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How The Frost Belt And Sun Belt Illustrate The Complexity Of America’s Urban-Rural Divide

There’s little question that the 2020 presidential election further cemented America’s urban-rural political divide.

However, as in any election, there were exceptions, like the rural areas where President Biden actually improved Democrats’ vote share or the urban spots where Donald Trump garnered more support than in 2016. And if we hone in on six key states, a more nuanced picture of electoral trends emerges.

This piece looks at county-level results from the last three presidential elections in Arizona, Florida and Georgia, or the competitive battlegrounds in the “Sun Belt,” and Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, or the swing states in the “Frost Belt.” These are two very different parts of the country: The Sun Belt states are fast growing and increasingly diverse, while the Frost Belt states are growing more slowly and are far whiter than the country as a whole. Yet despite their differences, these two regions underscore larger electoral trends rippling across the country and are helpful in understanding how rural, suburban and urban America voted.

Generally speaking, the denser a place is, the more Democratic it tends to vote.3 But as we’ll see, that doesn’t mean that all urban counties have moved consistently left, or that all rural counties have swung right.

Urban Counties

For the most part, the most densely populated counties in both the Sun Belt and Frost Belt moved in the Democrats’ direction in both 2016 and 2020. Biden, for instance, improved upon Democrats’ numbers in the counties that form the core parts of the Phoenix, Atlanta and Milwaukee metropolitan areas, which helped him win Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, respectively.

However, not all urban counties have been getting bluer. Take the two densest counties in Michigan — heavily Democratic Wayne (home to Detroit) and Republican-leaning Macomb (north of Detroit). Barack Obama carried both in 2012 by smaller margins than in 2008, then each swung more sharply to the right in 2016 to help Trump narrowly win Michigan. This past November, though, Biden did recover some ground in both places as he won back Michigan for the Democrats, but it wasn’t enough to win Macomb.

And in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia County moved to the right in both 2016 and 2020, although it still remained heavily Democratic overall. Some areas with sizable numbers of Black and Latino voters voted somewhat more Republican in 2020, as did some more traditionally white, working-class areas in the city. However, Trump’s gains in the county weren’t enough to offset Biden’s improvements elsewhere, particularly in the Pittsburgh area and in the more affluent areas in Philadelphia and its collar counties.

Trump’s stronger showing in most of Florida’s biggest counties was enough to both win the state and increase his statewide margin from 2016. Most notably, Miami-Dade County veered 22 points to the right in 2020 after drifting left in both 2012 and 2016. Biden ultimately still carried Miami-Dade, but Trump’s improvement with Latino voters, especially Cuban Americans, won him 200,000 more votes there than in 2016 — equal to more than half of his final margin of victory in Florida.


SubURBAN AND Exurban Counties

Biden also gained ground in counties that were mostly suburban and exurban. There was one key difference, though: In the Sun Belt, Biden’s gains continued a leftward shift already occurring to some extent in 2012 and 2016, while the Frost Belt saw more of a snap back to the left after moving to the right in both 2012 and 2016.

In total, most suburban or exurban counties in the Frost Belt voted more Republican in both 2012 and 2016, helping Trump flip the fabled “Blue Wall” in his first election. But about 7 in 10 shifted toward Biden in 2020, helping return those states to the Democrats’ column. At this point, it’s unclear whether this snap to the left is an anomaly or a sign of things to come, but we know that much of this movement boiled down to another big trend in 2020: white voters with a four-year college degree voting Democratic. Whether this lasts, according to Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina, may depend on just how “Trumpy” the GOP is going forward. If the GOP continues to be the party of Trump, that could turn off some more well-educated voters in these areas; if not, that might bring some of these suburban voters back into the fold.

Suburban counties in the Sun Belt also moved left in 2020, but unlike the Frost Belt, more suburban and exurban counties had been moving in the Democrats’ direction prior to this election.

Whereas only about 1 in 10 of the suburban or exurban Frost Belt counties shifted left in 2016, more than one-third of the Sun Belt counties did so — and most of those kept moving that direction in 2020. Another 40 percent of Sun Belt counties also tacked to the left in 2020 after moving to the right in 2012 and 2016.

Crucially, some of those 2016 shifts in Sun Belt states foreshadowed what happened four years later, when Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia and Arizona since Bill Clinton. Biden built on the gains Hillary Clinton made in suburban and exurban counties around Atlanta, and even in traditionally Republican suburbs like Forsyth County, helping him become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992.

It was a similar story in Arizona. Biden won Pima County, Arizona (home to Tucson), by 40,000 more votes than Clinton, helping him narrowly win the state. And a sizable majority of Florida’s suburban and exurban counties also moved to the left in 2020. But unlike Arizona and Georgia, those gains couldn’t offset Biden’s losses in urban areas, which left him short of victory in the Sunshine State.


Rural Counties

Lastly, while Trump continued to improve his vote share in rural counties across the country, at least some rural counties in the Frost Belt and Sun Belt stepped at least a tad toward Biden (particularly in the former).

Trump still won most rural parts of the Frost Belt, and often by big margins, but at the same time, he wasn’t able to build up a big enough advantage in them to offset the gains Biden made in some urban, suburban and exurban parts of these states.

In the Sun Belt, though, rural counties largely kept moving to the right.

This was especially true in Florida, where 9 in 10 rural counties moved toward the GOP across 2016 and 2020. Granted, these counties didn’t account for all that many votes, but their continued rightward swings do reflect the consolidation of Republican support in Florida’s hinterlands, which in turn folds into the state’s overall Republican shift, making it that much harder for Democrats to win there in future elections.

As for the roughly one-third of rural counties in the Sun Belt that moved to the left this past November, a handful of them have actually moved back and forth over the past three elections — more Democratic in 2012, more Republican in 2016 and then more Democratic again in 2020. By comparison, no rural counties in the Frost Belt states exhibited this pattern, which may come down to the fact that most of those rural counties are very white, whereas many rural counties in the Sun Belt are racially and ethnically diverse. For instance, a handful of small, rural counties in Georgia with sizable Black populations shifted back to the left in 2020 after moving right in 2016, as did a small number of Arizona counties with sizable Native American or Latino communities. While there’s evidence that Biden didn’t perform as well among voters of color as Clinton (or Obama for that matter), these small counties suggest that wasn’t necessarily true everywhere.

At FiveThirtyEight, we always try to remind readers that no single group or place determines the outcome in an election. And it’s no different here when looking at recent electoral shifts across very dense and very rural counties in the Frost Belt and Sun Belt. Biden tended to make gains in suburban and urban areas while Trump tended to improve in rural places. But, as our analysis shows, there was still quite a bit of variation in between.

Counties are categorized based on FiveThirtyEight’s urbanization index, a measure of how densely populated a county is based on the average number of people living within a five-mile radius of a given resident. Counties with an urbanization index value of 12 or greater are considered urban or dense suburban; counties with values between 9 and 12 are considered suburban or exurban; and counties with values less than 9 are considered rural. Election data is from Edison Research and Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

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What All Those GOP Retirements Mean For The 2022 Senate Map

It’s only January 2021, but three Republican senators have already announced their intentions to retire in 2022. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said back in 2016 that his current term would be his last, and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania revealed last October that he would not run for reelection either. Then, on Monday morning, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio joined them, saying in a statement that “[I]t has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy.”

Did Trump change the rules of politics? | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

These retirements could be a helpful development for Democrats, too, as they provide the party with potential openings on what was already a decently favorable Senate map for them. Although the Senate’s rural bias still makes the chamber advantageous to Republicans overall, the 2022 Senate map doesn’t force Democrats to compete on red turf nearly as much as the 2020 map or killer 2018 map did. In fact, no Democratic senators are running for reelection in states won by former President Donald Trump in 2020, while Republicans are defending two seats in states won by President Biden: the open seat in Pennsylvania and Sen. Ron Johnson’s seat in Wisconsin. (To make matters worse for Republicans, Johnson is considering retirement as well.)

