Will the media wake up to the danger to American democracy?

Dec 24, 2021
US Capitol
(Image: Unsplash)

“Asymmetric polarisation” is a poor way to describe America’s descent into madness, propelled by the Republican voting base..

Thomas Edsall, formerly a journalist who covered politics for The Washington Post, and now a contributor to The New York Times, has written a piece that has raised eyebrows. “How to tell when your country is past the point of no return” is yet another op-ed revealing that the mainstream media are finally waking up to the dire threat our democratic institutions. But chiefly, it is instructive in its demonstration that they still suffer from serious limitations.

As these things go, it’s not a bad piece, and miles ahead of some of the Very Serious Persons like Tom Friedman, Ross Douthat, or Bret Stephens, who have staked out squatter’s rights in that paper. It analyses academic research on public attitudes as well as popular journalism to declare that we may be approaching a Weimar Republic moment.

A decade ago, no mainstream journalist would have ever thought that possible, let alone dared write it — even though it could be seen in the cards if a person had studied the deck closely enough. Having seen up close how the Tea Party crazies put a shiv in the party of Lincoln, I wrote my inaugural piece comparing the GOP to an apocalyptic cult that was yearning to torch witches. Far from being mainstream, sometimes I was looked at as if I were disembarking from a Martian spacecraft.

Well, that was then, and January 6 has come and gone.

Perhaps the most forgivable (and chuckle-raising) limitation of the Edsall piece is its adoption of the clinical style of the academics it cites, in particular their reflex for euphemistic polysyllables:

I sent the five authors a series of questions asking them to elaborate on a number of points, and they replied in a jointly written email. My first question was: “Could you explain in terms accessible to the layperson how ‘political processes reinforce themselves’ in ways that can push a political party past a ‘tipping point.’

Their reply:

Political processes, like any other natural dynamical process, in nature, technology, or society, have the capacity to feed themselves and enter an unstable positive, or, self-reinforcing, feedback loop.

They then provide the example of the thermal energy of burning molecules becoming an unstable reaction. I somehow doubt that will sing to the folks in the cheap seats.  As someone who worked in the boiler room, as it were, of the GOP as it was preparing to leap off a cliff, I think I can sum it up more succinctly: the party and millions of its followers have gone bat-shit crazy. (I suppose I just blew my opportunity for a MacArthur Genius Grant.)

Edsall evidently believes that “quiet but steady subversion”, of institutions by a radicalised GOP, rather than outright insurrection, is the greater danger, quoting an academic researcher:

Unlike the threat to democracy posed by a military coup, the threat posed by authoritarian populism is incremental. If the water temperature increases only one degree per hour it may take a while before you notice it is too hot and by that time it is too late. We might be better off if we faced an armed insurrection, which might be the exo-shock needed to get the GOP establishment to wake up.

Maybe so, maybe not. Last January, It only took a few hundred semi-organised lunatics to nearly overthrow the government. Who’s to say they won’t be better trained and better armed next time? As for an “exo-shock” jolting Republican grandees back into a semblance of sanity, don’t count on it. I suspect that many of them would be at the head of the mob.

The greatest weakness of the piece is its failure to explain adequately the completely lop-sided nature of America’s political polarisation, even though one of the papers it cites is devoted to “asymmetric polarisation”. Somewhat contradictorily, it also comes with a healthy side-order of false equivalence, citing a researcher who says there are:

Critical thresholds or moments when processes become difficult if not impossible to reverse. Our model suggests that this threshold has been crossed by Republicans in Congress and may very soon be breached by Democrats.

Based on what conceivable evidence? Perhaps the most “radical” Democrat in Congress is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has always worked within the framework of parliamentary democracy and has never advocated mob violence, “Second Amendment solutions”, or voter suppression. For her efforts, she gets numerous death threats.

If anything, the problem with Democrats is their complacency: the Department of Justice, nominally under the control of a Democratic president, is proceeding with glacial slowness in prosecuting the January criminals. They scrupulously follow parliamentary procedure even when it handicaps their prospects; the GOP has no such fastidiousness.

One might say that much of the Democratic establishment is blind to imminent danger, and, by upholding Marquess of Queensbury rules when the game-board has already been overturned, risk losing the entire notion of self-government. Lincoln knew that the Constitution was not a suicide pact, and employed stern measures which may have appalled purists, but saved the country.

The piece concludes by referencing a CNN poll:

Far higher percentages of Republicans, many of them preoccupied by racial and tribal anxiety, believe “American democracy is under attack” (75 per cent agree, 22 per cent disagree) than Democrats (46 per cent agree, 48 per cent disagree). Republicans are also somewhat more likely to believe (57-43) than Democrats (49-51) “that, in the next few years, some elected officials will successfully overturn the results of an election in the United States because their party did not win.

Edsall correctly notes that this is dangerous, and that it “… masks the true aim of America’s contemporary right-wing movement, the restoration and preservation of white hegemony. It is not beyond imagining that Republicans could be prepared, fueled by a mix of fear and provocation, to push the nation over the brink.”

“Could” be prepared? They actively are doing so, as a glance at voter suppression laws in GOP-controlled states amply demonstrates. And in so doing, they stoke the aforementioned fear in their own base according to a vicious cycle. The asymmetry by party in their respective fears of losing democracy doesn’t “mask” anything: it is the whole point of Republican strategy and illustrates the yawning difference in the mental makeup of each party’s rank and file.

As noted before, most Democrats tend towards complacency, which explains their faith in the electoral process. Their general Gestalt is usually characterised by greater optimism (sometimes misplaced) and they are generally not fear-driven individuals.

Depressed by the press: journalism bows to the authoritarians

Republicans, with their faith-based world view, do not undertake an empirical examination of matters, but see boogey men in every dark corner. GOP operatives consciously stoke these hobgoblins with their political messaging. Why? Because it works like nothing else to keep the rank and file in line and behaving in Pavlovian fashion.

Vote fraud and stolen elections, like COVID-19 and the imaginary WMD in Iraq even earlier, are all features of a peculiar form of gullibility. The GOP faithful will believe literally anything and everything they are told, with one exception: the truth. And in the case of election skullduggery, the GOP has been perfecting it in various forms since the Bush v Gore debacle of 2000, so their “fears” are in large measure a result of psychological projection (on the part of the base) or analogous to the motives of a pickpocket shouting “Stop, thief!” by the GOP establishment.

Any worthwhile examination of a subject like political polarisation must begin with a thorough understanding of the aberrant psychology underlying the GOP voting base. It must also recognise that Republican politicians are consciously trying to rig elections, not only because they want to win at all costs, but because they’ve pretty much given up on democracy itself.

This philosophy was expressed in 1981 by Paul Weyrich, one of the pivotal figures of the New Right, and, successively as director of the Heritage and Free Congress Foundations, who created an army of Republican operatives in his image:

I don’t want everybody to vote… as a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

It doesn’t take a brigade of academics to grasp his intent.

This article was first published by Common Dreams and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

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