The storming of the US Capitol by
Trump supporters at his suggestion on January 6 — the day of the Electoral College
vote certification in favor of President-elect Biden — will live on in infamy. Many
will rightly condemn Trump and the mob and call for action, such as another set
of impeachment articles or the invocation of the 25th Amendment.
However, I believe the sixth of January may serve as a turning point for the nation. My hope is this act of violence and sedition by a small, extreme minority wakes the majority of Americans — who are not extreme, are not focused on politics, and believe in compromise — to engage politically and stop giving so much ground to an unrepresentative, extreme political elite which has polarized the nation, supported out-of-touch representatives, and fostered a vitriolic us-vs-them dynamic. As significant numbers of Americans are not political animals and do not vote, it is highly likely that most Americans do not realize that the nature of political discourse and future of the nation would be in their hands — not those of the elites — if they participated more.
This gap between these elites and the masses is not immediately apparent. But consider this: while much has been said about the power of various media channels in spurring the mob in Washington, most Americans pay no attention to these platforms. While mentions of Fox News are seemingly omnipresent in media, Fox’s regular viewership is barely a blip among the populace. At present, there are roughly 330 million citizens in the United States; Fox, the most-watched TV network during nightly primetime hours, averages 3.6 million viewers, followed by MSNBC’s 2.2 million. Together, the homes of Hannity and Maddow have a nightly audience of less than 2 percent of the entire population; by comparison, almost 10 million watched the Dodgers beat the Rays in the most recent pandemic-World Series (a low number for baseball).
Moreover, although Twitter appears to be everywhere, just 6 percent of US adults on Twitter account for 73 percent of political tweets, and these voices mostly disapprove of Trump and tend to be extreme liberals in their own bubble.
Going further, data from a recent national study from AEI’s Survey Center on American Life show that just 10 percent of Americans are on the political extremes, while most Americans are much closer to the middle — a robust multi-decade trend.
The survey also documents
a large disconnect in terms of political engagement. Barely a quarter of those in the middle said
they had publicly supported a political campaign on social media; the figure
doubled for ideologues, with roughly half saying they had. Huge differences also
emerged with respect to attending a political rally, protest, speech, or
campaign event. While just 9 percent of moderates showed up for some event, 28
percent of extreme liberals and 18 percent of extreme conservatives had done
the same. As for wearing clothing with a political message, only 10 percent of
moderates have done this, compared to a quarter of extreme liberals and a third
of extreme conservatives.
More importantly, the survey presents a finding critical to understanding our polarization: Americans on the extremes have attitudes that treat politics as core to their identity, while most moderate Americans do not. The survey asked if one’s political views say a lot about what kind of person they are — that is, can someone judge one’s character from one’s politics? Among moderates, only 10 percent “completely agree” that politics and character are tightly linked, but that figure more than triples on the extremes: 35 percent of each “completely agree” that ideology and character are deeply coupled. When political positions fuse with one’s sense of self, losses and wins are statements about self-worth and humanity which can lead to the extreme behavior unleashed in Washington.
In short, politics has become so divisive and
polarized because there is a loud, engaged group of extreme ideologues who see
politics as a battle for their souls and the soul of America. They have an
outsized voice compared to a larger group of reasonable, thoughtful centrists
who are far less engaged. This reasonable majority of Americans must speak up
and demand the nation and its elected officials live up to our values of
working with others and hearing the other side.
With any luck, the recent darkness of January 6 will open the nation’s eyes to the truth that our political system does not have to remain mired in anger and chaos. Politics should craft and refine institutions that build up all of us; the physical destruction of one of our nation’s most sacred landmarks should be a wake-up call for all Americans that we can and must be better.