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Can We Heal America?
An interview with Norman J. Ornstein.
Ornstein and his colleague Thomas E. Mann have put forward major critiques of the GOP—take a look at the critiques that they published back in 2012:
How can journalists respond to a GOP that’s gone badly off the rails? This is a difficult problem for journalists—journalists want to treat the GOP like a normal political party, but what if it isn’t and what if voters need to know that it isn’t?
The old “both sides” journalism isn’t logical or responsible in this era. And this “both sides” journalism might even cause American democracy to die—that’s how serious the current threats are.
I was honored and thrilled to interview Ornstein—see below my interview with him that I edited for flow, organized by topic, and added hyperlinks to.
1) What do you think about the below quote from my 4 April 2021 piece “What’s Polarization All About?”?
Gridlock harms and damages a country, and causes great destruction, and ruins people’s lives—it’s ethically shocking that a political party would strategically induce gridlock in order to roar back into power based on voters’ gridlock-induced anger.
We’ve obviously seen in the past that politics plays a role in whether a party’s members support or oppose things that the other party’s president puts forward.
But we haven’t seen before a systematic effort to block everything that a political party does. Just look at the Republicans’ behavior during the Obama years—the Republicans knew that if they cooperated and allowed things to pass then that would’ve given Obama leverage, so they worked to block things. And they used the filibuster in a fashion that it hadn’t been used before:
And this time around McConnell said early on that he was putting all of his efforts behind stopping Biden’s agenda.
We expect our parties to have strong views—partisanship is built into our system. But we also expect our parties to try to solve problems. And right now we have one party that isn’t interested in solving problems.
And in fact, they’re not only not interested in solving problems, but they’re actually almost gleeful when problems expand and explode. Look at the way Republicans are handling Covid right now—they’re doing everything they can to make sure that this pandemic doesn’t go away, even though their own voters and constituents are primarily the ones who are in the firing line and more likely to die.
So it’s stunning and reprehensible that this kind of amorality—or immorality—is now par for the course.
2) How would you describe the GOP in 2022? You described the GOP as a “radical insurgency” in your 2013 essay, but a lot has taken place since 2013:
We talked in that essay about a party that had contempt for the existing order—for rules, norms, and science. And obviously that’s expanded and gotten worse.
A few things are stunning to me.
First, the unwillingness of all but literally a handful or less of Republicans in the House and Senate to stand up against Trump and stand up against the move towards autocracy. Two-thirds of House Republicans on January 6th—after their own lives had been threatened and the US Capitol had been trashed—came back that afternoon and voted that Biden hadn’t won the election legitimately. You see across the board a lack of moral courage—and a lack of any kind of spine—that’s even worse than I anticipated, although our 2012 book did make it clear that we were deteriorating.
Second and even more frightening, the number of Republicans in the country willing to consider the use of violence if their way of life is threatened. We saw horrific violence on January 6th—the GOP displayed shock in the few days after the attack, but then the GOP did everything to whitewash it and cover it up and suggest that it was nothing particularly unusual and that it didn’t have anything to do with them. And now January 6th is being politicized.
Third, the GOP’s willingness to use any tactic possible to gain power or to hold power—you see a lack of concern about laws and moral standards and norms. And this willingness extends almost across the board, including governors and state legislatures and especially the House and Senate. And you even have the partisan hackery that we see in the courts and especially in the Supreme Court. So all of that willingness is somewhat worse than I’d anticipated back when I co-wrote the 2012 book.
3) Would you call the GOP “fascist”?
We need a firm definition of the word “fascist”, but many people I respect have used that term, and I think we’re at least heading in that direction.
If you look at the language that Republicans like Marco Rubio used before Donald Trump got elected, there was a realization that Trump was a narcissistic sociopath and an authoritarian thug, and then you see the blind obedience to Trump after Trump gained power:
“Republicans warned this day would come. Then they forgot.” (7 January 2021)
So that certainly fits the “fascist” label.
4) What are the most dangerous tendencies in the GOP today, and which specific moments in the GOP’s recent evolution have elicited the most concern in you?
Look at the willingness to reject fundamental norms.
