarrassment.” Among the four more serious types, about one in 10 reported some sort of stalking, sustained harassment or sexual harassment, while 14 percent said they’d received physical threats.As COVID-19 vaccination ramps up, Gallup’s latest polling found that 65 percent of Americans would agree to be vaccinated if they were offered an FDA-approved vaccine at no cost, compared with 35 percent who wouldn’t. However, there was a pretty big partisan split over taking the vaccine: 83 percent of Democrats agreed to be vaccinated while only 45 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of independents said the same. Since Gallup began polling on this question in July 2020, Democrats have been far more likely to say they’d accept a vaccination, save for a period in September 2020 when Democratic receptiveness fell sharply, possibly in response to Trump’s claims that a vaccine could be ready by Election Day.Trump’s incendiary use of social media led Twitter and other social media companies to suspend him from their platforms. Morning Consult polling found that 39 percent of Americans felt that approach was “exactly right,” while 33 percent felt it went too far and 28 percent felt it didn’t go far enough. There was a large partisan split over support for these moves, too, with 69 percent of Republicans saying the suspensions went too far, and 43 percent of Democrats saying they didn’t think they went far enough. And even though half of all respondents thought that Trump’s social media accounts should have been suspended earlier, only 15 percent of Republicans agreed compared with 77 percent of Democrats.
In this episode of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, the crew unpacks some of the factors that contributed to a mob of Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol. They also discuss the calculations being made by Democrats and Republicans about how to hold President Trump legally and/or politically accountable for the attack.
[Related: Why 10 Republicans Voted For Impeachment]
Donald Trump has now been rebuked like no other president: He is the first-ever president to be impeached by the House of Representatives twice, and he is also the first-ever president to have the House call for his Cabinet and vice president to remove him from office.
In fact, there have been just four presidential impeachments in American history — and Trump now represents half of that total. The actual words used in the article of impeachment adopted by the House on Wednesday were both incredibly damning and also an accurate portrayal of the president’s conduct since November’s election. Trump, according to the House, was “inciting violence against the Government of the United States,” “threatened the integrity of the democratic system,” and “imperiled a coequal branch of Government.”
But the power of the rebukes of Trump is somewhat blunted by the fact that they have been largely partisan. No House Republican voted for Trump’s impeachment in 2019 over the pressure he exerted on the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, and only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, supported removing Trump from office. In the wake of the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters, only one Republican House member, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, supported invoking the 25th Amendment to have Trump removed from office on Tuesday, and today only nine House Republicans joined Kinzinger in supporting impeachment.
[Related: Do Americans Support Removing Trump From Office?]
This strong Republican loyalty to the president is a very important and historic dynamic.
It’s important not to overstate the size of the opposition to Trump in the GOP simply because it includes some high-profile members of the party. Romney, the party’s one-time presidential nominee, and Rep. Liz Cheney, both the No. 3 Republican in the party’s leadership and the daughter of a Republican vice president, have cast Trump as a terrible president and supported his removal from office. A third major Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has allowed his allies to leak to the press that he believes Trump has committed impeachable offenses. A few other Republicans in the Senate, most notably Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, have suggested that they might back Trump’s removal from office or a post-presidency conviction of the impeachment charge, but it’s still unclear if they would actually do so.
But the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House still voted against impeachment even after the invasion of the Capitol that put their lives at risk. McConnell is also not pushing to have a quick Senate vote to remove Trump from office, because it’s likely that most Republican senators don’t want to deal with the issue, not wanting to cast a vote in favor of Trump’s actions but also wary of trying to force him from office. Pence and Trump’s Cabinet opposed the idea of removing him via the 25th Amendment. And polls suggest that a clear majority of Republican voters don’t want Trump impeached or removed from office.
If there is a battle going on for control of the Republican Party, at least right now, those allied with Trump and Trumpism are winning — and it’s not particularly close. The Republican Party has a bloc of people like Cheney and Sasse that is clearly uncomfortable with Trump and Trumpism and a group that strongly embraces Trumpism, such as Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and others in the House Freedom Caucus.
But a lot of Republicans in Congress aren’t necessarily all that committed to Trumpism or all that firmly against it. Rather, they are politicians who are trying to land in the right spot to keep their jobs and position themselves for runs for higher office. And the impeachment votes from Republicans on Capitol Hill tell a clear story: They think the best bet for a Republican politician, at least right now, is to stay aligned with Trump, and that the party base is more connected to Trump than to traditional democratic norms and values or the GOP of the past, led by people like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Romney. In fact, the person who might lose their job through this process is not Trump but Liz Cheney, as Jordan and his allies are trying to have her removed from Republican leadership because of her impeachment vote.
[Related: Why 10 Republicans Voted For Impeachment]
Finally, despite this vote, it seems almost certain that Trump will get to finish out his term, something that didn’t seem so clear a week ago. This, too, is basically a story of the Republican Party sticking with Trump — the Cabinet was unwilling to remove him, and so were GOP senators.
