In some ways, the attack should’ve been a wake-up call, and an opportunity for Republican voters and their leaders to distance themselves from Donald Trump. After all, a sitting president had exhorted his acolytes to lay siege to the US Capitol and overturn the results of an election.
Yet more than a year after the breach, the potential for violent political struggle has hardly receded — and that’s at least in part because of the state of partisanship in the US.
While the Democratic Party is “a pluralistic multiracial party,” Kalmoe and Mason continue, the GOP “has been overtaken by those who long for the stricter racial hierarchies of the old white South, who envision a Christian theocracy, and who steer government benefits to the rich.”
Little wonder, then, that so many experts warn against downplaying the possibility of fresh political violence.
To further discuss present-day partisanship and its effects, I spoke with Mason, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University’s SNF Agora Institute. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
In the book, you and Nathan P. Kalmoe argue that it was easy for Donald Trump to incite an insurrection because of how the bases of the country’s two main political parties are divided. Could you describe these divisions a bit more?
Part of the reason that partisan animosity between Democrats and Republicans is so terrible right now is because what the parties are fighting over are really matters of racial and gender equality — the traditional social hierarchy — and whether we’re going to go back to being a country where White Christian men were always at the top of that hierarchy or become a more egalitarian, multiethnic democracy.
What we found in our data was that, particularly on the right, Republicans who really hated Democrats the most were also the highest in racial resentment and sexism. And those who hated Democrats the least were those who were lowest in racial resentment and sexism. Actually, in our data, racial resentment is one of the most powerful predictors of Republicans hating Democrats.
The reason I think that matters is that in general, as a country, we haven’t been very good at talking about racism or sexism in a nonviolent and calm and collected way.
How do people become radical partisans?
We think about it in two different ways. The first is what we call “moral disengagement,” which is basically vilifying and dehumanizing people in the other party. And we look at that because in other places and in other contexts, these vilifying and dehumanizing beliefs tend to precede mass violence. Whenever there’s a mass violent event between groups of people, that usually happens after people have already decided that people in the other group are evil and subhuman. That’s one set of attitudes that we think of as a warning sign.
We’ve also just explicitly asked, “To what extent do you think that it’s acceptable to use violence to achieve political goals?” That’s less of a warning sign and more actually the real thing. And what we’re seeing is that increasing numbers of American partisans believe that violence is sometimes acceptable when they’re trying to achieve political outcomes. Not all those people are going to participate in violence. They just approve of it. But what that approval does is create a social environment around them where if they know somebody who might be more unstable and participate in violence, they’re hearing fewer people say that’s not acceptable.
Political leader rhetoric is really, really important. And what we found repeatedly across multiple studies is that just having people read a statement from Joe Biden or Trump that says, “Violence is never acceptable” or something like that reduces people’s approval of violence. And all they have to do is just read a sentence from Biden or Trump. Republicans are more responsive to Trump, but they’re actually also responsive to Biden. What we need, in particular, is more leaders reminding people that violence is not part of a functioning democracy. It doesn’t fit with the peaceful transition of power — one of the required elements of democracy.
How do we confront these democratic threats?
One of the things that happened during Trump’s presidency, and even the campaign in 2016, was that we saw norms shifting. Whereas previously politicians wouldn’t, in general, say explicitly racist or sexist things in public, Trump decided to just start doing that and therefore kind of broke the norms around how we talk about our fellow Americans. He also kind of changed the norms around questions of: What does it mean to be a responsible member of a democracy? How do we engage one other? What kind of respect do we owe one another? All of those norms kind of went out the window. When leaders undermine norms, it can have a really large effect, because norms aren’t institutionalized. There’s no law about them. The only way norms are enforced is through social pressure. If you break norms, you know that because the people around you tell you that you shouldn’t do that. You get sanctioned by the people you rely on for your social life. So, if the leader stops enforcing those norms, then the followers stop enforcing those norms, and then the norms can actually just disappear.
Once we see leaders modeling behavior that’s no longer respectful or thoughtful or responsible, we end up with a huge number of Americans who no longer believe that it’s their responsibility to be respectful or thoughtful or responsible when they engage their fellow Americans. In fact, one of the things that came out of MAGA fans is this division over who gets to be an American: Certain people deserve your respect, while other Americans, particularly people who tend to come from marginalized groups, don’t deserve it. They don’t count as Americans.
What should we keep in mind as the public hearings unfold?
It’s very clear that Trump is trying to dissuade his supporters from paying attention to the hearings at all. That’s likely because there will be some relatively compelling information that comes out of them. One of the things that happened after January 6 was that the Republican Party tried to minimize it in every way possible: It wasn’t Trump supporters; it was Antifa. Or: It wasn’t actually violent. Or: It was just tourists walking around. There were multiple approaches to trying to minimize it. But Republicans were doing that because they knew that it was extremely damaging for them, as a party, to have a mob of partisans from one party violently attack the seat of US government. That’s why they’ve been really pushing their supporters not to pay attention to it.
What we know from our data is that the faction of Americans who really like Trump and are really intolerant of other Americans is about 30% of the country. Even if they watch the hearings, the people in that group probably won’t change their minds. But perhaps bringing January 6 up again will remind everyone else — the 70% of America — that this was a really dangerous event. And it wasn’t inevitable that Biden would be inaugurated. It was very, very uncertain. Reminding Americans of that is an important thing to do because if we stop remembering what the stakes are, we take politics less seriously, and we’re at a precarious moment in terms of the persistence of a democratic system of government.