How Long Can Democracy Survive QAnon and Its Allies?

Has a bloc of voters emerged that is not only alien to the American system of governance but toxic to it?

“The central weakness of our political system now is the Republican Party,” Daniel Ziblatt, a political scientist at Harvard, said in an interview with Vox on Jan. 13, a week after the storming of the Capitol.

“The American Republican Party looks like a European far-right party,” Ziblatt continued. “But the big difference between the U.S. and a lot of these European countries is that the U.S. only has two parties and one of them is like a European far-right party. If the G.O.P. only controlled 20 percent of the legislature, like you see in a lot of European countries, this would be far less problematic — but they basically control half of it.”

A central question, then, is how distant from the rest of the American electorate the voters who align themselves with the radical wing of the Republican Party are.

Rachel M. Blum and Christopher Sebastian Parker, political scientists at the Universities of Oklahoma and Washington, conducted a two-wave panel study of the MAGA movement in late December 2020 and the second half of January 2021 that was designed to answer this question and others.

They found that “at least 60 percent of them are white, Christian and male. Further, around half are retired, over 65 years of age, and earn at least $50K per year. Finally, roughly 30 percent have at least a college degree.” More than 50 percent were born at a time of white hegemony, before the civil rights and women’s rights movements and the sexual revolution.

Overwhelming majorities of the 1,431 MAGA supporters surveyed by Blum and Parker — from 80 to 99 percent — said they were concerned that “real Americans are losing freedoms”; “our lives are controlled by secret plots”; “unknown actors make the big decisions” and “forces are changing our country for the worse.”

These MAGA supporters, who were recruited after signaling sympathy for the movement on Facebook, were rock-solid Republicans, Blum and Parker found, voting at or near 100 percent for the party’s House and Senate candidates in 2018 and 2020, and for Trump last year. They are far more engaged in politics — contributing money, going to meetings and volunteering — than the average American. “By any metric, this group appears committed to the political process,” Blum and Parker wrote.

Not only are these voters partisan, the authors note, but “when we asked our respondents about whether or not they agreed with Trump’s fraud claims, 98 percent believed them valid.”

Blum and Parker cited a Pew Research Center survey that found “75 percent of Americans believe that Trump bears at least some responsibility” for the Jan. 6 mob attack on Congress. Among all Republicans, “this figure declines significantly to 52 percent.”

Blum and Parker also asked MAGA supporters whether Trump “bears responsibility for the Capitol riot.” They found that “barely 30 percent of these respondents believe Trump bears any responsibility whatsoever,” and, of those, more than half said Trump bears “a little” responsibility.

In contrast, they wrote, “roughly 95 percent of MAGA supporters believe Antifa — the left wing protest group — bears some responsibility for the riots,” with more than 85 percent agreeing that Antifa bears “a great deal” or “a lot” of responsibility.

Along similar lines, a Washington Post/ABC News survey taken Jan. 10-13 demonstrated how the views of a majority of Republicans stand far apart from the views of a majority of Americans.

Asked if Trump has acted “responsibly” or “irresponsibly” since the Nov. 3 election, the 1002 adults polled chose “irresponsibly” by 66-30. Republicans, in contrast, chose “responsibly” by 66-29.

Are Trump’s claims of election fraud “based on solid evidence?” All adults: 62 percent no, 31 percent yes. Republicans: 25 no, 65 yes.

Should Trump be “charged with the crime of inciting a riot?” All adults: yes 54, no 43. Republicans: yes 12, no 84.

What the panel studies and the Post survey suggest is that a majority of Republicans, primarily Trump loyalists and MAGA supporters, have evolved, as a core component of their conspiracy theories, a coded or a cryptic language — a set of symbols, or an almost occult “cipher,” revolving around something like a secret cabal. “We are Q,” read one sign at the event in Florida. “Where Go One We Go All,” read another, which is the QAnon movement’s revealing motto.

Using their accusations almost as a lingua franca, a way to identify the like-minded, MAGA partisans and followers of QAnon signal one another by alleging that pedophile rings seek to wrest control of government or by alleging that school shootings were staged by leftists to win passage of gun control. They evoke a world in which unknown forces pull the levers of government, where nothing is as it seems to be. Professing your belief in claims like these attests to MAGA loyalties while expressing — in an arcane, politicized shorthand — your fervent opposition to liberalism and racial and cultural change.

At the extreme, these conspiratorial views can lead to the violence and sedition of Jan. 6, which gives immediacy to the question of whether there are electoral reforms that might blunt the impact of this lunacy.

