The Disunited States: How partisan politics is polarising the US

Unquestioning party allegiances and growing division between Democrats and Republicans may threaten American democracy.

by

    Americans may be as divided over politics today as they were in the lead up to the Civil War of the 1860s. In Washington, DC, hardly a day passes without Democrats and Republicans accusing the other party of betraying the nation and its core values. Around the country, partisan allegiances are fracturing relationships at the level of the family, neighbourhood and community. Religious congregations are coming apart over politics. So are marriages.

    Partisan rancour worsened after the April release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation of President Donald Trump and whether his campaign cooperated with the Russians in the 2016 presidential race. According to a recent poll, 68 percent of Republicans believe that the Mueller report cleared Trump, but only eight percent of Democrats feel the same way.

    The real scandal, Republicans argue, is that the FBI spied on Trump’s campaign. As Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri asserted at a judiciary committee hearing, "If this can go on in the United States, we don’t have a democracy any more."

    For presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats, Mueller’s report documented evidence of obstruction of justice and other misdeeds by President Trump that call for impeachment hearings to begin immediately. Protecting and serving the Constitution of the United States, she says, demands nothing less.

    As we become more socially distinct as partisans it’s a lot easier to dehumanise the other group ... to think of the other side as not only opponents but actually enemies and dangerous.

    Lilliana Mason, author and professor

    Yet while Trump openly exacerbates the toxic partisanship and political incivility that is rampant in the US today, he is not the cause of it, according to Lilliana Mason, a professor at the University of Maryland. She argues that he has brought "into the open divides that have been accumulating between the parties" for decades.

    In her recent book, Uncivil Agreement, Mason attributes political polarisation and extreme partisanship in the US to a social sorting process that has divided the country’s electorate into two political parties defined by distinct ideological, racial, religious and geographic groups. Between the 1960s and now, "the Republican party has become largely white, Christian, rural, somewhat more male," she says. "And the Democratic party is somewhat everyone else: non-white, non-Christian, relatively urban or suburban, and more female because we have a gender gap that’s been growing."

    "It starts to feel like every election isn’t just about our parties competing," she says. "It’s about our racial groups and our religious groups and our geographical groups, and if you lose, it’s not just your party that lost, it’s all of the things that make up your individual identity, all the groups you feel attached to. It’s almost like they all lost too."

    This sorting of people into two political camps fuels stereotyping and suspicion. In a 2018 poll by Nielsen, 70 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats agreed that the opposing party was a serious threat to the United States.

    Identity politics

    In the past, it was common for people with similar social characteristics to be in both parties - what political scientists call cross-cutting cleavages. It muted partisanship and had a humanising effect because there were people on the other side like you, Mason explains. But as "we become more socially distinct as partisans it’s a lot easier to dehumanise the other group. And so, we start to think of the other side as not only opponents but actually enemies and dangerous".

    Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is framed by
    Donald Trump manipulated identity politics and "Make America Great Again" rhetoric during his 2016 campaign. [Reuters]

    The increasing allegiance to a party not only threatens personal relationships but democratic norms. "If you care only about whether your party wins or loses and you care about nothing else then there is no governing, there is no accountability, there is no impeachment," Mason adds. "The only thing that matters is beating the other side and being winners again."

    One of the best places to investigate America’s toxic divisions is North Carolina. The state has been a hotbed of partisan conflict for decades, and political warfare escalated after Republicans seized control of the state legislature in 2010.

    "North Carolina is ground zero when it comes to polarisation," according to Rob Christensen, a political author and reporter who covered politics in the state for 45 years at the Raleigh News and Observer.

    "The problem for the strategists is that the state’s not one thing, it’s many things. The state has a little bit of Alabama in it, state has a little bit of Silicon Valley in it, state has a little bit of Berkeley in it, the state has a little bit of Harlem in it. I mean it’s a really interesting mix and a very volatile mix."

    The 2020 Republican Convention will be held in North Carolina, underscoring its importance in the presidential race. "The closeness of the races means both parties think they can win," Christensen says. He points out that Barack Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 by the smallest margin of any state he won. Mitt Romney won the state in 2012, also by the smallest margin of any state he carried.

    In 2016, Trump campaigned hard in North Carolina and won the state by three-and-a-half points. Part of the reason, according to Christensen, was that "Donald Trump was in part a backlash against Barack Obama. There was just total shock and unacceptance by some substantial minority of the population to see a black man as president of the United States."

    In fact, in 2007, whites in the US were just as likely to identify with Democrats as Republicans, according to a Pew Research Center study. But whites fled the Democratic party during Obama’s presidency. By 2016, there was a 15 percent difference between the parties. Race plays a central role in political polarisation and incivility in the US today. "Race is certainly a very, very powerful issue and we haven’t yet come to grips with it," Christensen says.