The Supreme Court especially comes to mind—we saw the hardball tactics used against Merrick Garland when Obama was president, and then we saw them vote almost unanimously to put Amy Coney Barrett on the court almost eight days before a presidential election.
That behavior says volumes about who they are. And it’s quite remarkable to see.
5) If some right-winger says “I’m not concerned yet”, what should they read that might move the needle with them?
There are so many things to read:
A Very Stable Genius (2020)
I Alone Can Fix It (2021)
How Democracies Die (2018)
On Tyranny (2017)
6) Do you personally know any right-wing people who aren’t yet worried about the GOP, and what things might the GOP do in the future that would cause right-wing people who aren’t yet worried to say “OK, now I’m worried”?
I know smart and mostly decent people who have—to use the cliché—drunk the Kool-Aid. And there frankly isn’t much to say to them.
We don’t have systematic data on this, but I’d imagine that the belief that Covid is no big deal goes together with denial about January 6th. I know smart and educated people who refuse to wear masks and won’t get vaccinated—these same people are likely to think that nothing much really happened on January 6th, that it was probably Antifa, that it was a small group of people, and that the institutions will hold just fine. These attitudes are quite common and are stubbornly resistant to change.
Some people’s views might change in response to the January 6th committee’s public hearings. And in response to the evidence accumulating from that investigation about what happened on January 6th, about Trump’s role in what happened, and about the extent to which a larger conspiracy took place in November 2020 and in December 2020.
Another bout of right-wing violence might cause some people to change their views, but we’ve become so tribal that I don’t think that anything will unite the country in the short run in the way that 9/11 united the country.
7) What do you think about the poll results discussed in the pieces below? And how reliable and solid and accurate are these polls?
“The Republican Party is an authoritarian outlier” (22 September 2020)
There’s some bluster out there—we saw poll results saying that an overwhelming majority of unvaccinated people would leave their jobs if they were forced to get vaccinated, but then in places where vaccine requirements were implemented the actual number turned out to be a trace element.
A lot of these militia groups and right-wing groups and white supremacist groups have internal disputes. And in many cases these gangs can’t shoot straight in any fashion. And these extremist people are isolated in some ways, though social media does bring them together.
But we know from Robert Pape’s surveys that the threats of violence are real—these surveys have enough in them that we should be very troubled and enough in them that we should expect significant violence if things get bad:
We can expect misguided people to take up arms—think of the guy who brought a gun into Comet Ping Pong and was ready to give up his life to protect innocent children from being molested in the basement.
We have to confront the support for authoritarianism, which is a larger problem than Donald Trump—surveys show that young voters don’t have a deep attachment to democracy, and I think that that’s partly because young people have seen government do nothing throughout their lives except falter and not work very well.
As for QAnon, it’s shocking and troubling that a significant share of Republicans—whether it’s 15% or 30% or whatever it is—believe this crazy stuff. The internet makes it quite easy to get complete buy-in from people when it comes to crazy conspiracy theories. And neighbors and friends and social media can then reinforce these crazy beliefs.
We also know that people who go all-in on a cult are OK with being lied to and will stay in the cult even if they’re lied to. Look at the people who were told that JFK Jr. was going to appear in Dallas on a particular date—they went down there and he didn’t appear and they were told “Well, it’ll happen later”. So it’s just like the people who gather together because the apocalypse is coming on Thursday, and then it’s Friday and it still hasn’t happened and the cult followers are given a new date.
So people are dangerously susceptible to these cults.
8) What’s your take on Barton Gellman’s 6 December 2021 piece “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun”? Gellman describes a “clear and present danger that American democracy will not withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it”—Gellman says that “Republican acolytes have identified the weak points in our electoral apparatus and are methodically exploiting them” and that “tens of millions of aggrieved Trump supporters” are “armed and single-minded and will know what to do the next time Trump calls upon them to act”.
I think it’s largely accurate—I think it’s a very powerful and very disturbing piece.
We know that people who wanted to block Biden’s election and continue the Trump presidency looked at what happened in November 2020, looked at where the weak points in the system were, and started to systematically target those weak points in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Iowa, and other states.
This attack is happening in plain sight. And our inability to respond to this could be fatal.
9) Suppose that Trump vanished—what would happen to the GOP?
