„How Long Can Democracy Survive QAnon and Its Allies?”

Politicians and political scientists wonder if there are electoral reforms that might blunt the lunacy.

Thomas B. Edsall

By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.

  • Feb. 10, 2021

Has a bloc of voters emerged that is not only alien to the American system of governance but toxic to it?

“The central weakness of our political system now is the Republican Party,” Daniel Ziblatt, a political scientist at Harvard, said in an interview with Vox on Jan. 13, a week after the storming of the Capitol.

“The American Republican Party looks like a European far-right party,” Ziblatt continued. “But the big difference between the U.S. and a lot of these European countries is that the U.S. only has two parties and one of them is like a European far-right party. If the G.O.P. only controlled 20 percent of the legislature, like you see in a lot of European countries, this would be far less problematic — but they basically control half of it.”

A central question, then, is how distant from the rest of the American electorate the voters who align themselves with the radical wing of the Republican Party are.

Rachel M. Blum and Christopher Sebastian Parker, political scientists at the Universities of Oklahoma and Washington, conducted a two-wave panel study of the MAGA movement in late December 2020 and the second half of January 2021 that was designed to answer this question and others.

They found that “at least 60 percent of them are white, Christian and male. Further, around half are retired, over 65 years of age, and earn at least $50K per year. Finally, roughly 30 percent have at least a college degree.” More than 50 percent were born at a time of white hegemony, before the civil rights and women’s rights movements and the sexual revolution.

Overwhelming majorities of the 1,431 MAGA supporters surveyed by Blum and Parker — from 80 to 99 percent — said they were concerned that “real Americans are losing freedoms”; “our lives are controlled by secret plots”; “unknown actors make the big decisions” and “forces are changing our country for the worse.”

These MAGA supporters, who were recruited after signaling sympathy for the movement on Facebook, were rock-solid Republicans, Blum and Parker found, voting at or near 100 percent for the party’s House and Senate candidates in 2018 and 2020, and for Trump last year. They are far more engaged in politics — contributing money, going to meetings and volunteering — than the average American. “By any metric, this group appears committed to the political process,” Blum and Parker wrote.

Not only are these voters partisan, the authors note, but “when we asked our respondents about whether or not they agreed with Trump’s fraud claims, 98 percent believed them valid.”

Blum and Parker cited a Pew Research Center survey that found “75 percent of Americans believe that Trump bears at least some responsibility” for the Jan. 6 mob attack on Congress. Among all Republicans, “this figure declines significantly to 52 percent.”

Blum and Parker also asked MAGA supporters whether Trump “bears responsibility for the Capitol riot.” They found that “barely 30 percent of these respondents believe Trump bears any responsibility whatsoever,” and, of those, more than half said Trump bears “a little” responsibility.

In contrast, they wrote, “roughly 95 percent of MAGA supporters believe Antifa — the left wing protest group — bears some responsibility for the riots,” with more than 85 percent agreeing that Antifa bears “a great deal” or “a lot” of responsibility.

Along similar lines, a Washington Post/ABC News survey taken Jan. 10-13 demonstrated how the views of a majority of Republicans stand far apart from the views of a majority of Americans.

Asked if Trump has acted “responsibly” or “irresponsibly” since the Nov. 3 election, the 1002 adults polled chose “irresponsibly” by 66-30. Republicans, in contrast, chose “responsibly” by 66-29.

Are Trump’s claims of election fraud “based on solid evidence?” All adults: 62 percent no, 31 percent yes. Republicans: 25 no, 65 yes.

Should Trump be “charged with the crime of inciting a riot?” All adults: yes 54, no 43. Republicans: yes 12, no 84.

What the panel studies and the Post survey suggest is that a majority of Republicans, primarily Trump loyalists and MAGA supporters, have evolved, as a core component of their conspiracy theories, a coded or a cryptic language — a set of symbols, or an almost occult “cipher,” revolving around something like a secret cabal. “We are Q,” read one sign at the event in Florida. “Where Go One We Go All,” read another, which is the QAnon movement’s revealing motto.

Using their accusations almost as a lingua franca, a way to identify the like-minded, MAGA partisans and followers of QAnon signal one another by alleging that pedophile rings seek to wrest control of government or by alleging that school shootings were staged by leftists to win passage of gun control. They evoke a world in which unknown forces pull the levers of government, where nothing is as it seems to be. Professing your belief in claims like these attests to MAGA loyalties while expressing — in an arcane, politicized shorthand — your fervent opposition to liberalism and racial and cultural change.

At the extreme, these conspiratorial views can lead to the violence and sedition of Jan. 6, which gives immediacy to the question of whether there are electoral reforms that might blunt the impact of this lunacy.

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