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Democrats join Republicans in calling opponents ‘enemies’

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The idea behind democracy is, in part, that differences are resolved by consensus. That instead of competing for resources, we have a process of allocating power and assets that depends solely on the public will.

What happens when this will is determined is discussed with regularity. You win more votes, your side wins and we see what happens as a result. There is less discussion about what is required of the losing side. For democracy to work, we not only need to establish the most popular outcome, but we need defenders on the losing side to see victory as legitimate. Those with fewer votes must accept that they had fewer votes and, perhaps as important in our two-party system, to see a path to getting more votes in the future.

Democracy is not simply voting once and being done; it is a constant distribution of power based on the measure of public opinion. This in itself reinforces the usefulness of the process: if you don’t win today, you might win tomorrow.

This is exactly why recent trends in American politics are so alarming. There is the push, led by former President Donald Trump, to regard any electoral loss as suspicious even when it is clearly not the case. But there is also an increase in the extent to which members of either party see the other side not as adversaries of constantly refereed political power, but rather as enemies.

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In February 2021, shortly after President Biden took office, CBS News and its YouGov pollster released data showing that most Republicans viewed Democrats in precisely this way. Asked to rate whether Democrats were political opponents (meaning a Democratic victory simply meant not getting the policies you want) or enemies – “if they win, your life or your entire way of life may be in jeopardy” – most Republicans identified Democrats as enemies. Democrats, on the other hand, were more likely to call Republicans political opponents.

In research conducted last month, however, that changed. Now most Democrats are calling enemy Republicans their turn. There was a 17 point increase in the extent to which Democrats use this term to describe Republicans. Republicans are about as likely to describe Democrats as “enemies” as they were 17 months ago.

There is (as CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy pointed out) interesting demographic divides, especially when compared to the February 2021 results. For example, older Democrats saw a much larger increase in their identification of Republicans as “enemies” than younger Democrats. On the Republican side, it’s also true that younger party members are less likely to identify the opposition as “enemies.”

It’s also true that liberal Democrats are more likely to identify Republicans as “enemies” than more moderate Democrats. There aren’t enough moderate Republicans to voice their opinions, which is telling in itself.

Then there is the overlap of upbringing and race. White people in the Democratic Party are about as likely to call Republicans “enemies” whether or not they have a college degree. That’s not true among Republicans: Whites without a degree — a key bastion of Trump’s support base — are now more likely to use the term to describe those on the left.

It is useful to step back for a moment and remember what is being said here. Most Democrats and most Republicans now believe that seeing the other party win doesn’t just mean they adopt unfavorable policies, but that their very life may be at stake. At the very least, that would be their way of life.

YouGov and CBS also asked about it. A plurality of Americans believe that the greatest threat to the American way of life is other Americans. Among Republicans, slightly more see economic forces as the biggest threat; they are 18 points more likely to point to the economy (“such as money, trade and business”) than Democrats. Democrats are 17 points more likely to point fingers at the natural world (like viruses or climate change).

Note that the results above are among everything respondents, not just those who view the other side as enemies.

The tendency to demonize the other party is old. The days when there was a cordial struggle for power among Americans who had a generally shared sense of patriotism and national leadership have eroded, if not disappeared. Now, we are forced to view these poll results in the darkest context: when you view opponents as enemies rather than mere competitors, when you view election losses as more disastrous than temporary setbacks, the range responses to actions you disagree with expands.



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