The Speaker
Tuesday, 18 June 2024 – 17:24

America is polarised—but Republicans have gone off the spectrum

Last week, I attended an event hosted by the Pinsker Centre and titled “Re-United States? The Future of US Policy at Home and Abroad.”  In traditional American fashion, I’m going to completely ignore the abroad part and instead focus on what’s going on “at home.”  The speaker was Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s chief of staff from January 2019 to March 2020, and US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland from March 2020 until January of 2021.  The majority of what he had to say about the state of American domestic politics was, correctly, that the country is becoming increasingly divided and that polarisation is a real threat with no obvious solution in sight.

It’s very hard to disagree with that assessment.  In citing evidence for America’s polarisation, Mulvaney identified a few prominent figures he thought exemplified the dynamic.  Among them were Donald Trump for the right and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) for the left.  I have heard this exact comparison probably more than a hundred times in conversation with friends and family over the years, as well as online and in the media.

Although AOC has become quite famous, for the sake of the unacquainted, she has been one of New York’s representatives in the House since 2019, and it is true to say that she is politically far to the left of the American centre.  She is one of the authors of the Green New Deal in the US and is openly a democratic socialist, something that was practically political disqualification less than a decade ago.  The fact that platforms that are as far to the left as hers can be politically viable in the US these days does speak to a degree of leftward movement.

Biden, too, is in some ways an example of a leftward shift in Democratic thinking.  His 2020 campaign was built on what was in many respects the most left-wing policy platform of any Democratic presidential candidate in history.  On top of that, there has been a genuinely rapid change in the cultural discourse with respect to sexuality, race, and gender.  Even just eight years ago, I remember homophobic slurs being not just socially acceptable but largely a normal feature of conversations you could hear in my high school’s hallways.  

So, it is certainly fair to point out that the Democratic Party, as well as parts of American culture more generally, have become more progressive rather quickly.  For the most part, I welcome this change, even though I have my gripes with parts of the left over some issues that have risen to prominence in recent years.  I enthusiastically voted for Bernie Sanders in both the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries, and I voted (somewhat less enthusiastically) for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 during the general elections.  Yet, I can recognise why Republicans would find the pace and direction of change disconcerting, and it is understandable that they oppose it.  We disagree on the merits of the shift, but there is nothing strictly wrong with the fact that we disagree.

However, as always, the devil is in the details, and I wanted to write about the details that I believe Republicans get wrong about our current situation. 

Election denialism is not an issue for both parties

While their opposition to leftward movements in policy and culture is understandable, Republicans like Mulvaney are actively losing the plot when they invoke comparisons between the AOCs or Bernies of the world and Donald Trump.  Even if you believe that Democrats are too radical these days, there is a fundamental asymmetry in the kind of radicalisation that is taking place within each of the two major American political parties.  

I wrote an explainer article last week about the midterm elections coming up on 8th November (this Tuesday).  Reiterating some of the central points from there, these midterms are different from normal years because of the presence of “election denialists” on the ballot, people who believe that the 2020 presidential election was in some way rigged, systemically fraudulent, stolen, or illegitimate.  FiveThirtyEight, the Brookings Institution, and the Washington Post have all found that close to or more than 50% of Republican candidates on the ballot this year are 2020 election deniers.

To be clear, this is a type of radicalisation that is worlds apart from any radicalisation one might find in the Democratic Party.  Baselessly asserting that the 2020 results were illegitimate suggests a willingness to undermine the very system through which policy is made.  While one could argue that the Democrats have gone too far to the left on policy, the Republicans have gone off the spectrum in terms of tactics and institutional trust.  

I brought this up in the Q&A portion of the event with Mick Mulvaney.  I asked him for his thoughts on the apparently asymmetric polarisation taking place between the parties.  Unfortunately, he disagreed with the premise of the question.  To him, polarisation is affecting both parties to the same degree and in the same way (with one exception that I’ll return to later).  

In his view, election denialism is not unique to the right, as evidenced by Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, refusing to concede after she lost the Georgia gubernatorial election in 2018 to Brian Kemp, a Republican.  Additionally, Mulvaney and the Republican Party like to point to Democrats objecting to the certification of some states’ electoral college votes after the presidential elections of 2000, 2004, and 2016 as evidence that this is really a “both sides” issue.  The official GOP YouTube account even has at least two compilations of Democrats contesting election results.

Of course, the reality is more complicated than any of those examples suggest.  PolitiFact has an extensive article discussing the truth of the matter.  For instance, while it is true that some Congressional Democrats voted against certifying the electoral college votes of the three elections in which a Republican presidential candidate won since 2000, the Democratic presidential candidate had already conceded in every one of those instances.  By contrast, Trump did not concede prior to the official count, and instead attempted to undermine the results through many means that have been extensively documented, including stoking doubt about the integrity of the election, along with other, more direct actions.

