Polarization before and after the 2020 election

In this election, American democracy has been threatened by a bitter polarization with deep historical roots. Many Americans may despair of conciliation across this divide. The prominent academic Richard Sennett, writing a day before the election in the British left-liberal newspaper The Guardian, suggested that Trump’s base in 30% of the electorate is, as a whole, “extremist”, characterised by “sneering aggression” and “viciousness” towards other Americans, and will become even more extreme if he loses. Yet although there’s no denying the hatred on display at times, a more differentiated understanding of his support is necessary.

The study of tea party supporters in Louisiana by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, most of whom went on to vote for Trump in 2016, makes it clear that there are thoughtful and decent individuals amongst those who have supported him. A considerable number of those who vote for Trump do not like him. And a significant number of Obama voters switched to Trump in 2016, some of whom must have stuck with him this time (see Edison’s exit poll). They are presumably mostly outside the 30% base, sitting somewhere in the other 18% or so who also voted for him.

In 2016 some might have hoped that Trump’s support would fold as his unfitness to lead the nation became evident. It has instead become clear that a durable body of public feeling has consolidated in support of Trump and of what his supporters feel that he stands for. Despite the tumult of his administration, his approval ratings, though relatively low, have been unusually stable across his term, and even with the polls underestimating his position, he was still seen as capable of winning the election.

This consolidation is, as a recent study has shown, part of a global movement of centre-right parties towards ‘illiberal democracy’, with their larger blocs of supporters in more entrenched positions. In the U.S. this has heavily reinforced the two-party system. Since the 1990s, red-or-blue leaning has climbed way above all other variables (including race, religion and education) to be the strongest predictor of political position on core issues. The strengthening of affinity with the Republican Party across over 40% of the electorate was probably intensified or accelerated by the emergence of more radical tendencies in the Democratic Party, so was part of a dynamic that we can call ‘interactive’ or ‘cumulative’ extremism. But the overall process of party-based polarization began long before Sanders.

So, approval of Trump has been more closely tied to Republican sympathies than it has been for other Republican Presidents. This may be surprising, since his own sympathies are promiscuous, as seen in his periods of support for the Democrats. It does however help to explain why he has not lost more votes amongst those who dislike him. The size and resilience of Trump’s support seems to be the product of the blending of Trump’s perverse charisma, which is quite complex psychologically, and an increasingly strong party identification amongst ‘GOP’ supporters.

What underlying needs in the American people does all this relate to? Along with others, I have suggested we see Trumpism as a mobilization of the capacity, which exists in us all, to imagine ourselves as magically immune to fear and weakness, to vulnerability of any sort (including to viruses). This defence against anxiety (technically a ‘narcissistic’ one) is often expressed, in different ways, by idealized visions of the nation and its leader as a protective shield. For many, especially in the core ‘base’, this appears to be still at the heart of their outlook.

But there is another key theme, also linked to the narcissistic defence: strong antipathy towards those fellow Americans seen as the main source of all threats. At the extremes, this is, as Sennett observes, an intense hatred, expressed by a sort of postmodern McCarthyism, in which a kaleidoscope of liberals, socialists and others are cast as enemies. For others, it may be less venomous and not delusional, but still run deep as a bedrock of antagonism, shaped by traditional Republican distrust of the state and by more contemporary populist tirades against elites.

Mitigating the polarization will involve looking more closely and respectfully at the outlooks, feelings and perceptions of many of those lodged along this axis of negativity. Even when congealed as antagonistic masses on either side of a deep divide, people do differ, in crucial ways, as empathic inquiry can reveal. Moreover, the process of polarization involves a complex dynamic between different groups, all of which should consider how their own behaviours may be experienced as provocations or denigrations, and so contribute to an escalatory process. Prominent academic, Mark Lilla, has urged Democrats to reflect on whether their own pre-occupations with ‘identitarian’ politics have helped to create today’s polarization. While it is necessary to be realistic about the depth of the antagonisms, and the tenacity of the delusions which can be involved, a more detailed analysis of Trump’s base and its penumbra may offer alternatives to Sennett’s pessimism.