3 GOP retirements so far

Senate seats up in 2022 and their incumbents, by state’s presidential margin in 2020

StateIncumbentParty2020 Presidential MarginNDJohn HoevenRepublicanR+33.4OKJames LankfordRepublicanR+33.1IDMike CrapoRepublicanR+30.8ARJohn BoozmanRepublicanR+27.6SDJohn ThuneRepublicanR+26.2KYRand PaulRepublicanR+25.9ALRichard ShelbyRepublicanR+25.5UTMike LeeRepublicanR+20.2LAJohn KennedyRepublicanR+18.6INTodd YoungRepublicanR+16.1MORoy BluntRepublicanR+15.4KSJerry MoranRepublicanR+14.7SCTim ScottRepublicanR+11.7AKLisa MurkowskiRepublicanR+10.1IAChuck GrassleyRepublicanR+8.2OHOPENRepublicanR+8.0FLMarco RubioRepublicanR+3.4NCOPENRepublicanR+1.3GARaphael WarnockDemocraticD+0.2AZMark KellyDemocraticD+0.3WIRon JohnsonRepublicanD+0.6PAOPENRepublicanD+1.2NVCatherine Cortez MastoDemocraticD+2.4NHMaggie HassanDemocraticD+7.4COMichael BennetDemocraticD+13.5ORRon WydenDemocraticD+16.1ILTammy DuckworthDemocraticD+17.0WAPatty MurrayDemocraticD+19.2CTRichard BlumenthalDemocraticD+20.0NYChuck SchumerDemocraticD+23.1CAAlex PadillaDemocraticD+29.1HIBrian SchatzDemocraticD+29.5MDChris Van HollenDemocraticD+33.2VTPat LeahyDemocraticD+35.4Sources: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, U.S. Senate

However, the GOP may have one big advantage in 2022: a Republican-leaning national environment. As we saw in 2018 (and 2014, and 2010, and 2006, and…), midterm elections are usually bad for the president’s party. If that pattern holds true in 2022, the 2020 presidential results are probably not the best barometer of the partisanship of these states. Indeed, 2020 was actually a Democratic-leaning year, with Biden winning the national popular vote by 4.5 percentage points. So there’s a good chance that states will be at least a bit redder in 2022 than they were in 2020.

[Our Radicalized Republic]

That could make these retirements less of a blow to Republicans than they first appear. What’s more, by announcing their retirements so early, Burr, Toomey and Portman are giving the GOP as much time as possible to recruit potential candidates, shape the field of candidates in a strategic way in the invisible primary and raise more money for the open-seat campaign. And in Ohio specifically, Republicans still look like heavy favorites. Even in the Democratic-leaning environment of 2020, Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points, implying that its true partisan lean1 is probably even more Republican-leaning. Ohio is simply not the quintessential swing state it once was; dating back to the 2014 election cycle, Democrats have won just one out of 14 statewide contests in Ohio — and that was a popular incumbent (Sen. Sherrod Brown) running in a blue-wave election year (2018).

However, one thing that could give Democrats hope — not only in Ohio, but also in Pennsylvania and North Carolina — is if Republicans nominate a far-right candidate. Burr, Toomey (who said Trump “committed impeachable offenses” by inciting an extremist mob to ransack the U.S. Capitol) and Portman (a former member of the George W. Bush administration) are not members of the Trump wing of the GOP and likely would have retained some support from swing voters had they run for reelection. But now, the Republican nominees could be Trump loyalists. Indeed, one reason for the retirements may have been the threat of a pro-Trump primary challenge — or at least distaste for the idea of continuing to serve in Trump’s Republican Party. Toomey, Burr and Portman are retiring at a conspicuously young age — 59, 65 and 65 years old, respectively. (A more typical retirement age for a senator is in their 80s.)

[Biden’s Team And Priorities Show How The Democratic Party Changed In The Trump Era]

And there are already rumblings about Trump-aligned candidates running in competitive Senate races, such as Lara Trump (the former president’s daughter-in-law) in North Carolina. Along those lines, Rep. Jim Jordan, who loudly advocated for overturning the results of the 2020 election and may have also turned a blind eye to sexual abuse as a wrestling coach at the Ohio State University, may be a weak enough candidate to give Democrats an opening in Ohio. (Democrats do have a couple potentially strong candidates waiting in the wings, such as Rep. Tim Ryan or Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.) However, other, more establishment Republican names are also being floated, such as Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, Attorney General Dave Yost and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. In addition, former Treasurer Josh Mandel has $4.3 million left in his campaign war chest from a past campaign, and Rep. Steve Stivers is also reportedly considering a bid. So mark your calendars for May 3, 2022 — the Republican primary here could be a free-for-all.

'Biden could have more of a wind at his back than you might think': Silver

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Our Radicalized Republic

Four years ago, Lilliana Mason learned something she really, really hoped wasn’t true. A political scientist who studies Americans’ attitudes about politics and each other, she had long known that the citizens of this country were growing increasingly resentful and distrustful of the people we saw as our political opponents.

But it’s one thing to not like somebody — it’s another to want to hurt them.

“I thought it probably went, you know, probably as far as like dehumanization … that type of thing,” she said. Instead, she found that, for 15-20 percent of Americans, physical violence against political opponents was not a dealbreaker. In multiple surveys conducted by Mason and her coauthor Nathan Kalmoe, this large, bipartisan minority said violence was at least a little bit justified — particularly if their party lost the 2020 election.

Then, on Jan. 6, Mason sat in her living room, watching on TV as, just 6 miles away, a mob of armed right-wing extremists scaled the walls and poured through the windows of the U.S. Capitol. She thought about her research and was suddenly, absolutely livid. Her children were terrified. Her options to leave the city were stymied by a global pandemic. And her data — once a theoretical risk that she’d struggled to get other academics to take seriously — had jumped off the page and begun to beat a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher.

“I knew this was gonna happen,” she said. “I really didn’t want it. But like, they did it, you know? Like goddammit. They finally did it.”

What happened at the Capitol was the culmination of years of right-wing extremism, a political force that has increasingly manifested as actual violence. But Mason’s research — and her worries — go beyond right-wing extremists. Much of this nation now hates Americans who don’t affiliate with their party. The reasons for and consequences of that hatred look very different on the right than on the left, but it still leaves President Biden with a nearly impossible task: governing a radicalized country.

For decades, researchers like Mason have watched as multiple trends — white Americans’ resentment of Black Americans, growth in inequality, how we feel about political opponents — pointed this country in a dangerous direction. Any one of these things, on their own, can destabilize democracies and lead to violence, experts told us. We are grappling with some half dozen. And now the country has come to a place where it’s much, much easier to throw a punch than to work things out. None of that is likely to change just because we have a new administration focused on unity.

Underlying all the trends pushing Americans apart is a fundamental disagreement about who does and should have power. Should politicians strive to make a multicultural democracy devoted to solving social inequality? Or should they preserve a social hierarchy that allows white people (and in particular, white men) to hold disproportionate sway?

Trump made clear who he thought should be in power. His willingness to use racial slurs, enact racist policies and declare that Christians should have a privileged place in American life helped create a world where both left and right support political violence at about the same rates, but the right is more likely to act on it. But now that he’s gone, the fissure won’t just close behind him. And even if Biden were somehow able to unite warring sides, it would likely require a level of compromise that would do more harm than good.

“There’s no way this goes away quietly,” Mason said.

Part 1

Decades of Drift

White rioters killed hundreds of Black people in a successful attempt to overturn an election in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. Over a hundred years later, the riot at the Capitol was fueled by similar grievances.

