Why Losing Political Power Now Feels Like ‘Losing Your Country’

Is partisan hostility so deeply enmeshed in American politics that it cannot be rooted out?

Will Donald Trump institutionalize democratic backsliding — the rejection of adverse election results, the demonization of minorities and the use of the federal government to punish opponents — as a fixture of American politics?

The literature of polarization suggests that partisan antipathy has become deeply entrenched and increasingly resistant to amelioration.

“Human brains are constantly scanning for threats to in-groups,” Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a September 2023 essay, “Polarization, Democracy, and Political Violence in the United States: What the Research Says.”

“As people affectively polarize, they appear to blow out-group threats out of proportion, exaggerating the out-group’s dislike and disgust for their own group, and getting ready to defend their in-group, sometimes aggressively,” Kleinfeld argues.

Kleinfeld acknowledges that “a number of interventions have been shown in lab settings, games, and short experiments to reduce affective intervention in the short term,” but, she is quick to caution, “reducing affective polarization through these lab experiments and games has not been shown to affect regular Americans’ support for antidemocratic candidates, support for antidemocratic behaviors, voting behavior, or support for political violence.”

Taking her argument a step further, Kleinfeld writes:

Yphtach Lelkes, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, succinctly described by email the hurdles facing proposed remedies for polarization and anti-democratic trends:

The reality, Lelkes continued, is that “a fish rots from the head, and political elites are driving any democratic backsliding that is occurring in America. Most Republican voters do not support the anti-democratic policies and practices of their elected officials.”

The level of public support for democratic institutions will be a crucial factor in the 2024 elections. President Biden is campaigning on the theme that Trump and his MAGA allies are intent on strengthening authoritarian leadership at the expense of democracy.

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