The United States is experiencing an existential democracy crisis, with leading Republicans and millions of their voters and supporters either tacitly or explicitly embracing authoritarianism or fascism. Democrats, for the most part, have not responded with the urgency required to save America’s democracy from the rising neofascist tide.
American society was founded on white settler colonialism, genocide and slavery. This unresolved “birth defect” at the foundation of the American democratic experiment meant that the country was racially exclusionary by design, from the founding well into the 20th century. At present, American politics is contoured by asymmetrical political polarization, in which Republicans have moved so far to the right that the party’s most “moderate” members are far more extreme than the most “conservative” Democrats. This makes substantive compromise and bipartisanship in the interests of the common good and the American people almost impossible.
Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Trump supporters and Trump-loathers, increasingly do not live in the same neighborhoods or communities. In all, they largely do not socialize with each other, or have other forms of meaningful interpersonal relationships in day-to-day life.
To the degree that “race” is a proxy for political values and beliefs, the color line functions as a practical dividing line of partisan identity and voting. Religion is also a societal space that is divided by politics. For example, public opinion research shows that white right-wing evangelical Christians have increasingly embraced authoritarian views, conspiracy theories and other anti-democratic and antisocial values.
As the new Faith in America survey by Deseret News & Marist College highlights, the basic understanding of the role of religion in a secular democracy has become so polarized that 70% of Republicans believe that religion should influence a person’s political values, where as only 28% of Democrats and 45% of independents share that view.
Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, also do not consume the same sources of information about news and politics. Conservatives now inhabit their own self-created media echo chamber, which functions as a type of lie-filled and toxic closed episteme and sealed-off universe. The creation of such an alternate reality is an important attribute of fascism, in which truth itself must be destroyed and replaced with fantasies and fictions in support of the leader and his movement.
America’s struggle for democracy and freedom against authoritarianism is taking place on a biological level as well. Social psychologists and other researchers have shown that the brain structures of conservative-authoritarians are different than those of more liberal and progressive thinkers. The former are more fear-centered, emphasizing threats and dangers (negativity bias), intolerant of ambiguity and inclined to simple, binary solutions. Conservative-authoritarians are also strongly attracted to moral hierarchy and social dominance behavior.
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Recent research by Darren Sherkat, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, demonstrates that America’s democracy crisis may be even more intractable than the above evidence suggests. In his recent article “Cognitive Sophistication, Religion, and the Trump Vote,” which appeared in the January 2021 edition of Social Science Quarterly, Sherkat examined data from the 2018 General Social Survey and concluded that there are substantial negative differences between the thinking processes and cognition of white Trump voters, as shown in the 2016 presidential election, as compared to other voters who supported Hillary Clinton or another candidate, or who did not vote at all.
Sherkat observes that Trump support has been linked to religion and level of education, but until now not to “cognitive sophistication,” which was found “to have a positive effect on voting, but a negative effect on choosing Trump.” He notes that “philosophers and political elites have debated the potential effects of mass political participation” for generations, concerned “about the unsophisticated masses coming under the sway of a demagogue.” In effect, this debate was always about the quality he calls cognitive sophistication, since citizens who lack it “may not be able to understand and access reliable and valid information about political issues and may be vulnerable to political propaganda”:
Low levels of cognitive sophistication may lead people to embrace simple cognitive shortcuts, like stereotypes and prejudices that were amplified by the Trump campaign. Additionally, the simple linguistic style presented by Trump may have appealed to voters with limited education and cognitive sophistication. Beginning with [T.W.] Adorno’s classic study of the authoritarian personality, empirical works have linked low levels of cognitive sophistication with right-wing orientations….
Trump’s campaign may also have been more attractive to people with low cognitive sophistication and a preference for low-effort information processing because compared to other candidates Trump’s speeches were given at a much lower reading level…. While much of the Trump campaign’s rhetoric and orientation may have resonated with the poorly educated and cognitively unsophisticated, those overlapping groups are less likely to register to vote or to turn out in an election.
As part of his research, Sherkat evaluated the political decision-making and cognition of Trump’s voters, using a 10-point vocabulary exam. In a guest essay at the website Down with Tyranny, he explains what this vocabulary test revealed about white Trump voters:
Overall, the model predicts that almost 73% of respondents who missed all 10 questions would vote for Trump (remember, that is controlling for education and the other factors), while about 51% who were average on the exam are expected to vote for Trump. Only 35% of people who had a perfect score on the exam are predicted to be Trump supporters.
