Pen and Ink on Paper, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
The definition of antidemocratic is a person, place, or thing unfriendly or against the ideas and actions of democracy such as the power of the people to elect their leaders through majority rules and free elections.
I’ve been trying to understand the underpinnings of certain U.S. citizens’ increasing willingness to compromise, violate and take active measures to undermine democratic principles. (Only half-jokingly, I have suggested that the far right fears that free and fair elections will result in decisions being made on the merits.) In my research I encountered an article by Larry M. Bartels of Vanderbilt University, Ethnic Antagonism Erodes Republicans’ Commitment to Democracy, published just before the 2020 presidential election in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
The article does not expressly portend what’s occurred since the 2020 election but gives significant evidence, in my opinion, to explain much of what motivates antidemocratic attitudes, trends and events that are playing out in real time. Undermining democratic norms is the necessary means to “save” what some consider a “traditional way of life” that is under serious threat by “the political power and claims on government resources of immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos.” Trump’s polarizing role, which both fosters antidemocratic attitudes and symbolizes their source, is a necessary component to regaining sufficient political power at the federal level to assure the necessary destruction of majority rule through free elections. Republicans control many states in which such antidemocratic measures have passed or are under serious consideration.
The article, linked below, is well-researched and sourced. I encourage you to read it from beginning to end, including the tables which show (1) demographics for anti-democratic sentiment (education, political interest and locale in assessing difficulty trusting elections, use of force to save one’s way of life, strong leaders bending rules, and taking the law into their own hands); (2) key indicators of latent dimensions of Republican political attitudes (Republican Affect, Trump Affect, Economic Conservatism, Cultural Conservatism, Ethnic Antagonism, and Political Cynicism); (3) political basis for Republicans’ antidemocratic attitudes; and (4) translation of ethnic antagonism into antidemocratic attitudes in Republican subgroups. I quote only portions below.
Growing partisan polarization and democratic “backsliding” in various parts of the world have raised concerns about the attachment of ordinary Americans to democratic institutions and procedures. I find that substantial numbers of Republicans endorse statements contemplating violations of key democratic norms, including respect for the law and for the outcomes of elections and eschewing the use of force in pursuit of political ends. The strongest predictor by far of these antidemocratic attitudes is ethnic antagonism—especially concerns about the political power and claims on government resources of immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos. The strong tendency of ethnocentric Republicans to countenance violence and lawlessness, even prospectively and hypothetically, underlines the significance of ethnic conflict in contemporary US politics.
Most Republicans in a January 2020 survey agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” More than 40% agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” (In both cases, most of the rest said they were unsure; only one in four or five disagreed.) I use 127 survey items to measure six potential bases of these and other antidemocratic sentiments: partisan affect, enthusiasm for President Trump, political cynicism, economic conservatism, cultural conservatism, and ethnic antagonism. The strongest predictor by far, for the Republican rank-and-file as a whole and for a variety of subgroups defined by education, locale, sex, and political attitudes, is ethnic antagonism—especially concerns about the political power and claims on government resources of immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos. The corrosive impact of ethnic antagonism on Republicans’ commitment to democracy underlines the significance of ethnic conflict in contemporary US politics. . . .
The support expressed by many Republicans for violations of a variety of crucial democratic norms is primarily attributable not to partisan affect, enthusiasm for President Trump, political cynicism, economic conservatism, or general cultural conservatism, but to what I have termed ethnic antagonism. The single survey item with the highest average correlation with antidemocratic sentiments is not a measure of attitudes toward Trump, but an item inviting respondents to agree that “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Not far behind are items positing that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country,” that immigrants get more than their fair share of government resources, that people on welfare often have it better than those who work for a living, that speaking English is “essential for being a true American,” and that African-Americans “need to stop using racism as an excuse.” . . .
The powerful effects of ethnic antagonism on Republicans’ antidemocratic attitudes underscore the extent to which this particular threat to democratic values is concentrated in the contemporary Republican Party. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents in the 2020 survey had ethnic antagonism scores below the fifth percentile of the Republican distribution (−1.43), while 98% had scores below the Republican average. The average score among Democrats (−2.21) barely appears in Fig. 2, which excludes the bottom (and top) 1% of the Republican distribution of ethnic antagonism. In this respect, among others, the attitudes of Republicans and Democrats are sharply polarized.
