While U.S. politics has a long history of nasty elections and ugly fights, it is now fair to say that Donald Trump wins the award for the most polarizing and offensive top-ranked candidate in our nation’s history. Put simply, he’s an asshole. And so are his supporters. That story has been covered, so I won’t rehash it here. Instead the question that I want to ask is how his divisive bigotry is affecting the rest of us.
Trump’s politics are not just based on bigotry; they are based on hostility. They are founded on a winner-take-all strategy that characterizes anyone who disagrees with Trump as a loser. It’s a politics of bullying and bluster. But the problem is that bullying becomes the defining political discourse.
Over time, an intensely polarized political process will eventually push moderates and progressives who advocate for diplomacy and tolerance into a space of aggression and hostility. It’s ironic, but true.
We are now at a time when political polarization is not just devastating the potential for political compromise; it is literally threatening the core values of the nation’s left.
So how did we get here and what can we do about it?
Let me start by saying that it might be fun to pin this all on Trump, but he is only just the most flamboyant example of a trend that has been at least a couple decades in the making. The key pivot moment was the founding of Fox News in 1996 as an openly partisan news channel. We know that Fox News rarely gets the facts right and that they command 47 percent of “consistent conservative” viewers. And we know that in the last 20 years the Republican brain has become more and more immune to facts and more and more intolerant of any correcting information.
It was Tim Russert’s NBC coverage of the 2000 election that started the notion of “red states” and “blue states.” The terminology wasn’t simply a way of highlighting voting trends; it became a way of mapping deep ideological divisions that had little, if any, chance of political compromise.
A key factor in political polarization is the drastic reduction in political compromise. During campaigns politicians define themselves in stark opposition to candidates, but once elected they must compromise in order to govern. As we have entered the era of the “permanent campaign” we have noted a definite trend against political compromise.
Then 9/11 happened and the George W. Bush administration ushered in the logic of “us vs. them.” It became impossible to question anything happening in his administration without being considered a traitor. If you disagreed with the invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the USA Patriot Act, or torturing detainees, you hated your country.
By the time the Tea Party was founded in response to the election of Barack Obama in 2009 we now had a significant and highly vocal segment of the population that wouldn’t listen to reason and that rejected any political compromise. A Pew Research Center study in 2014 found that 36 percent of Republicans considered Democrats to be a threat to the nation and 43 percent held negative views of the party.
The Pew study also found that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.” Today opposing groups do not only disagree on issues; they despise one another.
And yet, that dislike is still skewed along predictable party lines. Despite an increase in political polarization, it remains true that Republicans hate Democrats more than the other way around. Pew found that only 27 percent of Democrats see Republicans as a threat to the nation’s wellbeing.
But, here’s the thing. The left has experienced a growing inability to productively engage the crazy, hostile positions held by fundamentalist Republicans. Market fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, Tea Party fundamentalism, gun rights fundamentalism and so on take their toll. Eventually you just get sick of it.
Andy Borowitz satirized the growing intolerance of Democrats in a piece he did in the midst of the frigid temperatures brought on by the polar vortex in January of 2014: “The so-called polar vortex caused hundreds of injuries across the Midwest today, as people who said ‘so much for global warming’ and similar comments were punched in the face.”
Authorities in several states said that residents who had made ignorant comments erroneously citing the brutally cold temperatures as proof that climate change did not exist were reporting a sharp increase in injuries to the face and head regions.
Harland Dorrinson … made a crack about how the below-freezing temperatures meant that climate-change activists were full of shit. “I’d just finished saying it and boom, out of nowhere someone punched me in the face,” he said. “This polar vortex is really dangerous.”
The joke of Borowitz’s piece was that these folks were not being punched in the face. Climate change activists are peaceful people. They don’t punch their opponents. And yet, as Borowitz brilliantly demonstrates, over time, the ability to tolerate such conservative views wears thin.
Here’s the catch. Those that identify as Democrats or political progressives hold to values of diversity, tolerance, and acceptance of the other. Eventually, though, political polarization and right-wing demonization of the left has whittled away at some of these beliefs.
Scholars of conflict have traced this pattern and its consequences. Political polarization depends on characterizing your opposing group as homogenous and different. The practice is called “outgroup homogeneity bias” and it is a common psychological response to group identity formation. It gets more intense, though, when group differences are understood as threats.
These psychological habits are at the core of Trump’s campaign, where a range of groups is lumped together as homogenous and threatening. All blacks, all Muslims, all Mexican immigrants, and all women are equally demonized. And, most importantly, all of those on the left are described as people who hate their country and want to destroy it.
The position is both absurd and frightening. Lee Camp satirized Trump’s hate list in the opening bit to RedactedTonight, reminding viewers of the deep fascist tendencies to that line of thinking.
But here’s the problem. Outgroup homogeneity bias cuts both ways. Eventually it has blowback and leads the tolerant group towards intolerance. When the intolerant group is aggressive and hostile it creates legitimate fear and anxiety in the tolerant group. Before you know it, the tolerant group also adopts habits of bias, anger, and hostility. The atmosphere of anger and aggression escalates.
Admit it. You don’t just hate Trump. You hate everyone who supports him. You’d deport them all and replace them with gay, Islamic, Mexican, Syrian immigrants in a minute, if you could.
While that’s a facetious exaggeration, you get my point. And it’s one that Hasan Minhaj recently made on “The Daily Show” in a bit that described Donald Trump as “white ISIS.” He started by stating that one-third of Republicans are “backing a racist maniac.” He then agreed with Trump that Muslims should not be allowed into the United States, because it’s just not safe for them.
Minhaj asked Trevor Noah, “Where are all the moderate, white conservatives?” Noah then reminded Minhaj of the various Republican leaders that did openly disagree with Trump. But Minhaj explained that he knows that “there is a lot of nuance to the situation and every conservative isn’t the same. But it’s just easier on my brain to be irrationally afraid of an entire group of people.” He concluded that the only solution was to keep all conservatives out of the White House until we could figure out what was going on.
I’m not suggesting that we all go out and hug a Republican and I’m certainly not suggesting that we vote for them. I am asking us to question whether their political strategies are contagious. How can we productively disagree with extremist, irrational positions without ourselves being polarized? And how can we continue to work to promote democratic deliberation in an environment of brinksmanship and hostility? Where is the place for rational, educated debate in an election where candidates routinely attack segments of the population with no consequence? As satisfying as it might be to discount the whole lot of loonies, it’s not a tactic that will work in the long run.
We need to do more than beat the bullies on the playground; we need to get the hell off the playground itself. If we have any hope of redirecting the political process, we need to control the narrative, not react to it.
In an election year tainted by gerrymandering and voter suppression, it’s time to ask whether political polarization has gotten so severe that our democracy is at risk. From Borowitz to Camp to Mihnaj, the political satirists have long been warning us of these disturbing trends. Recall that when Stephen Colbert interviewed Trump he referred to him as“the last President of the United States.” It was more than an ironic hint.