A Deep Dive into Political Extremism in America
Between 2016 and 2020, the Trump administration presided over a period of conflicts between extremist groups on both the right and left, becoming increasingly pervasive and consequential. As early as 2017, the now-infamous ‘Unite the Right’ rally saw throngs of -in many cases armed neo-Nazis and white nationalists converge on Charlottesville, VA, to protest the removal of a statue commemorating Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The rally culminated in one death, and dozens of injuries, when an avowed white supremacist drove a vehicle into peaceful counter-protestors.
Interminable Division: Historical Persistence of Polarization
Extremist political groups and fringe ideologies certainly do not constitute a new threat to Democracy. On the contrary, evidence of disruptive and divisive political organizations can be quickly identified in virtually any country, at any time. The roots of polarization in the United States can be traced as far back as the historical divides between Patriots and Loyalists; Hamilton & Madison’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans; Davis’ Confederacy and Lincoln’s Union. In more contemporary history, these debates have centered around issues of race, abortion, immigration, and intervention in foreign.
While the ‘factionalism’ once feared by Hamilton and Madison has proven a persistent feature of American political life, polarization has quantifiably worsened over the past two decades. A 2014 Pew Research Center poll reported that “the overall share of Americans who express consistently conversative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%.” According to the poll, only 27% of Democrats saw Republicans as a threat to the nation’s well-begin, whereas 36% of Republican respondents saw the Democratic party as a threat to the nation’s well-being.
Jumping forward to 2021, a recent Pew poll reported that 89% of respondents who supported Donald Trump in the 2020 election “[would] be very concerned about the country’s direction [in the event of a Biden presidency]” and that “Biden’s election would lead to lasting harm to the U.S.” On the flip-side, 90% of respondents who supported Biden in the election reported resonating with the same sentiment towards Trump in the event of a second term.
The escalation of political polarization in the United States did not occur overnight, nor by some kind of prestidigitation. Instead, the partisan gap has been steadily widening since the Bush Jr. administration. Insofar as the rate of change increased under Obama, the Trump administration, on account of its tendency to utilize polarization as a political tool, greatly exacerbated the status of polarization in American civil society and political life.
The Political Utility of Polarization: A Lesson from 2016
Although polarization is as old as politics itself, the intensity with which it is felt has increased both prior to, and during Trump’s tenure in office. While the Obama administration oversaw a period of rising partisan tension, the 2016 Trump campaign actively and intentionally fomented polarization for the sake of political gain, strategically targeting disenfranchised white voters through populist anti-immigration rhetoric and policy proposals.
In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, the Trump campaign turned its focus toward immigration -a notoriously polarizing issue in American politics- adopting a staunch anti-immigration platform, the utility of which was twofold. First, by associating migrant inflows from the United States’ Southern border with violent criminal acts, Trump evoked a sense of desperation within his base, who came to see his proposed ‘border-wall’ as a hedge against imminent threat from a degenerate ‘other’. Second, in an effort to garner support among voters in the industrial Midwest, Trump employed rhetoric which associated migrant inflows with American joblessness, repeatedly claiming, “they’re taking our jobs.” As a remedy, he vowed to tighten immigration standards and implement policy which favored domestic industry.
Trump’s populist strategy ultimately served his ends, and his campaign was able to capture the electoral votes of five midwestern states which had previously been won by Obama. According to Real Clear Politics, “Donald Trump picked up a whopping 50 more electoral votes from [the Midwest] than Mitt Romney did… while in rural areas and small towns [Clinton] had the worst showing since 2004.” With respect to immigration, specifically, the Center for Immigration Studies found that leading up to the 2016 election, “immigration policy polarized partisan identity more than at any other time in contemporary history.”
The 2016 Trump campaign undoubtedly utilized polarization with strategic intent, but is that necessarily a bad thing? If migrants are responsible for violent crimes and rob hard-working Americans of their jobs, shouldn’t immigration policy be more stringent? Were these premises based in a modicum of truth, perhaps, yet both claims are predicated on blatant falsehoods.
Using data from the Texas Department of Public Safety, a 2020 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that “relative to undocumented immigrants, US-born citizens are over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes.” With respect to American manufacturing jobs, Trump’s claims were patently absurd. The industrial Midwest -which specializes in the production of aluminum and steel- has suffered on account of the practice of offshoring, whereby firms outsource low-skilled elements of the supply chain to workers in foreign countries. The theory supporting the practice of offshoring holds that the low-skilled activities transferred out of the ‘home’ country, will be high-skilled activities in the ‘destination’ country. By engaging in offshoring, firms can reduce their marginal cost of production and produce at higher levels of output. Where Trump paints a picture in which migrants enter the country and steal American jobs, the reality is rather that those lost jobs have moved elsewhere; they have not been transferred to another person in the same country, but to someone else, in some other country.
Though thoroughly riddled with mendacity, the Trump campaign’s populist strategy appears to have been an expedient choice: after all, it worked. Leading up to the 2016 Referendum which sealed Britain’s fate as a state apart from Europe, Farage’s Brexit Party borrowed from Trump’s playbook, suggesting that migrant inflows were responsible for jobs lost by U.K. citizens. While the veracity of this claim is no stronger than it was when uttered by Trump, its utility was largely vindicated. The vast majority of those who voted to leave the EU were not located in regions with high levels of immigration, but rather were concentrated in post-industrial landscapes where average incomes have stagnated on account of offshoring.
