When I took first-year political science, back in the 1960s, I learned early on that unlike Canada’s parliamentary system, the American presidential system has no motions of nonconfidence that can force a premature election. So American legislators could, and did, vote their consciences – or more often, their district’s interests – rather than with their party.
As a result, while elsewhere political parties diverged along ideological lines, the United States was exceptional in that its two parties hewed to the centre, with liberal Democrats constrained by the party’s Dixiecrat wing, and conservative Republicans by their party’s moderate Rockefeller-Lindsay-Romney wing.
The south began to change in the 1970s as the Dixiecrats gradually shifted to the Republican Party, replacing that party’s moderates. The heirs of this transformation were Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party and, most recently, the Trumpites. So with the GOP moving to the far right, the United States became exceptional for its polarization instead of for its lack of polarization – in Congress and, increasingly, in the electorate. Ironically, this was happening as the longstanding European democracies were becoming less polarized, with the left shifting toward the centre in response to the disintegration of the Communist bloc.
Today polarization is the American norm, even on matters where it should have no place. Its most dramatic current manifestation is in responses to the pandemic, as displayed in figure 1.
It is in this context that we have seen a resurgence of populism, both as a political phenomenon and as an object of analysis. In its call for papers for its September 2019 meeting, the American Political Science Association noted,
No recent political development has been more striking than the rise to power of populist movements around the globe, whose main unifying trait is their claim to champion “the people” against entrenched selfish “elites.” They include anti-immigrant, anti-globalization, ardently nationalist parties such as Fidesz in Hungary; the Law and Justice Party in Poland; and the Trump Republicans in the United States.
Populists are typically united not by what they are for but by what, or whom, they are against. A study by Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell and Mark Littler, based on 10,667 survey responses targeting the Facebook fans of 13 populist parties in Europe in 2011, found that only 20 per cent trusted their national government, only 14 per cent trusted the EU and only 30 per cent trusted the justice system.1
Such distrust means that efforts by mainstream politicians and opinion leaders to challenge populist leaders’ false claims have little effect. Indeed, more often than not, their supporters double down, seeing the attack as proof of the elite’s treachery. Trump’s reversal of Republican orthodoxy in all sorts of areas, from trade to international alliances to the FBI, did not shake his supporters. If Trump is brought to justice, it will likely only confirm the Trumpite view that he was targeted because he dared take on the enemy within.
There is no shortage of American surveys getting at this polarization, on specific issues or on partisans’ view of the outgroup. Thus, when Pew asked Americans about the economy in its April survey of views of Biden’s presidency as it neared the 100-day mark, 74 per cent of Democratic voters said the economy was stronger and only 5 per cent said it was weaker, while 76 per cent of Republicans said the economy was weaker and only 7 per cent said it was stronger. As far as intensity of feeling is concerned, figure 2 shows that 41 per cent of Democrats and 58 per cent of Republican regard supporters of the other party as the enemy.
Interestingly, I could find no similar surveys for other longstanding democracies. Apparently, it is not a question anyone thinks worth asking. In addition, doing so would be more complicated since it would entail incorporating the views of supporters of third parties, which are effectively nonexistent in the United States.
This brings us to another exceptional feature of the American political system. Only in the United States is access to the national legislature and executive limited to two parties – not by law but by the workings of the country’s political institutions. Developments in the United States show that a consequence of a polarized and pure two-party system is that parties are not punished for moving toward the extreme because their more moderate supporters have nowhere else to go except to the “enemy.”
Yet another exceptional feature of the U.S. system exacerbates this extremism. Elsewhere, candidates are chosen by party insiders, with the result that relatively moderate, electable candidates with a reputation for competence can get nominated. The primary system in the United States means that, to get nominated, Republican candidates compete for the support of uncompromising right-wing populists, who constitute a third of the electorate as a whole but a majority of Republican voters.
In contrast to the Republicans, conservative European parties in longstanding democracies have to take a critical distance from the radical populist parties with which they compete for votes and seats. If the British Tories, for example, choose to move toward the extreme right, they know they will lose votes – most likely not to Labour but to the centrist Liberal Democrats. There is no such safety valve in the United States. So, unlike their American cousins, European conservatives generally take a more responsible position on controversial issues like immigration and global warming, and could never support, let alone initiate, efforts to limit access to the ballot box.
On the Democratic side, President Biden has brought in policies reflecting the views of the 60 per cent of Democrats ready to work with their opponents. In doing this, he has sometimes risked offending allies, in particular the teachers’ unions in the public schools, where it is estimated that some three million students have dropped out or failed to engage in remote learning at all (while parents with the resources to do so hire tutors, set up their own education pods and enroll their kids in private schools that have remained open).
The Democrats’ Precarious Position
Given the inequities built into congressional representation, the Democrats realize that they cannot count on traditional Democratic voters alone to remain in control after the midterms in 2022. They are betting on the stimulus bringing on a manufacturing boom, which will allow them to contrast their policies with the GOP’s traditional opposition to public spending.
For their part, the Republicans will play the populist card, attempting to link these programs in the public mind with unpatriotic elites and undeserving minorities while focusing on “cultural” issues – expanding gun rights and restricting LGBTQ and abortion rights. The battle will be for the hearts and minds of blue-collar Latinos drawn to conservative messages on culture and race.
The numbers remain quite stable. Gallup polling for the first three months of 2021 shows a consistent 49 per cent of the public identifying as Democrats or Democratic-leaners, while 40 per cent call themselves Republicans or say they lean toward the GOP. So far, even as GOP voters take the COVID-19 spending package and stimulus money, there is no real sign that these voters are ready to cross over to the enemy.
