POST-ELECTION VIEW-Biden won — so Trump seems to be attempting a coup. And meanwhile, this election has revealed just how bitterly, painfully divided America really is.
So much so that “divided” — the word that pundits have come to use — is an understatement and mischaracterization. The truth is that America’s undergoing what might better be called “social fracture” — it is a society that is badly broken as a society, as a group of people with shared values, especially modern and civilized ones. Americans no longer seem to have those left in common.
What did the election reveal? That American society is fractured along three lines, which seem to be rifts. The first is obviously race. Whites, who are still a massive majority, close to 80% of Americans, voted for Trump, in their majority. Much is made of the fact that more minorities voted for Trump, but not only is that secondary, it’s a convenient diversion to prevent white people from reckoning with itself. Minorities won the election for Biden — while American whites voted for Trump at apparently exactly their historical average level, about 55%. To the rest of the world, by the way, that’s shocking.
The second is the rural/urban divide. Biden eked out a last-minute victory as mail-in ballots were counted in a handful of major cities. They’re what geographers tend to call “second cities” — not necessarily elite centers, like Manhattan, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, but Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and so on. But cross the line into the countryside, and votes changed sharply for Trump. While first cities voted across the board for Biden, and second cities shifted to vote for Biden, Trump swept rural areas, whether counties, towns, or hamlets. The rift among ruralites and urbanites is stark and as sharp as the edge of a knife.
Then there’s education. Biden won by large margins among those with higher education, while Trump still swept those who lack it. This divide, too, is super sharp. The educated can’t abide Trump, while the less educated can’t tolerate Biden.
Let’s crystallize all that. America’s a society fracturing along three lines: race, education, and geography. Rural whites with less education supported Trump by large margins — despite the horrors of the last four years. That “despite” is key — because this was not a normal election, after a normal Presidency. Trump seems to have abused his power in every way imaginable, with plenty of help from the GOP — America became, in the eyes of most of the rest of the world, a society having a fascist collapse, replete with camps, bans, raids, purges, hate, demonization, Gestapos, and so forth. The only people who didn’t understand this, sadly, were white Americans — even educated liberals — which is why Biden barely eked out a victory.
Now, it’s one thing when parties in a democracy “disagree” on policies — but share basic values. Like, for example, European ones — the notion that everyone deserves dignity, safety, security, and well-being. We can and often do disagree about how to get there. It’s perfectly normal in a democracy to disagree on means — but to stay a democracy, a society must at least share in common the idea that ends are inalienable and common to all.
So what happens if a society can’t agree on ends anymore? Then one party, one side, one group — usually the more extreme one — tries to force its chosen ends on everyone else. Bang — authoritarian collapse happens, as that side attempts to force their ends on everyone else, over and over again. That is how a democracy dies.
And it’s also exactly the story of America over the last few decades. That brings me the chart above. Take a hard look at it. It’s complex, but it’s important — if you really want to understand what’s going wrong in America. It’s by a group of scholars of democracy, mostly European — who are way, way ahead of their American counterparts.
Let me jump ahead to the conclusion. What the chart says, in summary, is that Republicans have become an authoritarian-leaning party, which has more in common with those that have actually led assaults against democracy, than one which supports democracy: “[The Republican Party’s] rhetoric is closer to authoritarian parties, such as AKP in Turkey and Fidesz in Hungary.”
Take some of the variables that V-Dem uses — I think they’re excellent choices. They’re on the right. Look also at the grey bars — they’re the positions of parties from around the world, all of it.
On aspects like “cultural superiority,” or “violates minority rights,” or “disrespects opponents,” or “encourages violence,” you can see from the chart that over the last two decades, the Republicans have swung further and further to the hard right. So far that by now they’re among the world’s most extreme political parties on many of these anti-democratic variables. Let me say it again — the GOP is among the world’s most extreme parties which are hostile to democracy.
What the chart gives us above is both evidence of and context for how badly American politics have collapsed. You can also see that — if you look at the orange bars — over the last two decades, the swing to the right by the GOP has been rapid and extreme. To be a party that supports democracy, you’d probably have to score less than the average on most or all of these indicators — but the GOP scores right below the average on just one.
American politics is in real trouble. You’re not being “alarmist” to think so. The GOP has grown more and more aggressive, hostile, and extreme, [[[ https://eand.co/how-republicans-sold-out-genuine-republicanism-to-capitalism-5cf143e8d41b ]]] to the point that it is now essentially an authoritarian party.
And that brings me back full circle. What happens when a society can’t agree on ends? One group — usually the more extreme one — tries to force its views on the rest. Bang. Democratic collapse. That’s the story of America. Now let me tell the rest of it.