    'Fine people on both sides'

    North Carolina occupies a special place in the history of civil rights in the US. In 1960, four African-American college students in Greensboro famously sat down at a "white-only" lunch counter at a Woolworths department store to order coffee. They were arrested, sparking a lunch counter sit-in that lasted for six months.

    The Woolworths sit-in was a catalyst for a youth-led sit-in movement across the country that helped create momentum for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Moderate Democrats led the fight for the legislation. Their support set the stage for the racial sorting between the parties that we see today, according to Mason. "When the Democratic party chose to be the party of civil rights, that really angered a huge portion of the people who identified as Democrats, namely white southern Democrats," she says.

    Violent Clashes Erupt at
    In August 2017, hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, KKK and members of the "alt-right" clashed with anti-racist counter-protesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. [AFP]

    "It helped pull away a lot of conservative Democrats into the Republican party," Christensen says. "They started voting for people like George Wallace who was a Democrat although he ran at some point as a third-party candidate. And then essentially, they began crossing over into voting for Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump today. This has happened all across the south, dividing up along racially polarised lines, but you know that’s true nationally."

    A good example of this racial shift between the parties took place in Lenoir County, North Carolina. Two bloody civil war battles were fought near Kinston, a city in the county that has a replica of a Confederate gunship in a downtown park. According to Mike Parker, the commander of the local chapter - or "camp" - of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, about two-thirds of the white voters in the county are registered as Republicans, a shift from the past. There are about 800 Sons of Confederate Veterans chapters across the American South, made up of men descended from Confederate soldiers.

    "More men died in the Civil War than died in all the other wars we’ve ever fought put together," Parker says. "Down here it involved almost every family and this is one reason why I think in the South the Civil War is such a big deal."

    Parker takes issue with the idea that racial tensions worsened because Obama was elected president. "It’s too easy to just say well he was a black man therefore white people didn’t like him," Parker says. "There are people who just say look, we don’t want socialism, we don’t want these huge government programmes." Still, Parker noted that he thought Obama "constantly seemed to me to play a race card".

    Parker is a supporter of President Trump’s economic policies and efforts to build a wall on the Mexico-US border. Asked about Trump’s response to an August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park, Parker did not express any concern about the president’s comments. At a press conference, Trump equated white supremacist organisers of the rally with counter-protestors who came to confront them. Violence erupted in Charlottesville leaving 30 injured and a counter-protester dead. "I think there is blame on both sides. And I don’t have any doubt about it," Trump said at the time. He added, "You also had people that were very fine people on both sides."

    Donald Trump was in part a backlash against Barack Obama. There was just total shock and unacceptance by some substantial minority of the population to see a black man as president of the United States.

    Rob Christensen, political author and reporter

    Parker says that Trump "wasn’t talking about there being good people among the white supremacy clan". He believes the president was referring to other people like "history buffs" who came to Charlottesville to defend the monument. "I mean not everybody who thinks the monuments should stay there is a racist," he says.

    'Racism is always in play'

    Many Democrats believe that anyone who supports Trump is a racist. But Mason argues that "one doesn’t need to be a racist in order to still be okay with a system that systematically oppresses non-white groups. And that’s what’s affiliated with the Republican party. It’s not that everyone in the party is a racist, it’s that the party is not interested in addressing any type of systemic racism."

    White voters without a college degree flocked to Trump in the 2016 election and partisan tensions are heightened by the fact that white Americans are expected to become a minority within the next 30 years.

    "That’s a huge factor," Mason says. "There is a sense of threat that white Americans feel about that. Ultimately, it’s going to create a situation in which Republican candidates are going to have a much harder time winning elections and so they really have two options. One is to reach out to racial minorities, or to rig the system."

    Around the country, Republican attempts to "rig the system" are also fuelling political division and anger. In North Carolina it started after Republicans won both houses of the state legislature in 2010.

    Republican legislators subsequently pushed through a new voter ID law and redrew election districts in their favour. It provoked a fierce backlash. The Moral Mondays movement, led by the Reverend William Barber II, then head of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, organised regular rallies to protest against the Republican-led General Assembly at the legislature building in Raleigh.

    Barber says he launched the movement because the legislature "attacked everybody, from the teachers to the poor to the sick. Then they attacked voting rights. They knew that voter ID would hurt minorities, women and students. But it wasn’t just voter ID. They wanted to roll back same-day registration, early voting. They didn’t even want 17 to 18 year olds to preregister to vote. This was an all-out war on the ballot."

    Unite the Right 2 counter - DC
    Race plays a central role in political polarisation and incivility in the US today. [The Associated Press]

    The NAACP mounted a legal challenge to the Republican voter ID law and, in 2016 in the federal appeals court, judges struck it down saying the law was designed to "target African-Americans with almost surgical precision". Yet this past December, North Carolina Republicans passed another voter ID law. The NAACP and other voting rights advocates are challenging it again in court.