Put all this together and you have a complicated story of the end of Trump’s presidency. The House of Representatives has rebuked him like it has no other president — passing two separate provisions (the 25th Amendment proposal, then impeachment) in a rush to get him out of office, even though he had only two weeks left in his presidency and had already been impeached once. But while it’s officially the U.S. House that rebuked Trump, it was essentially only Democrats who rebuked him. Trump will now get to finish out his term and avoid a complete repudiation of his presidency, with a lot of votes in opposition to him from both parties. So right now, it’s not clear whether Trump will be remembered as a historically terrible president — or just a historically terrible president according to Democrats.
Virtually all congressional Democrats and even some Republicans have condemned President Trump’s incitement of the insurrection at the Capitol. Virtually all congressional Democrats and even some Republicans appear to want Trump out of office as soon as possible. The U.S. House of Representative seems likely, this week, to impeach Trump for a second time, with at least five Republicans likely to vote in favor of it. Allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as first reported by the New York Times and then confirmed by ABC News, say McConnell believes that Trump committed impeachable offenses and supports Democrats moving forward on impeachment.
Where does all that leave us? It’s complicated. It still seems fairly likely that Trump will remain in office until Jan. 20, with the House impeaching Trump on a mostly party-line vote but the Senate not taking up impeachment before Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Still, we’ll have to wait to see how it all unfolds to know for sure. Either way, we do know that one big step in this process occurred on Tuesday night: The House adopted a resolution calling on Vice President Mike Pence and the remaining members of Trump’s Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump from the presidency.
This vote was historic — the House has voted to impeach three presidents (including Trump), but never before formally suggested that the president be removed by his Cabinet. At the same time, the vote has no real impact. Pence said in a letter to Pelosi released before the vote that he and the Cabinet will not try to force Trump from office via the 25th Amendment. So Tuesday’s vote was really only a prelude to a separate vote on Trump’s impeachment, which could come as soon as Wednesday. House Democrats have promised they will move to impeach Trump, for the second time, if the Cabinet does not remove him.
Tuesday night’s vote on the 25th Amendment resolution, while symbolic, does help us understand some dynamics within the two parties — particularly if you consider it alongside last week’s votes on whether to certify the results of the November election. Here are four things we’ve learned …
Only 83 of the 204 House Republicans who participated in the vote opposed the effort last week to effectively disqualify the presidential votes in Arizona. Only 64 of the 202 House Republicans who participated in the vote opposed the effort to disqualify the electoral results in Pennsylvania. In other words, a clear majority of House Republicans voted to bar the presidential results from Arizona and Pennsylvania, joining with Trump’s effort to disqualify the votes of swing states where he narrowly lost. And these were votes held after Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol.
On Tuesday night, the number of House Republicans who were willing to call for Trump to be pushed out of office was even lower — just one, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, supported the resolution calling for Trump’s removal. There may be some Republicans who vote for impeachment but not the 25th Amendment resolution (more on that below). But it seems likely that the overwhelming majority of Republicans will oppose any effort to remove Trump from office, no matter the method.
The upcoming impeachment vote will be the fourth vote in the span of a week that is effectively a proxy for how loyal a House Republican is to Trump and strongly pro-Trump voters. And it appears that most House Republicans will take Trump’s side all four times despite an attack on the Capitol that was inspired in part by Trump’s words, resulted in the deaths of five people, and easily could have resulted in members of Congress and even Pence being killed.
It’s worth noting that the strong support for Trump among Republicans in the House may not be shared in the Senate. Only eight of the 51 Republicans in the Senate supported the efforts to contest the results in either Arizona, Pennsylvania or both states. Unlike McConnell, allies of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, have not suggested that McCarthy is open to Trump’s impeachment. That said, it’s not clear that a lot of Senate Republicans support invoking the 25th Amendment or trying to impeach and remove Trump either. (More on that in a minute).
The 63 House Republican members who affirmed the electoral results in both Arizona and Pennsylvania were from across the ideological and geographic spectrum — some were fairly moderate members from more liberal-leaning areas, such as Rep. John Katko of New York, but some were also conservatives from more right-wing areas, most notably the No. 3 Republican in the party’s leadership, Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
But voting to remove Trump appears to be a bridge too far, even for these Republicans. Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, Katko and Cheney have indicated that they will support impeachment, even though they didn’t also back the 25th Amendment process like Kinzinger did. But overall, there is little indication that most of these 63 members will vote for impeachment.
Impeachment in the House doesn’t really need Republican votes, since Democrats are in the majority and they are likely to be universally behind impeachment. But this House sentiment may be an indication of things in the Senate too …
McConnell, while floating the idea that he is frustrated with Trump, has also suggested that the Senate can’t really start an impeachment trial until Jan 19, according to a memo he sent to Republican senators that was obtained by the Washington Post. If the Senate really wanted to push out Trump immediately, I think they would figure out a way to do it. What’s more likely is that McConnell wants to publicly get out the message that he personally is mad at Trump but not necessarily require Republican senators to go on the record with a vote. Remember that McConnell just won a six-year term in 2020 and is 78 years old. He probably isn’t that worried about being cast as insuffienciently pro-Trump and losing a Republican primary in 2026 if he decided to run for another term at age 84. But younger Republican senators, those with presidential ambitions and/or those coming up for reelection next year may want to avoid a vote either defending Trump or removing him from office.
