How Effective Is the Politics of Division?

Florida is a perfect microcosm of the politics of division.

The politics of division was evident in continual injection of vile racism into the Governor’s race by the campaign of likely Governor-elect Ron DeSantis.

But the politics of division, designed to mobilize Republican voters, has not ended with election day. Even as the Broward County Elections Board continued to tally early, absentee, mail-in and provisional ballots throughout the week, Republican politicians from within as well as outside the state (including the current incumbent of the Oval Office) responded to the narrowing Republican lead in the races for Senate and Governor by lobbing charges of “fraud” and concerted efforts to “steal” the election – without evidence.

The charges continue a strategy of division involving racist language and accusations unmoored from reality designed simply to mobilize a constituency that places political partisanship above democratic accountability.

In an earlier blog post I wrote about California’s 50thcongressional district as a natural experiment.

There, a Republican incumbent indicted on charges of campaign finance fraud and conspiracy won reelection. The lengthy series of charges enumerated in the indictment is harrowing, documenting a stunning betrayal of the public trust and frivolous flouting of the law. Duncan Hunter nonetheless captured 53.5% of the vote in a heavily Republican district, defeating his opponent by a margin of 6.6 percentage points.

Like DeSantis in Florida, Hunter ran a horrifically racist campaign that reached its nadir with an ad combining themes of border security and fear of terrorism that accuses his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar of seeking to “infiltrate” Congress on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood while referencing both his Mexican and Palestinian heritage.

So what are the results of the “natural experiment” in California District 50 and of the politics of division more generally?

First, while Hunter was not held accountable for his massive corruption, violation of the public trust and complete lack of moral standards, his margin of victory was far narrower than in 2016 (27 points).  While some voters likely shifted their vote to his opponent, much of the 2018 result is explained by turnout, which was considerably higher than for the last midterm election in 2014.

Put differently, even if relatively few voters will change their support in favor of accountability, the good news is that the divisive politics that mobilizes political partisans also mobilizes those vehemently opposed to the politics of division.

As in Florida, the closeness of major races across the country (Georgia’s race for Governor, the Arizona Senate race) suggest that there is likely little movement across party lines. As I’ve argued in several posts, individuals tend to respond to evidence that contradicts their world view by clinging more tightly to that view, while simply shifting the justification for their position (as one Hunter supporter wrote to the San Diego Tribune on October 10, (a) the charges against him have not yet been proven; and (b) the timing of the allegations is suspicious – adding room for doubt even in the face of overwhelming evidence).

What does this assessment of the politics of division portend for 2020?

State-wide results of contests for governor in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania indicate that those states may switch back into the Democratic camp. Such an outcome would shift 46 electoral votes from R to D, resulting in a Democratic Electoral College edge of 278 to 260 if all other states return results identical to 2016.


governor races 2018.png

As promising as that may sound to those who wish to end the present national nightmare at the presidential level, the sad reality is that the politics of division will continue, as they do in Florida and Georgia today. The cost to democratic discourse, accountability and institutions will mount.

To succeed, a Democratic presidential candidate will have to counter the ugly politics of division with a broader, desperately-needed, but difficult to sustain politics of unity and shared national purpose.

Perhaps such a candidate can make things just a little Beto?