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?


The Virtue of Political Accountability

I am in Oslo this week, investigating sustainability issues and government accountability in Norway. While there is no easy comparison between a country of 5.3 million people with low levels of poverty and income inequality and the United States, the contrast in degrees of political accountability could not be starker.

For all its tradition of social democracy through much of the 20th century, Norway is now governed by a right-wing coalition that includes a libertarian/nationalist/populist party advocating strict controls on immigration and asylum-seekers. This includes a Progress Party proposal to essentially criminalize asylum seekers by detaining in secure facilities those arriving without documentation as well as those whose asylum applications are rejected.

Three months ago, Norway’s Justice Minister, Progress Party member Sylvi Listhaug, posted on Facebook comments accusing the opposition Labour Party (Norway’s single largest party) of weakness in combatting terrorism.

Specially, Listhaug wrote that Labour put “terrorist’s rights” above national security.

The Stortinget, Noway’s parliament building

Context makes the remarks particularly offensive, painful and highly inappropriate. Seven years ago, on July 22, 2011, a terrorist attack by a Progress Party supporter targeted a Labour Party youth summer camp in the worst mass shooting in Norway’s post-World War II history. The perpetrator set off a car bomb in central Oslo, killing 8, and then boarded a ferry to the island of Utoya. Impersonating a police officer checking on security in the wake of the car bombing, he spent 90 minutes executing 69 young people for their political affiliation.

What was the political reaction to the March 2018 remarks of Norway’s right-wing Justice Minister?

The opposition parties unified in condemnation of the minister’s comments, vowing to issue a vote of no confidence in the government if Listhaug did not resign.

Although Listhaug resorted to the empty “free speech” defense that has become so tiresome as justification for outrageously uncivil and destructive comments in American politics, she ultimately did resign. Listhaug was free to speak her mind. But she was held accountable for her verbal recklessness.

Accountability is vital for democracy; without it, trust in governing institutions, trust between citizens and the willingness to treat political opponents as loyal fellow citizens evaporates.

Politics in Norway may in recent years have become highly contentious, but a sense of competition between competing policy agendas nonetheless endures.

Perhaps so for Norway, but no longer for the United States.

In U.S. politics, spokespersons for the current administration now say virtually anything, no matter how scurrilous, about anyone – from the Prime Minister of a friendly country to a former U.S. President or Vice President, to elected members of the opposition party, to the policies and role of the Democratic Party, with increasing abandon and zero accountability.

Over time, the ultimate casualty may be democracy itself.