A mob, egged on by a presidential speech earlier in the day, breached the U.S. Capitol, spun in the president of the Senate’s chair, and sent members of Congress running for safety, some in gas masks. Its goal was to stop a peaceful transition of power by upending the certification of election results. These acts were hardly spontaneous, but rather emerged from a series of rallies of white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, militias, and Trump supporters who believe that the election was stolen.
This is the United States of America in January 2021. Its problems are typically blamed on the country’s immense polarization—and that’s true. But it’s not the whole story. The United States is stretched to near-breaking by partisan polarization (though not by left-right ideology). Yet the nation is simultaneously dealing with a Republican Party that is increasingly captured by a faction willing to undermine democracy itself. Each development is problematic, but they are particularly combustible in combination. We’ll have to first look at them separately to understand how they work together.
It’s not news that the United States is facing severe partisan polarization. But this polarization is not primarily about policies. In fact, a majority of Americans agree on the broad strokes of abortion, immigration, and gun legislation. Instead, U.S. citizens have grown to hate and fear the other side and cleave to their own party, with only a minimal relationship to the policies each side embodies—an emotional tribalism known as affective polarization.
This severe polarization started years before President Donald Trump took office. But it didn’t come from the ether—it grew out of the structural incentives politicians face.
Political Incentives to Polarization
First, the Democratic and Republican parties are locked in tight competition. It used to be that one party or the other had a lock on Congress, sometimes for decades. The party with a clear majority had good reason to cooperate with the minority to chalk up some wins. Today, every congressional election could swing control of the legislature. Neither party wants to give the other credit for important legislation, so politics trumps governing, and frustrated voters are told to blame the other side.
Second, while conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans used to exist, today’s voters are ideologically sorted into parties. Research from the Pew Research Center has found that the correlation between ideology and party affiliation doubled from 1972 to 2012.
Third, geographically and ideologically sorted voters yield more ideological candidates—especially for Republicans. For many years, political logic suggested that moderate candidates should tack to their base in the primaries—usually low-turnout events that attract the most partisan voters —and then move to the middle to win general elections. But with so many seats gerrymandered in the House and voters so geographically sorted, politicians far more frequently vie for seats that are safe for their party but prone to being challenged by other candidates from the same side. Further, raising the vast sums required for today’s elections entails appealing to a handful of immensely wealthy individuals whose views are often more extreme than the electorate’s.
But sorting has had differential effects on the parties: Republicans have become more homogenous, and Democrats have grown more heterogeneous. Democratic politicians must secure a voting base that includes Black religious traditionalists, woke White progressives, union workers, and Hollywood money. Thus, a number of different measures have found that Democrats have moved only slightly to the left, while Republican politicians have become far more conservative since the mid-1970s.
Because the parties are so different and voters’ identities so aligned, losing elections now feels far more existential to partisans. For Americans, how we vote is closely aligned to where we live and shop, what we drink and watch, whether or not we are religious, and what our race is. A vote for the other side isn’t just supporting different policies. It means going against the common wisdom of almost everyone you know, the yard signs in your neighborhood, and the offhand comments at local businesses. Even if voters have real concerns about a party’s behavior, voting for the other side means moving into a foreign social geography that is uncomfortable—and that might cause them real misgivings. It’s far easier to stay within one’s social milieu and rationalize.
Severe polarization seems to spell doom for democracy. But in fact, surveys find that affective polarization is actually higher in many countries—such as Denmark— whose governments are functioning and addressing societal problems like the coronavirus pandemic far better. The United States has become far more polarized in recent years, but what is happening to American democracy is not simply the product of polarization.
Highly polarized political environments are ripe for a second problem: the destruction of democracy from the inside by an elected and popular party. According to Milan Svolik, in highly polarized countries, partisans care about democracy. But they care about their side winning slightly more. On marginal calls, extreme partisans will let democracy slide in order to win—until it has slid away completely.
An Anti-System Party
In strong democracies, extreme partisans willing to break the rules to win are held in check by parties, laws, and institutions. That is partially the story of this election, in which the properly elected candidates will ultimately be sworn in later in January 2021. But American democracy is not in good health. Events since the November 2020 election suggest that the United States is now contending with a Republican Party with a significant, opportunistic, anti-system faction; this faction of the party runs in elections but does not support the basic tenets of democracy, such as enabling eligible citizens to vote, disavowing violence, and conceding power upon electoral loss.
How Anti-System Parties Grow
Such anti-system parties are not uncommon. Fascist parties arose in multiple European nations in the 1930s. In Ireland, Sinn Féin maintained ties to an armed wing long after it began contesting elections. And more recently, populist parties from the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte to Venezuela under former president Hugo Chávez fit the bill. The two-party duopoly in the United States means that an anti-democratic faction has arisen as part of the existing Republican Party rather than as a stand-alone entity.
