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    HomePoliticsSarah Palin offers a perilous framing for the elections: Good vs. evil

    Sarah Palin offers a perilous framing for the elections: Good vs. evil

    American politics is predicated on the idea that power is transitory. Citizens are asked to go to the polls every two years and decide on national leadership, with all involved theoretically recognizing that this might mean a change of direction. If you’re a Democrat wanting to see a Democrat represent you, you vote for the Democrat and hope she wins. If she doesn’t — well, there’s always two years from now.

    You already recognize a way in which this idea has been polluted. Partisan redistricting and the pattern of Americans moving into politically homogeneous communities have meant that there are fewer places where there are actual transitions between parties. If you are a Republican in California or a Democrat in Mississippi, you hold out little hope for being represented in the Senate by a member of your party.

    This is a problem we don’t often acknowledge. I interviewed Princeton University’s Corrine McConnaughy last year, and she expressed concern about the lack of institutions that let “people feel represented enough, feel their voice heard enough.” Essential to democracy is that people “understand that losing today is not losing tomorrow.” That there is recourse for changing direction. If people feel as though electoral politics can’t effect change, they look for other mechanisms to do so.

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    Now we layer onto this another danger, one exemplified by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin at a rally last week. Palin is running for Alaska’s safely Republican House seat and appeared at a rally with former president Donald Trump. She cast the election in stark terms, which in broad strokes isn’t atypical for a candidate. But the phrasing Palin uses was a moral, existential one.

    “This is life-changing what’s coming up here in the midterms, the changes that are needed,” Palin told the cheering audience. “And it’s no longer Democrat versus Republican. This is all about control versus freedom.”

    Then, a starker contrast: “It’s good versus evil. It is a spiritual battle.”

    This is on-brand for Palin. Her arrival on the national political scene in 2008 was as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, a selection made because McCain’s team believed she could provide an invigorating jolt of energy — and lure further-right, often evangelical voters to cast a ballot. In the Trump era, evangelical voters became a driving part of the party’s success. Palin, of course, already spoke the language.

    Trump’s campaign and presidency were centered on widening fissures within the country, hewing closely to the demands of his base and working energetically to score political points against the hated left. Many evangelicals saw this in religious terms. In early 2019, a poll found that half of White evangelical Christians believed that God wanted Trump to be president. He was their overt, unflinching defender — not because he shared their beliefs necessarily (though many convinced themselves he did) but because he understood that rising to the religious right’s defense would bolster his own political position. He promised to defend them, and he did. In 2016, he won evangelicals by 61 points. In 2020, by 69.

    That the country has become more polarized is well documented. Members of each major political party have viewed the opposition in increasingly hostile terms over the past 20 years, as measured by the American National Election Study conducted during each presidential year. As recently as 2000, the median “temperature” score granted the other party by Republicans and Democrats was above 40 out of 100, with lower numbers indicating “colder” views of the party. In 2020, both parties had medians under 20.

    Again, some of this probably derives from our political isolation. We often live near those from the opposing party, but we don’t necessarily incorporate them into our lives. Pew Research Center found in the summer of 2020 that only about 1 in 5 supporters of Trump or Joe Biden had more than a few friends supporting the other candidate. Four in 10 knew no one who did.

    Such a divide and such skepticism about the opposition make it easier to cast those other partisans as dangerous or evil, a framing that is facilitated by the country’s increased reliance on partisan media universes. Shortly after Biden took office, CBS News published a poll conducted by YouGov finding that about 4 in 10 Democrats viewed Republicans not as political opponents but as enemies. More than half of Republicans said they viewed Democrats as enemies.

    Consider how intertwining religion with politics makes a sense of political impotence worse. If you think that you have little recourse for being heard through the electoral process and you see your side as fighting on behalf of a divinely motivated cause? Perilous.

    This isn’t newly perilous, certainly. In his seminal essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter described right-wing frustration at a perceived political elite more than a half-century before the current moment.

    “The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.”

    Palin was speaking to an audience about the dangers of leaders who advocated measures such as mask mandates, something for which many Americans did, in fact, have no real recourse — besides, of course, simply not complying. The mandates were, in fact, often described as sinister and malicious. In her speech, shortly after the “good versus evil” bit, Palin called the emergence of the coronavirus the “plandemic” and suggested that elites wanted to tank the economy.

    The particular problem here is that there will always be a level of governance over which someone has no control. Even if you live in Oklahoma, with conservative House members, senators and state-level officials, Biden is still president. The House and Senate are still majority-Democratic. Even if Republicans regain a federal trifecta, you have little recourse over, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles. This is the utility of casting government as an enemy; the opportunities to cast some part of it as despotic are eternal. To cast it as evil.

    Last summer, Pew asked Americans how they felt about leaders from their own party describing the other party’s officials as evil. Most thought this should not be considered acceptable. Just under half of Republicans thought the party should be “very” or “somewhat” accepting of such rhetoric.

    If you convince people that elections are fights between two ends of the moral plane, the consequences of losing are heightened dramatically. If you then claim that the election itself was dishonest, that your side had been “shut out of the political process” (as Hofstadter put it) illicitly, you risk crisis.

    At 4:17 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump released a video addressing the violence that was still underway at the Capitol.

    “We had an election that was stolen from us,” Trump said. “It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace.”

    “Go home, we love you. You’re very special,” he added later. And then, cryptically: “You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil.”

    The rioters that day were good; their opponents were evil. Social media sites soon scrubbed the video from their platforms, worried that it might incite more violence.



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