Democrats, by and large, share the democratic values of democratic parties across much of the rest of the world. Go back to the chart. They don’t encourage violence, they don’t attack minority rights, they don’t espouse cultural superiority, and so on. They are not a perfect party by any means — they’re weak defenders of democracy at best. But they are still on democracy’s side.
What’s happened in America is that a large, large part of it — about half, which is white, rural, and undereducated — does not really want to live in a democracy anymore. They do not agree on the ends of a modern, civilized society. It seems they don’t agree, for example, that everyone should have personhood and dignity — how else would you vote for Trump, who demonizes every minority under the sun? It seems they don’t agree everyone should have basic public goods, like healthcare and retirement. It also seems that they don’t believe in the fundamental institutions of modern society, from science to reason to evidence to deliberation. They are ardent believers in and supporters of violence — why else would carrying guns to Starbucks matter more than kids not having to do “active shooter drills”? They also seem to believe that religious law should supersede civil law.
Not all of them believe all of that, of course. But as a group, in the majority, these are the things that this group of Americans appears to believe. And now we know something even more troubling.
Nothing appears capable of changing their minds.
When I say nothing, I mean nothing.
Not seeing kids in concentration camps.
Not their own lack of healthcare, retirement, pensions.
Not watching their owns kids’ lives go down the tubes, because America as a society can’t invest in anyone.
Not even COVID’s tsunami of mass death.
This group, rural undereducated whites, hasn’t changed its political preferences — at all. As far back as the data goes, they’ve been just the way they are: leaning Republican, heavily, which is to say, they’ve voted against everything from civil rights to desegregation to healthcare. The data, though, only goes back so far. Go back further than records were kept, and the ugly legacy of slavery quickly begins to rear its head.
This group of Americans appears totally incapable of change. That is why America is fracturing. They don’t want to live in a democracy, and they never have. They want to live in a religious-nationalist-ethno-state, where religious law prevails, nobody invests in anybody else, and the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest, is the only norm operant in a society where guns rule, and prayers are said by the pious. Most of the rest of the world would call that something like Iran by way of Russia.
Because they don’t want to live in a modern democracy, their side is left with no other choice than to grow more and more authoritarian over the years — until by now, the GOP is nakedly, aggressively authoritarian. That is what happens when one side can’t agree on the basic ends of a democratic society anymore.
Another way to think about that is: what it means to be a modern society has evolved and grown. Now, it’s generally accepted, in modern societies, for example, that LGBT people should have civil rights, that minorities shouldn’t be discriminated against whatsoever, that women should have precisely the same legal protections as men. None of that was true even a few decades ago. This group of Americans has grown more and more detached from the idea of modernity, as it’s evolved and grown, to the point where they are now openly and diametrically opposed to it. But you cannot be a democracy when you flatly rule out the ends of anything better for all, which is what this group of Americans is doing when they reject empowering anyone but themselves and their regressive, obsolete ideas.
When a society can’t agree on ends, it fractures. Democracy breaks down. The more extreme side turns authoritarian. That’s what happened in America. Trumpists — rural undereducated whites, but, and this is important to say, plenty of educated and rich ones too, don’t agree on the basic ends of democracy anymore. That everyone — everyone — should be equal in their pursuit of life, liberty, happiness. That maybe having healthcare and retirement and childcare and science and logic and education are necessary components of that pursuit. That maybe guns and religious law hinder that pursuit more than help it. This group of Americans will not agree with a modern, functioning democracy’s ends, never really have, and don’t appear capable of learning from anything, even mass death.
That’s a grim prognosis for a society. It leaves America with just three ways out of this mess. One, educate this group, since education reduces authoritarian tendencies. The problem of course is that they will turn down such education — just like the Taliban would. Second, connect them to cities, so there is more of a flow between population centers. Good luck getting a high-speed train network built in America. Three, outlive them — let demographic change take care of it. That’s often touted as a solution, but America’s about 80% white, and it’s going to take decades for demographic change to really be a solution to its political woes.
What does that mean? That America is a society that will keep on fracturing. It’s often said that there’s no reasoning with Trumpists, and that’s true, because they don’t believe in reason. Trump might be on his way out — but Trumpism is here to stay. White Americans, particularly undereducated and rural ones, but with plenty of support from rich city dwellers too, don’t want to live in a modern democracy. They seem to want a supremacist religious-nationalist state. That is why the GOP turned authoritarian — it was the only way, in the end, to force that on everyone else. And while Biden’s victory is good news, what the numbers above tell us is: the authoritarians won’t stop here.
(Umair Haque writes on Eudaimonia & Co which is posted on Medium. Image: Twitter. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.