On the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, our panelists examine polarization in the United States and the threats it poses to U.S. democracy.
This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.
CFR’s Renewing America initiative shines a spotlight on the domestic underpinnings of U.S. competitiveness to find ways to bolster U.S. international strength and influence. This project is made possible by the generous support of the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation.
SORKIN: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “The Growing Divide—Polarization in the United States.” I’m Amy Davidson Sorkin, a staff writer at the New Yorker. And I will be presiding over today’s discussion. This meeting is part of CFR’s Diamonstein-Spielvogel Foundation Project on the Future of Democracy and it’s also part of the CFR—of CFR’s Renewing America Series, which shines a spotlight on the domestic underpinnings of U.S. competitiveness to find ways to foster U.S. international strength and influence.
And we have three great speakers. You have their full bios, so I’ll be quick. We have Edward Foley, or Ned, the chair in constitutional law and director of election law at Ohio State University; Barton Gellman, staff writer at the Atlantic magazine; and Lilliana Mason, Lilly, associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins. Welcome to you all.
It strikes me that we could have had a meeting on this theme, polarization, five or even ten years ago, because the sense that there is a divide and that it’s growing is not new. But we’re here on the anniversary of the January 6th assault on the Capitol, which can’t help but shape our conversation and also makes it more urgent. Elections have consequences. Divides have consequences as well. So, Lilly, let me start with you, as a political scientist, for some grounding on how we’ve got here. What is this divide? And what do we mean by polarization? What are the poles? What draws or drives Americans to them? One thing I’m interested in is you’ve written about the emergence of what you call “mega-identity.” So what is that?
MASON: Yeah. So most of the research has actually shown that Americans are not really polarized in terms of what they—what they’d prefer government to do. So their policy preferences are not very extreme and they’re not very far apart. And that is true even today. The issue is that they really dislike one another. Democrats and Republicans dislike one another. And even increasingly now are vilifying, dehumanizing one another, agreeing to engage in violence against one another. And this is not rooted in policy disputes, even though a lot of people feel like it is or think that it is.
But in fact, it’s really related to this decades-long process where the two parties have become very socially and culturally and even geographically divided from one another, so that when—you know, when we have an election, which is a regularly scheduled status competition—in sort of the traditional way of thinking about it the outcome of the election is that your party wins or loses that election. But when we start to begin to attach racial, religious, cultural identities to our parties, then all of that becomes roped into the election and so we start having racial, religious, cultural winners and losers as outcomes of elections.
And that makes everyone much more emotionally engaged. It makes everyone much more angry when they lose. And it creates a lot of vitriol between partisans that isn’t rooted in any type of disagreement, but instead this really sort of primal sense of status threat that accompanies every single election and, increasingly, every single piece of legislation.
SORKIN: Could you talk about that in slightly more concrete terms? Like, who do the Democrats and Republicans you’re talking about think the others are? And do the policies things really not matter? Guns, reproductive rights, things like that?
MASON: Yeah. So increasingly the divide between the parties has become over not necessarily a single policy but instead a view of, you know, first of all, is the traditional social hierarchy in American society just? Is it good? Is it necessary? Does it still exist, and do we need to do more to make a more egalitarian society? So, you know, even just going—thinking about the way that these identities sorted into partisan categories, this whole process really started after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, when Southern, White, conservative Democrats became disaffected and gradually, over a generation, left the Democratic Party, becoming reliably Republican. And what that did was create a Republican Party that is much more White, much more conservative, Christian, rural, male—sort of these categories that we tend to think of as traditionally high-status categories in American society. And leaving the Democratic Party as basically a diverse, and urban, and female, and educated, et cetera.
So one of the central issues then between the parties has become, first of all, you know, is there systemic racism that is holding, for instance, Black Americans back from the full success that they could achieve in American society? Do women have the full rights that—you know, full equal rights that they, under the Constitution, deserve? You know, are marginalized groups supposed to have the, you know, sort of full protection of the laws of the United States? Or—and, you know, that’s sort of the Democratic Party’s side of the argument, is that that we should be pushing towards more equality, we should be pushing towards a more egalitarian, multiracial, multiethnic democracy.
Or we have sort of, on the Republican side, this idea that we’ve gone way too far in that direction. We don’t need to make any more progress. And that it actually harms people who used to be sort of high-status groups. By creating sort of more egalitarian democracy, we’re actually harming people who were previously at the top of the social hierarchy. So that’s the type of debate that there is no compromise place on. It’s either one or the other.
SORKIN: Bart, maybe bring us to January 6th. And you wrote a very provocative and great piece for the Atlantic last month in which you really sort of portrayed January 6th not as a one-off, but as a rehearsal for the next chapter in American political life. The thing that underlies that argument, it seems to me, the idea that one of the fundamental beliefs of the kind that Lilly is talking about is that the election was stolen. In other words, January 6th isn’t just a flare up, but it’s a point of polarization. It’s how people are identifying now. Do you believe that that happened or don’t you? Is that—is that what you’re seeing?
