What if Americans were not as divided as we believe them to be? Indulge us for a moment to lay this out. A common narrative of the years since Donald Trump won the Republican primary and then stumbled into the presidency has been that American voters are hopelessly split, with each side believing that it has the answers and that the other side is utterly wrong. And yet in real life, conservatives and liberals, or the right and left, have gotten along both in local government and in Washington for most of the modern era. As individuals, people tend to look out for one another. Think of fire and ambulance volunteers or the outpouring of donations after a natural disaster.
This year, though, even in winning the presidency, many Democrats have expressed profound dismay that about 70 million members of the electorate voted for Mr. Trump. But perhaps this is the wrong way to think about it — if they were not going to vote Democrat, they did not have a realistic other option. The fault was with what choices they had. The Trump campaign and Republican Party did not ever offer voters a platform of policies in 2020, running only as “not them.” Republican elites watched the Tea Party victories of the last decade and decided that exploiting and expanding this portion of the voter base was its sole hope for remaining relevant. They chose to galvanize fear and racial animosity to their own ends, the real-world effects be damned.
Political divisions are part of life and have been for a very long time. This is okay. What is not okay is when political leaders exploit the divides to gain, consolidate, or cling to power for their own benefit. In the dwindling days of the Trump presidency, these leaders have chosen party over country, embracing the lies about the election, rather than seeking reconciliation for the good not just of their allies, but of all Americans. This is no accident: Republican leaders abetted by right-wing media have taken advantage of a high-turnout segment of the population by reframing natural disagreements into battles between good and evil that leave no room for compromise. Given demographic changes, they have little alternative and resort to falsehoods about voter fraud to keep their side afraid and motivated, even if it is against their own interests.
As Jay Rosen writing in The New York Review of Books put it, a minority party cannot win without resorting to fiction, fanning white identity grievances, and putting up obstacles to voting. Senator Mitch McConnell’s about-face with the Amy Coney Barrett appointment to the Supreme Court is an example of this whatever-it-takes approach to holding onto power. Whether on vote-counting procedures or the science behind controlling Covid-19, shared reality is left for dead by the side of the road to the detriment of all of us.