In this post, I hope to accomplish two related but separate goals. First, I’ll show you why political polarization is a viable threat to democracy. Second, using data from Bright Line Watch surveys, I want to offer a potential mechanism of resistance to the threat posed by polarization in the US today.
So you don’t think polarization matters? Let’s talk Roy Moore
How can we tell that polarization is negatively affecting US democracy? Let’s take a look a the special senate election in Alabama between Roy Moore (R) and Doug Jones (D).
Allegations of sexual assault leveled against Moore, the Republican candidate, caused a brief period of condemnation from his own party. However, within a couple of weeks, the GOP reversed its tone. The RNC resumed financing Moore’s campaign. Perhaps more strikingly, President Trump endorsed Moore and tweeted, “LAST thing the Make America Great Again Agenda needs is a Liberal Democrat in Senate where we have so little margin for victory already.”
Here’s the fact of the matter: Trump is actually right. The LAST thing the Republican Party could afford was a Democratic victory in Alabama. With a slim 52-48 majority in the Senate and schisms in the party, a Democrat in Alabama heavily challenges the GOP agenda.
Let me be clear: I do not intend to paint the GOP as the only polarized party. Both Republicans and Democrats are more politically divided than at any point in recent history, evidenced by data from the Pew Research Center. Slightly more Republicans have strongly negative feelings towards Democrats. However in 2014 38% of Democrats viewed the GOP very unfavorably compared with 43% of Republicans. That’s not an incredibly striking difference at the margins.
And it’s likely that both Democrats and Republicans will become more polarized as time moves forward. In Cass Sunstein’s study of group polarization, people’s views became more extreme when they conversed with likeminded individuals. Data reveals that more ideological American citizens are farther insulated within their respective “bubbles.” Combining Sunstein’s theory with the data showing increasing large echo chambers we can only expect greater levels of polarization in the near future.
The case of Roy Moore crystalizes the threat of polarization clearly. Almost half of Alabama voters cast their ballots for Moore despite credible allegations of sexual assault leveled against him by numerous women. It seems that political polarization made a reprehensible candidate palatable-and if it can do that, why can’t it make democratic erosion palatable as well?
Milan Svolik shows us that a polarized population places an importance on its values over democracy. Yes, some Roy Moore voters deny the allegations vehemently. But if there are any who would rather elect an alleged molester than face diminished legislative success, it’s not a great leap to think that the same group of people would also be willing to use undemocratic means to accomplish its goals. And again, if placed in a similar situation, it’s possible to imagine the Democratic Party taking similar steps to retain a slim majority.
Where’s the hope? It could actually be patriotism
We talk a lot about democratic culture in the US. What does that really mean though, and how can it protect our democratic institutions? I suggest understanding democratic culture as linked to patriotism.
Patriotism, support for one’s country, can be used as a predictor for the political culture held by the citizenry. So how does patriotism in the US relate to views on democratic institutions and values?
To answer these questions, I turned to a dataset collected by Bright Line Watch. The organization has amassed an impressive dataset from surveys conducted with the American public at different points throughout the past year.
I tackled the data to try and identify relationships between patriotism and democratic institutions and values like equal rights, free speech, voting rights, and free press. The surveyors asked participants to rate the level of importance they placed on candidates displaying a certain quality (patriotism, respect for freedom of the press, respect for judicial independence, etc.).
To determine how people felt about patriotism in relation to various dimensions of democracy, I examined how correlated ratings of patriotism were with ratings of democratic variables. The results were somewhat expected, though still noteworthy.
Responses on the importance of patriotism are positively correlated with responses on the importance of journalists, free speech, judicial independence, and even democracy itself. It seems that patriotism in America still relates in some way, shape, or form, to democratic values and institutions.
Why do we care about patriotism and its relationship to democracy? Great question. I believe that this data shows us that patriotism remains a viable roadblock to substantial democratic erosion in the United States. Although we cannot see from this data whether or not patriotism used to be more tightly linked with democracy, we can find support for linkage to some degree today.
We often hear talk of a democratic culture that exists in the United States. This data would appear to support that theory, and lend credibility to those who trust a culture of democracy to carry the US through troubled times of polarization. While this is by no means a complete and thorough analysis, and there is evidence to suggest that democratic culture is eroding as well. However, for the time being it seems that Americans continue to include democratic values under the umbrella of patriotism.
In addition to a roadblock to democratic erosion, patriotism may be a potential weapon. Politicians who ascribe to democratic norms could weave in rhetoric to tie American patriotism to democracy itself. Rather than countering “America First” narratives with traditional cosmopolitan or liberal viewpoints, there could be applications for patriotism by those seeking to combat democratic erosion in the US.