So it’s not clear McConnell would move towards a vote before Jan 20. There is not yet a clamoring of GOP senators urging the Senate to meet immediately after the House impeaches Trump, nor is it clear that there are anywhere close to the 18 GOP senators that would be needed to remove him from office. So unless something dramatically changes, in terms of the posture of GOP senators, Trump is likely to remain in office on Jan. 20
By the end of this month, with a 50-50 Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer will be the majority leader. There is little precedent for this, but some legal experts say that the Senate could, in a two-thirds vote, convict Trump of the impeachment charges, even if he is out of office. Then, with a simple majority, the Senate could vote to disqualify Trump from holding any office again. But I should emphasize: We have no idea if any of that will happen. With Trump out of office, would Democrats, particularly Biden, be eager to focus on the Democrats’ policy agenda, as opposed to trying to punish Trump? Would Republicans in the Senate go along with trying to convict Trump and disqualify him from running for office again? Would a disqualification of Trump from holding other offices stand up against legal challenges?
All of the 222 congressional Democrats who participated in the vote on Tuesday supported invoking the 25th Amendment. Impeachment is also likely to be a unanimous vote among Democrats. This is not surprising — in 2019, all but three of the 232 House Democrats backed Trump’s impeachment over his scheme to force the Ukranian government to investigate the Bidens. There has been some turnover in terms of members, but the overwhelming majority of House Democrats have already tried to force Trump out of office and probably feel comfortable casting such votes again, particularly in light of last week’s terrible incident at the Capitol.
Combining today’s 25th Amendment resolution with the 2019 impeachment, Democrats have ensured that Trump will have been rebuked by the House of Representatives in a way that no previous president has: Both impeached and urged to be removed from office by the president’s Cabinet. No president has been impeached in two separate instances (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached on multiple articles, but in the same series of House votes). House Democrats are almost certain to make Trump the first this week.
Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Wednesday, a mob of pro-Trump rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol as Congress met to certify the 2020 presidential election results. But as shocking as Wednesday’s events were, they were, in many ways, the culmination of the past four years of Trump’s presidency.
President Trump has long spewed lies to his supporters about the election, refusing until very recently to concede, and routinely has shown his disdain for both the integrity of America’s elections and its tradition of a peaceful transfer of power. And right before the chaos broke out on Wednesday, Trump had just finished urging his supporters to protest Congress’s vote to certify the election results, telling them “[Y]ou’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” Within an hour, the Capitol was under attack.
This violent episode raises many questions about the future of democracy in America — not only its continued health, but the extent to which the U.S. has already become less democratic. So let’s first unpack this question by diving into this data point: Polls show while the majority of Americans condemn what happened on Wednesday, a plurality of Republican voters support it. What does that say about the current state of democracy in the U.S.?
jennifer.mccoy (Jennifer McCoy, professor of political science at Georgia State University): It shows that Americans are terribly divided over the perception of democracy itself — including whether it is even under threat and who is responsible for the threat. This makes it extremely difficult to propose solutions. But it’s important to keep in mind that we’re talking about 15 percent of the population, maybe 20 percent, who said they condoned the violence.
lee.drutman (Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Democracy requires parties that are committed to free and fair elections and will accept the outcome — even if they lose. So if the dominant position in the Republican Party is that the only free and fair elections are those where Republicans win, and anything else is “stolen” and fraudulent, then we’re on the precipice of not having a democracy.
But as Jennifer said, the one silver lining here is that the overwhelming majority of Americans reject the anti-democratic rhetoric of Trump and his allies. This is important.
cyrus.samii (Cyrus Samii, professor of politics at New York University): I find it helpful to place this moment in a broader historical context, as I think there are two trends at play here. First, decades of mobilization and a fight for a more democractic, inclusive society have brought about generational changes in America’s politics, including more women, people of color and other long-excluded groups now having a seat at the table. That has made our politics more inclusive and more democratic, but there is a second trend here — a politics of resentment that cannot tolerate this growing diversity. This mindset is particularly rampant within the Republican Party, and part of what CNN’s Van Jones has called a “whitelash,” or conservative white Christian Americans mobilizing against the type of progress embodied by President Barack Obama’s time in office. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has also written on the pendulum swinging between moments of progress on inclusion and white resistance.
Last Wednesday embodied this dynamic in the span of a few hours: We had the historic election of two Democratic senators in Georgia, followed then by a mob, including a number of white supremacists sacking the Capitol in the name of Trump, and most Republicans to date being unwilling to do much about it.
jennifer.mccoy: Yes, and I think the question now is whether this unwillingness to condemn the mob, or call out their colleagues who are perpetuating the myth of a “stolen election,” is the dominant position in the Republican Party or only a faction that can be contained.
sarah: Do we have a sense of what is driving these attitudes?
