|This is the second of a series of posts that explore the danger that the United States' hyper-polarized political environment might suddenly erupt into large-scale political violence. Links to the full series plus other escalation-related materials can be found on the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar/Blog page on Escalation.|
A big part of what makes the United States so hyper-polarized and dysfunctional is the terrible mathematics of "mobilize the base" politics. This political strategy is based on the disturbing (but likely accurate) belief that the key to winning elections in today's climate is not by winning support from undecided voters or the other side but, rather, turning out the vote on your own side.
For example, FiveThirtyEight estimates that so-called "swing voters" account for only about 6-7% of the electorate  At the same time, the percentage of the voting-eligible population that doesn't bother to vote is 40 to 50%.  Sadly, this means that the key to winning elections now, in the United States, is making apathetic voters on your side so terrified of the prospect that the other side might win that they actually vote. (Unfortunately, given the pandemic and today's many ongoing voter suppression efforts, voting may actually become quite difficult for many people, especially people of color.)
Not surprisingly, "fire-up-the-base" rhetoric frequently crosses the line into active hate-mongering. With both sides now feeling compelled to pursue this strategy, it is not surprising that we now see a powerful positive-feedback loop in which overt expressions of hostility and hatred on one side are fueling increasing expressions of hostility and hatred on the other side, in an ever-intensifying cycle.
|"Fire-up-the-base" rhetoric frequently crosses the line into active hate-mongering. This is further being amplified by sophisticated and deceptive political advertising and propaganda techniques and bots which send custom-tailored messages designed to convince people that knowledgeable people just like them are overwhelmingly behind this us-vs-them way of thinking and that the quest for a more compromise-oriented politics is a fool's errand, if not patently evil.|
This is further being amplified by sophisticated and deceptive political advertising and propaganda techniques that create the impression that the preponderance of opinion on both sides believe extreme hostility toward the other side is the only "right way" to think. What is unclear and underappreciated is the fact that much of this opinion comes from politically and financially-motivated media pundits and "bots." These bots use sophisticated algorithms to create and send custom-tailored messages designed to convince people that knowledgeable people just like them are overwhelmingly behind this us-vs-them way of thinking and that the quest for a more compromise-oriented politics is a fool's errand, if not patently evil.
Even more worrisome is the fact that people on both the Left and the Right seem to be increasingly questioning the wisdom of nonviolent approaches to political conflict. On the Right, you have a long-standing and frightening trend toward taking advantage of our lax gun laws to assemble an increasingly-powerful array of military-style weapons.
On the Left you now have the widespread demonization of all police officers and departments. In calling attention to the terrible transgressions of some officers and departments, protesters seem to under appreciate the fact that the vast majority of officers behave responsibly and that strong police / community relationships are critically important to the safety of their communities.
In this context, it is important to remember that the police are society's principal defense against those who might try to advance their personal or political objectives through violence and intimidation. If the Left persists in treating the entirety of law enforcement (not just those guilty of acting in brutal and indefensible ways) as the enemy, they could risk producing a self-fulfilling prophecy—the emergence of overtly-partisan policing with law enforcement starting to favor one side over the other, (rather than impartially enforcing the rule of law.)
In normal times, the above developments would be quite worrying. These, however, are not normal times. We are in the midst of a highly-politicized pandemic that threatens to completely overwhelm our healthcare system while also producing the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis that is on the verge of preventing very large numbers of people from meeting their most basic material needs.
|This is where we are now. In the next post, I'll discuss about what might happen to push us further over the edge—but then we'll turn to a discussion of how to avoid these various dystopias.|
 Geoffrey Skelley, "Just How Many Swing Voters Are There?" FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/just-how-many-swing-voters-are-there/]
 FairVote. "Voter Turnout." https://www.fairvote.org/voter_turnout#voter_turnout_101