Filindra argues that
Contrary to our idealistic normative assumptions, citizens do not have a principled or ideologically constrained approach to democracy any more than they have a principled approach to governance and policy.
Instead, most citizens are
prone to understand democracy through the lens of group memberships. When the social position of cherished groups is perceived as threatened, and when trusted in-group elites use narratives of group threat and out-group dehumanization to justify anti-democratic actions, group members become more vulnerable to authoritarian leaders and parties that promise protection or restoration of the group’s status but at the cost of institutional democracy.
Political polarization plays a crucial role here.
As Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer, political scientists at Georgia State and Koç University, write in their 2019 paper, “Toward a Theory of Pernicious Polarization and How It Harms Democracies”:
Growing affective polarization and negative partisanship contribute to a growing perception among citizens that the opposing party and its policies pose a threat to the nation or an individual’s way of life. Most dangerously for democracy, these perceptions of threat open the door to undemocratic behavior by an incumbent and his/her supporters to stay in power, or by opponents to remove the incumbent from power.
The cumulative effect, McCoy and Somer continue, “is a deterioration in the quality of democracy, leading to backsliding, illiberalism, and in some cases reversion to autocracy.”
Milan W. Svolik, a political scientist at Yale, in his 2017 paper “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents,” makes the case that polarization weakens the ability of moderate, centrist voters to serve as a check on extreme political behavior.
“In the classics of democratization research,” Svolik writes, “the public’s disapproval is assumed to serve as a check on incumbents’ temptations to subvert democracy.”
In polarized societies, however, “this check fails” because the strength of partisan loyalty, for many voters,
makes it costly for them to punish an incumbent by voting for a challenger. Incumbents exploit this lack of credible punishment by manipulating the democratic process in their favor. A mass of centrist voters provides precisely the kind of credible deterrent against manipulation that polarized societies lack.
Matthew Graham, who is also a political scientist at Yale, writing with Svolik, published a study this year showing that when voters are forced to make a choice between partisan loyalty and standing on principle, only small percentages of either party’s electorates stood on principle. The vast majority chose partisan loyalty, with little or no difference between Republicans and Democrats.
In an email, Svolik raised the next logical question: “If supporters of both parties oppose/tolerate authoritarianism at similar levels, how come it is the Republican Party that is primarily associated with authoritarian tendencies today?” In reply to his own question,” Svolik writes, “The quick answer is Trump.” But
The deeper answer is that the opportunities to subvert the democratic process for partisan gain have become asymmetrical. Because of the biases inherent in political geography and demographic partisan patterns, the two most easily implementable means of gaining an unfair electoral advantage — gerrymandering and voter identification laws — only offer opportunities for unfair play to Republicans.
Trump, in Svolik’s view, has presented
his supporters with a stark choice between his conservative accomplishments (immigration, judicial appointments, tax cuts) while portraying the Democrats as the extreme left (something he did successfully with Hillary Clinton, and why I believe he often brings up Portland, AOC, and Sanders). By doing so, Trump is effectively raising the price his supporters must pay for putting democratic principles above their partisan interests.
Other political scientists and psychologists argue that there are differences between Republicans and Democrats that are deeper.
Hyun Hannah Nam, a political scientist at Stony Brook University argues in an email that “there is some evidence that Republicans and Democrats respond differently to information that violates their political beliefs or allegiances — that is, cognitive dissonance in the political domain.”
A 2013 paper, ‘‘ ‘Not for All the Tea in China!’ Political Ideology and the Avoidance of Dissonance-Arousing Situations,” which Nam wrote with John Jost and Jay Van Bavel, both professors of psychology at N.Y.U., provided data from an experiment in which
supporters of Republican presidents and supporters of Democratic presidents were either asked or instructed to argue that a president from the opposing party was a better president than a president from their own party.
Nam and her colleagues
found that 28 percent of Obama supporters willingly engaged with the task of writing an essay favoring Bush over Obama, whereas no Bush supporters were willing to argue that Obama was a better president than Bush.
This suggests, Nam continued in her email,
that there may be something special about Republicans when it comes to an unwillingness to criticize their own leaders or to praise the opposition’s leaders. Although this research preceded the Trump era, it could be that Trump supporters may now similarly double down on their expressed loyalty to Trump, in spite of various moral and ideological violations exhibited by Trump — or even because of them through processes of rationalization.
In her email, Nam added,
It appears that a neural structure that guides our perception of salient threats and understanding of social group hierarchy also underlies political preferences and behaviors to keep society as it is. If voter suppression efforts are perceived as helping to maintain the existing power structures, then it is possible that our neurobiological predispositions support the legitimation of such endeavors to protect the status quo.
The emergence of a right-populist, authoritarian-inclined Republican Party coincides with the advent of a bifurcated Democratic Party led, in large part, by a well-educated, urban, globally engaged multicultural elite allied with a growing minority electorate.