The United States has had an anti-system party faction before: Southern Democrats under Jim Crow. From the late 1800s through the mid-1960s, they ensured that most of the former Confederacy formed a solid, one-party state held together with voting rules that kept Black people from voting, backed by credible threats of violence if any tried. (They did, unlike Trump, concede when faced with electoral loss.)
Today, Trump accelerated the trajectory of a party already trending in an anti-system direction. Modern Republicans, like Southern Democrats before them, have long tinkered with systems to suppress Black voting. These anti-democratic efforts gained ground after the Supreme Court ended parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and more recently after a court ruling against voter intimidation was phased out.
Trump made these attempts to tilt the playing field look almost genteel. He addressed violent groups directly from the debate stage, asked judges to overturn election results, resorted to direct calls and threats against local election officials to change the tallies, toyed with calling for the Insurrection Act (to no clear purpose), and, of course, is the first losing U.S. presidential candidate in history to refuse to concede. Yesterday, on January 6, he incited a violent mob to breach the Capitol itself as members of Congress voted to certify the election results and enable the transfer of power.
Silence of the Majority
The problem for U.S. democracy is not Trump. It is the silence of the majority of elected Republican officials around the country as these breaches escalated. A few politicians with strong backbones—representing places like Maine and Alaska where politics are still local and where their hold is strong—spoke up for democratic norms. But stunningly few congressional Republicans were willing to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden until pressure from good government groups garnered a few weak statements.
Far too few spoke up against the death threats and armed intimidation of election officials and civil servants. Republican officials remaining silent to indulge conspiracies about electoral fraud allowed such fantasies to fester among their supporters. When a quarter of the Republican Senate delegation and two-thirds of Republicans in the House said they would voice opposition to certifying certain states’ election results, it could only further fuel the hopes of a mob bent on also disrupting the count through violence.
It seems unlikely that states and localities can move the party in a more democratic direction. Despite greater courage from a number of local elected Republicans, the trends are going in the opposite direction, with strong anti-democratic factions taking hold in many states. Anti-democratic actions range from refusing to seat an elected state senator in Pennsylvania to stripping incoming Democratic governors of many powers in Wisconsin in 2018 and North Carolina in 2016, among others.
An Anti-System Party in a Polarized Society
Anti-system parties and movements are, by definition, bad for democracy. However, they often fizzle out on their own, as when violent left-wing parties fizzled after the 1970s. But when high levels of affective polarization combine with anti-system parties, the effect is more like mixing water with cement. Fusing these two elements can cause anti-democratic tendencies to harden.
Instead of core members of a party condemning a violent, law-breaking, or otherwise anti-democratic faction to irrelevance, the faction condemns the core. Further, when the other party condemns undemocratic acts, they are simply seen as partisans using the issue to gain ground, rather than as genuine defenders of democracy. Meanwhile, the anti-system party can rationalize breaches of democratic norms, laws, and destruction of institutions: they are deemed not so bad at all, just as bad as what the other side has done, or justifiable to keep the other side out of power given how much more dangerous they would be to the polity. This is the trajectory of countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland—countries that Freedom House has now labeled not free, only partially free, and declining within the “free” category of its democracy index, respectively.
So What Can Be Done?
How does the United States avoid this fate?
There is no silver bullet, but a multipronged strategy could help. It would involve cultivating a new political alignment, shoring up institutions and norms, and fostering reconnections at both the social and economic levels.
Cultivating a New Political Alignment
America needs a conservative party—or parties. The last series of close elections prove that nearly half of U.S. voters clearly hold a range of conservative ideas, values, and interests that deserve representation. The United States cannot afford for these voters to have nowhere to go other than a party that does not support democracy itself.
Internal reform seems unlikely. The hope among some Never Trump Republicans that their party would suffer such huge losses in 2020 that it would reject Trumpian anti-democratic tendencies and realign itself proved false. While Trump lost, he increased his 2016 vote share by more than 10 million votes, and Republican politicians riding his coattails won overwhelmingly at the state and local levels.
And the idea of a moderate, centrist party formed from rump Republicans and Democrats seems equally unlikely. Affective polarization means too few will cross over from either side to create a viable third party.
Thus, the best option for a new political alignment is some form of ranked choice voting, in which voters rank their preferred candidates from one on down. Those with the least votes are kicked out of the race, and those who voted for them see their votes go to their second-choice candidates. By letting candidates along the ideological spectrum run against one another without spoiling their own party’s chances, Republicans currently sticking with an anti-democratic party because they care about tax policy, abortion, or their social relationships will have other acceptable options.