GELLMAN: January 6th is symbolic now on both sides of the divide, but not the main cause of polarization. Attitudes are polarized around January 6th because they’re polarized in other respects. But there are two main through-lines—this article that I’ve just done for the Atlantic—which is—one is that we have now seen the development again—for the first time in about a century—of a potentially violent mass movement, a political mass movement that accepts violence as one of its tenets.
And so the data show there are tens of millions of Americans who believe both that the election was stolen and that Biden’s presidency is illegitimate, and that violence is justified to return Donald Trump to power. Those are horrifically subversive of democratic institutions and democratic culture. And we really do increasingly have one party that accepts democratic principles, small D, and one that does not—that is not prepared to lose an election without claiming that the election’s been stolen.
And the other through-line, though, is that Republican operatives around the country have studied Trump’s attempt to overthrow the valid results of a national election and looked for points of failure everywhere that he came close but was thwarted and are systematically uprooting those obstacles. And so are changing laws in states. They are doing more to empower state legislatures in Republican-controlled states to overturn the results of elections in those states. They are looking for the—
SORKIN: When you say “they,” who are “they”? Who are “they,” you know, to talk about—
GELLMAN: We’re talking about—we’re talking about elected officials and party functionaries throughout the states. It’s a distributed, decentralized effort that’s being made. I mean, Donald Trump personally is working hard to remove politicians who questioned whether he actually won the election and to endorse people who are running on the platform that the results should have been overturned. But you also have party functionaries who are, for example, the—you know, you have—the state party in Wyoming has disowned Liz Cheney and is supporting a challenger. And she may lose her seat. She’s already lost her leadership position.
It’ll take—I mean, look at what happened in Georgia. Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state, who famously resisted enormous pressure direct from Trump that he find votes for Trump and overturn the verdict of the voters in Georgia. He refused. What’s happened since? Trump has endorsed a challenger to primary him. Meanwhile, the state legislature has changed the law so that he no longer has a vote in supervising the results of an election. If the 2020 election would have happened under current Georgia law, Raffensperger would not have been able to hold the line because he would have had no say in certifying the count. And then, for good measure, the state legislature has created a new board that oversees the county election supervisors and is allowed to fire county election supervisors if it doesn’t like the way they’re working. And so—and the conversation has been specifically about Fulton County, which is Atlanta and a Democratic stronghold.
SORKIN: You know, you had—there was one—you mentioned the poll that showed that a certain number of Republican respondents thought it was—violence to bring Donald Trump back into office was justified. One thing that was interesting was that you had—you talked in your piece about two versions of that poll, one that had sort of milder, more elliptical language and one that had more frank language. And would you explain what happened with that?
GELLMAN: Yeah. It was fascinating and unexpected. The poll was done in, I believe, April 1st. And the questions—there was a softer version of “the election was stolen.” And it asked whether you would be willing to go to a protest, even if it might turn violent. So softer. And about the equivalent of ten million Americans answered in the affirmative. When they sharpened the language to see what would happen, they expected that because of social desirability bias that people would be less likely to endorse violence when it was baldly stated. So this time they said: Is violence justified right now to restore Trump to power? And now you had twenty, twenty-one million people who endorsed that. They’re so angry that they prefer the stronger version. They want to say, yeah, let’s go do it.
SORKIN: So I guess the two messages there, to sum up our first, if you think January 6th is over and you think it’s only a very, very small, embittered, hard, marginalized nub of people, that you should maybe put aside both of those assumptions?
GELLMAN: Yeah. This is—this is—political violence traditionally, in this country and around the world, has been conducted by young men in their twenties, disproportionately unemployed, low education, and so on. The only thing about that profile that fits the January 6th insurgents is that they were—nine out of ten of them were male. But their median age was forty-two, which is wildly out of sync with normal political violence. They were educated. They were employed. They were white-collar. It is a mass movement, not a small one. And it is—there’s a lot of dry kindling out there. And the next time Donald Trump summons them, they’ll know what to do.
SORKIN: Ned, your area is election law. You know, and the voting booth is supposed to be—(laughs)—where a lot of those passions get channeled, get shaped, get turned into, you know, the democratically functioning system. How are our election laws doing? How are they responding? How are they holding up?
FOLEY: Well, unfortunately, I think we’re seeing a failure in the exercise of majority rule within our constitutional framework right now, for reasons that we’ve been discussing. You know, this, you know, prevalence towards violence and refusal to abide by the results of a free and fair election is unfortunately a mass movement, as we’ve just been saying, but it’s not the majority preference of voters nationwide, or even in most of the battleground states. And the challenge here is how to do constructive, peaceful election contestation, given what Lilly was talking about. And I think Bart was right to focus on both Wyoming and Georgia as examples of what our problem is right now. You know, the dynamics of a party primary election, that the big lie can dominate at the moment, is different from the November general election. And there’s a gap there between the primary and the general election that’s depriving the November voters of their preferred candidate, in many instances.
