It’s time to rethink how we view the U.S. political spectrum.
The 2016 election and President Trump’s first term in office has transformed politics in this country. His election represented not only a radical change in policy but an assault on what we consider fundamental American values.
Going into the 2020 election, many on the left are thinking about the work that the next president and Congress will have to do to repair the damage done since 2016 and address the crises Trump has created and exacerbated. Protect Democracy, for example, has proposed a package of legislative reforms to prevent presidential abuse of power. However, some have argued that Democrats should adopt some of the tactics Trump has used and bend some rules to set the country back on the correct course.
This represents a big shift in the way we think about politics, and we need new terminology to accurately discuss what we believe in.
For most of my life, our political spectrum has run from the political left to the political right. People are socially liberal or socially conservative, economically liberal or economically conservative. Increasingly, this dichotomy fails to capture a new spectrum emerging in American politics — those committed to “liberal democracy” and those more willing to sacrifice it and live under a more authoritarian style of government in order to secure policy gains.
The emergence of this new political spectrum has come about through what has been called “the big sort,” where people’s identities are increasingly aligned with their political parties. Gone are the days when someone who shares your life experience across geography, age, race, and education may belong to either political party. Increasingly, if you know someone’s race, age and education level, you can guess their political affiliation. For example, as a 28-year-old non-white law school graduate, you can guess that I am a Democrat because 73% of non-white millennials lean Democrat as do 59% of voters with post-graduate experience.
Leaders from Modi in India to Trump in the United States to far-right populist movements in Europe are using the fact that our political opponents are often different from us across religion, race, age, and education level to make us fear and even hate them. Around the world, we have seen this suspicion of the “other” play out in political movements through a rise of would-be dictators using racism and a narrow view of national identity for their own political gain. In the United States, Americans increasingly view their political opponents as the enemy, saying that they’d oppose their child marrying someone of a different political belief. In 2018, in a perfect encapsulation of suspicion of the other party, we saw Republican voters wearing shirts saying, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat”.
Furthermore, because of the “big sort,” we have increasingly little interaction with people of different political parties and, therefore, less opportunity to challenge these suspicions or narratives from opportunistic political leaders. For example, I had not knowingly interacted with a Republican until a year and a half ago, when I started at Protect Democracy, a non-partisan non-profit working to prevent the United States from declining into a more authoritarian form of government. Working with Republicans has caused me to challenge my idea that the GOP is the enemy and forced me to think about the extent of my tolerance and inclusion.
I have found myself surprised by my Republican colleagues’ indignation around racism and sexism. And then embarrassed by my surprise. I have found myself moved by their willingness to fight their own party, which for some of them has also meant a loss of close friends or family, because they believe in higher principles and a version of America that more closely aligns with mine than with the Trump-led GOP on race and gender. I’ve become less judgmental and more curious. I also have more trust in the intentions, if not the impact, of my fellow Americans’ political decision-making.
This is important, not only for me as an individual but for American democracy as a whole. We know from the research that “levels of personal trust tend to be linked with people’s broader views on institutions and civic life.” Put simply, if we don’t trust each other then we don’t trust our democratic process to deliver for us. To be sure, our processes are not neutral and often rooted in historic inequality and power disparities. However, if we are unwilling to engage in the project of improving the processes of liberal democracy and are instead focused solely on implementing policy we agree with at all costs, we may create more problems for ourselves in the future.“Democracy in the United States is not guaranteed, it’s an idea that each generation has to renew and redefine. “
For example, some Members of Congress have called for the next President to declare a national emergency to address the actual emergency of climate change. They would have the next President replicate the abuses of President Trump by bypassing Congress for the sake of policy expediency. While I deeply appreciate the urgency of the climate crisis, I also see the danger in a Democratic president legitimizing Trump’s abuse of the National Emergency Act — it could be abused yet again when someone I disagree with gets elected again.
Even as I look back on President Obama’s presidency, I can see the ways that President Obama — struggling with a Republican Senate that wouldn’t work with him — laid the groundwork for some of the abuses that we’re seeing under President Trump on appointments and executive orders. President Trump has taken that lesson and gone well beyond it. I fear what a president with similar inclinations to Trump, but more strategic wherewithal would do.
American politics is no longer split merely between left vs. right. We are in an era of American politics when some people recognize and value the frustrating moderating effects of the checks and balances of American democracy, whereas others view it as a hindrance to achieving their policy goals. Right now many think that it’s those in the opposing party who don’t care about democracy, but I am not convinced. We need a better way to discuss the precedents in decision-making the parties are cementing and the dangers they may be setting us up for.
We need an additional ideological spectrum to talk about politics in America today, one that places those who care about our democracy on one end, and those willing to live under a more authoritarian style of government for policy gains on the other.
As I watch the 2020 primary season play out, I find myself looking beyond a candidate’s policy preferences and paying attention to whether their plans for implementing their agenda will help or hurt our democracy. I believe it’s not enough to win. We have to think about the process and structures we’re leaving in place for the next person, whose policy views we may not agree with. I want to know what candidates will do to prevent the emergence of another president like Trump. How will they make sure our checks and balances work so that someone can’t blatantly disregard norms? How will they ensure elections are free, fair and accessible? What will they change to make sure the marginalized are protected and our right to dissent is maintained?
In order to solve the new problems we’ve been confronted with, we need new solutions. Democracy in the United States is not guaranteed, it’s an idea that each generation has to renew and redefine. By including this new political spectrum in our thinking, we can ensure that we work to preserve and perfect our democracy for future generations.