Library of Congress / Eric Lee / Bloomberg via Getty Images

This is not the first time that a group of Americans decided that winning an election was more important than maintaining a democracy. In fact, it’s because of those other examples that we know which sociopolitical trends to beware of.

On Nov. 10, 1898, following a municipal election that had installed an integrated city council, white elites from the city of Wilmington, North Carolina mobilized a mob that burned down the town’s Black newspaper, killed hundreds of Black residents and forced the newly elected council members to resign at gunpoint. It was a riot, organized and planned in advance, and aided by people in charge of the government so they could stay in power — pesky electoral outcomes be damned.

Unlike the assault on the Capitol this year, that coup was successful. But the two incidents share some important underlying factors, said Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University. In the wake of Reconstruction, political polarization, conflict over who counts as “one of us” (which has always been about race) and income inequality were all on the rise, creating the tinder for insurrection. For more than 30 years now, those same forces have been gaining strength in this country.

One of the most toxic is racial animosity — resentment and anger that take shape as the belief that people of another race aren’t like you, can’t be trusted and don’t deserve what you deserve. This is something that the American National Election Studies survey has tracked since 1988, asking respondents questions like whether they believe Black Americans should overcome prejudices like “Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities [did]” and pull themselves up by their bootstraps “without any favors,” or if they believe Black Americans would be just as well off as white Americans “if [they] would only try harder.”

Research has shown that levels of racial resentment among white Americans towards their Black counterparts have hardly budged since the 80s. But those attitudes have become increasingly connected to our political beliefs. Put it this way: The average white person may not be any more (or, for that matter, less) racist than they were 40 years ago, but their level of racism is now much more likely to correlate with everything from their political ideology, to whom they vote for, to how they feel about people in the opposing party — and even their support for specific policies on issues like health care. Unlike in the late 80s, racial resentment now strongly tracks along party lines. “Just saying that there is a serious problem of racism in America — that alone makes many Republicans, many Trump supporters, very angry,” Mason said.

Income inequality, too, has been on the rise. The highest-earning 20 percent of U.S. households capture a larger share of the country’s overall income than they did 40 years ago, the gap between the richest and poorest families has more than doubled, millennials are far less likely than baby boomers to earn more than their parents did, and in 2019, the US Census Bureau found that economic inequality was the highest since the Census Bureau started tracking it.

And while this trend has affected Americans of all stripes, it is also deeply racialized. Centuries of white supremacy and decades of growing inequality have produced a racial wealth chasm, where economic security is especially difficult for households of color to achieve.

And there are yet more destabilizing trends you could also include in our current moment, like rising distrust in (and resentment of) government and public institutions. Or societal segregation that sifts Americans into social silos where everyone we know personally is pretty similar to ourselves.

All these trends, especially when they layer on top of and reinforce each other, help create an atmosphere where violence against opponents is rationalized and politics becomes a game to win at any cost. That has manifested differently between people of separate ideologies. Although support for political violence is roughly equal among Democrats and Republicans in survey data, the right wing has produced significantly more real-world political violence in this country over the last decade, according to the Global Terrorism Database.

Despite that, the way we all think about public disagreement has shifted, said Jennifer McCoy, a professor of political science at Georgia State University. There’s a difference between “I don’t like your ideas” and “I don’t like you.” There’s also a difference between “I don’t like you” and “You have no legitimate claim to political power and don’t deserve it.” Eventually, you get to a place where fewer and fewer people believe in government by and for all the people.

Despite being over one hundred years apart, one riot to overturn an election evoked the other.

COURTESY OF THE CAPE FEAR MUSEUM / Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images

It isn’t absolute cause-and-effect. You can probably let your democracy get wet or feed it after midnight every now and then without all hell breaking loose. But the more of these trends that are in play, the more seductive extremism (of any kind) becomes. Right now, we’re sitting with a plate of tangled spaghetti — worrisome political trends that knot together in ways that almost ensure if you’re slurping up one of them, you’ll end up with another on the end of your fork. Higher levels of economic inequality, after all, are correlated with an increase in hate crimes. Growing mistrust of government is associated with an increased support for outsider political candidates — who, in turn, tend to use rhetoric that further delegitimizes politicians and governmental institutions outside themselves. “They might not be able to articulate it, [but when you see] the person foaming at the mouth next to the person who seems reasonable … they fit together because of this latent lived experience with regards to what is going on,” said Christian Davenport, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

And that’s why political polarization is one of the most troubling trends. Not only has it grown by leaps and bounds since the 1980s, but it’s tied into everything else — race, inequality and even who you get a chance to vote for in a general election. How you feel about other Americans who don’t share your beliefs shapes how willing you are to embrace democracy.

Part 2

Polarization Nation

Who occupies the White House — and whether he truly represents Americans — has fueled protests for each party over the past five years.

Mark Makela / Saul Martinez / Bloomberg / Getty Images

If you’re a Republican or Democrat, chances are you’re not thrilled by the idea of your child marrying a member of the opposite party. And consciously or not, you probably seek out friends from the same political tribe. We don’t feel this way because of disagreements over policy, though, even when it comes to the most divisive questions. Instead, it boils down to a more basic, visceral, “us-versus-them” kind of partisanship that’s very difficult for a single politician to undo.

When Mason looked at how willing people were to actually live their lives alongside people of a different party — to marry them, be friends with them, live next door to them — she discovered that partisan identity was twice as strong a predictor as their actual views on political issues. Disagreement on immigration, health care or gun control had far less of an effect than if the other person identified as an opposing partisan. In this study and others, Mason found that the increasingly neat alignment between our party loyalties and other parts of our identity — race, religion, education — has made politics an integral part of the way we perceive our own moral character and that of others.

As he enters office, Biden doesn’t just have to grapple with debates over issues like taxes or abortion. He has to figure out how to assuage the anger of the significant chunk of Republicans and Democrats who believe, deep in their gut, that the people who belong to the other party are not just wrong — they’re bad.

The deep, fundamental distrust that many Americans feel toward members of the other party is often called affective polarization. (“Affective” refers to feelings — in this case, about our own party and the opposing party.) As those political labels burrowed their way into the depths of Americans’ identities, politics has gained the power to color and shape the way we think about parts of ourselves that aren’t necessarily political. Several studies have suggested, for example, that Americans’ perception of religion as a Republican value has actually spurred countless liberals to stop identifying as religious at all.

Of course, this deeply personal form of polarization has developed alongside other divisive trends we talked about earlier, like deepening social segregation and isolation, rising income inequality and eroding trust in institutions. Americans’ political identities were being fed by — and, in a sense, absorbing — those changes. It’s hard to find a moment in American history when racial attitudes haven’t been a divisive political issue, but over the past decade or so, debates over the existence of racial discrimination, who’s being discriminated against and what we should do about it have increasingly come to define each party.


Luke Sharrett / Getty Images

As the Republican Party cleaved closer and closer to its white base, the country’s first Black president ran on the Democratic Party’s ticket and the party became more and more progressive on issues like race and immigration. Republican politicians, on the other hand, had more and more of an incentive to embrace policies and rhetoric that privileged white, native-born Americans. That sorting, Mason said, allowed for the parties themselves to stand in for differing racial attitudes. “We’ve sort of created a situation in which rather than being racist against, like, Black Americans, you can just hate Democrats,” Mason said.

At the same time, other divisive forces appear to have collapsed in on each other and become self-reinforcing. When Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam identified a worrying decline in Americans’ social engagement more than 20 years ago, politics didn’t bear the brunt of the blame. (Putnam instead pointed the finger at other factors like generational change and television.) But now it’s abundantly clear that many people don’t just surround themselves with friends, spouses and neighbors who think like them politically — those social bubbles reinforce the sense that people who think differently are truly alien.