Nor should Vice President Mike Pence be discounted as a major force behind the rise of “the Don”. Pence’s candidacy worked to mobilize a large group of American Evangelists, who, although ascending in number and importance since the end of WWII, have not yet held so prominent a role in American Politics, despite the well-founded, well-funded political aspirations of previous televangelists. According to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their 2018 book How Democracies Die, the exclusion of previous religious extremists from major positions of power largely owes to the ability of party establishments to guard against demagoguery. Levitsky and Ziblatt illustrate how this ability has since been undermined twice over: first, note the authors, “a dramatic increase in the availability of outside money, accelerated (though hardly caused) by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling” worked to streamline campaign financing; second, and most alarmingly, the two authors point to an “explosion of alternative media, particularly cable news and social media” as an integral part of the Trump-Pence success.
The Fake News Era & The Pursuit of Truth
Indeed, distinct from past political polarizations, today we see disagreement not regarding ideals, policy, or party, but rather on the basis of fact itself. This, of course, is not news in-and-of itself. Anyone who watched the Trump-Biden debates would recognize the phrase “that’s not true” as one of the most frequently iterated assertions of the entire spectacle. However, ‘Fake News’ has become an ever-sharper thorn in the side of American Democracy.
It might seem to some that ‘polarization’ is little more than a buzz-word, especially to those on the coasts. After all, conflicting viewpoints are innate within politics, and how can one really attempt to quantify the extent to which such disagreement exists? The changing dynamics of polarization make this rather easy. According to a recent survey conducted by the Economist, 52% of white, male registered voters do not believe that Joe Biden won the recent 2020 Presidential election. Taking stock of all registered voters, the poll also found that a whopping 40% of respondents reported that they believed the outcome of the election to be illegitimate.
These polls demonstrate the profundity of the partisan disconnect ravaging American politics, but what are the costs of such polarization? According to a study conducted by the Yale Department of Political Science, “voters in polarized societies are indeed willing to trade off democratic principles for partisan interests… their willingness to do so increases in the intensity of their partisanship.” The veracity of this assertion was exemplified by the recent Capitol Riots, which saw thousands of right-wing protesters descend upon, and ultimately into, the Capitol building, thereafter debasing it thoroughly. While an unmistakably reprehensible act, many rioters violated democratic principles in the aim to guard those same principles.
Polarization & The Modern Media Machine
As much as President Trump can be faulted for inciting the “fake news” era, the increase in political polarization observed during his tenure owes, at least in part, to both cable and digital news sources, which, in order to pander to their respective consumers, have likewise become more polarized in the content of their output.
In the case of both left and right leaning news outlets, the financial incentive structure endemic to modern media rewards polarizing coverage of current events. On one hand, digital news platforms are compensated by advertisers on the basis of views, thereby incentivizing incendiary, misleading, or provocative headlines as a result of what has come to be known as the ‘click economy’. On the other hand, cable news, in a bid to retain viewers in an age dominated by on-demand streaming services, has largely opted for performative opinion-journalism at the expense of objectivity, which tends to trivialize the position of the ideological opposition. According to a 2019 RAND Corporation report, American journalism “has gradually shifted away from objective news and offers more opinion-based content that appeals to emotion and relies heavily on argumentation and advocacy.” While no doubt entertaining, outlets such as Fox News and CNN obstinately neglect to acknowledge their readily-apparent bias, thereby exacerbating an inability to agree in fact, and in the process, demonizing one another. (The role of Russia in the propagation of fake news, also, should not be disregarded; so too, the fear mongering of the Q-Anon conspiracy. However, such targeted misinformation would best be addressed at another time, in another article.)
Polarization: a Breakable Cycle?
Political polarization manifests as a vicious cycle. The more one side perceives the other as a threat to democracy, the more comfortable that same side is with undermining political institutions in order to realize its goals. Levitsky and Ziblatt draw from a series of comparative studies:
“Some polarization is healthy -even necessary- for democracy… But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs.”
Absolutely operative to this cycle is the element of perception, for which we can turn to psychological studies to develop a better understanding.
According to a research article published by Chambers et. al. and featured in the academic journal Psychological Science, “partisans tend to exaggerate differences of opinion with their adversaries,” and furthermore, the perception of disagreement between the perceiver and their ideological opponent is more exaggerated for values deemed important by the perceiver themself. Additionally, Beyond Conflict International, a non-profit organization which has developed an index to track real and perceived polarization, reports that “Americans incorrectly believe that members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them about twice as much as they do.”
These findings would suggest that perception of polarization is far more important than polarization itself. How could that be possible? According to Margaret Tankard and Elizabeth Paluck, in an article published in Social Issues and Policy Review, this is because “individuals’ perceptions of norms guide their personal behavior… individuals attend to select sources of normative information, and their resulting perceptions rarely match actual rates of behavior in their environment.” With this in mind, it becomes easier to understand why rhetoric and performative news can precipitate in real polarization.
From Charlottesville to the Capitol Building, insofar as polarization has been omnipresent, so too has it proved mercurial in nature. Whereas political disagreements prior to the digital age were largely grounded in factual debate, in the present day the debate takes place on the grounds of fact itself. While Facebook has begun to confront falsehood on their various platforms, there is still much to be done. Perhaps regulations, such as those proposed in relation to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, or even of a kind similar to the legislation which the Australian Government has recently issued to confront fake news, would serve to subdue this epidemic of misinformation. However, the issues which such misinformation has occasioned prove a much hairier monster under our collective, proverbial bed. The question, then, arises, as to whether we will gather our courage to confront the media giants which propagate such polarization, as well as the much-antagonized ‘other’ who occupies the opposite face of the political spectrum; or rather, will we remain under the covers, paralyzed in fear of fake news, while the monster under the bed topples our democracy, godzilla-style?