The strong association reported here between Republicans’ antidemocratic attitudes and ethnic antagonism reflects a specific social and political context. It certainly does not imply that ethnic antagonism is a necessary basis for antidemocratic sentiment, or that ethnic antagonism always and everywhere erodes public commitment to democracy. One of the most politically salient features of the contemporary United States is the looming demographic transition from a majority-White to a “majority-minority” country. Several years ago, reminding White Americans of that prospect significantly altered their political attitudes. Now, President Trump and Fox News remind them, implicitly or explicitly, on an almost-daily basis. For those who view demographic change as a significant threat to “the traditional American way of life,” the political stakes could hardly be higher.
This perspective is forcefully illustrated by an attention-getting essay published pseudonymously during the 2016 campaign on “the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” The author, who went on to serve on President Trump’s National Security Council staff, wrote that “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chance.” He denounced the “tsunami of leftism that still engulfs our every—literal and figurative—shore,” and warned that “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.” “Trump, he concluded, “alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.”
The political impact of this specific instance of ethnocentric alarmism may have been modest, but it is representative of a broadly held and consequential worldview. Analysts of the 2016 presidential election have emphasized the activation of long-standing racial resentment and concerns about immigration as important factors contributing to President Trump’s support. The same factors have helped to fuel political polarization more broadly. The relationship reported here between ethnic antagonism and expressions of support for violations of key democratic norms suggests that the effects of millions of White Americans’ concerns regarding the prospect of demographic, social, and political change may not be limited to the electoral sphere.
Many people who endorse resorting to force or taking the law into their own hands in the context of an opinion survey are unlikely to engage in actual violence or lawlessness. However, the United States has experienced a cataclysmic civil war and a long history of racial and ethnic violence, and currently experiences thousands of hate crimes per year; thus, it is not fanciful to suppose that expressive support for bending the rules or resorting to force to protect one’s “way of life” is consequential for actual behavior—or that it could become even more consequential under inflammatory circumstances.
It is also possible that antidemocratic attitudes among citizens encourage political elites to engage in antidemocratic behaviors. Systematic attempts to measure democratic performance, while fraught with difficulty, do provide some grounds for concern on this score. For example, Freedom House has reported a significant decline over the past decade in its rating of the quality of American democracy, from 94 on a 100-point scale in 2009 to 86 in 2018. While acknowledging that “political polarization, declining economic mobility, the outsized influence of special interests, and the diminished influence of fact-based reporting in favor of bellicose partisan media were all problems afflicting the health of American democracy well before 2017,” the authors of the report argued that “President Trump exerts an influence on American politics that is straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system. No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms, and principles. Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections.”
How concerned should we be that a president who assails “essential institutions and traditions” of democracy has found millions of followers willing to endorse significant violations of democratic norms, including resort to force in pursuit of political ends, lawlessness by “patriotic Americans,” and casting doubt on the legitimacy of elections? The simple answer is that no one knows.
Antidemocratic forces in well-functioning multiparty systems tend to be isolated in minor parties, shunned as coalition partners and cordoned off from power. In contrast, as the Republican Party establishment learned in 2016, US parties are vulnerable to hostile takeover by political entrepreneurs capable of mobilizing passionate factions. Moreover, the evolution of the Republican Party over the past few years suggests that a hostile takeover may not stay hostile for long, as rank-and-file supporters respond to new leadership and elected officials adapt themselves to new political realities.
Frances Lee has enumerated a variety of formidable institutional barriers to the consolidation of “authoritarian power over American national government.” Nonetheless, she concluded that “A racialized party system in an electorate with a questionable commitment to liberal values is a troubling development. It is difficult to manage racial tensions in a democracy in any case, much less when race becomes a principal line of political cleavage.” The findings reported here underline the extent to which race—and, more broadly, ethnic conflict—has indeed become a principal line of political cleavage, not only in American electoral politics but also in America’s broader, ongoing struggle to embrace and instantiate democracy.
https://www.pnas.org/content/117/37/22752 (footnotes omitted)
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com. Rob’s second novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming, and Norway, dropped on November17, 2020. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore and your favorite local bookshop, this novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community. I have read the novel and listened to the audio version twice. It is a literary masterpiece. The Contortionists, however, is not for the faint of heart.
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in many traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers