The turbulence that followed the Nov. 3 election has roiled American politics, demonstrating an ominous vulnerability in our political system.
Donald Trump used the 41-day window between the presidential election and the Dec. 14 meeting of the Electoral College to hold the country in thrall based on his refusal to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory and his own defeat.
Most troubling to those who opposed Trump, and even to some who backed him, was the capitulation by Republicans in the House and Senate. It took six weeks from Election Day for Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, to acknowledge on Tuesday that “the Electoral College has spoken. Today I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden.”
Trump’s refusal to abide by election law was widely viewed as conveying an implicit threat of force. Equally alarming, Trump, with no justification, focused his claims of voter fraud on cities with large African-American populations in big urban counties, including Detroit in Wayne County, Milwaukee in Milwaukee County, Philadelphia in Philadelphia County and Atlanta in Fulton County.
Bob Bauer, a senior legal adviser to the Biden campaign, told reporters that the Trump campaign’s “targeting of the African-American community is not subtle. It is extraordinary,” before adding, “It’s quite remarkable how brazen it is.”
Viewing recent events through a Trump prism may be too restrictive to capture the economic, social and cultural turmoil that has grown more corrosive in recent years.
On Oct. 30, a group of 15 eminent scholars (several of whom I also got a chance to talk to) published an essay — “Political Sectarianism in America” — arguing that the antagonism between left and right has become so intense that words and phrases like “affective polarization” and “tribalism” were no longer sufficient to capture the level of partisan hostility.
“The severity of political conflict has grown increasingly divorced from the magnitude of policy disagreement,” the authors write, requiring the development of “a superordinate construct, political sectarianism — the tendency to adopt a moralized identification with one political group and against another.”
Political sectarianism consists of three core ingredients: othering — the tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself; aversion — the tendency to dislike and distrust opposing partisans; and moralization — the tendency to view opposing partisans as iniquitous. It is the confluence of these ingredients that makes sectarianism so corrosive in the political sphere.
There are multiple adverse outcomes that result from political sectarianism, according to the authors. It “incentivizes politicians to adopt antidemocratic tactics when pursuing electoral or political victories” since their supporters will justify such norm violation because “the consequences of having the vile opposition win the election are catastrophic.”
Any normal person can say that rocks fall down, but only a crazy person would be willing to say that rocks fall up, because usually, reality imposes limits on how far we can push our myths. What’s extraordinary about the present moment is how far most Republicans have gone in endorsing beliefs that are disconnected from reality and serve only to bind the sect and excommunicate the unfaithful.
One question that will be answered over time is whether Trump will continue to be uniquely gifted in putting a match to the gasoline. Or has the political, cultural and economic mix become so combustible that any spark can set it off regardless of which party or person is in office?