Furthermore, while a majority of House Republicans and eight Senate Republicans joined together to contest the electoral vote count in 2021, far fewer House Democrats joined the objections, and only once did any Democratic senators join.  This meant that there was no institutional force or will within the Democratic Party to overturn the results, even if some members of the Party had objections to raise.  In fact, the Democratic leadership did not join or support the objections, and actively gavelled the objections down in both 2001 and 2017, when they controlled the vice presidency.

By contrast, the sheer number of election deniers within the field of Republican candidates this year, the fact that a majority of House Republicans in 2021 objected to the results, and the fact that the grassroots strongly support the election denialism all suggest that this is a new force to be reckoned with.

The case of Stacey Abrams is a particularly interesting one to consider.  It is fair to levy criticism against her and how she has talked about the results of her 2018 gubernatorial race.  It is fair to criticise her for saying her election was “stolen,” for instance.  But it is also unfair to equate what she has done to what the Republican Party and Trump have done.  At a fundamental level, the point Abrams’ is making is that voter disenfranchisement is a serious issue that threatens the integrity of democratic norms in American society.  This is not the place for me to argue about voter suppression, as that would be an entire article on its own, but whether you disagree with her point or not, it is at least one that can be made within the ordinary boundaries of our political system and discourse.

By contrast, Republican election denialism in 2022 is about cynicism.  It believes that our democracy is so corrupt that the most important election in the country could be stolen via explicit cheating in plain sight with no repercussions for those responsible.  It rejects the view of experts and institutions when they find that there was no evidence of a stolen or seriously fraudulent election.  Frankly, it is built on conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods.  To pretend like this is business as usual is to be complicit in the erosion of our institutions and traditions.  

While the Republican Party appears more than content to feed election denialism by giving it the legitimacy that any “both sides” argument does, we should give credit to the Republicans who not only recognise this dark turn of the Party for what it is, but who have made sacrifices to help combat it.  That list includes Mitt Romney and six other Senate Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after 6th January.  It also includes 10 House Republicans, one of whom is Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the January 6th Committee, and whose PAC is funding pro-Democrat ads in Arizona, one of the hotbeds of election denialism this cycle.  

But the fact remains that Republicans like Cheney are a small minority.  If election deniers get into power in significant numbers on Tuesday, then the path is set for a much larger assault on the integrity of the 2024 election, should the Republican candidate (likely Trump) lose.  We would also be likely to see even more election deniers on the ballot in 2024 if they do well this year.  In summary, we are now dealing with a far larger and more dangerous version of election denialism than we have seen before, and to play the “both-sides” card is to downplay the significance of the present moment.

It isn’t just January 6th

Something else that struck me about Mulvaney’s response was that, although he thinks polarisation and election denialism are present on “both sides,” he also believes the attempted insurrection on 6th January was genuinely unique.  The violence and extremity of that day were a surprise to him, and he didn’t have an equivalent on the left.  Unfortunately, he did not go any further than that.  In the end, for him the issue came down to a few bad apples who went too far, perhaps spurred on by another bad apple (Trump).  

This sort of analysis of 6th January 2021, which construes it as a mere extension of the ordinary polarisation that we’ve seen for years now, leaves a lot to be desired.  Even admitting that it hasn’t been paralleled on the left is inadequate.  We need to consider the numerous additional factors that are contributing to an environment in which an insurrection could be attempted in the first place, as well as what else that environment is producing.

As mentioned previously, our environment is now one in which half of the Republican candidates on the ballot can be election deniers, the majority of whom are likely to win their races this Tuesday.  Our environment is also one in which the media landscape is becoming asymmetrically polarised, with the media diet for most conservatives being narrower and more partisan than for liberals.  

Troublingly, conservative media networks like Fox News, the most popular cable news source in the country, seem happy to consistently undermine trust in other outlets.  On one hand, this is completely unsurprising considering that they have financial incentives to do so.  After all, other outlets are their competition.  On the other hand, the media are a vital institution for society, and declining trust in mainstream sources pushes people to get their information from outlets that are actually less trustworthy than the mainstream and more partisan than even Fox News. 

The attack on mainstream news sources has been effective amongst conservatives.  According to Pew, “in just five years, the percentage of Republicans with at least some trust in national news organizations has been cut in half – dropping from 70% in 2016 to 35%” in 2021.  The consequences include the proliferation of conspiracy theories that lead people to attempt to kidnap the third most senior official in the US government, as well as the ones that lead most Republican voters to believe the lie that 2020 was rigged.

This is all to say: Republicans who wouldn’t traditionally align themselves with the Trump wing of their party are sleepwalking into treacherous waters if they continue to ignore the asymmetric nature of polarisation in the US.  And if they recognise the dangerous asymmetry but still decide to support what is now Trump’s GOP, then they are complicit in whatever crisis the Trumpists create.  

In the words of Liz Cheney, “if you care about the survival of our republic, you cannot give people power who will not honour elections.”  I couldn’t agree more.

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