Why White Supremacists and Christian Nationalists Tried to Subvert American DemocracyDr. Michael Pasek, Program and Research Lead at Beyond Conflict
Why White Supremacists and Christian Nationalists Tried to Subvert American Democracy
by Dr. Michael Pasek, Program and Research Lead at Beyond Conflict.
As violent extremists stormed the Capitol at the behest of President Donald Trump, many are asking how one of the world’s oldest modern democracies reached this point of peril. Some will point to the authoritarian tendencies of the commander in chief as the source of our division. Others will argue that toxic polarization, mixed with blatant misinformation, gave rise to these seditious acts. While these diagnoses are not necessarily wrong, they are incomplete. The attempted coup is not merely the result of a despot wishing to remain in power or a symptom of partisan sectarianism. It is a last stand attempt of those who endorse a White Christian supremacist ideology to preserve power in a country that is becoming increasingly racially and religiously diverse. It is an undeniable admission that for many, democracy is not as sacred as majority control, and that when the two are pitted against each other, democracy can be sacrificed on the altar of a particular form of White Christian nationalism that has gained leverage over the contemporary Republican party.
To understand the sedition unfolding in Washington, one must first understand how and why the Democratic and Republican parties have become sorted along demographic lines. Political scientists trace the roots of contemporary political polarization to the mass enfranchisement of African Americans after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Act. As the Democratic party welcomed new African American voters into its base, it became more racially liberal. As a result, the Democratic party, which had resisted challenging Jim Crow laws in the South, began to do so, leading many White conservative Democrats to switch their allegiance to the Republican party, as they felt left behind by a party that they no longer saw as representing their interests. To fill this space, the Republican party courted these voters by appealing to their disaffection. This realignment and continued process of social sorting—whereby the Republican party increasingly became confounded with White Christian America—has had cascading effects on the ideological stances of American political parties.
White Christians now account for less than half of the American population. These groups, which largely make up the Republican party, have come to see their status and influence under threat. Social scientific research highlights how demographic changes evoke threat for many White Americans, who worry that their numerical decline will likewise diminish their command over American politics. These fears are directly linked not only to support for Trump in the 2016 election, but also foster anti-democratic sentiments.
Anti-democratic behavior in response to a status threat is logical. It represents a natural psychological response rooted in the foundations of us vs. them thinking and identity-based threat that also helps to explain contemporary political movements from Brexit to the passage of Israel’s recent nation-state law. Demographic groups that comprise the Republican party maintain a dwindling electoral advantage and rightly recognize that they will lose it if they do not cement their power soon. Consistent with this, data show a dramatic weakening of support for democracy (and growing support for authoritarianism) among Republicans in the United States. Similarly, other research documents that authoritarianism and a desire to uphold social hierarchy are strong predictors of contemporary conservatism. Perhaps because of Trump’s explicit overtures to White Christian America, these two psychological factors also strongly predicted support for Trump over both Democrat and other Republican candidates in 2016.
With this view, the slogan “Stop the steal” is but a means to an end for another, and more important rallying cry; “Defend the majority.” These statements are blatant overtures to White supremacists and Christian nationalists who feel that America is being taken from them. They also help to explain why the extremists who stormed the capitol were White supremacists carrying Christian flags.
For many Americans, the 2020 election was not one between two political parties, but two opposing visions. One that craves an inclusive democracy, in which all citizens, regardless of their race or creed, have access to the vote. And another where democratic norms are sacrificed if doing so means preserving power for a segment of the population that perceives its status as under imminent threat. Whether illustrated by President Trump’s continued lies about voter fraud, Senators Cruz and Hawley’s willingness to embrace such an obviously fictitious narrative, or the storming of the Capitol by insurrectionists, it is increasingly clear that, for many, White supremacy and Christian nationalism take precedence over allegiance to the U.S. constitution.
Only when we recognize the roots of our political discord can we begin to solve it.