According to a recent survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, many Americans (particularly white Americans) float in circles where they never have meaningful interactions with people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. But it’s a lack of political diversity that, perhaps surprisingly, seems to have the biggest impact on views on issues like race. The director of the Survey Center on American Life, FiveThirtyEight contributor Daniel Cox, pointed out that Republicans who knew a Black person in their close social circle didn’t have more progressive views on racial discrimination than other Republicans. But Republicans who were friends with a Biden supporter responded to questions about race very differently.

And all of this can help explain why we’ve gotten to a point where so many Americans think violence against members of the other party isn’t merely justified — it’s necessary. FiveThirtyEight contributor Erin Cassese, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, was struck during the 2016 presidential campaign by how the candidates were being described in monstrous, non-human terms. Trump was Frankenstein’s monster. Hillary Clinton was a bitch. She put together a couple of surveys and found that many everyday Republicans and Democrats did indeed see their opponents as more animalistic or subhuman than members of their own group — a tendency that was even stronger for the most committed partisans.

The right’s dehumanization of Democrats has been fueled by racism and racial resentment and has led to darker, more violent behavior. During the riot at the Capitol in January, some people attending the rally erected a noose outside the building.

Shay Horse / NurPhoto via Getty Images

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to spin out where this kind of thinking leads us. Dehumanization has clear links to conflict and violence. “Seeing your opponents as subhuman is a way of saying they don’t warrant moral consideration and moral treatment,” Cassese said. “You’re more likely to see the opposition as evil rather than just wrong. You don’t just want to win, you want to exterminate your enemies.” And there are signs that a big chunk of Americans could be heading down that path. According to Mason and Kalmoe’s surveys, about 40 percent of Americans don’t just disagree with the opposing party’s views — they believe that the other party is evil.

These tendencies already existed in other pockets of the American landscape — and not just among fringe groups like white supremacist extremists. Certain strains of Christianity, for example, have long glorified righteous violence, and the rise of the Christian right helped politicize some of those Christians’ loyalties. A recent study found that the belief that America is a Christian country is closely associated with anti-immigrant sentiments. And according to an unpublished working paper by Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead, scholars who have studied white Christian nationalism, people with similar views are also likelier to support policies that make it harder for Black people to cast a ballot.

Everything, in other words, is partisan now. And all-or-nothingism has, accordingly, become the way politics is practiced (just look at the recent, months-long congressional deadlock over a stimulus package for a COVID-19-stricken economy). That’s not just the result of increasing polarization, of course — there’s a twisted mess of forces at work. Eroding trust in political institutions has increased distrust in mainstream politics, which in turn fuels conspiracy theories and encourages politicians to embrace fringe politics, which makes compromise and deescalation even less likely.

And it’s pretty understandable why. For example, after a decade of renewed voter suppression efforts by the Republican Party made it more difficult for people of color to vote, Democrats won’t necessarily trust Republican overtures now that they’ve lost power.

That kind of thing is what happens when polarization becomes entangled with so many of these other trends. It sends us even deeper into the partisan death spiral we were already in.

Part 3

No Way Out


Melina Mara / Getty Images / Chris Kleponis / Sipa USA via AP Images

The Jan. 6 riot was surreal for its scenes of Americans beating their way through police and hunting down politicians. The follow-up protests on Jan. 17, in contrast, were also surreal, but in an entirely different way. Instead of public insurrection, we saw a powerful show of government force: state capitol buildings surrounded by armored vehicles, rows upon rows of uniformed police and military, their numbers dwarfing the small turnout of protesters who were left with little to do but give sound bites to reporters (who, in many cases, also outnumbered them).

There was relief in that moment — comfort that, at the very least, we are not immediately descending into the new Civil War the boogaloo bois have spent the past year trying to start. We aren’t that dumb.

But we are still angry. And suspicious. And cynical. Forty years of societal trends don’t vanish just because a second wave of attacks didn’t materialize and Joe Biden is now safely ensconced in the West Wing. After all, one of the reasons so few right-wing protesters turned out at state capitols earlier this month is Facebook groups and word of mouth alleged the follow-up events had secretly been planned by Antifa and were plots to entrap good patriots. People were so willing to believe the worst of each other that they swung all the way around and avoided situations that could have turned violent. But we can’t count on that serendipity every time.

We are still a bunch of loaded guns, waiting for someone to pick us up and shoot. The combination of affective polarization, racism, inequality, isolation and mistrust has radicalized a meaningful minority of the nation, making it easy to find scapegoats and boogeymen. Those trends make further extremism seem rational. They make us easy marks for politicians who play on those trends to gain power while only upping our cynicism and anger once they take office.

It was Donald Trump who spent five years telling his supporters the election was going to be rigged against him, then told them it had been, then told them they were the only ones who could “stop the steal” and then pointed them toward the Capitol. But political scientists like Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth, say that if it wasn’t Trump who pulled the trigger, it would have been someone else. It still could be.

Political science does offer some clues to what might calm the nation. The most powerful forces shaping our opinions are our friends, neighbors and the public elites we see as “one of us.” This means affective polarization also has power over the facts we believe and what, if anything, can be done to heal rifts between one side and the other. The transition to a new president seems like an opportune moment to change the zeitgeist, to get us “back to normal.” Biden’s inauguration speech tried to do just that, and Kalmoe and Mason’s research suggests that pacifying messages from Biden could reduce support for violence, even among Republicans.

President Biden is now faced with the most difficult of tasks: governing a radicalized country.

Jeenah Moon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

But that won’t be easy — and there’s reason to wonder if “normal” should even be the goal. Polarization protects and reinforces itself. If, as we’ve seen, 40 percent of Americans think the other party is evil, and 64 percent of Republicans believe Trump was the rightful winner of the election, then there likely isn’t anything President Biden or his administration can do to unify the country. Anything they propose — whether it be policy, unity or accountability — is going to be viewed as illegitimate by a decent portion of Americans.

And simply dialing the rhetoric back to where we were before November — or even where we were in 2016 — won’t change the fact that all of these troubling trends were part of our “normal” back then, too.

What’s more, any Democratic attempts at creating unity without tackling these underlying trends come with a risk of further undermining democracy itself.

Kalmoe is anxious about Biden’s administration taking the lead on compromise, especially with something like voting rights. “In the 19th century, [after the Civil War] healing meant that white Northerners and white Southerners eventually decided to bury their conflict at the expense of Black Southerners and at the expense of democracy,” he said. If Republicans like Mike Pompeo think that multiculturalism is antithetical to American values, then compromise would likely exclude or disadvantage people of color. Biden pacifying the right’s racial resentment could just end up reinforcing the belief that the country has achieved racial equality — or even that we’ve gone too far, and white people are now the ones who are disadvantaged.

But changing these destabilizing trends is probably something that needs to start from the right. That’s because many of the beliefs and behaviors threatening American democracy started earlier and are more pronounced on that end of the political spectrum. Yes, both sides engage in dehumanization, delegitimization and conspiracy-mongering, but both sides have not gone about it in the same way, or at the same rate. “Political scientists really don’t want to say that. But the evidence is right there in front of us, and if we’re going to solve the problem, we have to know what the problem is,” said Joshua Darr, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University and FiveThirtyEight contributor.

The share of Republicans who see Democrats as a “threat to the nation’s wellbeing” is higher than the share of Democrats who see Republicans as a threat. Those on the right are more likely to silo themselves among people who share similar political opinions. And consistent conservatives are less likely to value compromise than do consistent liberals.

What’s more, Republican politicians, concerned about losing their seats in primary races, are likely to overestimate how conservative their constituents are — and shape their policies accordingly.

All of this adds up to another signal that Biden can’t fix affective partisan rancor or the other trends that have attached themselves to it, at least not by himself. The people who feel it more strongly — and who are taking action on it — aren’t likely to listen to him precisely because of the beliefs he can’t change.