jennifer.mccoy: The politics of resentment, written about by a number of scholars, including Kathy Cramer and Arlie Hochschild, who wrote definitive books on the topic, derives from perceptions of unfairness or injustice that accompany the diversification of one’s workplace or community, changing the power structures that Cyrus spoke about. The urban-rural divide in America’s politics exemplifies this. Rural Americans, mostly Republicans, perceive urban dwellers, more Democratic and more racially diverse, as receiving more than their “fair share” of tax revenues and opportunities. With wage stagnation and the growing service-based economy, white males without a college degree, in particular, feel a loss of social status that can lead to rage and support for more authoritarian politics. This is why “identity politics” are arguably more of an issue for the GOP than the Democratic Party today. What’s particularly troubling here, though, is that the political rhetoric from politicians and media personalities are really whipping up latent attitudes of resentment to create the politics of outrage we saw on display last Wednesday. Republicans have gone further than Democrats in using vilifying language and painting horrific scenarios if the “radical, liberal, socialist Democrats” and their “anarchic mobs” take over.
lee.drutman: To follow up on Jennifer’s point about politicians driving some of this, take what Vice President Mike Pence said at the Republican National Convention this summer. He said that the election was about “whether America remains America.” Those are incredibly high stakes, so when you add that kind of rhetoric to our winner-take-all election system, you have a recipe for a very angry minority convinced that the system is rigged against them. As we saw last Wednesday, one response is to take matters into their own hands through violence.
We also know that opposition to democracy is much stronger among Republicans who have beliefs that political scientist Larry Bartels has called “ethnic antagonism,” a measure of “unfavorable feelings towards Muslims, immigrants and other out-groups … [and] concerns about these groups’ political and social claims” in his research.
The chart below is extremely striking as it shows that among Republicans, the higher the level of ethnic antagonism, the more likely they are to say they don’t trust election results, use force as an alternative and support authoritarian stances. (Bartels “normalizes” the distribution so that half of Republicans are above zero on the ethnic antagonism scale, and then presents the data two ways — using statistical analysis to estimate values (left) and reporting the actual data in the limited survey sample (right).) Overall, though, the takeaway is clear: Bartels finds troublingly high support for these sentiments among Republicans.
sarah: Is what happened Wednesday, then, a somewhat expected consequence of what happens when a sizable portion of the electorate loses faith in our elections and institutions?
jennifer.mccoy: To be clear, the research we have doesn’t necessarily show that losing faith in elections and institutions leads to violence. It can, for instance, have repercussions like withdrawal and political apathy. We saw this in Venezuela when the opposition cried fraud, without evidence, after losing a referendum to remove President Hugo Chávez in 2004. They had trouble turning out supporters in governor elections right after, and then called for a boycott in the 2005 legislative elections, handing total control to Chávez’s party and enabling them to name loyalists to all of Venezuela’s political institutions. It took another decade before Venezuelans could mobilize to win back the legislature, but by that time, Chávez’s successor had turned even more authoritarian and remains in power today.
However, if political rhetoric is drumming up violence, using demonizing and dehumanizing language and glorifying battle language, then yes, supporters are likely to engage in violence, thinking their leaders are urging that, as we saw last Wednesday.
lee.drutman: Jennifer’s point about political rhetoric is extremely important. The level of nativism, or anti-immigration sentiment, has been roughly consistent in the population for a while now. But there are signs that it has become a much stronger partisan issue in the last decade or so as Trump and other Republicans have played with rhetorical fire. It’s true that far-right leaders have been stoking this issue in multiple western democracies, and as the chart below shows, it’s evident among Republicans in the U.S.
jennifer.mccoy: And the future of the Republican Party is absolutely key to what happens to U.S. democracy. Early signs after Jan. 6 are not encouraging — the party reelected Trump’s hand-picked candidates for the RNC, chair Ronna McDaniel and co-chair Tommy Hicks, and many party leaders have also avoided calling for any accountability for Trump, instead saying that this will further divide the country when we need to unify.
sarah: Some historians have argued if there isn’t accountability, this will all escalate. Is that accurate? How are you all thinking about the importance of consequences for what happened Wednesday for democracy moving forward?
Historian of coups and right-wing authoritarians here. If there are not severe consequences for every lawmaker & Trump govt official who backed this, every member of the Capitol Police who collaborated with them, this “strategy of disruption” will escalate in 2021
— Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat) January 7, 2021
cyrus.samii: If there is no accountability, then the lesson for Republicans will be that they can continue to use illiberal means to maintain a grip on power. And on the left, this might play into the hands of those who would say there is no point in sticking with liberal institutional processes when the other side doesn’t. A clear recipe, in other words, for escalation.
jennifer.mccoy: And if there isn’t any accountability for what happened Wednesday, it gives organized citizens, as well as the next generation of political leaders, license to engage in the same — or worse. Political learning is a real thing, and it can be positive or negative.
