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.
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.
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.
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.