Maybe, then, the people we should be turning to are Republican elites, experts said. They can’t solve everything, but they at least have the legitimacy to align some portion of voter beliefs with the reality of a free and fair election.

But whether they will do that — or even actually can — is up for debate. Because if there’s one place where there isn’t a clear difference between left and right, it’s how both sides feel about apostates. Nobody likes them. Just ask Liz Cheney, or, for that matter, Jeff Van Drew. In fact, Mason’s research found that people who saw the opposing party as evil were three times as likely to wish death on opponents within their own party.

The mess left behind after the violence at the Capitol was a consequence of a bigger sociopolitical mess that this country still hasn’t cleaned up.

Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP Images

Instead, experts told us, we have to admit that we won’t get out of this hole with the same tools that dug the pit. Compromise doesn’t mean much if it just keeps entrenching the problems that drove us to this point, Davenport told us. “[Politicians are] interested in political reform and not in the fact that people are pissed,” he said.

McCoy suggested that real, institutional change could start with the electoral process itself. We know Americans on both sides of the aisle have doubts about the trustworthiness of the electoral process — doubts that get temporarily exacerbated any time their side doesn’t win. Offering people choices beyond left/right, me/other could address those doubts and break up the symbolic (and real) power of the two-party system.

She’s talking about changes that have support at local levels — ranked choice elections and multi-member districts. Other scholars suggested reforms like getting rid of the Electoral College or changing the structure of the Senate. But all these changes would likely make a lot of national politicians — especially the Republicans who have benefited most from the status quo — very uncomfortable. For instance, since 2017, there have been 14 bills introduced in Congress that would have promoted ranked choice voting in some way — none of them became law. Ironically, the lack of support for breaking down the two-party system is very bipartisan, perhaps because any change would require politicians to give up power.

But what should be clear by now is that returning to pre-Trump political tactics won’t actually change much. Calls for bipartisanship won’t solve affective polarization. Making white Americans feel better won’t reduce racism. The same economic policies we’ve deployed for four decades are unlikely to reduce inequality. Holding a hard line in Congress won’t make Americans feel like politics works for them. Changing nothing about our tactics will only deepen extremism and further the threat of violence hanging over our heads.

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” Biden said in his inaugural address. But he did that, anyway — talking about opening our souls and showing tolerance and humility. It was a speech that showed we have a president who at least sees the problem at hand and hopes it’s something he can overcome.

Unfortunately, hoping it can happen isn’t the same thing as knowing how to do it.

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Trump Is Leaving Office With a Bunch of Legal Problems– And We’re Not Simply Discussing Impeachment

President Trump has only hours left in the White House — and the first few months of his time as a former president seem likely to be very different than any of his predecessors’. That’s not just because his popularity is plummeting and his party is splintering over whether to support or condemn him. He’s also leaving office with an impeachment trial and a host of other legal problems on the horizon — not exactly what you’d call a post-presidency glow.

[Related: The Final Two Months of Trump’s Presidency Were The Most Important Ones]

The impeachment trial, in particular, seems likely to ensure that Trump, and his role inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, remain in the headlines even after he’s left the presidency. Trump won’t be the first president to leave the White House in a cloud of legal liability, of course. But he is likely to have the dubious honor of being the first former president to be tried by the Senate. And the newness of that situation means that there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the trial will look like — and what it will mean for Trump’s personal and political future.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to send the article of impeachment to the Senate tomorrow or Friday, which would officially start the trial at 1 p.m. Eastern the following day and set the stage for opening arguments next week. The details of how the trial will proceed are still being worked out, and Republicans could try to contest its legitimacy because Trump will no longer be president when the trial begins. But even though removal from office will no longer be a viable threat, the result could still be very serious for him. If a two-thirds majority of senators votes to convict him, it would likely take just a simple majority to disqualify him from holding federal office again, dashing any hopes of a Trump comeback in 2024.

Disqualification, of course, hasn’t been used very often as a remedy in the history of impeachment — nor is it common for an impeachment trial to continue after the defendant is no longer in office. But there are historical precedents for both. Three people — all federal judges — have been disqualified from holding future federal office after being impeached and convicted. And in several cases, including one in 1797, just ten years after the Constitution was written, the Senate conducted an impeachment trial after the defendant was no longer in office. In the late nineteenth century, while contemplating a Senate trial for William Belknap, a former Grant administration official mired in a corruption scandal, the Senate voted on whether they actually had jurisdiction to try a former federal officer — and a majority concluded that they did.

Why 10 Republicans voted for impeachment | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

Of course, that doesn’t mean that an impeachment trial of a former president will be a simple thing. Trump could still try to challenge the constitutionality of the trial itself, or try to overturn its outcome if he’s ultimately convicted and disqualified. And some Democrats have expressed concern about the prospect of an impeachment trial that stretches into the early months of Biden’s presidency, potentially overshadowing his agenda and eating up time that the Senate could be using to confirm Biden’s Cabinet appointees or to pass legislation like the massive coronavirus stimulus bill that is likely to be one of Biden’s first priorities as president. At one point in the past month, high-ranking House Democrat Jim Clyburn even suggested that the trial be delayed until after Biden’s first 100 days in office.

Biden, though, seems open to the idea of an impeachment trial that unfolds as he’s taking the reins. He said last week that he has spoken to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about a possible “bifurcation” process where the Senate would spend half the day on Trump’s impeachment trial and the other half working on a COVID-19 relief bill and confirming Biden’s Cabinet nominees. It’s unclear whether the Senate will adopt this structure, but at the very least it signals that Biden realizes he will likely have to juggle Trump’s impeachment trial among his many priorities.

[Related: Biden’s Team And Priorities Show How The Democratic Party Changed In The Trump Era]

The trial could be prolonged, though, if Trump decides to fight back. Frank Bowman, a law professor at the University of Missouri and the author of a book on the history of impeachment, said that he could imagine Trump suing to stop the trial from happening, or suing to overturn a conviction, perhaps on the grounds that the Senate doesn’t have power over him once he has left the presidency, since impeachment doesn’t apply to private citizens. The problem, Bowman said, is that the timing of the House vote to impeach Trump — which did happen while Trump was still president — significantly weakens any argument Trump could make about the constitutionality of a trial or conviction happening after he leaves office.

“If you’ve already asserted jurisdiction over him while he’s president, it becomes really hard to say, well now that he’s out of office we can’t try him or render a judgment,” Bowman said. If that were the case, anyone who’s impeached in the future could simply resign to avoid a trial, Bowman pointed out — or wait to commit impeachable offenses until the end of his term is in sight. It’s possible, too, that Trump could argue that disqualification doesn’t apply to elected officials, if the Senate gets to that point.

It’s not clear, though, just how much of a problem the trial will actually be for Trump. Even if the trial is deemed to be constitutional, a two-thirds majority vote to convict him — which would require the support of 17 Republican senators — is far from assured. And without a conviction, it’s unlikely Trump will be disqualified from holding federal office again. According to Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University, the vote to convict Trump must precede the vote to disqualify him from holding federal office again in the future. (Because it’s never happened before, it’s possible that the Senate could try to hold a disqualification vote without first convicting Trump, but Kalt and other experts said the Constitution is pretty clear that conviction has to happen first.)

But even without an impeachment conviction, Trump might still face other kinds of legal trouble. While he was in the White House, he was protected from criminal liability by the U.S. Department of Justice’s decades-old policy that presidents can’t be indicted while they’re serving as chief executive. But that protection will evaporate as soon as Biden takes the oath of office. Trump could theoretically face charges from federal or state prosecutors for inciting the Jan. 6 riot or for his call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which he pressured Raffensperger to “find” the votes to reverse his defeat in the state.

