[This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in mid-June, 2023]
Calling America’s problem “polarization” obscures the central reality of our situation: the division we see should be understood as the result of one side drifting away from the rest of America.
This widening gulf — between the Republican Party and the nation as a whole – is visible in several ways.
Like in the poll numbers on a wide array of issues.
On abortion, the Republican base and their leaders lean strongly toward a position that is rejected by two-thirds of the nation. “Two-thirds” means that the American middle is not close to evenly split: the main part of America has not wanted Roe v. Wade to be overturned, and opposes the Republican drive to use government to enforce bans on abortion.
On guns, big American majorities want gun laws that the Republicans – the base, the Republican-controlled state legislatures, and the Republican-controlled Supreme Court — are preventing from being enacted.
Name any major issue, and there’s a good chance that polls will show that both the Republican world is pushing in a direction opposite to what substantial majorities of the American electorate wants.
Republican positions, moreover, — no universal background checks for guns, block action against climate change, continual challenge to a legitimate election that’s well into the rear-view mirror, etc. — look extreme not only in relation to the American mainland but also in comparison with the policies of other advanced democracies.
By contrast, the positions of the American majority on those issues would be regarded as reasonable and moderate by observers from our peer nations.
If the 2022 Election showed anything, it showed that MAGA-type positions and conduct that are required by the Republican base are rejected by the American majority.
“Polarization” clearly misrepresents the major dynamic at work in American politics. More accurate is to say that the “extreme” party has gone off the deep end, which has put it in conflict with the majority of the country that has remained relatively sane.
That pattern of Republicans becoming an island of extremism breaking away from the American mainland seems likely to repeat itself with respect to what looks like it might be the main political issue between now and the 2024 election: the battle between Donald Trump and the Rule of Law.
That battle is joined in many venues, and it is intensifying.
- Trump has already been indicted in New York for crimes connected with his payment of hush money to a porn star, and he’s already been found guilty of sexual assault and defamation in a civil trial.
- The former President has just been indicted for violations of the Espionage Act, deliberate and repeated crimes that seriously jeopardize American national security.
- Further indictments seem virtually certain to come in from Georgia and the Special Prosecutor for crimes committed to overturn a legitimate election, including by attempting a coup d’etat.
In what happened already with the New York indictment, we can see a likely preview of the Republican base parting ways with America at large about Trump’s criminality. As I wrote in a recent piece (“Whom the Gods…”),
In the wake of Trump’s Manhattan indictment, the Republican base — and Republican officials — rallied around him. Meanwhile, Trump’s indictment — by a grand jury of regular citizens — weakened Trump with the American public at large. (Only 25% of Americans now see Trump in a positive light.)
Back before the 2016 Election, Trump famously declared that he could “shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue” and not lose his support. The evidence has continued to support Trump’s brilliant insight. Trump’s base was not moved by the masterful presentation by the 1/6 Committee of Trump’s criminal efforts to hold onto power.
Trump has repeatedly done the equivalent of shooting someone on Fifth Avenue – right before our eyes – and covered it over with lies. And his base at least claims to believe him.
Three-fourths of the Republican base told pollsters they believed Trump’s big Lie about the Election being stolen. Which suggests that no matter how fully the Rule of Law exposes Trump’s criminality, Trump’s supporters will affirm the obvious falsehood that it’s all just a “Witch hunt!”
But, as the Force of the Rule of Law paints the vivid picture of Trump committing crime – assaulting the Constitution, endangering national security – Trump’s still-loyal base will likely become still more isolated from the repulsed electorate as a whole.
On the one side, will be the main part of the Republican Party – either believing or pretending to believe that Trump is being persecuted. On the other, the American majority will be likely be repelled by what the American system of justice reveals about this dangerous man.
So a major point of political conflict, in the coming year and a half, will be between
- an America majority that supports things like “the Rule of Law,” the constitutional order, and government that focuses on getting things accomplished for the good of the nation, and
- a minority that supports a leader who, in his contempt for the Constitution, has pushed to make ours the opposite of a “nation of laws, not of men,” and focuses on the politics of perpetual combat and the cultivation of grievance.
In what political universe does it make sense to talk about such conflict in terms of “polarization”?