In the wake of the 2020 election, political pundits have been shocked by the complicity of Republican voters in one of the most glaring instances of democratic erosion in American politics. Half of Republicans think that Biden won because of a ‘rigged’ election – a strong indication that Trump’s antidemocratic rhetoric is resonating with voters everywhere. Many Democrats have been quick to blame Trump and his mastery over distorting the truth. It’s my belief that the roots of anti-democracy in American politics go much further – back to the rise of the tea party in 2010. I think of the 2010 election as an inflection point in American politics, which laid the groundwork for much of Trump’s brazen tactics today.
Prior to 2010, the tea party was not a mainstream voice in American politics. Many Republicans rejected the conspiracy theories promoted by the party, such as “Birtherism”, the claim that Obama was not a natural born citizen of the US. This was just one of many misleading theories promoted by the party – others included various far fetched ideas such as the supposed “war on Christianity”; the idea that democrats wanted to destroy religious freedom and Christian culture in the US.
But in 2010, Republicans backed by GOP leadership suffered stunning primary defeats at the hands of tea party insurgents in numerous states across the country. In Utah, Senator Robert Bennett, a three term incumbent, didn’t even make it to the November election because his tea party challenger beat him by 6 points in the primary.
The 2010 election was a defining moment for the Republican party – it demonstrated the power of populism, viral misinformation, and nationalism. It accelerated the rightward movement of the Republican party over the next few years, and it also cemented the place of the American conspiracy theory in US politics.
After 2010, there was a noticeable change in tone in the Republican party. Two forces were driving these changes. Structurally, conspiracy-loving tea party officials were becoming a growing voice in the party’s ideology. By 2015, they would form the powerful freedom caucus, which commands a huge say in house politics. But it wasn’t just tea party candidates that drove the party rightward. Even moderate Republicans began to embrace tea party theories, with many GOP officials in key swing states questioning Obama’s place of birth throughout the 2012 election. It was the 2010 elections which demonstrated to moderate Republicans the power that populism can have in turning out a voter base, and since then, the party’s culture has shifted dramatically.
In How Democracies Die, authors Levitsky and Ziblatt outline one of the key conditions of democracy to be “mutual toleration”: the idea that two opposing parties recognize one another as legitimate rivals, even if they disagree on policy issues . To claim that an opponent fraudulently won the ‘08 election by creating a false birth certificate is a complete rejection of this idea – and the mainstream adoption of this theory signals a dangerous departure away from democratic norms, which Levitsky and Ziblatt have argued are key to a healthy democracy .
The Birther movement is just one of many theories spun up by the tea party. The key trait underlying all of their facetious theories is that they’re meant to stoke fear in their base. At the 2010 tea party convention, party leaders proposed the idea that Obama was a “global socialist who envisions a one-world government.” Theories that are more outlandish have broad acceptance today, with the most recent example being the QAnon movement, a group of conservatives who think there’s a secret ring of democrat pedophiles running a deep state operation in the US government.
The important thing to understand is that these often viral theories turn political polarization into hatred. Believers of these theories have become deeply paranoid about the intentions of the democratic party. Republicans today see the democratic party as an evil that must be stopped at all costs. Studies have found that Republicans are driven to vote more by their hate of Democrats than their love of Republican policies. And, most alarmingly, fear of supposedly ‘vile democrats’ taking office has given Trump the power to undermine democratic norms to his desire.
Graham & Svolik have studied democratic erosion in the context of political polarization. One of their key findings is the idea that voter preferences for democracy as “elastic”, and they are often willing to trade off democratic norms in favor of partisan victories . The more intensely they hate the other party, the more willing they are to make sacrifices in norms. It’s for this reason that normalized and viral misinformation has played such a huge role in democratic erosion — by making conservatives complicit in the destruction of democratic norms.
Fast forward to 2020, and viral misinformation and conspiracy theories are key parts of Trump’s toolbox. Voters are chanting to stop counting votes that were cast legally, and Republicans everywhere think Biden cheated the election. This is largely because beginning in 2010, republican voters have slowly been taught to hate everything the democrats stand for, largely through campaigns of misleading news and theories with little evidence.
It’s much more difficult to root out extremism today than it might’ve been when this all began a decade ago, but the longer we wait, the more polarization will take root. It’s key to understand that much of the solution needs to come from within. Levitsky and Ziblatt outlined the key strategy of gate-keeping . Applied in this case, it would mean that party leaders in the GOP may have the most say in repudiating the most vile instances of democratic erosion happening within their party. Only time can really tell if Republican leadership will stand up to Trump and his corrosive tactics.
Citations Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. , 2018. Print.
 Graham, Matthew and Svolik, Milan, Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States https://ssrn.com/abstract=3354559 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3354559
I first want to commend you on your well-researched post. I wholeheartedly agree with you and many other scholars surrounding the claim that Trump is not the catalyst of this erosion, he is merely a symptom. A new angle that I appreciate from your argument is the central theme of conspiracy theories and misinformation. The most telling part out of the past election is that it doesn’t matter what the members of the Republican party choose to believe, but it is very dangerous that a large percentage of Republicans don’t believe in the legitimacy of President-Elect Biden. This lack of toleration is further exhibited by the complete radio silence from the Republican party on the matter. I suppose one segment of this piece that strikes me is your conclusion where you say that it is the responsibility of Republican leadership to stand up to Trump. While I certainly agree, I am also disheartened considering the fact that it seems as if those who have stood up to Trump lately have been getting fired at increasing frequencies. My question stemming from this line of thought boils down to motivation. Ultimately, what, if anything, do you think it would take for Republicans to step up and legitimize President-Elect Biden? Do you think this is likely to occur?
Great points, James. I found your reference to the mobilization of fear politics for anti-democratic ends especially insightful. Several countries in the midst of democratic erosion provide us with a blueprint that explains why perceived attacks on religion, such as “The War on Christianity” in the U.S., make right-wing policies more palatable to the public. In India, for example, fear of the permeation of muslim culture into Indian society made xenophobic policies put forth by the BJP such as the Amended Citizenship Act more tolerable. In Pakistan, the increasing partisization of religious differences enabled the controversial Declaration of Faith to come into being. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s vision for a nationalized Christian Democracy at odds with the “invasion” of asylum seekers greenlighted harsh anti-immigration policies. These cases serve as illustrative examples of the public as a limited check for democracy as described by Graham and Svolik. If you as a voter feel as though a defining principal of your life, culture, and country such as religion is under attack, you are more likely to make trade-offs that allow extremist policies to gain traction. Given that an internationally warranted blueprint for this sort of weaponization exists, this phenomenon is, unfortunately, unlikely to disappear anytime soon.