Events since the presidential election of 2020 have led a great many people to fear for the future of democracy in the United States. I share the view that democracy is in trouble, not just here but worldwide, but not because of anything connected to the last presidential election. As I wrote in my last essay, neither the attempted coup inspired and encouraged by former President Trump, the much-ballyhooed polling that purports to show high levels of Republican support for violence to achieve political goals, nor the many restrictions on voting passed primarily in Republican states after the election have had or will have much if any effect on democracy in this country. I fail to see how something can be a threat if it will have no likely impact.
Yet that doesn’t mean these events are unimportant. On the contrary, they matter a great deal, though not for the reasons people imagine. They are a consequence and a cause of the sickening tendency in American society to conceive all social problems as existential tribal grievances. As I described before, virtually every attempt at political persuasion and media propaganda in this country sticks to a drearily familiar, three-step script. First, the event is cast as a life-or-death threat to something the listener holds dear. This could be something intangible or symbolic, like “freedom,” a “way of life,” or “our most sacred values,” or it could be something very real, like a job or property values. Next, the danger is traced to the willful misdeeds of an identifiable person or group, who are imagined not as bumbling and incompetent (and therefore safely ignored) but as organized, well-funded, disciplined and relentless. This concentrates the anger and creates a single-minded focus on a particular target. And finally, a simple solution is put forward that, presto-chango, promises to make everything better. Vote Democratic (or Republican). Buy a gun. Prosecute Trump. Send money.
This tribal blame machine is entirely bipartisan. In the denunciation of former President Trump, the attacks come generally from the political left but nobody can match the propaganda machinery of some actors on the political right. Consider, for instance, the attacks aired by the NRA in 2008 during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. The gun lobby vowed he’d be “the most anti-gun president in American history” who would support “a huge new tax on [your] guns and ammo.” One ad featured a veteran: “I served my country on the battlefield to protect our freedoms. There’s no way I’m voting for a president who will take them away.” Another featured a Michigan hunter reacting to Obama’s remark that some working-class voters cling to guns and religion because they are “bitter.” “Because I believe in traditional American values, go to church, exercise my right to own a firearm, Barack Obama says I’m bitter. Well I’m not bitter, I’m blessed.” And every 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 takes a terrible toll, both on the individual and on society. To begin with, it produces enormous stress. Those who spend their days certain that their most cherished values hang no more securely than the Sword of Damocles endure a truly tormented life. Even before the pandemic, a steadily increasing proportion of Americans reported exceedingly high levels of stress, and things have only gotten worse in the last two and a half years. In 2020, more than three in four Americans said that worries about the nation’s future were “a significant source of stress,” nearly seven in ten said the same of the current political climate, and more than seven in ten thought this was the lowest point in the nation’s history that they could remember. And this was before the inflation crisis and the war in Ukraine. In 2022, nearly 90 percent of Americans said it felt as though they had lived through “a constant stream of crises without a break over the last two years.”
Of course, many would insist that we have lived through one crisis after another, and that the problem is not with the packaging that explains our reality but with the reality itself. I do not for a minute discount the very real problems we have confronted and continue to confront. COVID-19 and inflation, to name only two, are realities of current life. But separating the problem from its packaging is not that straightforward. Social problems do not simply exist; our knowledge of them comes from the ubiquitous tribal blame machine, from which they emerge twisted and misshapen, sometimes bearing only a distant resemblance to reality. Anyone who doubts this need only recall the mask and vaccine wars of the last two years. COVID-19 is very real, but for a great many Americans, the nature of the threat cannot be separated from the tribalism that brings the threat to their ears. And what is true for COVID-19 is true for all our most pressing problems, from rising crime to rising prices. I cannot think of any social problem that exists in public life as an unfiltered reality; if you can think of one, let me know.
And this gets us to the second, equally serious effect of casting everything as an existential tribal grievance: problems are badly misperceived. It is one of the most enduring features of human existence that “we” tend to be abysmal judges of “them.” When it comes to democracy, the effect of this distortion can be catastrophic. As a group of political scientists recently described, “partisans—Democrats and Republicans alike—tend to overestimate the extremism of their political adversaries.” This is bad enough, but even more disturbing is the fact that “such overestimation is associated with willingness to take, or support, extreme action oneself.” Research shows, for instance, “that partisans who underestimate their opponents’ support for democratic principles are more likely to support anti-democratic practices and violations of democratic norms. Similarly, partisans who overestimate rival partisans’ support for violence report greater willingness to engage in violence.”
Building on this literature, other researchers who study what they call “the perception gap” have found, unsurprisingly, that the partisans on the left and right who attend most closely to media coverage are those who are most egregiously misinformed about their political opposites: “People who said they read the news ‘most of the time’ were nearly three times more distorted in their perceptions than those who said they read the news ‘only now and then.’” In other words, those who consume the largest diet of news packaged as existential tribal threat are both the most misguided about their opponents and the most willing to support anti-democratic behavior. As the psychologists Joachim Krueger and Theresa DiDonato eloquently put it more than a decade ago, “The price of social identity is the loss of a neutral perspective.”
Nor is it hard to see how this distortion occurs. More than anything, the blame machine makes people angry. For years, scholars have studied how anger influences behavior. Consistent with the lesson of universal experience, researchers have found that angry people are disinclined to make the “cognitive effort” required to understand complex issues. Instead, anger “elicits simpler [mental] processes and reliance on heuristic cues to make snap judgments.” 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 will tend to be rejected.” When you are angry, you are more likely “to interpret information in a partisan manner and experience reinforcement of prior-held beliefs and affiliations.” Angry people are less inclined to compromise and forgive and more inclined to punish and control. And as anyone who has spent five minutes on Twitter can attest, those who are angry are often hostile and rude.
No one should misunderstand what I am saying. The January 6 assault on the Capitol was wrong. Its goal—to thwart the will of the electorate by violence and intimidation—was obviously anti-democratic. Like any grave moral and legal wrong, it demands an appropriate response. But a mature democracy cannot achieve that response without a fair, sober, even-handed appraisal of the facts, free from hyperbole and pot-banging. Sadly, the tribal blame machine renders that appraisal all but impossible. Instead, it causes personal distress and social distortion that intensifies division and impedes deliberation. And as with the assault on the Capitol, so with each of the many problems we face: we do not inch toward solutions by driving each other apart.
Even in the best of times, democracy is hard. And these are not the best of times. Whether we are prepared to preserve our democracy remains to be seen.