Both Left and Right Are Converging on Authoritarianism

The problem with American politics isn't polarization—it's rising illiberalism.


Something is broken in our politics. Just about everyone knows it, but it can be hard to put your finger on what it is.

As the media attempt to grapple with this felt reality, they reach over and over for the same word: polarization. That, we're told, is the shorthand for what has gone wrong. Where once the country had its share of conservative Democrats, liberal Republicans, and mushy moderates, today the two parties are more internally consolidated—and further apart from each other—than ever.

But what if that explanation is missing something? What if there's a sense in which left and right are actually converging, and the nature of that convergence is the real source of the perception that something isn't right?

In 2014, Pew Research Center released a report on the crisis of polarization. "The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades," it explained. "Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican."

According to the report, as the center of gravity within each party shifted out toward the extremes (ideological polarization), dislike and distrust of those on the other side of the aisle increased as well (affective polarization). We disagree on more than ever and like each other less than ever. There you have it: the recipe for toxic politics.

Yet by 2021, Pew had settled on a different framework for understanding the American political landscape. In a major report released last fall, the think tank introduced a political typology that focuses attention on the divisions within the left and right.

Neither of those camps is a monolith, Pew notes. In fact, nine distinct subgroups are observable across the spectrum. You have your business-friendly Republicans and your cultural conservatives, your blue-collar Democrats and your progressive activists. Instead of a mushy middle, there are the "stressed sideliners," less politically engaged than the other groups and, when they do show up, willing to pull the lever for either party.

According to American National Election Studies data, the share of Americans who self-identify as moderates or say they don't know what they are has fallen from 55 percent in 1972 to 39 percent in 2020. In that sense, people really have been moving toward the poles. But if partisan consolidation is the story of the last few decades, the story of the last few years is one of fracturing. More people are calling themselves conservatives, for example, but their preferences and priorities are not necessarily shared.

The future of the parties is now a matter of live debate. But in both cases, the elements that seem to have the most energy behind them have something important in common: a desire to move their side, and the country as a whole, in an illiberal direction.

On the left, a new crop of socialists hope to overthrow the liberal economic order, while the rise of intersectional identity politics has supplanted longstanding commitments to civil liberties. On the right, support for free markets and free trade are more and more often derided as relics of a bygone century, while quasi-theocratic ideas are gathering support.

What has not changed—what may even be getting worse—is the problem of affective polarization. Various studies have found that Americans today have significantly more negative feelings toward members of the other party than they did in decades past.

But partisan animosity suits the authoritarian elements on the left and right just fine. Their goal is power, and they have little patience for procedural niceties that interfere with its exercise. As history teaches, a base whipped up into fear and fury is ready to accept almost anything to ensure its own survival. Perhaps even the destruction of the institutions and ideals that make America distinctively itself.

Free Markets Under the Gun

You've likely seen some version of the statistic: Before Bernie Sanders' surprisingly strong showing in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, the average age of a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was in the late 60s. Within a couple of years, it was early 30s and falling fast.

Magazines were soon running articles on figures like 23-year-old Melissa Naschek, an Ivy Leaguer studying neuroscience who, after a few months of attending DSA meetings, had "denounced liberalism and begun identifying as a socialist." Membership rocketed from around 6,000 to nearly 100,000, and the group now boasts four sitting members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The DSA itself has become more extreme as well.

In the last half-decade, this newly energized activist class has been working to push the Democratic Party hard in a leftward direction—and demands such as student loan forgiveness, Medicare for All, and rent control are just the start. "Nationalize All the Oil Companies" reads a recent headline at the socialist magazine Jacobin. "Why not nationalize Amazon?" asked a host of the cult-popular Chapo Trap House podcast in 2017. The same episode declared the need to "decommodify" all "necessary goods," where decommodification means making something free and provided by the government, and where necessary goods—according to the podcast's hosts—include housing, education, health care, elder care, child care, transportation, and food.

Gearing up for his 2020 run, Sanders rolled out a plan that, beyond hiking corporate taxes, would order large companies to hand 45 percent of the seats on their boards and 20 percent of their stock to worker representatives. By using force to appropriate ownership and control of capital, this would be a genuine move toward the democratic socialist goal of abolishing the traditional employer–wage earner relationship and putting the country's productive resources under "democratic control."