So if Representative Liz Cheney fails to win the Wyoming Republican primary, that may be the preference of the party voters, but that doesn’t mean the November voters as a whole wouldn’t prefer her to the Trump-endorsed person who wins the primary. It’s the gatekeeping function, if you will, of the primary that is causing a disconnect with majority rule operating in the electoral process in November. So you can go to the voting booth as a voter in November, and the choice that you would most prefer might not be there. You might want to vote for Brad Raffensperger again in Georgia for secretary of state, you know, in November. But if he can’t win the primary, that choice isn’t there.
And so we think that our electoral system is sort of validating the will of the voters. But it’s not. It’s sending a false—a well-designed electoral system should be able to take the preferences that voters have and aggregate them into a result. And that is a challenge when you’ve got polarization that we’re talking about, and this us-versus-them kind of enemy that Lilly is talking about. That makes it harder, particularly when you layer on the big lie. But our system as an electoral system is not working because it’s not aggregating the preferences properly.
SORKIN: Well, what is—how would it do that? How could it? And how could it, both within what we have now and, you know, what do you need a constitutional amendment for, and what don’t you need a constitutional amendment for?
FOLEY: Yeah. So this can get somewhat technical. And happy to go drill down if you want to, but just to try to big-picture it a bit. So Alaska has got a new system that involves something called ranked-choice voting. Maine has a version of ranked-choice voting. New York City used this for its primary. So I think there’s getting to be greater familiarity what a ranked-choice ballot looks like and how it operates. And that has a big effect. That means Senator Lisa Murkowski, for example, can ward off a primary fight under the new Alaska system, that would be of great advantageous—you know, if Liz Cheney had that, she would also have the similar advantage. But she doesn’t. So the difference between the new Alaska system and the old Wyoming system is huge, given the same set of voter preferences in each state.
So, you know, Congress can’t legislation—or, is unlikely to legislate a one-size-fits-all solution in this regard. It wouldn’t take a constitutional amendment. Congress has some power to exercise here. But for reasons of federalism and the fact that we tend to rely on state law, you know, we should be cautious about, you know, taking the Alaska system and just saying: Every state should do what Alaska does. But there are different versions of ranked-choice voting. There are different versions of majority preferences.
What most Americans don’t understand is our basic electoral system doesn’t actually call for majority rule in elections. We have something called plurality winners, which means you just have to get the most votes. You don’t need to be a majority. And it’s the structural nature of that system, combined with party primaries, that can knock out a popular incumbent—like, for example, Senator Rob Portman in Ohio is—you know, he’s not a big lie Republican. He’s a traditional Republican. But he can’t survive in the current system, even though Ohio’s general election voters would probably prefer him to any Democrat or any Trump-endorsed nominee. And so, you know, we need to think about how to do majority rule. And we’re not doing it very well.
SORKIN: Do we need new election structures, or do we need new parties? Because what you’re describing, in a way, is people who feel they don’t have a home in a party, and that’s why the primary doesn’t really help them move forward.
FOLEY: We need new structures. We don’t have proportional representation in the United States, the way some European countries do. How to build a proportional representation system within our constitutional structure is a little tricky. We could move in that direction. But even short of that, we’ve got sort of the worst version of winner-take-all elections, because if the winner-take-all is based on a minority preference not a majority—the reason why we don’t have third parties is not the desire for them, necessarily, but they just can’t prevail in a plurality winner system.
You know, if Liz Cheney loses her party primary, it becomes very hard for her to run as an independent or as a third-party candidate in a plurality winner system. But in a majority winner system, if you had a three-way race between Liz Cheney, the Republican nominee endorsed by Trump, and the Democrat, and it’s not just who gets a plurality but who gets a majority, Liz Cheney likely could win the runoff there, because Democrats would say, well, she’s not our first choice. We’re Democrats. But between Liz Cheney and the nominee that Trump wants, we’d definitely take Liz Cheney because she stands for democracy in a way that Trump doesn’t. But we don’t have that kind of majority system that gives her a fighting chance, or any third party a fighting chance.
SORKIN: Right. Lilly, let me go back to something that Bart was—Bart had, I think, mentioned that there are these polls that find a surprising number of people who think that political violence is a reasonable option in some ways. There was a Washington Post poll a few days ago. Thirty-four percent of Americans thought that political violence against the government could be justified. When I saw those numbers, my optimistic thought was that maybe they were thinking of, you know, our revolution or the Civil War, or something along—something really big. (Laughs.) I know you’ve looked into this. Is that what you found?
