U.S. DEMOCRACY SURVIVED JANUARY 6, 2021, BUT BARELY: HERE’S WHY AND WHAT CAN BE DONE
By Lida Tunesi
One year ago, a mob of insurrectionists attacked the United States Capitol. The violent attempt to disrupt the confirmation of Joe Biden’s presidential victory was a stark example of the consequences of extreme political polarization in the U.S.
|Professor Keena Lipsitz|
As co-first author on a new paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Keena Lipsitz (GC/Queens, Political Science) asked why this polarization exists. The divide is a threat to the nation’s democracy, the authors wrote.
“Our system is going to keep getting tested,” Lipsitz said. “That’s what January 6 was. It sort of held, but those forces are still there. Those people are determined to win at any cost.”
Though the attack on the Capitol was carried out by citizens, the mob was egged on by extremist leaders, Lipsitz said, and that is where much of the problem lies. It’s a known puzzle in political science that elected officials are generally more polarized than the public.
Using a model of opinion dynamics, Lipsitz and co-authors found that polarization among elites comes from self-reinforcement within political parties. This forms a cycle of positive feedback, pushing party ideals further and further in one direction.
“You’ve got donors who are trying to pull Republicans over to the right, and then the policy they want to push moves more to the right, then leaders of the party turn around and punish moderates by backing more conservative primary candidates,” Lipsitz said.
The same feedback takes place on the opposite side of the spectrum, but Republicans in Congress have moved further to the right than Democrats have moved to the left. This can be traced to swings in the public’s “policy mood,” a measure based on public opinion surveys, the study showed. Specifically, recent swings to the right have been bigger and more prolonged than swings to the left. Elected officials don’t moderate the effects of these swings as much as they used to, so the lopsided swings add up and drive the polarization seen in today’s political elites.
Eventually, a party can cross a dangerous threshold, the authors found. After this point, polarization speeds up and becomes nearly impossible to reverse. Republicans have already crossed the threshold, while Democrats are coming up to it.
There may be a small role for voters to play in slowing the process down.
“What we’ve seen over the last few decades is that political partisanship has become an important part of a person’s identity,” Lipsitz said. “Nobody defects from their party anymore when it comes to voting, but that used to be quite common. People need to get more informed and vote for candidates they agree with, irrespective of party.”
There is a limit to voters’ power, though. The authors were quoted in a recent opinion column in The New York Times by Thomas B. Edsall, saying that even if Republican voters took action, “so many other parts of the political process — interest groups, right-wing media, donors — encourage and reinforce the extremism that we expect it would have little effect.”
Lipsitz and her collaborators are starting new research conversations around where to apply negative pressure to stop the positive feedback loops, possibly by identifying members of Congress who could act as key moderators.
Academic research and publishing move slowly, though, and Lipsitz co-authored a Perspective paper published in the same journal issue addressing this problem.
“What this paper argues is that the kind of models and simulations used in the sciences could be used to try and understand and simulate different types of reform,” Lipsitz said. “That way we can give reformers some information so they don’t have to wait forever. This might be a way to move election reform forward in a more informed way.”
“We want to not just describe the problem,” Lipsitz said, “but find some remedies.”
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