Scholar Warns We Could Be Headed for a 'Violent Conflict' Between Republicans and Democrats

Is the United States speeding toward an historic conflict?

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President Abraham Lincoln famously warned that "a house divided against itself, cannot stand." More than 150 years later his alarm still resonates: While the conflagration will most likely take a different form than it did in Lincoln's day, America in the era of President Donald Trump is increasingly a country of warring tribes rather than a united people possessed of a shared sense of identity and destiny.

Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, do not live in the same communities. They do not consume the same news media. They are divided by race, gender, religion and ethnicity. Republicans and conservatives have even tried to create their own alternate universe, a world free of facts not governed by empirical reality where right-wing ideology is a religion or cult that supersedes all other things.

The president of the United States is not a unifier who seeks to lead all people and by doing so to inspire the best of who and what America and the American people can be. Instead he is hell-bent on creating chaos and division. For his voters and other Republicans and conservatives, he is a champion and political godhead. For Democrats, liberals and other people of conscience he is closer to being a monster.

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How did America become so divided? Why has political polarization become so extreme? In what ways have political parties become like sports teams where winning is all that matters and the common good is unimportant? Can American democracy to survive Donald Trump amid the rise of a conservative movement that views Democrats and liberals as an "un-American" enemy?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Lilliana Mason. She is a assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of the new book "Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How do you explain the election of Donald Trump and the current state of American politics?

Our party identities have been moving into alignment with other social identities. As a result race, religion, culture, geography and to some extent gender and other identities align with political parties. This means we become much more focused on the party winning. For Republicans this means white and Christian, rural and male. What Trump did was to activate a particular type of white identity. Then he made it clear to the Republican electorate that they should be paying attention to their white identities and voting based on it.  Trump was also telling these voters what they had in their heads already.

He really pointed to a group of people who were feeling vulnerable and condescended to and made fun of and said, “You guys are losers, right? We're all losers, we are losing all the time.” Then he said, "But I'm going to make you winners, I’m going to make us win again." So it was this almost perfect message delivered to a group of people who were ready to hear a message like that, and were committed to defeating the Democrats because the other party is so socially "other" from them. Ultimately, Donald Trump tapped into a dynamic that has been developing over the last few decades in America.

America has a long history of extreme political polarization and partisanship. We actually fought a civil war that killed 750,000 people. Those fault lines of race still exist. Part of me feels like there is nothing really new about Trump and what he represents. In fact, America has only been a democracy on paper for about the last 50 years. Then again, Trump and his supporters' unabashed contempt for democracy and overt racism and bigotry does feel new in the recent history of American politics. How do you reconcile those tensions?

This is not a completely new way of approaching politics, at least in the Republican Party -- consider the racist Southern Strategy [of the 1968 election and thereafter]. But there are now such strong partisans that will do almost anything just for their political team to win. As I said earlier, this is partly because when our party "wins," our racial group and our religious group and our other cultural and social identities "win" too. The victory of our political party is taking up more and more of what I describe as "self-esteem real estate." Every part of us is involved now in the outcome of the election. So when our party loses, it hurts a lot more than it did before, because we used to have other meaningful identities.

In the United States, historically, there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. You don't have them anymore. This means the loss feels much worse and the victory feels much better. So we end up approaching our elections in a way that's very much like a sports game where we don't actually care what the team does after they win. That's the whole thing that you wanted and you're happy and excited and you cheer. But you don't follow the team around and ask them what they're going to do next in order to make your life better. Having Trump be like a performer enhances that sports-like competition, and it really reduces the attention that people pay to what government is actually doing.

How does the reorientation of the Democrats and Republicans relative to race and civil rights factor into your narrative about identity and partisanship?  

I think the difference is that the Democratic Party is better at representing the interests of black voters at present than it was before. For a long time, through the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, the Democratic Party was the best party for people of color in general to be with, but it didn't do a great job of helping them. What's been happening is that as the Republican Party has become much more clearly the party of white voters, everyone else has mostly moved over to the Democratic Party.

One of the ways that I think about this divide between the parties is that it revolves around questions of social justice. The Republicans are focused on keeping everything the way it was and the Democrats are actually, to some extent, trying to move things forward in terms of social justice.

There really are not significant negative consequences for Republican candidates who use white racial resentment and overt white racism as political tools, because the electorate is so sorted.

One of the things that we know is that this type of white identity politics is becoming more powerful than it was before in recent American politics. Partially because there is clearly a party that is made entirely of white people: Ninety-seven percent of Republicans are white. The Democratic Party has plenty of white people, but it's something like 56 percent white and then 19 percent black and 17 percent Latino. So the power of white identity is becoming almost more urgent. It doesn't necessarily change everything, but there is good research showing that when you talk to people about demographic change, they become more conservative, even on issues that are unrelated to immigration, for example.

This includes superficially "non-racial" or "race-neutral" public policy matters such as access to public transportation.

It's not necessarily about "white power" per se as much as it is about relative status. For people who are high on white identity, the distance between them and the nonwhite people below them is getting smaller. It's relative status. That doesn't feel good for the dominant group because their power starts feeling precarious. Whenever you have "status threat," people tend to lash out with anger and political action.