MASON: Yeah. I’ve been doing research on this with Nathan Kalmoe for the last few years. And we have actually asked questions like, you know, would the Civil War type of violence be acceptable? Would the Revolutionary War violence be acceptable? And the answers to that are very different than answers to would violence today against the government be acceptable. And in fact, most people are much more approving of violence in historic war-type situations than they are today. But even people who are—who are saying violence today is OK, the—I mean, so the bad news is it can be up to 30 percent of Americans who are saying that, which is a really massive number if you extrapolate it to the number of citizens that are—that are reporting that answer.
But we have asked follow-up questions where we’ve said, you know, when you say that, what exactly are you talking about? Like, what do you mean by violence? And what we’ve found, actually, is that it’s really only about a quarter of that, you know, 20 to 30 percent who are actually thinking about killing other people, which is still a lot of—a lot of people. But it’s not 30 percent anymore. Most of the other—most of the other people are thinking of things like getting into fistfights or, you know, violent threats towards people, or even property destruction—things that don’t harm other human beings, but instead harm, you know, buildings or something like that.
So that type of—you know, there’s a wide variety of answers that people are thinking of when they say violence, when they approve of violence. And so, you know, if we take a quarter of 30 percent, still a worrisome number. And in addition to that, you know, first of all, obviously if we look at the events of a year ago, it only takes a thousand or so people to do real, serious damage, and to potentially undermine U.S. democracy and the peaceful transfer of power. But also, I think another problem with that 30 percent, even if they’re not thinking about killing other citizens or leaders, this gradual increasing agreement that violence is acceptable, what it does is it doesn’t—it doesn’t mean every single one of those people is going to engage in violence.
But it does erode the anti-violent norms that we have. And democracy really rests on anti-violent norms, right? Democracy is about being able to move from one leader to another without violence. And so as those—as the number of people who reject violence gets smaller, then the social circles around those people might include someone who is unstable, who is being extremely misinformed, who is just sort of aggressive in their everyday life, and can activate those types of people who, under different circumstances, might have—might have not engaged in violence, if their social circles had discouraged them strongly from doing so. But as increasing numbers of people say, well, maybe it’s OK sometimes, then those individuals are much more likely to engage in violence, just because they don’t have the social sanctions around them that they would have ten years ago, for instance.
SORKIN: You know, there was some—speaking of social circles, Bart, in your piece there were some posts from Telegram that you included that I wanted to read. People posting, “The Congress is literally begging people to hang them.” “Anyone who certifies a fraudulent election has committed treason punishable by death.” “The last stand is a civil war.” I want to talk about that, just most in terms of what Lilly was talking about, this growing idea that that’s an option, but also the medium. What’s going on in these spaces that are, you know, social media, alternative media, that might not—that might amplify some of these things, that might make them less visible?
GELLMAN: Social media is, in some sense, designed to amplify and to—and to intensify and to radicalize, because you’re encouraged to see more of what you choose to see in the first place. And the social media companies are looking for stickiness, and intensity is what gets people to stay on the site for longer. So there’s a familiar—there’s a familiar process with which you go and watch a video on YouTube, you are—you are moved to the next most radical, or the next most radical after that. Social media gives you the impression that everyone around you, that you whole community, agrees with you. And people egg each other one.
But it’s also interesting that in some of the public opinion polls that I’ve seen that delve into support for violence and support for the belief in a stolen election, the primary source of news for those people is Fox News and OneAmerica and Newsmax, not social media.
SORKIN: That’s interesting. You know, we’re about to move to questions in a minute, but this is the Council on Foreign Relations. So I quickly want to ask each of you, just very quickly, is there a foreign—is there an example abroad that you see that illuminates, offers a model for getting out of this or offers a warning sign that you’ve had in mind in thinking about what’s going on? Ned, maybe I could start with you.
FOLEY: Sure. This is a challenge. I think it is important to look abroad, but we have to remember that we have a system that includes a president as opposed to a purely parliamentary system, the way Britain, or Canada, or Australia has. And fighting over the presidency of the United States that leads to an insurrection on January 6th is different than fighting over a single seat in parliament. So a parliamentary system just simply doesn’t have the same kind of stakes that our system has. So that’s one cautionary note. Again, you know, if we were to move to proportional representation we could open up a lot of vistas for looking abroad for guidance on that, but that’s a fundamental policy choice about how to design the system.
You know, I mentioned ranked-choice voting. And Australia does use that in an important way, and has for a long time. And I’m involved with a group of other scholars who are trying to drill down and see what lessons we can learn from Australia that might be appropriately applicable if something like ranked choice voting were to be more broadly used in the United States, rather than just in—you know, in a few places. So, yes, I think we should look abroad for guidance, given our issues.
SORKIN: And, Lilly and Bart, I don’t want to take time away from members for their questions, but maybe if there’s an international example that you would just advise people to look at.