Several political scholars and strategists argue that the fault lies in our political system, that the unique way America has combined its government structure with the mechanics of its elections serves to exacerbate conflict in a deeply polarized country. These scholars have produced a variety of proposals, many involving the creation of multi-member congressional districts and the encouragement of proportional representation to replace the current single district, winner-take-all system.

Lee Drutman, author of “The Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multi-Party Democracy in America” and a senior fellow at New America, is a leading proponent of proportional representation.

In an email, Drutman contended that “a big consequence” of the reforms he and others are calling for

Drutman wrote that he has “come to realize how much of an existential threat the current Republican Party is to the continuation of America democracy.” A two-party democracy cannot survive “for very long if one of two dominant parties gives up on the foundational institution of democracy: free and fair elections, in which all votes count equally.”

In addition, Drutman wrote,

Proportional representation, he argued “is the only way to break up the current Republican coalition and free the pro-democracy forces within the Republican Party to compete on their own.”

What kind of parties would likely emerge under proportional representation? Drutman pointed to a separate 2019 survey by Echelon Insights, a survey research firm, that asked voters “Suppose the Democratic and Republican Parties were replaced by a new set of political parties. Which of these parties would you be most likely to support?”

The firm gave respondents five choices,

A nationalist-right party promising to “stop yasa dışı immigration, put America First, stand up to political correctness” attracted 19 percent.

A traditional-right party, committed to “defend the American system of free enterprise, promote traditional family,” won 21 percent.

A culturally liberal and globalist party with a platform committed to “advance social progress including women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, to work with other countries through free trade and diplomacy, to cut the deficit, and ıslahat capitalism with sensible regulation” gathered 12 percent.

A center-left party committed to putting “the middle class first, pass universal health insurance, strengthen labor unions, and raise taxes on the wealthy to support programs for those less well off” amassed 28 percent.

A green party with a platform calling for passage of “a Green New Deal to build a carbon-free economy with jobs for all, break up big corporations, end systemic inequality, and promote social and economic justice” picked up 10 percent.

Credit…Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Representative Don Beyer, Democrat of Virginia, plans to reintroduce The Fair Representation Act, which would, if enacted, put into place many of the reforms Drutman supports. Beyer wrote on his website that the measure

Drutman has received both support and criticism from specialists in elections.

Gretchen Helmke, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, wrote that Bright Line Watch — a group of political scientists that conducts surveys of experts and the general public — found that there was

Helmke noted that

Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, praises Drutman — “the real expert on this right now” — and noted that “if it were possible, I do think such a shift would decrease polarization because it would eliminate the zero-sum nature of American politics.”

In addition, Mason pointed out that

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth, wrote in reply to my inquiry: “I’m convinced by Lee Drutman’s argument in his Two Party Doom Loop book that we should move in this direction.”

Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard who examined different levels of dissatisfaction in democratic countries in “Is Western Democracy Backsliding?” finds evidence supportive of Drutman’s argument:

Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist at Georgia State University, proposed a set of reforms similar, but not identical, to those of Drutman and Beyer:

Along similar lines, Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University, emailed to say that she doubts proportional representation could be enacted in this country, but

Victor shares the view that Congress could repeal the law mandating single winner-take-all congressional districts to allow larger, multi-member districts coupled with

Victor also acknowledges that such a system would allow “the most extreme anti-democratic forces now present in U.S. politics to be institutionalized.” But, she continued, “that faction has always been there, even when we pretended it was gone. At least under a multiparty system it would be contained and perhaps minimized.”

There is no guarantee, she notes, but it is possible that

Other political experts question the effectiveness, feasibility and benefits of multi-member districts and proportional representation.

Stephen Ansolabehere, a political scientist at Harvard, said by email that “a PR system would be political suicide for the parties.” Why, he asked, “would either party — let alone both — want to change?”

This idea, Ansolabehere, “is not going anywhere. Good armchair speculation but it has no political support.”

Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, raised another set of issues:

But, he continued,

More important, Cain argues,

The very fact that there is considerable disagreement within the ranks of political scientists, a center-left constituency, suggests that prospects for major reforms of the election system by Congress are not good.

The key question is whether the formation of an angry and virulently discontent base of MAGA voters in the Republican Party — spreading obscurantist, cultish pseudo-politics — will push the long-term problems of polarization past a tipping point, threatening even more dangerous levels of disruption to the political system.

If growing numbers of citizens and elected officials reach that conclusion, the odds could change, as more voters and politicians join John Carey, a political scientist at Dartmouth, in the view that

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