Strengthening Institutions and Norms
This election cycle has uncovered a host of institutional weaknesses that can be exploited by a party acting in bad faith, from a lack of whistleblower protections to poorly written electoral laws. A piece of 2019 House legislation known as H.R. 1 addresses some of these problems. By improving voter access and ending the lack of representation for the District of Colombia (already more populous than Wyoming and Vermont), such legislation would also force Republicans to become a party that fights to appeal to a more heterogeneous group of voters, thus working against anti-democratic tendencies. These same provisions mean such a measure will not pass unless Democrats win control of both chambers of Congress. Now that they have, it should be the first item on the agenda. Other pieces of legislation to improve election administration, making it less partisan and more trusted by voters, should be close behind.
Should Congress remain divided or unable to pass legislation unfortunately seen as partisan, my colleague Dan Baer suggests advancing pieces of big, popular legislation that do not fall along pre-existing partisan battle lines. These legislative packages could include pieces of institutional reform crafted in a bipartisan fashion, perhaps by the Problem Solvers Caucus. Members who refuse to accept the reforms will be forced to vote down widely popular bills that could harm their reelection prospects.
Strengthening institutions also requires upholding accountability. Where laws have been broken in the pursuit of power, the best way to prevent and dissuade future breaches is to prosecute lawbreakers to the full extent possible. The many enablers of democratic breakdown should not believe that laws that apply to ordinary people do not apply to them. Where appropriate, those on both sides of the aisle should be prosecuted to offset the optics of a political witch hunt. For Trump himself, prosecution through federal law is probably fruitless even if he has likely broken laws. It is certainly likely to enrage his many followers who will believe any charges are politically motivated. Accountability for crimes committed at the state level may be a wiser path forward.
Finally, since America’s founding, groups of violent, armed citizens have periodically arisen and aligned themselves with whichever party was more nativist or racist. While the United States has never fully rid itself of these anti-democratic forces, the membership of such parties tends to decline when their members are prosecuted for such offenses. A new wave of national and state law enforcement efforts to fight militias, violent white supremacists, and other domestic terrorists will be necessary to reduce their power.
Fostering Social and Economic Reconnection
Entrepreneurial politicians riding polarization to power are responding to demand. U.S. society is at nearly its lowest point in terms of trust in other people and in government since measurements began. Loneliness and alienation are leading people to search for community in national politics and online movements. While plenty of white supremacists are simply hateful, Moonshot CVE, a group that works to redirect people worldwide away from extremist groups, found that Americans seeking “to engage with violent far-right groups were 115 percent more likely to click on mental health ads.” The anomie and alienation of modern life requires creative, ground-up efforts aimed at renewing American civic life and social bonds.
Renewing societal bonds also requires an economy that works for more people. Programs to bridge divides can’t do much to restore pride to the White men facing a loss in relative status, dwindling livelihood prospects, and declining life expectancies—voters who are fueling democratic disintegration by serving as the core of Trump’s base. Some will claim this previously advantaged group doesn’t deserve special consideration now. But an economy that helps them alongside long-disadvantaged groups is crucial for democratic stability.
A strain of thought that prevailed in the first century of the American republic saw economic arrangements not primarily in terms of growth or distribution, but instead considered how different economic arrangements assisted or undermined democracy. Concentrations of wealth, for example, were critiqued not for allowing monopolistic tendencies to take hold but for enabling elite capture, imperiling government responsiveness to voters. A large, stable middle class is more able to exercise self-government. By the 1980s, these ideas had given way to the notion that the shape of the economy didn’t matter—as long as all boats were rising, it did not matter that some were rising faster than others. But the country’s Founding Fathers were correct—a democratic society requires an economy that supports democracy.
Reams of social science research shows that high levels of inequality lead to violence and a loss of social cohesion. A K-shaped economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, in which the upper-middle class pulls further ahead while the lower-middle class sinks into daily struggle, is going to exacerbate these problems. Some research suggests that, in addition to thriving during recessions, extremist politics may be most attractive to people who are doing less well than others within a growing economy (even if they are doing better than they had been doing previously). Policies that jump-start the post-pandemic economy are crucial—particularly for men of all races without college degrees and for the women who have been forced out of the workforce in droves. Economic recovery for these groups is essential to democratic recovery.
The Path Ahead
Those who have become increasingly concerned with U.S. politics over the last few years, and particularly the last few months, are justified. The United States has strong institutions to fall back on, but it also has a history of anti-democratic politicians and political violence—a history that was revived with events in the nation’s capital this week. Swift action by the coming administration will be needed to turn back the country’s current course.