We began to see all of this obstruction take place back during the Obama years, so a post-Trump GOP will revert to something like the Obama-era obstructionism.
The GOP’s next leader will be another Trumpian who will portray themselves as smarter, tougher, and meaner. And in the House, Jim Jordan is the single most likely person to become speaker if the GOP regains a majority. And in the Senate, we’ll continue to have Mitch McConnell.
So after Trump’s departure, it will still be an enormous challenge to restore the system’s integrity.
Understanding People’s Grievances
1) Which right-wing grievances have a basis in fact and morality, and what are the best things to read in order to understand the major right-wing grievances? Arlie Hochschild’s 2016 book Strangers in Their Own Land investigates right-wing grievances—Noam Chomsky commented that the people discussed in the book:
see themselves as standing in a line. They’ve been working hard all their lives, their parents worked hard, they’re doing all the right things.…They go to church, they read the Bible, they have traditional families, and so on. They’ve done everything the right way.…What bothers them is that the people behind them in the line, as they see it, are being pushed ahead of them by the federal government.
And Chomsky said that America’s towns have been absolutely devastated and that there’s some basis for a “sense of a lost world”.
Frank published What’s the Matter with Kansas? in 2004, at the height of the George W. Bush presidency.…
The Kansas title alone spoke to one of Frank’s central observations: while red state voters might frame objections in terms of issues like abortion or busing, in a broader sense the Republican voter is recoiling from urban liberal condescension.
That Democrats needed Thomas Frank to tell them what conservatives fifteen miles outside the cities were thinking was damning in itself. Even worse was the basically unbroken string of insults emanating from pop culture (including from magazines like Rolling Stone: I was very guilty of this) describing life between the cities as a prole horror peopled by obese, Bible-thumping dolts who couldn’t navigate a Thai menu and polished gun lockers instead of reading.
This book discusses the Tea Party movement and provides good historical background:
These books are also useful histories:
The Hochschild book is definitely important too:
Strangers in Their Own Land (2016)
I think there’s something to the condescension issue, but frankly this issue is being exploited and exaggerated—propagandists who want to move towards authoritarianism know that victimhood is the biggest motivator out there that you can exploit, so these propagandists always try to convince their followers that they’re victims. Trump brilliantly and viscerally went after white and working-class white voters in 2016—Trump’s argument resonated with people who believed that they’d been looked down on, even though Trump was the last person who had any real sympathy for those people.
And these propagandists also turn their own weaknesses on these propagandists’ opponents—think about the fact that the people who were themselves trying to steal an election used the slogan “Stop the Steal”, and think about the fact that the people who stormed the Capitol are now being lionized and venerated on Fox and on right-wing media as the true victims.
We can’t underestimate Covid’s impact when it comes to right-wing grievances—the turmoil and shutdowns and employment insecurity brought a high level of unhappiness and unease and discomfort and distemper across the nation. It looked like we were finally coming out of it, but then Delta hit. And then Omicron hit.
Regarding the Virginia election results, I think that “critical race theory” and race mattered, but I think that the real issue was that many Virginians had shouldered a huge burden due to the school shutdowns—these Virginians felt that school boards specifically and Democrats more generally didn’t understand that burden, didn’t empathize with the people who had shouldered that burden, and were being cavalier about that burden. So that feeling on the part of many Virginians fit in perfectly with the right-wing propaganda framework.
Of course, Hochschild’s work shows that people vote their values instead of their self-interest. Her 2016 book discusses people who—after their own lives and their own communities had been devastated due to oil spills and chemical pollution—continued to vote for people who wanted to dismantle environmental regulations.
And regarding Covid, unvaccinated people are dying—or facing long Covid—due to the policies that their governors and legislatures have implemented, but these people will continue to vote for those politicians.
How do you make these people understand that you’re not cavalier about their needs and values, and how do you make these people understand that they’re actually being tricked? It’s not easy to make these people understand these things.
2) What are you supposed to say to someone about a counterfactual grievance like the grievance that Hochschild’s 2016 book describes where people think that their problems trace to the federal government’s favoritism toward Black people and immigrants?