GELLMAN: I’d be looking to Poland and Hungary as warning signs, places that were democratic and still have the forms of democracy, but in which a charismatic leader has fundamentally undermined truth and fundamentally undermine norms and fundamentally undermined institutions that people relied upon, and eroded democracy that way. We’re seeing some of that here.
SORKIN: That’s a great direction for thought. Lilly, do you want to, quickly?
MASON: Yeah. I would actually—the only thing that I would point to, and it’s not a particular country, but just any place where there is minority ethnic rule, things tend to not go well. And what we’re looking at as the United States population changes demographically over time is that, you know, ultimately in the next twenty to forty years we’ll be a minority White country. We’ll just be a country of all minorities. And a lot of what we’re seeing on the right, especially the extreme right, is this sort of attempt to entrench the power of White voters in—you know, in perpetuity, you know, regardless of what the rest of the country is voting for.
And in general, when we see ethnic minority rule in other places, which is what this would be, what it would ultimately turn into, there’s no way to have an actual representative democracy if you have ethnic minority rule. And in fact, it requires authoritarianism and sometimes violent repression. So that’s another direction that we want to be careful about going.
SORKIN: That’s fascinating. And I’m sure that there will be even better questions from members. I have a lot of questions I didn’t get to yet, and hopefully they’ll come up. So I’ll guess at this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record. And the operator will remind you how to join the question queue. And, Carrie, is that—over to you.
OPERATOR: Thank you, Amy.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
One moment. We’ll take our first question from Macani Toungara.
SORKIN: Go on ahead.
Q: OK. Hello?
SORKIN: Oh, hello. We can hear you. Go ahead.
Q: Great. Hi. My name is Macani Toungara. I’m at USAID. My question is for Bart.
You mentioned in your comments that, you know, when Trump issued the call to action, his followers will be ready to do his bidding, whether that involves some form of violence or not. My question is, how much is—how much is that energy transferable to potentially other Republican leaders who may want to emulate and gain Trump’s power, and become his successor in some ways? You know, there are a lot of names being thrown around of potential successors. How much is that energy transferable? And how do you see that—potentially the consequences of that transferability? Thank you.
GELLMAN: Great question. And we can’t know it, but there are—there are other Republicans who—I mean, almost all Republicans who are—have their eye on high office, higher office, are trying to marshal the energy and the revanchist grievances that the Trump supporters have, and wave that red flag. And it’s going to be a lasting—a lasting theme of Republican politics that the election was stolen, and that the country has to set thing right the next time. So it’s going to depend whether someone is skillful and has the genius for demagoguery that Trump has whether they’ll succeed.
SORKIN: But it sounds like they’ll succeed, you’re saying, not by renouncing Trump but by identifying with him, in some way?
GELLMAN: Well, the question is, if you’re trying to lead an angry mass movement with a grievance, you’ve got to endorse that grievance and then you’ve got to—you’ve got to embody it and stand for it.
FOLEY: And if I could jump in quickly on that, I think, you know, Bart is correct. We don’t know the future for sure, but the question in my mind is what’s the right historical analogue. Bart mentions that Trump operates as a charismatic demagogue, which I think is accurate. And because of that, you know, the comparison to McCarthyism comes to mind, for me, in terms of a charismatic demagogue who has a big lie that he perpetrates and gets his followers to agree upon. You know, that’s the right analogy. And this pathology may be somewhat temporary and unique to the particular demagogue who, you know, is at the helm of it.
On the other hand, if—you know, to pick up on Lilly’s points—if instead we’ve got a mass social movement that is sort of fundamentally anti-democratic, small D, that’s going to make the historical parallel look more like the collapse of reconstruction and the rise of the redeemer movement in the South, that was, you know, ideologically and systematically committed to, you know, suppression of African Americans in participation. And that lasted decades and decades and was not linked to any particular figure. So, you know, I don’t know which one we’re in. That’s for historians and sociologists and others besides election law people to figure out. (Laughs.)
SORKIN: So let’s go to our next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Peter Galbraith.
Q: Hi. I’m Peter Galbraith. I think best described as a former lots of things.
I have a big question and a very brief additional question for Lilly. But the big question is this: How do you think the country would have responded had the Republicans succeeded on January 6th last year? In other words, had—say, had Michael Pence rejected the electoral votes from the Biden states, or if this was to come—be played out at the same scenario in 2024, in which the results of a legitimate election were then overturned? So that’s the big question. And the short question, to Lilly, I mean, Bart’s comments make clear that this is not a case of equivalence between the parties. This really is one party that’s the problem. But, Lilly, your comment suggested that the two sides hate each other. And I wonder whether that’s really true. I mean, do Democrats hate Republicans as much as a segment of the Republicans, a significant segment, hate the Democrats? I don’t see that.
