The “Big Lie” about a stolen election was the focus of former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, but there’s an even bigger lie behind that one: The claim that Democrats were so evil that they would do anything to steal an election and that their victory would mean freedom-crushing Venezuelan socialism.
In fact, both parties consist largely of decent Americans whose values are more alike than partisans on either side believe. The divisions between us are widened by fear-mongering partisan media and self-interested political elites. The losers are the rest of us, who demand less from our party’s leaders because we are so scared of the other side.
Fear grips members of both parties, but the problem is more urgent on the right.
January’s assault on the U.S. Capitol was committed by followers of then-President Trump after he said, “If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Some surveys show that partisan hostility is more severe among Republicans, and the federal government says armed right-wing groups pose the biggest threat of domestic terrorism.
A CBS poll this month found that 57 percent of Republicans viewed Democrats as “enemies,” not just as political opponents. Among Democrats, 41 percent saw Republicans as “enemies.” This continues a long-term trend toward polarization. In 1960, 4% to 5% of Americans said they would be upset if their child married a member of the other political party. By 2010, that had risen to one third of Democrats and half of Republicans.
A YouGov survey of 2,100 Americans in 2018 found wide gaps between reality and partisans’ perceptions of their opponents’ typical beliefs.
Democrats, by 25 percentage points or more, underestimated Republican support for controlled immigration (in reality, 85%), their awareness that racism still exists in America (79%) and their agreement that “many Muslims are good Americans (70%).
Perception gaps were even wider when Republicans were asked about Democrats:
- Republicans said most Democrats believed “most police are bad people.” In fact, 85% of Democrats disagreed with that statement.
- Republicans said that only 54% of Democrats were “proud to be an American, though I acknowledge my country’s flaws.” In fact, 82% of Democrats felt that way.
- Republicans believed that only 38% of Democrats would oppose the U.S. having “completely open borders.” In fact, 71% of Democrats supported at least some border controls.
- Republicans said only 44% of Democrats agreed that law-abiding citizens should have the right to bear firearms. In fact, 68% of Democrats agreed.
- Republicans said only 37% of Democrats would disagree with the statement, “America should be a socialist country.” In fact, 62% of Democrats disagreed.
The perception gap was especially wide among the most committed progressives or conservatives, larger among conservatives than liberals, and largest among people consuming “right-leaning sources Breitbart News, the Drudge Report, and conservative talk radio.” The gap was bigger among viewers of Fox News and smaller among viewers of mainstream network TV.
Fear-mongering political actors often use two techniques to cause needless worry. The most basic move is to lie about an opponent’s position. False claims that Vice President Kamala Harris supports “riots” are a recent example; in real life she has condemned violence and supported peaceful protests. The fancier technique is to slather scary makeup on beliefs that really are held by some opponents.
There is a “Democratic Socialist” wing to the Democratic coalition. During the 2020 campaign then-President Trump said Democrats would turn the U.S. into “a large Venezuela.” But the policies actually advocated by Democratic Socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – single-payer healthcare, free higher education, a stronger social safety net — would push the United States more toward “Social Democratic” Denmark.
That would mean higher taxes, for sure. In Denmark, taxes equal about 40% of GDP. In the U.S., it’s about 24.3%. That’s partly because the U.S. budget deficit has been proportionately about four times bigger than Denmark’s.
Taxes aside, Denmark is not a socialist hellscape. It was second in a recent international ranking of citizens’ happiness; the U.S. was 18th. Denmark also ranked second in quality of healthcare; the U.S. ranked 15th. The conservative Heritage Foundation rated Denmark 8th in economic freedom and the U.S. 17th. A ranking of personal freedom by the libertarian Cato Institute put Denmark in 2nd place, the U.S. in 29th.
Whether to move in Denmark’s direction is a debate that need not terrify us.
As President Franklin Roosevelt said, though, we should be afraid of fear itself. It makes good people vulnerable to dangerous conspiracy theories.
QAnon, a thoroughly debunked conspiracy culture, is based partly on transparently false allegations that Trump was fighting child sex-trafficking rings run by Democrats. Last October, half of Trump’s supporters said they believed he was really doing that. (The FBI has labeled QAnon a domestic terrorism threat.)
If we think our opponents harm children, no form of opposition may be too extreme. The conservative American Enterprise Institute recently found that 56% of Republicans (and 22 percent of Democrats) agreed with the statement, “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
Fortunately, we can fortify ourselves against unwarranted fears. We can be more careful about the media we consume, tune out voices that constantly incite anger or grievance, and fact-check social media before forwarding toxic falsehoods to friends. We can be quick to show charity and slow to express contempt.
Above all, we can demand that leaders on our side of the political gap truly earn our trust. We can insist on solid proof of provocative claims. We can push for real-world results and not be content with wild rhetoric instead. If our leaders deceive or disappoint us, we can hold them accountable.
There is a word for people who easily accept whatever they hear from seductive liars, and that word is “suckers.” We can quit being political suckers.
That’s a lot to ask. Our brains did not evolve to deal with manipulative social media or a ceaseless blizzard of baloney from people we should be able to trust. Being a good citizen has never been easy, but it’s never been more important.
George Rodrigue is Editor at Large for Advance Local. He can be reached at GRodrigue@advancelocal.com.