We’ve learned that arguing facts just doesn’t work in cases like this—when people really believe something, they’ll use all their brain synapses to deny any challenge to what they believe.
So the better way to deal with this is to get the economy booming enough that people have decent jobs. And to give people the safety net protections in the Build Back Better plan, some of which were in the American Rescue Plan.
Hopefully people will be less likely to fall victim to right-wing propaganda when they’re doing better, and they have better jobs, and they have more support.
3) Why can’t you just explain that powerful elite interests are to blame and that favoritism toward Black people and immigrants isn’t to blame?
Fake right-wing populism is a powerful appeal that can distract you from the reality of the policies that are being pursued.
And I think that the mainstream media has a lot of culpability for our current crisis. The mainstream media just wants to “report both sides”, and that makes it look like things are morally equivalent—the media doesn’t jolt voters into realizing that one party has gone completely off the rails, and so voters continue to vote as if the GOP is a normal political party.
Margaret Sullivan made a very powerful appeal to the mainstream media—she said that the mainstream media must recognize the clear and present and real threats to our democracy and treat these threats just as urgently as we treat climate change:
So her point is that the mainstream media can’t continue to treat US politics like it’s just politics as usual.
4) What do you make of the “Great Replacement” grievance? There’s a 2021 presentation that discusses this grievance:
“Understanding American Domestic Terrorism” (6 April 2021)
The presentation says that a county was six times more likely to send a January 6th insurrectionist if the percentage of non-Hispanic whites had declined in the county; that “Among Americans, believing that blacks and Hispanics are overtaking Whites increases odds of being in the insurrectionist movement three-fold”; and that “Among conservative Americans, fear that blacks and Hispanics will have more rights than whites increases odds of being in the insurrectionist movement two-fold”.
And Chomsky said this about the issue:
It’s easy to scoff at Great Replacement absurdities, and to condemn the demagogues and cynics who exploit them for their ugly purposes. But it’s not hard to see why they appeal to parts of the population—mostly rural, white, Christian, less educated, relatively affluent, often tending toward white supremacist commitments and Christian nationalism. The absurdities resonate because they rest on a core of fact: Those who have survived under the jackboot for centuries are demanding basic rights and are receiving more general support. BLM and its broad outreach have significantly advanced this cause. The “traditional way of life” that rests on denying these rights is facing threats, including demographic realities.
It’s not necessary here to trace how these conflicts have poisoned American society from its origins. They remain virulent, unpredictable, affecting many aspects of life and the social order.
The “Great Replacement” stuff is racist—plain and simple. And it’s also anti-Semitic—the “Jews will not replace us” chant is a part of it.
The “Great Replacement” propaganda appeals to people’s worst racial instincts. This propaganda can be effective if you feel embattled and if you feel like you’re about to lose the one thing—your status as a member of the ethnic majority—that you had going for you.
It’s just hard to overcome propaganda like that. And this propaganda can lead to more extreme views and more extreme measures.
5) I’m confused about the “Great Replacement” grievance—aren’t these demographic changes restricted to cities anyway, what specific and concrete and material threats are demographic changes supposed to pose to anyone, and how can you feel aggrieved that America is being taken away from you unless you’re wealthy and powerful enough that you actually have something to lose in a changing America?
There’s an analogy here to the Reconstruction era when freed Black slaves were working on farms as sharecroppers right next door to poor white sharecroppers—there was every reason to imagine that an alliance would form between the freed slaves and the poor white sharecroppers and that this alliance would take over the political arena.
But the rich plantation owners and their allies figured out that the way to deal with this was to use race to drive a wedge between these two groups. And that wedge prevailed in the country really from the 1870s on up to—at the earliest—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
So we’re seeing the same playbook being used again.
You’ve made some logic-based statements about the “Great Replacement”, but we’re not talking about logic—this is about propaganda and emotion and a broad sense of aggrievement and a broad sense of victimhood, so this isn’t about actual self-interest.
Overall, there’s no real grievance here—there might be individual cases where people feel screwed or delegitimized, but the overall thing doesn’t make any sense. And there’s no argument that these minorities will somehow unite together and take over.