If Congress or others fail to act, the road remains open to Trump (and anyone else) to continue to act with impunity, run for office again or support future violent acts. Congress has the ability to impeach Trump and take the extra step of disqualifying him from running again, and the power to censure and even expel the members of Congress who spread the same disinformation about the election and voted against the certification of results in two states. This is important because failing to condemn the exclusionary and hate-filled rhetoric Trump used in his presidency means that catering to the fears, anxieties and resentments of a portion of the electorate might remain a viable political path moving forward.
sarah: Let’s take a step back. In November, The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz wrote a feature on how civil resistance can stop authoritarian-style leaders from cementing their power, comparing what’s happened in the U.S. under Trump to other parts of the world. “In the past 15 years, there has been a marked global increase in what international relations scholars call ‘democratic backsliding,’” wrote Marantz, “with more authoritarians and authoritarian-style leaders consolidating power.” To what extent is there democratic backsliding in the U.S.?
lee.drutman: If democracy depends on a set of shared rules for free and fair elections, we are definitely in a period of backsliding.
cyrus.samii: I don’t know, the term “democratic backsliding” is problematic in my opinion insofar as it fails to clarify how the conflict in the U.S. is between those using democratic means to achieve progressive change (and succeeding at some moments) versus those who want to push back against that change by undermining democracy. The fact is, a lot of progress is occurring through the ballot box, the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia being a prime example, and this is precisely why Republicans are intent on throwing up obstacles to its broad-based use. Republicans have been trying to disenfranchise minority voters, for example, and these efforts are subject to heated legal fights.
sarah: So as Cyrus said, democratic backsliding may be too toothless of a term, but how would we describe the trajectory of democracy in the U.S.? Are we less democratic than one year ago? Four years ago?
jennifer.mccoy: According to international rankings, U.S. democracy is eroding faster than what we see in other major western democracies — it is more on par with Brazil, Bangladesh, Turkey and India, according to the global think tank V-Dem Institute’s 2020 democracy report. The Economist Intelligence Unit also downgraded the U.S. to a flawed democracy in 2016. Expert surveys of political scientists, such as Bright Line Watch and Authoritarian Warning Survey, also measure higher threats.
Each of these groups measure democracy using different measures — electoral integrity, rule of law, media and academic freedom, civil liberties, to name a few. But one measure I want to zoom in on is “toxic polarization” (which I call “pernicious polarization” in my research with Murat Somer), as we’ve found it’s especially delegitimizing and on the rise. Essentially, it’s when society is divided into two mutually distrustful camps and there is increased demonization and delegitimization of opponents. Our research has found that it can often result in calls to violence, too.
It’s also something V-Dem uses in its assessments. It found in a 2020 paper that the Republican Party was on par with autocratic parties in Turkey, India and Hungary on their new illiberalism index, especially in their use of demonizing language to describe political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights and encouragement of political violence.
lee.drutman: (If you’re interested in how these various surveys evaluate the quality of a country’s democracy, here’s a great paper that outlines the different ways they measure democracy — summary table below.)
sarah: It’s true that in survey after survey, Republicans, as you all have said, have expressed less support for democracy than Democrats, but I was hoping we could unpack a little more the debilitating effect that this has had on American democracy writ large.
For instance, in the wake of the protests in Portland, Oregon, last summer, FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth and contributor Shom Mazumder found evidence of members of both parties holding anti-democratic views.
As the chart illustrates, this was especially true among Republicans, so I’m not trying to “both sides” this, but I do want to unpack the effect that severe polarization might have on democratic erosion. That is, how do you factor in polarization when looking at how the U.S. has become less democratic? Is it the number one factor driving what we’re seeing? Or is that too simplistic?
cyrus.samii: Breakdown by party is exactly the right way to look at it. Democrats are involved in a bottom-up struggle to broaden political inclusion while Republicans have been fighting to limit that, including in this past year’s elections. And so it is not so much a question of democratic backsliding at the country level, but rather in terms of whether parties see themselves as being competitive democratically or whether they need to use anti-democratic strategies to maintain their grip.
lee.drutman: Jennifer’s work on pernicious polarization is incredibly important here, and has really influenced my thinking. When politics becomes deeply divided in a binary way along cultural and identity lines (as it is now in the U.S.), democracy is in a really dangerous place.
jennifer.mccoy: And this type of polarization is more likely to lead to democratic erosion because it is based on an “us vs. them” division, not just disagreement on issues.
lee.drutman: On that chart, Sarah, showing support for strong leader/army rule, I’ve co-authored two recent reports on the topic, one in 2018 and another in 2020. And it’s true, we did find some support for these alternatives to democracy on both sides, which is worrying. But again, the overwhelming majority of Americans are in support of democratic institutions.
But here is where political leadership is so important. That some voters have weak connections to democracy is not a new problem. In fact, research has found that is typical among those who are the least educated and least politically engaged. The new problem is having political leadership that encourages and stokes these anti-democratic sentiments.
jennifer.mccoy: And as partisan antipathy grows, perceptions of out-party threat grow, and that leads people to challenge democratic norms so as to keep their own party in power and keep the others out.
cyrus.samii: The way I interpret the question, Sarah, is: How does polarization affect Republicans’ thinking on whether or not to abandon the strategy of limiting democratic processes to retain their hold on power, rather than seeking new coalitions, broadening their appeal and making themselves more competitive democratically?