    "Racism is always in play in this country," Barber says. "We tend to talk about racism when something like Charlottesville happens which is a form of ugly, vile, racism. But the racism that is deadly in terms of the long-term health of the country is systemic racism. The kind of racism that people can actually shake your hand and look at you, never call you the n-word, but when they’re sitting in their office they pass racist voter suppression."

    Voter fraud and voter suppression

    Nationwide, 25 states have made it harder to vote since 2010, and 15 passed voter ID laws claiming they were needed to combat voter fraud. Democrats say the claims of fraud are an excuse to suppress the vote, and have introduced legislation in congress to stop it.

    Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think tank, fears that growing doubts about the integrity of the electoral system could lead to violence in the US. "We have this 50/50 politics in which elections can really depend on a few thousand votes here or there," he says "And both sides have come to believe that the electoral system is not legitimate. On the Republican side it’s voter fraud, on the Democratic side it’s voter suppression. And when you see political violence across countries is usually around elections when there’s a sense that the elections were not legitimate."

    Manipulating the boundaries of an electoral district to ensure it has a majority of voters favouring a party - what is known as gerrymandering - also fuels partisan distrust. Drutman points out: "Gerrymandering, which Republicans have been particularly aggressive at in the last decade, creates this sense that whatever the outcome somebody cheated."

    In 2018, Republican candidates for Congress in North Carolina got 50.39 percent of the vote, but won 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats. Last March, the US Supreme Court heard a case challenging Republican gerrymandering in the state. But in June, the court’s Republican-appointed majority ruled against the effort to rein in partisan gerrymandering.

    Gerrymandering
    The practice of manipulating electoral district boundary lines has fuelled partisan distrust. [Reuters]

    According to Andrew Reynolds, a professor at the University of North Carolina, gerrymandering is particularly insidious today because of advances in digital mapping techniques. "They’re using computerised maps to literally draw lines around one way streets and tiny little houses in farm country," he says. "You can pick out every house you want to be in a district. And what you are doing is just making sure your party can almost never lose that district."

    The real contest in a gerrymandered district is not in the general election, but in the primary contest where candidates vie to be the nominee of the party favoured by the gerrymander. And that fosters partisan extremism, Reynolds says.

    "When you create safe seats, the Democrats appeal to the extremes of the Democratic party, the Republicans appeal to the extremes of the Republican part. If districts required you to appeal to the moderate centre then we would see a very different type of Republicans being elected. But when you draw a district that relies upon the primary then they’re going to rally the faithful with dog whistles, with racism, with homophobia, with behaviours that create fearfulness about the other, the Mexicans coming in."

    Digital echo-chambers

    Lockwood Phillips, the owner-operator of a conservative radio station that broadcasts to Lenoir County and the surrounding area, is not concerned about gerrymandering in the state. "It’s been going on for well over 100 years, and it’s business as usual," he says.

    But Phillips is bothered by the toxic partisanship in the country. "It’s removed a willingness on the part of local voters and participants to sit down and talk, and identify the problems that they have in their immediate community." He also disagrees with the notion that race is at the root of hyper-partisanship and incivility in the US today. "We have racial issues in this country, but they are being solved," he says. "The problem is you’ve got folks in certain quarters - and I have to say liberal quarters - who don’t want that solution because it’s a great way to keep the community stirred up."

    Instead, Phillips blames polarisation in America on the cellphone and the internet. "The digital environment has oxymoronically, counterintuitively shut down the communications because what happens is people go into their echo chambers," he says.

    If you’re a Democrat you think that there’s got to be something criminal in [the Mueller report]. If you’re Republican you think that Trump is exonerated.

    Lee Drutman, senior fellow at the New America think tank

    Phillips’s station was the first in North Carolina to carry right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh and is an affiliate of Fox, President Trump’s favourite news outlet. Phillips believes the Mueller report cleared Trump. "It was pretty obvious, there was no effort on the part of Trump to use the Russians or the Russians to use Trump," he says. Mike Parker, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, feels the same way. According to him, "Mueller’s report basically said there was nothing that rose to the level of crime."

    "The Mueller report is a Rorschach test for your partisan politics," Drutman argues."If you’re a Democrat you think that there’s got to be something criminal in there. If you’re Republican you think that Trump is exonerated."

    In Drutman’s view, these different positions on the Mueller report ultimately reflect a partisan division in America that is rooted in race and identity. "The two parties are fundamentally split over race and identity," he says. "I think if we had partisan polarisation that was purely sectional, North versus South, as we did in the 1850s, we would be on the verge of civil war right now."


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