MASON: So we’ve actually been asking—I’m going to take the second part first, because it’s easier, and then I’ll get to the first part. (Laughs.) We’ve been asking questions about, you know, do you think people in the other party are not just wrong for politics but they’re downright evil, they should be treated like animals because they don’t behave like humans? So pretty extreme questions. And we found pretty similar levels between Democrats and Republicans saying those things, although pretty consistently higher, you know, fiveish points higher among Republicans.
However, those attitudes are driven by opposite—by opposite things. So among Republicans, the people who agree with statements like that tend to be very high in racial resentment and hostile sexism. And for Democrats, it’s the opposite. So for Democrats, it’s people who are very low in racial resentment who are the most vilifying of Republicans. And so it really does—it does sort of point to the picture of, like, this is what the fight is about, right? The people that hate each other the most are those who are on opposite sides of the—of really the racial resentment scale.
So it is—it is a big—there is similar—there are similar feelings. But they’re, first of all, motivated by opposite forces. And, second of all, we just haven’t seen Democrats acting on them the way that Republicans seem to be acting on them. So in practice, Republicans tend to be acting on these feelings more than Republicans. Sorry, Republicans are acting more than Democrats.
What if it succeeded? Honestly, I think there would have been a lot more violence, but mass violence in the streets. I think it probably would have looked a lot like the summer of 2020, but a lot more violent. I know that, you know, we’ve heard stories about Trump, you know, getting ready to, you know, use the Insurrection Act to kind of declare martial law. There’s all kinds of really terrific scenarios that could have occurred. And I think a lot of—a lot of leaders at the time were really trying to make sure that people stayed as calm as possible so that none of these—none of these scenarios actually played out. But we would be in a very different place—(laughs)—like, very different place today if that had—if the events of one year ago had actually succeeded.
SORKIN: Lilly, do you have a sense, in that scenario of—you’re talking about leaders—who people would have listened to? I mean, one thing we haven’t really talked about is institutional—institutions and distrust. Who could have spoken to the country?
MASON: I mean—so who could, and who would are two different questions. We’ve done experiments asking people to read quotes from Joe Biden and Donald Trump that say, you know, violence is never acceptable. You know, never engage in violence in a democracy under any circumstances. And those do tend to reduce pro-violent attitudes. So messages from party leaders do tend to work to reduce pro-violent attitudes. The question is would Donald Trump use—say things like that? And I think obviously the answer is no, because he was saying the opposite on January 6th.
SORKIN: Or the Supreme Court? Or—I mean, is there some—
MASON: OK, so—yeah, so other leaders tend to be media leaders. So partisan media leaders do have—do have influence. And particularly on the right, where there’s much smaller partisan media environment and much more partisan media environment. Media figures on the right can have influence. And then it—and then at that point it goes down to, like, community leaders. So, you know, people who are trusted members of the community, this is what, you know, in trying to get people vaccinated against COVID we’re relying on trusted community levels, professionals, doctors, you know, experts in the community.
And there are a lot of organizations right now that are looking at, you know, community-based solutions to potential outbursts of political violence, because that’s the place where—probably the only place where it’s going to be stoppable is at the community, local level. Once we end up—and one of the problems that we’ve—that we’ve seen in our research is that violence tends to beget violence. So that when a violent attack occurs, approval of violence increases in the society as a whole. And so one could imagine some kind of, you know, terrible cycle of violence, where it just continues and continues. And really, the stopgap at that point has to be local and community leaders trying to stop it.
FOLEY: Amy, if I could just add one thought, because I think this is a really important point, I think we need to think about the incentive effects of our existing institutional structures. One of the things that, you know, I noticed in media commentary on this one-year anniversary, is what caused Republicans, whose initial inclination was to disavow the insurrection—people like Senator Lindsey Graham or Speaker—or, no speaker—but Leader Kevin McCarthy—and then to snap back as Trump loyalists, you know, a little bit later? It’s my estimation, and I’m not alone in this, it’s the fear of being primaried. It’s the fear of the power that Trump has over the base voters. And that—and so different politicians react differently.
I mean, Peter Baker, in a piece today in the Times summarizes up this as, “those who speak against him,” meaning Trump, “are purged, and Trump’s endorsement is the most coveted asset in any Republican primary.” So you get incumbents who make the opposite choice from Liz Cheney and say: I don’t want to go down to defeat. And so to avoid being primaried, I need to be silent or I need to go along. And then you have candidates like J.D. Vance here in Ohio, who would not have embraced Trump in the big lie, but for the incentive effects. And so I don’t think we can solve—and I think, unfortunately, there can be vicious circles or virtuous circles. And I think Lilly’s talking about this vicious circle into violence and more violence. And so to undo the vicious circle and to start building positive feedback looks, we’ve got to break the incentive structures caused by existing institutions.
SORKIN: Bart, do you want to add to that, or should we go to the next question, or?
GELLMAN: Let’s move on.
SORKIN: All right. So next. Let’s have the next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Lee Cullum.
Q: Thank you very much. This is a fascinating discussion.