In other words, it’s all about the strategy that the Republicans pursue. So when you take that into consideration, increased polarization — by which I mean distancing oneself from and dehumanizing outgroups — could sustain Republicans’ fixation on limiting democracy because they cannot see themselves forming any new alliances with people outside their traditional white Christian base.
lee.drutman: Cyrus — that is the central question, but I think there is a significant division among Republicans. So let me reframe your question slightly: What will it take for Republicans who want to build a more inclusive, pro-democracy party to triumph over those who are committed to ethnonationalism and grievance?
cyrus.samii: Yes, Lee, exactly.
lee.drutman: And as long as we think of this as a zero-sum Democrats vs. Republicans fight, we’re stuck. But if we think of this in terms of the forces of democracy vs. the forces of ethnonationalism (or whatever you want to call it), I do think we can make some progress.
sarah: Are there institutional changes (abolishing the Electoral College, reforming the Senate, etc.) that would bolster American democracy or make it less vulnerable to similar challenges in the future?
lee.drutman: I’ve written a lot about what would happen if the U.S. moved to a more proportional voting system, and I do think that would enable a center-right party to operate independent of a far-right party. It also might allow for a broader governing coalition that could keep the far-right out of government, as has happened in many Western democracies with more proportional voting systems.
And maybe we see this play out a little in the U.S. That is, I could see a pro-democracy faction within the Republican Party joining with Democrats to support electoral reforms (such as the Fair Representation Act, a piece of election reform legislation that would establish multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting).
cyrus.samii: Institutional changes to the Electoral College or the Senate would certainly make a difference, since those institutions are a part of what Republicans currently rely on in the anti-democractic aspects of their strategy. But changing them is probably too hard, politically.
Of course, once, say, Texas goes blue, those institutions will come to have the opposite effect and lock out Republicans — unless they change who they can attract. Also, Sarah, I think the idea that “overall trends point to increased illiberalism” is only true when it comes to the kinds of strategies that Republicans are using to try to maintain a grip on their power, rather than with respect to U.S. democratic politics as a whole.
lee.drutman: Yes, changing the Electoral College or the Senate would require constitutional amendments. Enacting proportional representation, interestingly enough, is entirely within Congress’s power, though.
jennifer.mccoy: I want to go back to an earlier point about HOW we get here. I’ve written with Somer about how democracies could solve this dilemma by “repolarizing” along democratic lines vs. authoritarian lines, and what we found is very similar to Lee’s and Cyrus’s point about inclusive movements vs. exclusionary ethnonationalist movements. That is, shifting the axes of polarization to the principle of protecting democracy instead of a divide between different partisan and social identities could actually help protect democracy, as long as it’s not done with demonizing or hyperbolic language.
And that’s important, because as political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has written, a principled conservative or center-right party is essential for a functioning democracy. Even President-elect Joe Biden has reiterated the need for a Republican Party for the health of our democracy. The problem is our two-party system is currently mired in toxic polarization and so the extreme elements within the parties are amplified. We need institutional reforms to allow for political incentives to change.
lee.drutman: I do think the events of Jan. 6 have been a tremendous wake-up call to many on the urgency of democracy reform.
cyrus.samii: It certainly was a wake-up call, Lee. I also think that the incredibly tumultuous times that current 18- to 35-year-olds have endured — 9/11, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, Trump’s presidency, the events that inspired the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, and of course, COVID-19 — could generate a political consciousness that we haven’t seen since the 1960s or 70s.
lee.drutman: Cyrus — yes, there are lots of similarities to the Great Society Era which was the last era of major democracy reform and included major voting rights reform. There are also lots of similarities to the Progressive Era, which was the previous era of large-scale democracy reform.
So if you believe in political scientist Samuel Huntington’s theory that there is a 60-year cycle of democracy reform movements — that every six decades or so, American democracy falls short of its democratic ideals and reform movements emerge to expand our democracy, we’re right on schedule.
Joe Biden’s Cabinet is set to make history. If all of his nominees are confirmed, 12 of the 24 offices he has designated as Cabinet-level1 will be held by women. And as the chart below shows, that would break a record. Up until now, the most women to serve in these positions at once was eight, first during Bill Clinton’s administration and then again during Barack Obama’s administration.2 What’s more, under Biden, women will occupy three high-profile Cabinet-level posts for the first time: vice president, secretary of the treasury and director of national intelligence.
An equal number of men and women in the Cabinet is a rare accomplishment indeed. It would be the first gender-balanced Cabinet in U.S. history. And it’s rare globally, too. According to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, as of Jan. 1, 2020, only 14 countries had cabinets or cabinet equivalents where at least half of the appointments were held by women. (The U.S. would also be the largest of these countries by far.)
Biden’s Cabinet is also poised to reach another remarkable milestone: A majority of its members aren’t white, and many will break barriers by serving in their future role.3 Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, for instance, will be the first Black person and first South Asian American to serve as vice president. And Lloyd Austin would be the first Black secretary of defense in American history, while Xavier Becerra and Alejandro Mayorkas would be the first Latinos to lead, respectively, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, Deb Haaland would be the first Indigenous person to lead the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and has jurisdiction over all public lands, which Native Americans have been fighting the federal government over for centuries. And Council of Economic Advisers Chair-designate Cecilia Rouse, Office of Management and Budget Director-designate Neera Tanden and U.S. Trade Representative-designate Katherine Tai would also be the first women of color in their respective roles. In total, Biden’s Cabinet picks include six Black people, four Latinos, three Asian people and one Native American.