And it’s important to realize that the demographic shifts that are supposed to favor the Democrats in the decades ahead might not have the predicted effect—Hispanics voted Trump in 2020 at an unexpectedly high rate in Florida and in Texas and in other places, since Hispanics often identify as white and often have conservative religious and social values, although there are political splits between the many different Hispanic groups.
1) What’s the best strategy for how to combat the GOP’s dangerous tendencies, and what are the best things to read on that topic?
We’re in an existential moment where we have to move as expeditiously as possible.
But obviously to pass these things we have to change the filibuster:
2) What are the best things to read about how to talk to right-wingers about the dangerous tendencies within the GOP? I assume that it’s important to:
use a calm and measured tone
avoid highly charged terms like “fascism” and “proto-fascism”
avoid citing media outlets like CNN that right-wingers are highly averse to
be the opposite of condescending
I have nothing on this front—your ideas make good sense, so do whatever you can, but don’t expect that you’ll change a lot of minds.
Our Common Purpose (2020)
3) Regarding the path forward, is Chomsky correct that progressive forces need to be “revitalized” so that people can “interact, gain understanding, and become committed to working together for common goals that will benefit all”? Chomsky made this point: “These are not just people living in the bayous. They’re living 2 miles away from us. There are things to be done.”
A couple new pieces argue that we have to find broader alliances out in the country if we want to stop the GOP and protect democracy:
“Protecting U.S. Democracy Will Take More Than Laws” (10 January 2022)
These pieces argue that we have to activate all of those moderate Republicans and conservative Republicans—the Liz Cheney types and the ones who have become the Jennifer Rubins in the society—and unite together to prevent our democracy from being distorted or destroyed in the coming weeks and months.
There are a sizable number of these Liz Cheney types out there who have access to bully pulpits and access to media, and they’re influential, and some of them are ex-officeholders. So I think that these people can be mobilized to at least try to change the public narrative.
But parties tend very strongly to lose seats in midterm contests—the party that doesn’t have the presidency has stronger motivation, whereas the party on the inside engages in infighting over every little thing. And on top of that, Covid has produced unease and distemper, so that doesn’t bode well for the midterms.
4) What about reaching normal people who aren’t public figures of any kind?
You can try—social media might allow you to reach a large number of people and make a difference.
But I think we need the increase in motivation that comes from a successful presidency and a united party. And that means that we have to try to pass Build Back Better—and the democracy reforms—as quickly as possible. And we have to move past the dangers that Omicron poses and get people back to normal life at least in some fashion or another.
We might be in a position to do something if we can pass Build Back Better, pass the democracy reforms, and get life somewhat back to normal.
But it’ll be tough because the GOP controls the reins of power in a lot of important places as we look to 2024.
5) When talking to right-wingers about the dangerous tendencies in the GOP, which sources should you cite?
Unfortunately, I think that anything other than Fox will be a nonstarter for them.
6) What’s the trick to getting people to look in the mirror? Suppose that you show your right-wing friend something from the media that points out something racist that a GOP politician said or some lie that a GOP politician told—your right-wing friend will probably attack the media outlet in question or attack the Democrats, but all you actually wanted was for your right-wing friend to address the actual substance and say “Yes, that statement was racist, and that’s really messed up, and the GOP needs to fix that” or “Yes, that statement was a lie, and it’s wrong to lie, and the GOP needs to fix that”.
They don’t want to look in the mirror.
Maybe more people dying from violence will jolt right-wingers into a different reality, but you obviously don’t want to believe that it’ll take more people dying from violence to get right-wingers to reassess what they believe and how they feel.
Right now we need to mobilize enough outside forces to prevent the worst—which is a successful coup—from happening.
7) How can one talk to white males who are anything but privileged and who find the notions of white privilege and male privilege to be ridiculous?
My guess is that you won’t be able to sway these people from their views.
But you have to show empathy for the social and economic challenges that they face; try to implement policies that will make their daily lives better; and make sure that they definitely know that you—and not somebody else!—implemented those policies.
Then you cross your fingers and hope.
And it’s difficult and risky to confront the reality that one of the GOP’s main strategies is to promote racial conflict and foment racial strife, but you can’t shrink away from that reality or else things will only get worse on the racial front and you’ll have a really bad time.