Is Biden's vision of unity possible? | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

Things could get complicated here, as there’s no reason why a criminal prosecution couldn’t proceed alongside an impeachment trial, according to Kalt. The Senate and the courts might be leery of the two processes running in parallel, but as Kalt said, “If Trump is facing prison, you could imagine the senators saying, ‘Well let’s see how this plays out first,’ and then finish [the impeachment trial] very quickly if he’s criminally convicted.” That, of course, would further delay the impeachment process, since criminal prosecutions typically take months or even years to play out. Some senators, nevertheless, have said that they see criminal liability as a possibility for Trump. Moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin even suggested that a criminal process might be preferable to a lengthy impeachment trial.

It’s not clear, though, whether there are sufficient grounds for Trump to be prosecuted for his role in the assault on the Capitol or his call to Raffensperger, and it’s also very possible that Biden — even if he’s resigned to an impeachment trial — wouldn’t want one of his administration’s first actions to be prosecuting his predecessor.

[How Trump Used His Pardon Power]

Of course, there is still one potential escape hatch for Trump — for the next few hours, at least. While he’s still president, he could issue a pardon for himself that would cover all kinds of legal liability. Reporting suggests that he won’t take this path, though, and it’s not hard to see why. For one thing, it could lead to another impeachment charge, or end up galvanizing more Republicans to vote for his conviction. It also wouldn’t save him from state prosecutors, since presidential pardons only apply to federal crimes, and it might even spur states to go after him more aggressively. And the pardon itself might not hold up in court, if the Biden administration challenges it, since there’s genuine uncertainty about whether a presidential self-pardon is even constitutional.

Trump is leaving the White House with plenty of potential legal liability, thanks to his actions over just the past few weeks, but it’s not clear what legal consequences he’ll face — if any — for his role in the Capitol riot.

Did Trump change the rules of politics? | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

What Trumpism has cost the GOP and the nation | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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Why Fights Over The COVID-19 Vaccine Are Everywhere On Facebook

If you took one look at the Facebook group Vaccines Exposed, it seemed clear what it was all about. It was “a group opposed to deadly vaccinations,” with over 13,000 members on a platform known to harbor anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. Some of its followers’ recent posts included a video falsely claiming the COVID-19 vaccine will kill people and a post claiming children are having cancer “injected into them. #facts.” Standard anti-vaxx fare.

It was so convincing, Facebook removed the group Friday for violating the site’s community standards. But Vaccines Exposed was really a “honeypot” group run by vaccine advocates hoping to attract the attention of anti-vaxxers and people on the fence. When those folks posted something that furthered the anti-vaxx cause, pro-vaxx members responded and tried to persuade them to question their beliefs. It wasn’t always a gentle exchange.

“In this community, there are people whose goal is purely to educate,” said David Litton, a pro-vaccine member who used a fake account to participate in Vaccines Exposed, and is a podcaster and Twitch stream host who covers conspiracy theories online. “Then there’s a spectrum between that and people who are just trying to dunk on anti-vaxxers for being stupid.”

For example, in response to that video falsely claiming the COVID-19 vaccine would kill people, one member asked why we aren’t seeing this in the thousands of trial participants, another queried why the original poster chose to trust individuals with no science background over experts, while yet another asked, referring to the original poster: “why do we allow these people to breed?”

These skirmishes between pro- and anti-vaccine users aren’t limited to Vaccines Exposed; all of Facebook is a battlefield. And while those confrontations aren’t unique to Facebook — the anti-vaxx movement is as old as vaccines themselves — the site has created an ecosystem that, intentionally or not, has allowed this battle to flourish. And while the social media giant has made efforts to curb the spread of misinformation, it hasn’t been enough to end the battle for hearts and minds. As the American public attempts the most extensive vaccination campaign in half a century, that battle is all the more relevant.

THE PLATFORM

The recently greenlit COVID-19 vaccines represent our best chance at ending the pandemic, so it’s particularly jeopardous to have the American public spending time fighting over a basic fact: vaccines are safe, effective and necessary for public health. While the new COVID-19 vaccines don’t have the benefit of decades of research demonstrating their safety and efficacy like other vaccines, many of the common narratives being spread about the COVID-19 vaccines come from existing anti-vaxx beliefs that have been debunked. It’s true that researchers don’t yet know for sure if the vaccines prevent people from spreading the virus, but we do know, for example, that mRNA vaccines don’t change your DNA. The latter is an anti-vaxx belief so prevalent, it led one Wisconsin pharmacist to allegedly tamper with vials of the vaccine.

The preexisting conflict between anti-vaxxers and pro-vaxxers has now seeped into the much broader discussions about the COVID-19 vaccine on Facebook, according to a November report from First Draft News, a nonprofit organization that provides investigative research to newsrooms tracking and reporting on mis- and disinformation. (FiveThirtyEight has partnered with First Draft in the past.)

“Our research shows how seamlessly old narratives can be repurposed to fit new contexts,” said Rory Smith, a research manager at First Draft and a co-author of the report. “When demand for information about a topic is high but the supply of credible information is low, you get a data deficit, and that deficit will quickly be filled up with misinformation.”

The researchers found that familiar tropes about vaccines, such as the idea that they are unnecessary and just a way for big pharma to make money, have been applied to the COVID-19 vaccine as well. But COVID-19 is, naturally, a much more widely discussed topic, so much of the conversations about vaccines online is now about the COVID-19 vaccine specifically, allowing anti-vaxx narratives to reach audiences who might not otherwise come across them. In fact, leaked audio recordings of anti-vaxx leaders, first noted in a report by the U.K.-based Center for Countering Digital Hate, shows that they strategized to use this exact scenario — anxiety and confusion about the new COVID-19 vaccines — to sow misinformation to a wider audience.

Data from CrowdTangle, a social media tracking tool, reveals examples of anti-vaxx ideas seeping into COVID-19 vaccine conversations across Facebook, including in otherwise unrelated spaces. In a recent search for the word “vaccine” among Facebook groups, I was able to find dozens of examples of discussions in unrelated groups, many of which inevitably had anti-vaxx misinformation in the comment sections.

The anti-vaxx movement has done so well on Facebook in part because it is controversial, and controversy helps make Facebook a lot of money. In 2019, 98 percent of Facebook’s revenue was from advertising — $20 billion in all. Facebook’s advertising is so valuable because it can be microtargeted, based on the data Facebook collects on its users. To collect more and better data (and to expose users to more ads), Facebook needs its users to be active and engaged: liking posts, sharing links, joining groups and commenting. One surefire way to keep people engaged is to expose them to content that provokes an emotional response, like a post claiming the vaccine you’re planning to give your toddler will cause him or her to develop autism.

“What we saw at Reddit was that conflict and controversy generated the most attention,” said Ellen Pao, the former CEO of Reddit and a Silicon Valley vet who now runs Project Inclusive, a nonprofit diversity consulting organization. “These networks are rewarded for engagement. And when people get heated over something, they stay either to engage or to watch.”

A Wall Street Journal investigation last year uncovered how teams within Facebook tasked with addressing the site’s disinformation crisis cited the platform’s design as the root of the problem. An internal company presentation from 2018 included slides that said Facebook’s algorithms “exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” and, if not altered, would surface “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.”

And at a congressional hearing in September, Facebook’s former director of monetization, Tim Kendall, made similar observations.

“Social media preys on the most primal parts of your brain. The algorithm maximizes your attention by hitting you repeatedly with content that triggers your strongest emotions — it aims to provoke, shock and enrage,” Kendall said in his opening statement. “This is not by accident. It’s an algorithmically optimized playbook to maximize user attention — and profits.”

More recently, Facebook has made public statements and efforts to tamp down on the spread of anti-vaxx misinformation specifically.