This all represents progress, to be sure, but some barriers remain unbroken. For instance, the “inner Cabinet” — the vice president, attorney general and secretaries of state, defense and treasury, who typically have the closest ties to the president — will still be three-fifths white and three-fifths male. And the most diverse part of Biden’s Cabinet will be the Cabinet-level positions that are not part of the presidential line of succession (the bottom grouping of offices on the chart). So just because women and people of color are equal in number to men and white people does not mean they are equal in terms of influence. And even though Biden has appointed a historic number of women, they still struggle to gain a foothold in stereotypically male Cabinet posts; we have still never had a female secretary of defense, secretary of veterans affairs or chief of staff.
The terrifying mob attack on the Capitol on Wednesday, among its many effects, quickly shifted focus from the other big news of the week: the runoffs for U.S. Senate in Georgia. Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, giving Democrats control of Congress.
Like a lot of recent political events, the Georgia runoffs are more significant the further you zoom out the lens. In one sense, the results were not that unpredictable. The final polling averages showed both Democrats ever-so-slightly ahead, and it was clear that the races were shaping up in such a way as to make the Democrats extremely competitive.
[Related: How Democrats Won The Georgia Runoffs]
But the Georgia runoffs were full of practical and symbolic significance. They exposed the limitations of the Republican coalition, with or without President Trump, leaving the party further in the electoral wilderness — it’s not clear where the Republican Party goes from here, especially in the wake of the violent insurrection by Trump supporters at the Capitol.
First, the significance of Georgia specifically. I’ll spare you some of the boilerplate about the more obvious implications, but having a Senate majority is a big deal. It means that Democrats should be able to confirm Supreme Court justices and President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet. They’ll likely be able to pass additional COVID-19 stimulus legislation at the very least, along with other budgetary policies through reconciliation. Other policy changes would require eliminating the filibuster — unlikely — or getting cooperation from enough Republicans. But at least Democrats will have the chance to bring to the floor election-reform bills like H.R. 1 and policies like Puerto Rico statehood, giving them a fighting chance instead of having Majority Leader Mitch McConnell squash them from the start.
And symbolically? Well, it’s Georgia. With the possible exception of Texas, no other state has been as much of a symbol of an emerging Democratic coalition of college-educated white voters and high turnout among Black voters and other minority groups. Both Warnock and Ossoff are breakthrough candidates, not the moderate, white Blue Dogs that Democrats have traditionally nominated in Georgia. Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, will become the first Black senator from Georgia and the first Black Democrat ever to serve in the U.S. Senate from the South. Ossoff will become the youngest senator elected since Biden, in 1973, and the first Jewish senator elected to the U.S. Senate from the South since the 1880s.
Then there’s the fact that the runoffs came during a lame-duck period in which — in a predicate to Wednesday’s violence — Trump and other Republicans tried to overturn and subvert the results of the election and undermine faith in the democratic process. If Republicans get the message that anti-democratic actions have negative electoral consequences, they may be less inclined to push democracy to the brink in the future.
[Related: Trump Helped Take Extremist Views From The Fringes Of Society To A Mob Attacking The Capitol]
Republicans may not take away that lesson, though. One school of thought is that because Warnock’s and Ossoff’s wins were narrow — once all votes are counted, Warnock should win by around 2 percentage points and Ossoff by about 1 point — we shouldn’t make too much of them.
I don’t find this convincing. The way political actors react to elections is usually based on who wins and loses, not on their margins of victory. For example, nobody thought that Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were brilliant politicians because they only narrowly lost in key Electoral College states.
But it’s also not clear that these races really had any business being close to begin with. Consider the following:
Georgia is obviously a purple state now, but it’s still somewhat to the right of the country overall (Biden won in Georgia by 0.2 points compared with 4.5 points in the national popular vote). And the state has historically been redder in runoffs than in regular elections.Perdue was an elected incumbent (and Loeffler was an appointed incumbent, though appointed incumbents have much worse track records) whereas Ossoff and Warnock had never won an election before. Although the bonus associated with incumbency is much less than it used to be, it’s still hard to beat incumbents, especially with inexperienced opponents.Although the Georgia runoffs occurred under unusual circumstances, it was reasonable to think the electoral environment might resemble that of a midterm election. Typically, what happens in midterms is that voters seek out balance and the president’s party loses ground in Congress. (The “midterm penalty” we encode into our congressional model works out to around 5 points.) In this case, one might expect that to work against Biden, with voters keeping the GOP in charge of the Senate as a check against Democratic power. Instead, there was roughly a 3-point shift toward Democrats relative to the November vote.1
Indeed, after Georgia, Republicans’ track record in the three general elections (2016, 2018, 2020) plus the various runoffs and special elections that took place under Trump now starts to look mediocre:
Republicans went 1-1 in the Electoral College.They lost the popular vote for president twice, extending their streak to seven popular-vote losses in the past eight elections.Republicans narrowly lost control of the U.S. Senate, which it held 54-46 prior to the 2016 election.The GOP also narrowly lost control of the U.S. House, which it dominated by 247-188 heading into 2016. This had a complicated trajectory, however: Republicans lost a few House seats in 2016 and a ton of seats in 2018 before regaining some ground in 2020.Republicans have gone about 50-50 in gubernatorial races in major swing states, winning in Florida, Georgia and Arizona, for example, while losing in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.On the positive side of the ledger, the GOP has done well in keeping control of state legislatures, although many of those are dependent on gerrymandering.