Anecdotes are not data, but there is this whole new genre of writing where reporters and researchers go out to Trump territory and talk to his supporters. There are these conversations where Trump's people have said that "winning" and "beating Hillary" matters more than the country's democracy. Some of these Trump voters have even said they support Russia's apparent interference in the 2016 presidential election. These are signs of a democracy in crisis.

In American society and politics at large, where we have much powerful identities, people are willing to give up a lot in order to get a win. The stronger the identity, the more they're willing to give up. So when we see people who are essentially willing to give away democracy for their partisan win, there is perhaps no better example of the power of identity. This is extremely dangerous for democracy because it creates this rift between partisans where no one wants to cooperate or compromise, ever. We're not only seeing democratic norms erode but we're also losing the ability to functionally govern. The greater good is no longer of interest to many Americans. The only thing that we care about is whether or not we get the victory and after that nothing really matters.

Trump is something of a political sadist. His policies actually hurt most of his supporters, but they still support him because in their eyes Trump is causing even more pain to their "enemies": black and brown people, gays and lesbians, women and whoever else. Do you think that's a fair analysis of the dynamic?

Yes. Many of these interviews with Trump supporters have been with people whose immediate families are being hurt. There's a large amount of self-deception going on in the electorate. A lot of people think that they are holding their positions for logical and thoughtful reasons, but in reality these divisions are actually completely informed by partisanship. For example, look at Russia and the Republican Party. As soon as the party changes its position, all the voters change their position on it. It can happen very quickly. It's not true for every issue: Attitudes about race are one example. But on a lot of issues, particularly economic ones, an individual's opinions can change relatively easily and they're not actually as committed to these policies as they think they are.

Polarization is not symmetrical. For decades the Republicans have being moving farther to the right and have dragged the Democrats after them in a desperate effort to find some type of "consensus" or middle ground. What does the empirical data tell us about this?

Some data from the 2016 campaign is very instructive here. There is research looking at how Democrats and Republicans feel about each other, and also how they feel about the social groups that are aligned with each party. It shows that Democrats and Republicans really don't like each other at all. But if you look at partisan feelings towards the groups that make up the other side -- for example, this would be whites, Christians, evangelicals, police and men for Republicans. For Democrats this would include gays and lesbians, blacks, Hispanics and activists, among a long list of people.

What we found is that Democrats don't dislike the groups that make up the Republican Party as much as Republicans dislike the groups that make up the Democratic Party. This helps to explain why there is so much anger from Republicans, because every group associated with the Democratic Party is a groups they do not like. Because of the nature of the respective parties, Democrats practice tolerance a lot more than Republicans are forced to practice it.

What are some solutions to this problem of extreme political polarization around social identities?

First we need to tone down the "winning versus losing" coverage of legislation. Framing things that way just makes matters worse. If we actually were more focused on what the government is supposed to do, rather than who's going to win, that would be helpful for our government and society. The "greater good" needs to be emphasized.

We also need to find some new shared identities between Democrats and Republicans. This makes the other side seem a bit more human. One way to do that is by having actual social contact with people from your "out group." You can see sympathetic members of the group on television and that can increase your tolerance.

We can also try to get people exposed to others who are not like them -- but by doing this in a non-political way. Do some service or volunteering together, form friendships, find shared interests.

In the abstract that sounds compelling, but what about this particular moment in America where you have an authoritarian president who is breaking up families of nonwhite immigrants, inspiring hate crimes and violence and encouraging horrible behavior by his followers? I have argued that people of conscience should no longer communicate with Trump supporters and anyone who has not renounced him. This includes family members and friends. There must be moral accountability.

I would add some caveats. People who are in danger by contacting someone who hates them should not be doing this. So, generally, marginalized groups should probably not be the first ones to reach out in this way. The second caveat is that the people who most need to do this are the people who are the least likely to do it. It really requires not just contact, but also some motivation to try to fight this type of thinking. Without motivation, it doesn't work as well, but the people who need it the most are the least motivated to use it.

So that is a major problem, and really it's going to require more work from the right than the left at this point because the right is the party of high-status groups that are in power. This would be white Christian men. They're the ones who have to reach out. They can't rely on people who are feeling vulnerable to necessarily do that work for them. Members of the high-status group are also the ones who are the least interested in reaching out. Why would they reach out? They would perceive it as challenging their power. Why would they try to ruin that?

What worries you the most about how political identity is so deeply intertwined with social identity in the United States?

I don't really believe that any of the solutions that I told you about are going to happen. It's very hard. The last chapter of my book is called “Can we fix it?” and I almost titled it “Seven unlikely scenarios.” I am worried that this process is not going to stop anytime soon, and that the worse it gets, the more divided we get, the less we can compromise, the more we actually undermine democracy. It could be extremely damaging to the country.

I'm worried about violent conflict between Democrats and Republicans at some point. I haven't seen anything that's stopping that outcome yet. As long as the current crop of voters is out there it seems like there's just a lot of bad stuff brewing. I'm hoping we can find a way to cool it down. The first step is to diagnosis the illness. That's what we're trying to do now and hopefully that can lead to some type of better outcome.

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Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Follow him on Twitter.