Notably, this very strong, significant effect of verbal ability can be identified within educational groups. While non-college whites certainly turned out more heavily for Trump, the smart ones did not — only 38% of those with perfect scores are expected to go for Trump, and only 46% of non-college graduates who scored a standard deviation above the mean. The same is true for college graduates — low cognition college graduates were more likely to vote for Trump. …
What is really depressing isn’t just the poles of the vocabulary exam, it’s the average. The mean and median of the scale is 6 — so half of white Americans missed 4 of the easy vocabulary questions.
Sherkat’s research also explored how religion impacted support for Donald Trump among white voters: “This study confirms that white Americans with fundamentalist views of the Bible and those who embrace identifications with sectarian Protestant denominations tended to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.”
Belief that the Bible is the literal “word of God” also impacted Trump voting: “Viewing the Bible as a book of fables is also significantly predictive of vote choice, with secular beliefs reducing the odds of a Trump vote by 80 percent when compared to literalists, and reducing the odds of a Trump vote by 52 percent when compared to respondents who view the Bible as inspired by God.”
In an email to Salon, Sherkat offered additional context and implication on the relationship between white Christianity, American neofascism and cognition:
The problem of the contemporary American fascist right is rooted in education and information. And this problem is not simply about attainment of some quantity of education, but of the quality and content of education, how that leads generations of white Christian Americans to process information about a wide range of issues. The segregation academies that proliferated in the mid-1960s and accelerated in the 1970s have taught millions of Americans a radically skewed version of American and world history and encouraged a continued segregated society. The homeschooling movement augmented this division, and further denigrated the value of knowledge.
White fundamentalist Christians have always segmented their communities from the rest of America, and even exert considerable control over public educational institutions, particularly in rural areas and in the states which embraced slavery. White fundamentalist Christians distrust mainstream social institutions like education and print media, and they actively seek to eliminate public education and to provide alternative sources of information. As a result, people who identify with and participate in white Christian denominations and who subscribe to fundamentalist beliefs have substantial intellectual deficits that make them easy marks for a wide variety of schemes — from financial fraud to conspiracy theories.
If you can’t read the New York Times, you’re going to believe whatever you hear on talk radio or on television. It’s simply impossible for people with limited vocabularies and low levels of cognitive functioning to make sense of the complex realities of the political world. And we now have a population where for 55 years substantial fractions of white people have gone to private fundamentalist Christian schools that leave them both indoctrinated in Christian nationalism and ill-prepared to process any additional information. Worse, we now have over a million children in a given year who are homeschooled by parents who are uneducated white fundamentalists — and that total has been pretty constant for three decades since the homeschooling movement blossomed.
What does this mean for the present and future of American democracy in this time of crisis? Sherkat cited the “disturbing … influence of anti-intellectualism on American public life,” which lends “performative power to ignorant elites”:
Spouting off obvious untruths is no longer a mark of shame, because even basic historical and contemporary truths are not recognized. We seem to have a stable set of about 30% of Americans, 35% of white Americans, who are oblivious to political realities and incapable and unwilling to come to terms with any of our key social problems. The increasing control over public education by right-wing fanatics is entrenching ignorance and intellectual laziness in future generations. It does not bode well for the future of American democracy.
Donald Trump and his movement did not create all these American authoritarians and aspiring fascists. Such people have long been a feature of American society. What Trump and have accomplished in recent years is to empower and normalize a dangerous set of antisocial, anti-human, retrograde and anti-democratic values and beliefs.
Saving America’s democracy will require a moral and political reckoning and acts of critical self-reflection on a nationwide scale about the American people’s character and values, and about how their leaders and governing institutions have failed them.
Changes in laws and institutions are necessary. But on their own, such interventions will not stop the spread of fascism. A lasting remedy will demand that the country’s political, cultural, and educational institutions be renewed, re-energized, and reimagined. The questions Americans must ask themselves are simple yet enormous: Who are we? What are we to become? How can we unite in defense of democracy, the common good and the general welfare? Without real answers to those questions, there will be no democratic renewal in the 21st century — and fascism wins.
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