So, it hasn’t been a terrible time to be a Republican running for office, but it hasn’t been a good one, either. Typically, a party would be looking to move beyond a one-term president who had cost his party control of both houses of Congress. Actually, that’s being kind: Typically, a party wants nothing to do with a losing presidential candidate.
When it comes to Trump, though, that calculation isn’t necessarily so simple because of his tendency to punish his intraparty adversaries: Republicans who tried to cross him, such as former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, were sometimes forced to retire rather than face the president’s wrath in a primary.
Yet the GOP has done especially poorly in Trump-era elections without Trump on the ballot, too. Republicans lost the popular vote for the U.S. House by 8.6 points in 2018 without the president on the ticket. And while some Republicans are blaming Trump for their losses in Georgia, the fact is that Perdue won the plurality of votes in November with Trump on the ballot but lost to Ossoff without him. Tuesday’s loss came primarily because of lower turnout, especially in red, rural counties where Trump can bring voters to the polls.
To step back a bit, the success of an electoral strategy basically comes down to four dimensions:
How good is it at turning out the party base?How much does it turn out the other party’s base?How well does it do with swing voters?How efficiently is the party’s coalition configured electorally?
In Trump-era elections, Republicans have tended to do well along two of these dimensions and poorly along the other two. Namely, Trump gets very high turnout from his base. What’s just as important, rural white voters who are the core of that base have far more power in the Electoral College and U.S. Senate than their raw numbers would imply, making their coalition electorally efficient. Hence, their strategy has performed well along dimensions No. 1 and No. 4.
Conversely, Trump is extremely motivating in turning out many parts of the Democratic base (dimension No. 2). And he’s a big turn-off to swing voters, or at least he’s proven to be after four years in office (dimension No. 3). After narrowly beating Clinton among independent voters in 2016, Trump lost them to Biden by 13 points in November. Swing voters also haven’t been very happy with the GOP with or without Trump on the ballot: They backed Democratic candidates for the U.S. House by 12 points in 2018. Republicans have had especially big problems with suburban swing voters, including in places that were once GOP strongholds.
We’ll have to wait and see, but the violence at the Capitol last week may only exacerbate the GOP’s problems on dimensions No. 2 and No. 3. In the few polls conducted since, solid majorities of Americans overall, including almost all Democrats and a majority of independents, said the storming of the Capitol represented a threat to democracy. Similar shares of Democrats and independents said Trump and congressional Republicans bore at least some blame.
[Related: Storming The U.S. Capitol Was About Maintaining White Power In America]
Republicans are in a fairly precarious position. At best, they are often fighting to a draw, and one that would often be a losing strategy without the structural advantages built into the system for rural voters. And if Republicans don’t get spectacular turnout from their base, everything else potentially starts to crumble. Even a modest decline in turnout from people who are pro-#MAGA but not necessarily part of the traditional Republican base can leave the GOP in a losing position.
Nor do Republicans have any sort of obvious role model for how to achieve consistent electoral success. The previous Republican president, George W. Bush, saw his second term in office end with landslides against Republicans in 2006 and 2008. A series of recent presidential nominees associated with the party establishment (Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole) all lost their elections, meanwhile. You really have to go back to Ronald Reagan for an example of an unambiguously broad and successful Republican electoral coalition, and that was a generation ago. Republicans who cast their first votes for Reagan at age 18 in 1984 will be 58 years old in 2024.
This doesn’t mean Republicans are helpless, by any means. Under McConnell and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, their congressional agenda has also been largely unpopular. If you’re consistently pushing positions that a majority of the public opposes, you’re liable to pay a price for it. Republicans’ structural advantages (especially in the Senate), and Trump’s ability to drive turnout in the places where those structural advantages matter, served as cover for a minoritarian agenda.
For all that said, the tendency of the opposition party to regain ground at the midterms is very strong. One would not want to bet that much against the GOP winning back one or both houses of Congress in 2022. (The House, where Republicans should pick up some seats from redistricting, might actually be the better bet than the Senate, where Democrats have a relatively favorable map.)
After last week, though, I’m not sure I’d want to place a lot of money on the GOP in 2022, either. If the Georgia runoffs served as a quasi-midterm, they might suggest that the GOP can’t count on the sort of gains that a party typically wins in midterms. As in the primaries leading up to 2010, the GOP is likely to have some vicious intraparty fights, possibly leading it to nominate suboptimal candidates in some races. And with the violence last week and Republican efforts to contest the Electoral College outcome in Congress, Democrats may be very motivated again in 2022, feeling — not unreasonably — as though democracy itself may be on the line.
While watching footage of the pro-Trump mob storming the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, many Americans noticed far less confrontation with the police than they saw during the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. Here, senior science writer Maggie Koerth explores what the data shows about how right- and left-wing movements are policed.