Bart, thinking about the 30 percent who accept violence in the service of the cause, even favor it in some instances, did you happen to find any correlation between that attitude and religion?
GELLMAN: This is not my research. This is research done at University of Chicago under Robert Pape. There was some correlation, not a majority but a substantial plurality, who were associated with the view that the end times are near. Otherwise, I’m not aware of important religious correlations. The strongest correlation of any that they tested was exactly what Lilly has been talking about today, which is the fear of being replaced by minorities, the fear of the great replacement, the idea that, bluntly speaking, Black and brown people are going to displace White Christians from their place of privilege and power and status in society.
And in fact, if you look at the 700-something people who have been charged so far in the insurgency from January 6th, they are much more likely to come from counties in which the White population is in decline as a proportion of the general population in that county. So for every 1 percent that the White population declined in the past five years, there was a 25 percent greater likelihood that that county would send an insurgent to Capitol Hill who would be arrested.
SORKIN: Quite interesting. Lilly, did you want to add on the religion question, or do we—
MASON: I mean, I would—the only thing that I would add is we saw really two major kinds of symbols being displayed at January 6th. And one—the most common was symbols of the Confederacy. But the second was Christian iconography. So we saw a lot of symbols being displayed by the January 6th insurrectionists that were, you know, just either, you know, blatant crosses or some sort of, you know, smaller evangelical sect iconography. But there was definitely—both of those things seem to be symbols that people were kind of proudly displaying as they—as they engaged in the insurrection.
SORKIN: All right. Let’s take the next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Jim Himes.
Q: Hi. It’s Jim Himes. I represent the southwestern part of Connecticut in the House of Representatives and was an unhappy participant in the events of a year ago. And thank you to CFR. And, Bart, thank you especially for your article. It had—it had a lot of resonance on Capitol Hill.
I have two related questions, I guess for Ned and Lilly. The first is, the many non-majoritarian elements of our constitutional system, to some extent, were put in place to avoid the power—or, to prevent the power of a demagogue, to stop the sort of mob mentality. Madison writes an awful lot about this in an almost condescending tone. And so my question is, in many instances those non-majoritarian aspects of our democratic architecture were actually used to help the ascension to power of Donald Trump, and it’s sort of perpetuation today. Do they need to be junked? Or is there some chance that they may ultimately serve the purpose for which they were designed? That’s question number one.
Related question number two: I keep my spirits about me on Capitol Hill by always thinking about, I think, the historical truth that when we do deviate from our values in an authoritarian direction—Ned mentioned McCarthyism of the 1950s. You could go back to Korematsu in the ’40s, maybe even sort of the Nixonian misbehavior. It feels like historically some forces always result in history rendering a pretty harsh verdict. Nobody today associates themselves with McCarthy, happily, or even with Nixon. And so my second question is, can we count on some sort of animal spirits or sort of forces in our history to erode the appeal that this authoritarian instinct has? And if so, is that going to happen in the next couple of years, or is that more of a decades-long project?
SORKIN: That’s a great question.
FOLEY: Yeah. I guess, you know, it took four years for McCarthyism to—the bubble to burst. So, you know, we’re only into year one of the big lie bubble. So, you know, but on the—on the first point, I would not say that we should junk our constitutional structures. I don’t think we really have the capacity to do that, given the difficulty of constitutional amendments. On the other hand, I think we need to be—we need an appropriate level of both respect for and skepticism of the founding moment and the constitutional structures that were created. You know, we revere James Madison of the Federalist Papers understandably, but Madison himself later in life changed a lot of his views.
And one of—one of the fundamental premises of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers was to create an architecture that would avoid the rise of the political parties. Well, that was a failure from almost the beginning. And so while we do have to be concerned about the risk of an individual tyrant demagogue, as the founders were rightly concerned about, we have to be concerned about, you know, the pathologies of partisanship. And our system is not well—because of the founding philosophy that was anti-party—are not—our system is not well-designed to handle any form of party competition, much less hyper-polarized ones, or much less one that has a party that’s in opposite to the premises of the systems itself.
So within the Madisonian framework that we’re kind of stuck with, which has some severe anti-majoritarian elements, including the—you know, the structure of the U.S. Senate, I think we have to acknowledge, as well as the Electoral College system, there are still improvements that we can make that will make our system more congruent with, I think, 21st century norms about what majority rule should look like, and the will of the people prevailing. So I think we need incremental reform, and that that’s an imperative, not throw the whole thing out.
SORKIN: Are there specifics there that you had on your to-do list?
FOLEY: Yeah. You know, if I had one—and, you know, I’m happy to—I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post back in March. The one single thing that I would recommend in light of the insurrection, and I continue to believe this, it’s—it would almost be a one-line law passed by Congress. And it would—in fact, there was a version of this in the 19th century that kind of fell by the wayside. And it would simply mean that to win an election in November for a seat in Congress, you need a majority of votes not just a plurality. You know, very simple. It’s not an 800-page bill. It’s a two-sentence bill, practically, and yet it would have a huge catalytic effect in terms of requiring states to think, well, how do we do this?