“We are committed to reaching as many people as possible with accurate information about vaccines, and launched partnerships with WHO and UNICEF to do just that,” said Andrea Vallone, a spokesperson for Facebook. “We’ve banned ads that discourage people from getting vaccines and reduced the number of people who see vaccine hoaxes verified by the WHO and the CDC. We also label Pages and Groups that repeatedly share vaccine hoaxes, lower all of their posts in News Feed, and do not recommend them to anyone.”

Still, misinformation finds a way. “You can do these takedowns but that hasn’t necessarily stopped the flow of misinformation, and we can’t forget about the long tail of misinformation,” said First Draft’s Smith. “There are all of these hundreds of thousands or millions of posts that might not get that many interactions but collectively make up a lot of misinformation.”


COLLEEN TIGHE

THE BATTLE LINES

A typical post in the Facebook group What’s Happening In Aurora, IL? garners a handful of reactions. It’s an 81,000-member community group about, well, what’s happening in Aurora, Illinois. Posts often resemble classifieds: someone looking for bakers in the area to make a cake, someone posting a job opening, someone offering second-hand maternity clothes. But a recent post showing the first local health care worker to receive the COVID-19 vaccine drew more than 1,200 reactions and nearly 900 comments, including this one:

Anti-vaxx theories were prominent among the responses, suggesting the vaccine is dangerous and questioning the speed with which it was produced. Both of those doubts were common threads First Draft found in its report. It’s just one example of anti-vaxx beliefs bleeding into otherwise neutral spaces on Facebook.

They’re the same claims pro-vaxx advocates have been battling for years. But the battles don’t all play out the same way. In one private Facebook group called Vaccine Talk, nearly 50,000 pro-vaxxers, anti-vaxxers and people on the fence are encouraged to pursue carefully controlled, civil and evidence-based dialogue — though even in this group, some anti-vaxx and on-the-fence members told me they felt attacked or condescended to by pro-vaccine members. C.I.C.A.D.A. (which stands for Community Immunity Champions and Defenders Association), meanwhile, deploys pro-vaccine users to comment sections overrun with anti-vaxxers.

Take this Facebook post from a children’s hospital in Rochester, New York, showing one of its doctors receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. The post began to attract anti-vaxx comments, such as people questioning the ingredients of the vaccine (in reality, the ingredients are minimal, common and safe) and claiming doctors are only advocating for vaccination to make money (profits are not the motivation for recommending the COVID-19 vaccine). So a C.I.C.A.D.A. member posted in the group, sending up a flare, saying the hospital’s social media team was overwhelmed. Now, the post is flooded with supportive messages, photos of other health care workers getting their shot, and praise for the good example set, burying the anti-vaxx comments and attacks.

“Support doesn’t necessarily mean engaging with the anti-vaccine people; in fact, we encourage people not to do that,” said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a law professor who specializes in vaccine law at UC Hastings College of the Law, and a member of C.I.C.A.D.A. “It can mean coming in and providing positive comments. [The group is] there to prevent people from being intimidated into not posting about vaccines.”

Vaccines Exposed, the honeypot group, took a more radical approach, luring anti-vaxxers into an ostensible safe space, only to pull back the curtain on a less sympathetic crowd. One administrator, who asked not to be named, told me she hoped the group might reveal to the anti-vaxx-curious the flaws in many of the claims against vaccination. But the interactions in the group weren’t always constructive, with pro-vaxxers sometimes mocking or ridiculing the anti-vaxx posters.

Group member Litton defended the more combative method, noting the people he affiliates with avoid explicit trolling (things like doxxing or threatening), and that humor — even at someone’s expense — can be an effective strategy in battling misinformation.

But the deception required to draw in members in the first place makes it unlikely the honeypot group will persuade anti-vaxxers, according to Rachel Alter, a research affiliate at the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“If your goal is to change people’s minds, you don’t want to start out by tricking them right off the bat,” Alter said. “People aren’t going to stick around long enough. They’re going to see what’s going on and get defensive or leave.”

Research on how people form — and change — beliefs suggests that a gentler approach is more effective. People tend to see attacks on their beliefs as attacks on them personally, and we are all biased against information that challenges our existing worldview. Asking questions, sharing stories and lowering the temperature by avoiding insults can make people more susceptible to new ideas, according to Karin Tamerius, a former political psychologist who founded Smart Politics, a program that trains people on how to have productive conversations with people they disagree with. Tamerius based her program on existing research into beliefs and persuasion and said changing views is a long, difficult process that is unlikely to occur through a single Facebook interaction.

This is ultimately the problem at hand. Best intentions and science-backed strategies are great, but the battle continues to spread because Facebook is designed for just that.

Industry researchers believe there are other efforts Facebook could make to reduce the impact of the anti-vaxx movement on the site. Last year, nonprofit research group Ranking Digital Rights released a report on how algorithmically driven advertising structures have exacerbated the disinformation epidemic by increasing its spread, and recommended social media sites look at changing these systems — rather than moderating content — to curb the spread. People will always post nonsense on the internet. The platforms we use don’t need to be designed to lead people to it.

And despite all of Facebook’s efforts, many users are still being exposed to misinformation at precisely the moment in time we need them to be well-informed.

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Trump Made The Federal Courts Whiter And More Conservative– And That Will Be Difficult For Biden To Reverse


PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY EMILY SCHERER / GETTY IMAGES

During most of Donald Trump’s presidency, Congress was in a state of persistent deadlock, passing relatively few big pieces of legislation. But the Republican-controlled Senate stayed humming, nonetheless — thanks to a steady stream of judicial nominees from the White House.

After only one term, Trump filled 28 percent of vacant seats on the federal bench, including 27 percent of active federal district court judges and 30 percent of active appeals court judges, not to mention three Supreme Court justices. This figure is far higher than for other recent presidents in their first terms — by January 2013, for instance, Barack Obama had appointed just 17 percent of the vacant federal judge spots, and at the end of his first term, George W. Bush had appointed 21 percent. In fact, Obama was able to appoint only a slightly larger share of the federal bench in his eight years in office (31 percent) than Trump managed to do in his one term.

Trump also managed to radically alter the makeup of the courts. His appointees are not only far more conservative than other presidents’ picks but far less racially and ethnically diverse. They’re also fairly young — the median age for Trump’s appellate judges at confirmation is 47 — so given that the median retirement age for appellate judges is 67, these appointees could end up serving for decades to come. And even though Democrats now maintain narrow control of the Senate, putting President Biden in a much better position to make his own stamp on the judiciary than if Republicans still held the majority, Trump’s effect on the courts could be difficult to undo.

Federal judges have long been unrepresentative of the population they serve. But over the past few decades, presidents of both parties have made concerted efforts to nominate a more diverse slate of judges, with each president steadily building on the work of the last chief executive of his party.

That is, until Trump.

As the chart below shows, only around 16 percent of Trump’s appointees to the federal district and appellate courts aren’t white. That’s slightly lower than the share of Bush’s nonwhite appointees (18 percent) and a whopping 19 percentage points lower than the share of Obama’s nonwhite appointees (36 percent), according to data from the Federal Judicial Center, a research-oriented arm of the federal courts that collects biographical information for federal judges, including their race, ethnicity and gender.

Trump did appoint a higher share of Asian American judges than any other past president except Obama. But, overall, Trump’s appointees are largely white. That record is in many ways a throwback to the 1980s, when only a tiny proportion of judges were racial or ethnic minorities. The implications of this are far-reaching, however, for the people who appear in court before these judges: Research suggests that a whiter, more heavily male judiciary is likely to be less sympathetic to people of color and women on legal issues related to race and gender.

Zoom in on the race and ethnicity of Trump’s judicial picks in the chart below and you can see just how white they are. Only 4 percent of Trump’s appointees are Black (compared with 2 percent of Ronald Reagan’s appointees and 6 percent of George H.W. Bush’s), and 4 percent of Trump’s appointees are Hispanic (right around where Reagan and G.H.W. Bush’s appointees landed).

