Events since the 2020 presidential election have led many to fear for the future of democracy in the United States. I share the view that democracy is in trouble, not just here but around the world, but not because of anything related to the last presidential election. As I wrote in my last test, nor the coup attempt inspired and encouraged by former President Trump, nor the high-profile polls that purport to show high levels of Republican support for violence to achieve political goals, nor the many voting restrictions enacted mainly in Republican states after the election have had or will have little or no effect on democracy in that country. I don’t see how something can be a threat if it probably won’t have any impact.
However, this does not mean that these events are unimportant. On the contrary, they matter a lot, but not for the reasons that people imagine. They are a consequence and a cause of the sickening tendency of American society to conceive of all social problems as existential tribal grievances. Like I described beforevirtually every attempt at political persuasion and media propaganda in this country sticks to a sadly familiar, three-step scenario. First, the event is presented as a life or death threat to something dear to the listener. It can be something intangible or symbolic, like ‘freedom’, a ‘way of life’ or ‘our most sacred values’, or it can be something very real, like a job or life values. property. Then, danger is attributed to the deliberate misdeeds of an identifiable person or group, which are imagined not as clumsy and incompetent (and therefore safely ignored), but as organized, well-funded, disciplined, and relentless. This concentrates the anger and creates a unique focus on a particular target. And finally, a simple solution is proposed which, hop-chango, promises to fix everything. Vote Democrat (or Republican). Buy a weapon. Prosecute Trump. Send money.
This tribal blame machine is entirely bipartisan. In denouncing former President Trump, the attacks usually come from the political left, but no one can match the propaganda machinery of some actors on the political right. Take, for example, the attacks broadcast by the NRA in 2008 during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. The arms lobby sworn he would be “the most anti-gun president in American history” who would support “a huge new tax on [your] guns and ammunition. An ad featured a veteran: “I served my country on the battlefield to protect our freedoms. It is out of the question that I vote for a president who will win them. Another featured a Michigan hunter reacting to Obama’s remark that some working-class voters cling to guns and religion because they’re “bitter.” “Because I believe in traditional American values, go to church, exercise my right to own a gun, Barack Obama says I’m bitter. Well, I’m not bitter, I’m blessed. And each ad ended with the simple solution: “Defend freedom. Defeat Obama.” These ads had it all: real and symbolic threats, a single target, and a simple solution.
The blame machine wreaks havoc on both the individual and society. To begin with, it produces enormous stress. Those who spend their days certain that their dearest values weigh no more solidly than the sword of Damocles endure a truly tormented life. Even before the pandemic, an ever-increasing proportion of Americans said extremely high stress levels, and things have only gotten worse over the past two and a half years. In 2020, more than three in four Americans said worries about the nation’s future were “a major source of stress,” nearly seven in ten said the same about the current political climate, and more than seven in ten thought it was the lowest point in the nation’s history that they could remember. And it was before the inflation crisis and the war in Ukraine. In 2022, nearly 90% of Americans said they felt like they had lived “a constant stream of crises continuously for the past two years.
Of course, many would insist that We have been through one crisis after another, and that the problem is not with the packaging that explains our reality but with reality itself. I do not neglect for a minute the very real problems that we have faced and continue to face. COVID-19 and inflation, to name just two, are facts of life today. But separating the problem from its packaging is not so simple. Social problems don’t just exist; our knowledge of them comes from the ubiquitous tribal blame machine, from which they emerge twisted and distorted, sometimes bearing only a distant resemblance to reality. Anyone in doubt need only recall the mask and vaccine wars of the past two years. COVID-19 is very real, but for many Americans, the nature of the threat cannot be separated from the tribalism that brings the threat to their ears. And what’s true for COVID-19 is true for all of our most pressing issues, from rising crime to rising prices. I cannot consider any existing social problem in public life as an unfiltered reality; if you can think of one, let me know.
And that brings us to the second, equally serious effect of presenting it all as an existential tribal grievance: the problems are misunderstood. It is one of the most enduring characteristics of human existence that “we” tend to be abyssal judges of “them”. In terms of democracy, the effect of this distortion can be catastrophic. As a group of political scientists recently describe, “supporters, Democrats and Republicans, tend to overestimate the extremism of their political opponents”. That’s bad enough, but even more troubling is the fact that “such overstatement is associated with the willingness to take or support extreme action oneself.” To research showsfor example, “that supporters who underestimate their opponents’ support for democratic principles are more likely to support anti-democratic practices and violations of democratic norms. Similarly, supporters who overestimate rival supporters’ support for violence report greater willingness to engage in violence.”
Building on this literature, other researchers studying what they call the “perception gap” have found, unsurprisingly, that the left and right supporters most attentive to media coverage are those who are most obviously uninformed about their political oppositions: “People who said they read the news ‘most of the time’ were close to three times more distorted in their perceptions than those who said they read the news “only once in a while.” anti-democratic behavior. As psychologists Joachim Krueger and Theresa DiDonato eloquently put it over a decade ago, “The price of social identity is the loss of a neutral perspective.”
It is also not difficult to see how this distortion occurs. More than anything, the blame machine makes people angry. For years, researchers have studied how anger influences behavior. In accordance with the lesson of universal experience, the researchers found that angry people are reluctant to make the “cognitive effort” necessary to understand complex problems. Instead, anger “provokes [mental] processes and the use of heuristic cues to make snap judgements. Those who are angry tend to engage in “motivated reasoning, in which misinformation consistent with prior beliefs is more likely to be accepted, and contradictory information is more likely to be rejected.” When you’re angry, you’re more likely to “interpret information in a partisan way and feel the reinforcement of previous beliefs and affiliations.” Angry people are less likely to compromise and forgive and more inclined to punish and control. And as anyone who’s spent five minutes on Twitter can attest, those who are angry are often hostile and rude.
No one should misunderstand what I’m saying. The January 6 assault on the Capitol was a mistake. Its objective – to thwart the will of the electorate through violence and intimidation – was patently undemocratic. Like any serious moral and legal fault, it requires an appropriate response. But a mature democracy cannot get that answer without a fair, sober, and unbiased assessment of the facts, without hyperbole or pot-banging. Unfortunately, the Tribal Blaming Machine makes this assessment nearly impossible. Instead, it causes personal distress and a social distortion that intensifies division and hampers deliberation. And as with the assault on the Capitol, so with each of the many problems we face: We are not moving slowly toward solutions by pushing each other aside.
Even at the best of times, democracy is difficult. And these are not the best times. The question is whether we are ready to preserve our democracy.