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With the first public hearing into the January 6 insurgency on Thursday, an important question has resurfaced: How close is the United States to conflict?
In some ways, the attack should have been a wake-up call and an opportunity for Republican voters and their leaders to distance themselves from Donald Trump. After all, a sitting president had urged his cronies to besiege the US Capitol and nullify the results of an election.
Yet more than a year after the breakup, the potential for violent political struggle has barely receded — and that’s at least in part because of the state of partisanship in the United States.
Some Republican voters continue to mistakenly believe that Joe Biden stole the 2020 contest from Trump, and too many GOP lawmakers have used the Big Lie to bolster their efforts to prosecute aggressive gerrymanders and pass restrictive election laws — to exclude their Democratic rivals for power.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that the country’s two main political parties are increasingly organized “in almost warring factions with starkly opposing visions for America,” write political scientists Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason. in their compelling new book, “Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy.”
While the Democratic Party is “a pluralistic, multiracial party,” Kalmoe and Mason continue, the GOP “has been overtaken by those who yearn for the stricter racial hierarchies of the old white South, who envision a Christian theocracy, and who steer the benefits of government. to the rich.”
No wonder so many experts warn against downplaying the possibility of further political violence.
To discuss more about current partisanship and its effects, I spoke with Mason, an associate professor of political science at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
In the book, you and Nathan P. Kalmoe argue that it was easy for Donald Trump to incite an insurgency because of the divided bases of the country’s two major political parties. Could you describe these divisions a little more?
Part of the reason the partisan animosity between Democrats and Republicans is so terrible right now is that what the parties are fighting over are really issues of racial equality and gender – the traditional social hierarchy – and whether we going back to being a country where white Christian men have always been at the top of that hierarchy or going back to being a more egalitarian, multi-ethnic democracy.
What we found in our data is that, particularly on the right, Republicans who hated Democrats the most were also highest on racial resentment and sexism. And those who hated the Democrats the least were the ones with the least racial resentment and sexism. In fact, in our data, racial resentment is one of the strongest predictors of Republican hatred of Democrats.
The reason I think it’s important is that in general, as a country, we haven’t been very good at talking about racism or sexism in a non-violent, calm and collected way.
How do people become radical supporters?
We think about it in two different ways. The first is what we call “moral disengagement,” which is basically vilifying and dehumanizing people on the other side. And we examine this because in other places and in other contexts, these defamatory and dehumanizing beliefs tend to precede mass violence. Whenever there is a mass violent event between groups of people, it usually happens after people have already decided that people in the other group are evil and subhuman. It is a set of attitudes that we consider a warning sign.
We also just asked explicitly, “To what extent do you think it is acceptable to use violence to achieve political goals? It’s less of a warning sign and more of the real thing. And what we’re seeing is a growing number of American supporters believing that violence is sometimes okay when trying to achieve political results. Not all of these people will participate in the violence. They just approve of it. But that approval creates a social environment around them where if they know someone who might be more unstable and participates in violence, they hear fewer people saying it’s not acceptable.
As public hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection approached, Trump insisted that his allies surround the railcars. His machinations reminded me of how Barbara Walter describes the Republican Party today in her new book, “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them“(The GOP) is primarily based on ethnicity and religion. He supported a populist who pursued white nationalist policies at the expense of other citizens, and he elevated personality above principle. What role do political leaders play in inflaming or extinguishing conflict?
The rhetoric of political leaders is really, really important. And what we’ve found repeatedly in multiple studies is that just because people read a statement from Joe Biden or Trump that says, “Violence is never okay” or something like that reduces people’s approval of violence. And all they have to do is read one sentence from Biden or Trump. Republicans are more sensitive to Trump, but they are also sensitive to Biden. What we need, in particular, are more leaders reminding people that violence is not part of a functioning democracy. This is inconsistent with the peaceful transition of power – one of the required elements of democracy.
How to deal with these democratic threats?
One of the things that happened during Trump’s presidency, and even during the 2016 campaign, is that we saw the norms change. Whereas politicians used to generally not say explicitly racist or sexist things in public, Trump decided to start doing it and thus somehow broke the norms of how we speak about our fellow Americans. It also kind of changed the norms around the following questions: what does it mean to be a responsible member of a democracy? How do we engage each other? What kind of respect do we owe each other? All of those standards kind of disappeared. When leaders undermine norms, it can have a very significant effect because norms are not institutionalized. There is no law about them. The only way standards are enforced is through social pressure. If you break the standards, you know it because people around you tell you that you shouldn’t. You are sanctioned by the people you rely on for your social life. So if the leader stops enforcing those norms, then the followers stop enforcing those norms, and then the norms may actually disappear.
Once we see leaders engaging in behavior that is no longer respectful, thoughtful, or responsible, we are left with a large number of Americans who no longer believe it is their responsibility to be respectful, thoughtful, or responsible. when they engage their fellow Americans. In fact, one of the things that has come out of MAGA fans is this division over who becomes an American: some people deserve your respect, while other Americans, especially those who tend to come from marginalized groups, don’t. not deserve. They don’t count as Americans.
What should we keep in mind during the public hearings?
It’s very clear that Trump is trying to dissuade his supporters from paying attention to the hearings. It’s probably because there will be relatively compelling information coming out of it. One of the things that happened after January 6 was that the Republican Party tried to play it down in every way possible: they weren’t Trump supporters; it was Antifa. Or: It wasn’t really violent. Or: It was just tourists walking around. There were several approaches to try to minimize it. But the Republicans were doing this because they knew it was extremely damaging to them, as a party, for a mob of party supporters to violently attack the seat of US government. That’s why they really pushed their followers to ignore it.
What we know from our data is that the faction of Americans who really love Trump and are really intolerant of other Americans make up about 30% of the country. Even if they watch the hearings, members of this group are unlikely to change their minds. But maybe remembering Jan. 6 will remind everyone else — the 70% of America — that it was a truly dangerous event. And it was not inevitable that Biden would be inaugurated. It was very, very uncertain. Reminding Americans of this is an important thing to do because if we stop remembering what the issues are, we take politics less seriously, and we are at a precarious moment in terms of the persistence of a democratic system of government.