There is a little more gender diversity among Trump’s appointees, though: About one-quarter (24 percent) of the judges he’s named to the bench are women, similar to the share of G.W. Bush’s appointees (22 percent). However, this is still significantly lower than the share of female judges confirmed under Obama (42 percent).

A heavily white judiciary isn’t just a symbolic statement either. Several scholars who study the courts told FiveThirtyEight that a lack of diversity among judges can have a serious impact on how the courts are viewed. According to Princeton professor John Kastellec, having more nonwhite judges boosts confidence in the courts, which is not a trivial thing considering the federal judiciary is an unelected branch of government and must rely on public goodwill to ensure its decisions are respected and carried out.

There’s also evidence that having more racial and gender diversity among federal judges actually influences the kinds of decisions that are made. This dynamic tends to emerge in cases involving race or gender issues — like affirmative action, voting rights, or employment discrimination — which might not make up the bulk of any given court’s docket but can still be consequential. In one study, for instance, Kastellec found that in cases related to affirmative action, the presence of a single randomly assigned Black judge on a three-judge appeals court panel1 resulted in a more liberal outcome, independent of the judges’ political ideology. In fact, Kastellec told us, “the effect of adding one Black judge was greater than the effect of adding two Democratic white judges.”

Christina Boyd, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, has found similar effects for race in cases involving affirmative action and voting rights at the district court level. Female judges were also more likely, according to Boyd’s research, to side with plaintiffs in sex discrimination and sexual harassment cases, and there have been similar findings at the appellate level. “It makes a concrete difference when the judiciary isn’t just monolithically composed of white, male judges with similar backgrounds,” Boyd said. “It’s not an effect we see in every case, but it’s one that we see in cases where the judges bring unique information and experiences to their roles, perspectives that white men don’t necessarily have.”

One big reason that Trump’s picks tended to skew so heavily white and male, though, was that he and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prioritized appointing a raft of reliable ideological conservatives above all else. That pipeline is pretty limiting. “If you’re talking about potential Republican judges, the bench or the farm team, if you will, is pretty overwhelmingly white,” Kastellec said. And Trump’s nominees have certainly been very conservative. In fact, an analysis of the Judicial Common Space scores, a commonly used metric of appellate court ideology, shows that Trump’s appointees to the circuit courts are more uniformly conservative than any of his recent Republican predecessors’.

That shift is staggering, but it isn’t entirely due to Trump. It’s also the product of decades of political polarization and acrimony surrounding judicial appointments, which culminated in the Democrats’ 2013 decision to change Senate rules to end the 60-vote requirement for an up-or-down vote on a lower-court nominee. Then Senate Republicans took this one step further when they won full control of the government in 2017 and eliminated the tradition allowing senators to veto appellate court nominees from their home states, regardless of their party or the president’s party. This essentially removed the need for much of the compromising and deal-making that had happened behind the scenes in the past, according to Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University who has studied the judicial confirmation process. “It basically opened the floodgates for Republicans to nominate and confirm a steady stream of exceedingly conservative and exceedingly young judges — people who would have been very unlikely to make it through the process in the past,” Binder said.

As a result, after four years, the balance of power on several pivotal appeals courts has changed in noteworthy ways. For instance, Trump has now appointed five of the 13 active judges on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, a traditionally left-leaning circuit court based in New York City that covers New York, Connecticut and Vermont.2 And while some courts, like the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, remain dominated by liberals, Trump made inroads in another historically left-leaning circuit — the West Coast-based 9th Circuit — appointing 10 of the 29 active judges on the court, which has moved the median to the right and substantially raised the odds of drawing a panel dominated by conservative judges.

“Presidents can really have an impact if they can remake a specific, powerful circuit,” said Chad Westerland, a political science professor at the University of Arizona and one of the creators of the JCS scores. “That’s what Trump has come close to doing with the 2nd Circuit. And because his appointees are so young, the impact could be with us for a very long time.” (Trump’s appointees also shifted the balance of power to the right on the 3rd, 7th, and 11th circuits.)

Admittedly, serving only a single term has limited some of Trump’s successes in the courts. Westerland pointed out, for instance, that while Trump was able to appoint nearly as many appellate judges in four years as Obama did in eight, Trump flipped fewer circuit court seats. Only a third of his appointments were to seats previously held by judges named by Democrats, whereas nearly half of Obama’s appointments were to seats previously filled by Republicans. “One of Trump’s biggest impacts, ironically, was to somewhat erode George W. Bush’s legacy in the courts by replacing a lot of his appellate judges,” Westerland said. (In fact, 34 percent of Trump-appointed appellate judges took seats that had been vacated by G.W. Bush appointees.) Westerland did acknowledge, though, that because of their extreme conservatism, Trump’s replacements could still push the courts to the right — particularly in blue states where Democratic senators used to have more influence over who was nominated.

In many ways, Trump’s success in the courts could be a model for future presidents who want to leave their own judicial legacies. But the reality is it will be hard for Biden to replicate what Trump has done. For one thing, Trump came in with a significant number of vacancies to fill, thanks to Senate Republicans’ broad-scale refusal to consider Obama’s judicial nominees in the last two years of his presidency. Biden, on the other hand, has far fewer judges to appoint immediately.

Biden might not have to wait long to start making consequential appointments, however. For starters, if Judge Merrick Garland is confirmed as attorney general, Biden will be able to nominate Garland’s replacement to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. What’s more, according to our analysis, 18 percent of currently active appellate judges and 9 percent of currently active district court judges were appointed by Clinton and are eligible to take senior status, and 7 percent of currently active appellate judges and 4 percent of currently active district court judges appointed by Obama could do the same, which means Biden could quickly end up with more than the 49 spots he currently has to fill.3 Biden could also have the opportunity to name a new Supreme Court justice soon, as pressure is likely to mount on Stephen Breyer, a Clinton appointee who’s now 82, to step down so he can be replaced by a younger, liberal justice, who, if Biden upholds his campaign pledge, will almost certainly be a Black woman.

Not all the Democratic-appointed judges who are eligible to retire are guaranteed to do so, though. And while replacing a slew of left-leaning judges would shore up liberal majorities on some appellate courts and give Biden an opportunity to inject more diversity into the federal judiciary, it won’t undo the overall conservative shift that occurred under Trump. Biden will also likely struggle to appoint judges who are as ideologically extreme as Trump’s, because the Democrats’ control over the Senate is razor-thin and moderate senators may push for more middle-of-the-road judicial choices. “I think the Democrats will have to stray away from ideologically extreme nominees in order to get the votes of senators in the center,” Boyd said.

The end result is that the judiciary’s conservative tilt is likely to persist through the first few years of Biden’s presidency, even if it gets somewhat more diverse — which could be an enduring thorn in Biden’s side, particularly as it pertains to his administration’s ability to make aggressive changes through executive orders or regulations.

And on a day-to-day basis, Trump’s transformation of the judiciary will, of course, make a big difference for the people whose cases filter through the federal court system over the unfolding years or decades, with potentially significant consequences for criminal sentences, the fate of voting rights protections, and the success of employment discrimination lawsuits.

“There’s so much focus on the Supreme Court, and that’s for good reason, but I think in the process we forget that in a year when the Supreme Court takes maybe 60 or 80 cases, lower court judges are making tens of thousands of decisions that really, really matter for litigants,” Westerland said. “That impact might be hard to quantify and track, but it’s very real.”

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How Has The Radical Right Evolved Under Trump?

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.

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Politics Podcast: What A Second Impeachment Means

By Galen Druke and Perry Bacon Jr. and Galen Druke and Perry Bacon Jr.
More: Apple Podcasts |>ESPN App |
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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.

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