Because we don’t currently require majority winners. And that would require us to think about how we’re going to go about doing it. So consistent with states being laboratories of democracy, we’re not, you know, one-size fits all from Congress. You’d have this great experimentation about what do we mean by majority rule, how do we want to achieve it? You know, unfortunately that proposal has not been part of the electoral reform conversation that’s dominated Congress this year.
You know, there are other items on the wish list, to be sure. But, you know, if the diagnosis of the pathology is correct, as Peter Baker said, that the dominant feature of where we are today is the capacity of Trump to have a stranglehold on his own party and encourage disloyal members and hold people in line, then the cure for that pathology has to address that disease. And the only cure that I can think of at this moment that Congress could adopt is this idea of majority-winner elections, instead of plurality winners.
SORKIN: And, Jim Himes, is that—does that resonate? I don’t know if he’s still there. But Lilly or Bart, do you want to add to that?
MASON: Yeah. I would just add that there’s—I think there’s a difference between non-majoritarian and ultra-minoritarian, which I think we’re seeing a problem with right now. And that’s partly because the parties are divided by urban versus rural. And our rural areas are severely overrepresented in the—in the power of the votes of the electorate, particularly when we’re voting for Senate. And even the Electoral College has some—you know, contributes to this problem such that, you know, if we can elect a majority of the Senate with 17 percent of Americans, that doesn’t seem like a great system to me either. And when the parties are divided along these geographic lines that give an institutional advantage to one particular party, which is the party that is generally rural, that creates a really sort of ultra-minoritarian possibility. And that’s, I think, part of what we’re seeing, where the majority of the country’s will is really not being heard because they’re not efficiently distributed in a geographic manner.
And then the second thing, I’ll just go to the second point, which is, you know, will history rend a harsh verdict on this? And, you know, we hope. We hope eventually yes. But Jim Crow lasted seventy years, right? So, and that was—countless people were just murdered in the streets, right? I mean, there was a huge amount of carnage, if not genocide, during that period of time. So even if ultimately we get there, I think it’s a very dangerous period of time to be in. And so we should be doing all we can to try to either, you know, shorten that amount of time or to try to protect our citizens while they go through this period of change.
SORKIN: We’re getting close to the end of the hour. So let’s try another question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Moushumi Khan.
Q: Hi. Thank you. Thank you for this really fascinating discussion.
I’m joining you from Bangladesh at the moment. And my question is regarding foreign policy. And I’m also from Michigan. And so I see very different sides to this. Where do you think this growing divide in the U.S., how did it impact our ability to hold others to account? Specifically in Bangladesh, there were sanctions placed on internal security forces as well as Bangladesh was not invited to the democracy summit, for example. How does this growing divide impact that—those types of foreign policies?
SORKIN: Bart, do you want to say something about that?
GELLMAN: I fear my observations are just very obvious. There is already significant doubt internationally about the quality of American democracy, and the extent to which we can continue to portray ourselves as a model for the world. And the institutions that score these things, index democracy, are already demoting us in these—in these past four years. And so our moral standing to stand for democratic principles is undermined.
SORKIN: It’s—we’ve got two minutes left. Carrie, do we want to sneak in one more question?
OPERATOR: Sure. We’ll take our last question from Anne Nelson.
Q: Hi. I am hoping you can quickly address the role of Koch network and other dark money organizations, in partnership with groups like ALEC and the Heritage action on a state level. And I’m from Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. Thank you.
SORKIN: Ned, do you want to speak to that? Money?
FOLEY: So campaign finance is obviously an important part of election law and needs attention. You know, I would not put that on a list of the reforms that are most urgent, although it’s on the list. I don’t know if Lilly has a thought about how money interacts with some of the other dynamics that she’s been talking about. It’s a factor, I think.
SORKIN: Well, can I dispute—would you put it lower on the list because money isn’t important, or just because there’s so much money on all sides right now?
FOLEY: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to deny the impact of money on our system. But I think the—and, you know, and people talk about the big lie being associated with grift. But I don’t think the pathology of the big lie at the moment is a campaign financed-caused pathology. You know, I’m happy to be proven wrong about that because, again, I think we have to accurately diagnose what’s happening in order to cure it. But I would make the diagnosis different at the moment, myself.
SORKIN: All right. And we’re at the noon hour now. I feel we could have gone on for quite a long time, but as I think members know, one of the binding ideologies of CFR is punctuality and prompt ending. So with regret, I would just say thank you for joining today’s virtual meeting. Thank you to our speakers. And I am also going to note that the audio and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. And thank you so much. A lot to think about for our country’s next few years, and longer. Bart, Ned, Lilly, thank you.