The Democrats’ 9 per cent lead in voter identification is less impressive than it looks. Biden averaged a similar 9 per cent lead over Trump in the polls for much of the fall of 2020, but in the election his margin was only 5 per cent, which was barely enough to give him a win in the Electoral College. And overall, the Republicans did much better than expected at the state and local level.
Given that midterms traditionally favour the party out of power, the Democrats are by no means guaranteed to hold onto the House. It is unclear who will benefit from the low turnout in midterms. Historically it has favoured Republicans, but now that they are the party of the less educated, who are less likely to turn out, this may no longer be the case. The Senate seems again to be a tossup, especially since in a few purple states with GOP seats opening up as a result of retirements, Trump-endorsed Republican nominees emerging from the primaries may prove too extreme.
And let us not forget that Republican state parties are still claiming that Trump won in 2020 and removing officials who were unwilling to go along. They will be tempted to seize on bogus voter fraud claims and refuse to certify Democratic victories in 2022. And who knows what mischief they will be up to in certifying Electoral College votes in 2024?
The Republican attack will combine fears of inflation and out-of-control deficits with anger at wasted spending of tax money on handouts to undeserving others at home and abroad. Moreover, despite Biden’s efforts to avoid such labels, they will benefit from a backlash to strident demands within the Democratic Party to target systemic racism. The Republican media – Fox News and its competitors further right – are able to target “cancel culture” and “wokeism” effectively since it plays to their base without alienating others. In the 2020 American National Elections Studies’ pre-election survey, 53 per cent agreed that the movement to encourage people to change the way they talked had gone too far and that people were too easily offended.
The Democrats’ poor showing in state legislative races in 2020 gives Republican-controlled legislatures free rein to gerrymander House seats under the new census in many states. The GOP is set to fully control redistricting for about two fifths of all House seats, while Democrats will only do so for one tenth (the remaining seats are in states with divided governments or where redistricting is done by a commission system). Moreover, reapportionment of seats between the states will give GOP-controlled state legislatures new congressional seats to play with, including two in Texas and one in Florida, with the losses coming primarily from blue states including California, Illinois and New York. The result could well be a Republican House after 2022, leading up to the showdown over the presidency in 2024.
Inoculation and Counterinoculation
So, good policies cannot be counted on to suffice. To reduce the chances of a Trumpite return in 2024, energies must be directed at grassroots mobilization via concrete changes, and away from verbal proclamations and denunciations that boost the ratings of Tucker Carlson and other right-wing commentators.
An immediate priority is instituting the interstate compact, which goes into effect among participating states only after these states represent half the Electoral College votes. Under the compact, the participating states award all their electoral votes to the candidate with the largest national popular vote. (The Constitution vests state legislatures with the exclusive power to choose how to allocate their electors. Maine and Nebraska currently award one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district and their remaining two electoral college votes to the statewide winner.) The Republican establishment will oppose this, but an effective campaign could conceivably win over a sufficient number of red states so that in 2024 the president will effectively be elected through the popular vote. Currently, National Popular Vote legislation has been enacted by states representing 196 electoral votes. If states with an additional 74 electoral votes sign on, it will take effect.
This initiative could be a step toward removing obstacles at the state level to third-party candidates running for Congress. Even though every comparable country has more than two parties and many people are dissatisfied with the parties in the United States, this will be an uphill struggle. American history teaches us that it is far easier to block institutional reform than to carry it out. It might be more realistic to set the target for 2028 and, as in 2020, to rely on more traditional efforts at mobilization, directing energies at the cultural underpinnings of Trumpite populism.
The January 6 insurrectionists were radicalized on the internet and ended up entering the dark world, turning their backs on friends and neighbours. According to the Washington Post,
Of the 193 charged, 89 percent have no apparent affiliation with any known militant organization … Two-thirds are 35 or older, and 40 percent are business owners or hold white-collar jobs … They work as CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants; only 9 percent are unemployed … Of those arrested for their role in the Capitol riot, more than half came from counties that Biden won.
They got there by being “inoculated.” As one former Trumpite put it, you have internalized the lesson that “as a young straight white Christian man, you are dismissed as evil, an oppressor, an inheritor of white supremacy and colonialism and imperialism – even though you never colonized anybody or been a racist … (so that) when someone … uses any of the other language that they’ve now inoculated you against, you won’t even listen to that person.”
Addressing this requires counterinoculation. In a 2019 study by Kurt Braddock, online panel members were told that they might encounter a message from a “political extremist group” and that messages from this group had been used to “recruit thousands of people to its cause – people just like you.” Those who had been so counterinoculated were substantially more likely to argue against the manifesto and to distrust the extremists behind it. The researchers are working on an online tool to scan social networks for disinformation campaigns and allow for selective counterinoculation.
Such counterinoculation would also need to be a goal of a media literacy curriculum in schools, as well as coordinated grassroots “kitchen gatherings.” At the core of this strategy would be the involvement of individuals who had experienced and overcome the inoculation, as well as family and former close friends of those still inoculated.
Such grassroots efforts will be limited in scale. But we need to remember that only a small number of well-targeted votes could determine whether Trumpism will again be able to inflict its poison.
For more on the current political climate of the American right, check out Weimar in Washington by Reg Whitaker.
1 Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell and Mark Littler, The New Face of Digital Populism (London: Demos, 2011).