Jay Rosen is a journalism professor at New York University. Earlier this year, he offered one of the more insightful analyses of the state of American politics that I’ve seen.
“If both parties went off the rails into paranoia, voters in both parties would call the other party a danger to society,” he wrote. “But if one party slid off the rails while the other remained in the normal range, voters in both parties would still call the other party a danger to society.”
Remove the comment from the context of American politics and it’s obviously true. If only one half of a two-party political system became detached from objective reality, both halves would nonetheless see the other as a danger: the realist party because it recognizes the detachment; the detached party because it is delusional.
Rosen’s articulation is also a litmus test of the moment because, of course, it works backward from conclusion to cause. Both parties do see the other as a danger to the country, as new polling from NBC News makes clear. More than three-quarters of Republicans and Democrats agree that saying the other party “poses a threat that if not stopped will destroy America” matches their own view at least somewhat well.
Among independents, about half do, though far fewer say that formulation matches their own view “very well.” More than half of partisans told the pollsters that saying the other party poses an existential threat matches their own view “very well.”
One way to consider this finding is through the lens that sufficiently captured American politics for decades: Partisans disagree on policies and priorities and that manifests as disagreements in other areas. But this lens is obviously insufficient for the moment, largely for the reason that Rosen describes. This disagreement is far more dangerous than past political disputes, and the arguments for each side’s position are not themselves equivalent.
Last week, the New York Times published the results of a survey conducted by Siena College that got at a similar question. It found that, while partisans (and independents) all viewed American democracy as being at risk, the reasons for that perception varied. Democrats and Republicans pointed to each other and party leaders: President Biden, Donald Trump. Both also pointed to the media.
In that poll, respondents were also presented with a list of possible triggers for erosion of democracy. Importantly, that list included “voting machines” and “voting by mail,” two democratic processes that have come under fire since 2020 thanks to baseless and debunked claims of voter fraud. Yet despite there being no evidence that voting by mail or voting machines damage democracy — and in fact, despite plenty of evidence that they facilitate democracy — two-thirds of Republicans said voting machines were at least a minor threat to democracy and 4 in 5 said the same of mail-in voting.
That is a detachment from reality.
It’s no secret how Republicans think that the Democratic agenda is a threat to democracy. There are various flavors, many of which center on the idea that the Democratic Party is socialist or communist or fascistic, take your pick. Over the weekend, Donald Trump made the second claim during one of his heavily branded midterm rallies.
“I used to say socialists, but we’ve skipped socialism. We don’t talk about that. I don’t even mention it anymore. We’re not socialists anymore, we’re communists,” Trump said. “We’ve gone over socialism, we’re gone. It’s over. It’s communist. They’re talking about communist. This is a communist system that we’re putting up with right now.”
This is unquestionably false, demonstrating at the very least a lack of familiarity with the tenets of communism.
Others have slightly more nuanced articulations of the question. That the government imposed restrictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has been commonly cited as evidence of the left’s fascistic tendencies — though of course, the initial restrictions were imposed by executives of both parties (including Trump) and though those restrictions have been almost universally lifted. But that played to a perception that has been stoked on the right for a long time.
“If you look at what fascism is,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said last month, “it’s more government dictatorial control. That’s Democrats’ policies and positions hand-in-glove. It’s Democrats who are the ones to tend to be more fascist because fascism is the opposite of liberty and freedom and the Democrats don’t trust us to make our own decisions.”
There’s also a recurring insistence that the left’s efforts to broaden inclusivity in American culture is, in fact, an effort to impose unacceptable norms at odds with American traditions. This is the “wokeism” debate, one that gobbles up a truly remarkable amount of right-wing attention. It overlaps uncomfortably with a more extreme rejection of diversity, the idea that the left is intentionally seeding America with non-White immigrants to upend politics. This “great replacement” idea, pushed by people like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, has enormous traction — though not surprisingly, given how much of this is driven by concerns about America’s evolving demography.
When the discussion is about making America great again, of course, it’s often about unwinding that evolution.
The NBC News question was different from the Times one, certainly. The latter centered on democracy; the former on “America as we know it.” But they overlap. The cultural threat and the “fascist” threat are intertwined as attacks on America broadly, the latter often used as a way to exaggerate the danger of the former.
In considering our original question, it’s important to consider the response about “wokeism.” In a number of places, the response to increased awareness of LGBTQ people has been removing books from libraries and schools, legislation constricting mentions of gay relationships and physical threats to gay and transgender people. Some of those, of course, are governmental actions, somewhat undercutting Brooks’s assertion about how it’s the left that abuses power. In fact, there’s been an increasing volume of calls for the right to explicitly use government to win cultural fights.
Which brings us invariably to the question of democracy itself.
Donald Trump, veteran journalist Bob Woodward wrote in an opinion piece published this weekend, is “an unparalleled danger.” This is not a Democratic activist (even if you’ve been convinced, thanks to a determined and deliberate campaign, that the media is necessarily biased); this is someone who has covered national politics for 50 years. Nor is he alone. Veteran conservative jurist J. Michael Luttig has repeatedly described Trump and his allies as a “clear and present danger” to the nation, one of myriad voices within the traditional establishment on the right to make a similar claim. We see how Republicans are actively implementing a scheme that will facilitate challenging election results nationally, something Trump tried and failed to do in 2020.
This is the starkest contrast. The right is actively trying to figure out escape hatches for losing elections. Meanwhile, its claims about Democrats tainting elections are either explicitly false claims about rampant fraud or, more bizarrely, complaints that letting more people cast votes is somehow an erosion of American politics.
Why do members of both parties “call the other party a danger to society?” The evidence does not suggest that it is because both parties went off the rails.