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The relationships between polarization and democracy in the U.S.


The televised hearings into the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol have dropped bombshell after bombshell as former White House insiders pull back the curtain on the frenzied campaign by former President Donald Trump and his allies to hold onto power after he lost his bid for reelection. But at Tuesday's hearing, one of the most compelling testimonies didn't come from a polished former staffer or official but from Stephen Ayres, a fervent believer in Trump and his message, who says he came to D.C. on Trump's command and wound up storming the Capitol. It was only after his arrest that he says he looked at the facts about the 2020 election and realized it had not been stolen after all. Now, it may not be news, but if the January 6 hearings have proven anything, it's that Americans are bitterly divided, perhaps as divided as they've ever been. Despite that, though, we wondered whether these hearings might close that partisan gap in belief and identity in any way. To try to answer that question, we called Didi Kuo. She is the associate director for research at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and also a senior research scholar there. Professor Kuo, thanks so much for talking with us today.

DIDI KUO: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So, you know, every other day seems to bring some new study or survey or data point that shows that Americans are so deeply divided by political parties, deeply divided as they've ever been. They don't even like members of the other party. They don't want their kids to marry somebody who doesn't belong to the same political party. I was wondering, just to start with, was it always that way? Did political party loom so large in people's sense of themselves?

KUO: So political polarization has been on the rise for about four decades now in the United States, and there are many different causes of polarization. Some of them have to do with voting patterns. For example, Southern Democrats who are quite conservative have shifted towards the Republican Party since the 1980s or so. For 50 years, there had been stable Democratic majorities in the House of Congress. And since the '90s, there's been much more competition over the House majority. And there are other things that we could get into, for example, campaign finance and also the information environment, all of which contribute to more polarization between the parties.

MARTIN: People have pretty strong divisions in this country, certainly over race. I mean, people - you know, race has loomed so large in this country, you know, to the point where people would disown their children for marrying someone of a different race or a different religion. Has political party replaced those identity markers in some way? I mean, it sounds maybe like a ridiculous question, but has it?

KUO: No, that's actually a fantastic question. There's research showing that as we have progressed as a society, you can't explicitly discriminate against people based on their being racially different than you or having a different religion than you. In fact, people have become a lot more tolerant on a lot of those metrics. But it is also true that party has now become a somewhat acceptable substitute for those kinds of social cleavages and social identities. A party label gives you an easy heuristic, probably, about what someone's values are or what their political leanings are, for sure. But you are not necessarily saying you disagree with them because they have a racial or ethnic difference or a religious difference. Saying that it's based on partisan identity is still acceptable in ways that those previous divisions based on social identity are not.

MARTIN: Is it your view that political party has, in some ways, become a proxy for those other divisions? Or is it its own thing?

KUO: The research so far is mixed. It's not necessarily the case that we all really dislike each other, and now we've just found an acceptable way to label it. But there's also been an interesting trend that deepening polarization in the United States has actually alienated many voters, even people who ascribe to a partisan identity. So the number of independents has risen sharply over the past few years as polarization has widened. There's evidence indicating that they are more cynical about politics overall. On the other hand, there's evidence showing that people who self-identify as a partisan, especially if they do things like give money to a party or vote in a primary election, which very few Americans do, they tend to be more ideologically extreme than the average voter. And that has the effect of alienating people who don't feel like they have a home within either party.

MARTIN: So let's go back to Stephen Ayres. I'm curious, like, what you thought of his whole story, what brought him there. What did you make of it?

KUO: You're absolutely right that it was really different to have Stephen Ayres and Jason Van Tatenhove, the former Oath Keeper, testify as to their own experience because it was so personal. I think Stephen Ayres, that he described having horse blinders on because he was so deeply entrenched in a world of social media that he wasn't able to see any other evidence to the contrary of the big lie. And he also felt that there was a sense of purpose, that the president had summoned his followers to Washington, D.C., to help accomplish this coup. So to see them be able to disavow the beliefs that they once held, I think it's really powerful. Because we might debate what are the right policies or even whether or not polarization is, you know, bad or not. But I think that, really, what the hearings are showing is there are bright-lines and we cannot cross them, even if we completely disagree with one another politically. We need the peaceful transfer of power. We need presidents to accept the results of elections.

And I'm hoping that at the very least, the big takeaway from the hearings among all political stripes is that there are lines we will just not cross in American democracy. And hearing - you know, Stephen Ayres didn't say say I'm progressive now. He just said, I cannot support the big lie. And these actions made me go off the deep end, lose my job, lose my house. There are real-life consequences to radicalization, and I think it's been hopefully informative for people who feel, you know, a little persuaded by the big lie. A lot of Republican voters, for example, hopefully it's somewhat enlightening.

MARTIN: That's Didi Kuo. She's a senior research scholar and associate director for research at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Professor Kuo, thanks so much for talking with us today.

KUO: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.