Jacobin magazine founder Bhaskar Sunkara emphasized the radical nature of these efforts in The Socialist Manifesto (Verso Books): "Sanders' movement is about creating a 'political revolution' to get what is rightfully ours from 'millionaires and billionaires,'" he wrote. "His program leads to polarization along class lines; indeed, it calls for it."

No socialist himself, President Joe Biden still managed to delight the left wing of his party by unveiling a plan for $4 trillion in infrastructure spending, paid family leave, and various efforts to "secure environmental justice" upon assuming office in 2021. "It is absolutely a bold and transformative and progressive agenda," the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus told The Washington Post that spring. Only a lack of cooperation from a couple of moderate Senate Democrats has prevented more of it from being enacted.

At a time of polarization, you might expect the right to react by doubling down on support for free markets and private property. Instead, concurrent with democratic socialism's ascendance, many prominent conservatives have taken a leftward turn of their own.

In June 2019, Tucker Carlson spent five full minutes during his prime-time Fox News show praising a plan from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) to promote "economic patriotism." The proposal, which called for "aggressive" government action to bolster domestic manufacturing and keep American companies from creating jobs abroad, "sounds like Donald Trump at his best," Carlson enthused.

President Donald Trump exhibited a high degree of comfort wielding state power for mercantilist ends, from his imposition of tariffs to his use of subsidies and bailouts to support American companies facing competition. Now a rising cadre of nationalist conservatives (a.k.a. "natcons") are happy to provide the intellectual ammunition for this America First agenda.

In 2019, Republican policy wonk Oren Cass appeared at the inaugural National Conservatism Conference to argue for industrial policy—a robust program of federal interventions meant to resuscitate American manufacturing. He went on to found a think tank, American Compass, that promotes such familiar policies as making corporations give board seats to labor representatives.

In Washington, skirmishes between Republicans are increasingly likely to be over the terms by which the government should support families financially. When Sen. Mitt Romney (R–Utah) last year introduced a plan to provide up to $4,200 a year, in perpetuity, to every American child, Sens. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) and Mike Lee (R–Utah) balked—but only because they preferred a plan to increase the size of the child tax credit to as much as $4,500 a year. Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) soon offered a hybrid option, complete with an additional bonus for married parents. So much for rolling back the bloated welfare state.

A bevy of new right-of-center publications paints globally integrated commerce as a threat. Among them are American Affairs (in which one author recently encouraged the U.S. to learn from China's efforts to "subsidi[ze] industry through equity investments") and The American Mind (sample headline: "Make America Autarkic Again"). The Catholic provocateur Sohrab Ahmari, who in March partnered with a Marxist to found yet another new publication, Compact, has for some time been a critic of "warmed-over Reaganism" and is now on the record supporting "a strong social-democratic state."

A common refrain among critics of free markets and global trade is that such institutions, because of their dynamism and reliance on worker mobility, are alienating: They stop people from putting down roots. As one representative malcontent put it, "Nothing highlights libertarianism's cold-blooded disconnection from any notion of human interaction or society better than their penchant for saying, 'We should just have people move around to the jobs,' and create these atomized pinball humans moving from shantytown to shantytown, looking for employment and just sundering all communal bonds along the way."

That sentiment, which might be endorsed by any number of natcons and religious conservatives, was actually voiced on a 2016 episode of Chapo Trap House.

Whether from the left or from the right, such critiques suffer from the same accounting flaw: They see only the upsides of their proposed interventions and only the downsides of the status quo. Missing from the calculus is a recognition that tariffs, by driving up prices, hurt both American consumers and domestic producers who rely on inputs from abroad; that federal "buy American" mandates mean our tax dollars don't go as far; that subsidies insulate incumbent players from competition and lock in old ways of doing things; that wealth expropriation is a death sentence for risk taking and innovation; that someone still needs to produce the goods and provide the services that have been "decommodified"; and that—as the labor market of the last year suggests—people become less willing to work the more they're told that government is responsible for meeting their material needs.

The bipartisan leftward lurch on economics is perhaps most visible in the rejection of any restraint in the response to COVID-19. In 2020, the Trump administration pushed through a $2.2 trillion pandemic bill that dwarfed the Barack Obama administration's historic 2009 stimulus package. It included $1,200 payments to millions of Americans and was followed by a second round of $600 checks that Trump proceeded to denounce as too small. The Biden administration, for its part, was happy to start 2021 with a third round of checks at $1,400 apiece, among other expenditures.

In all, Congress has authorized some $6 trillion in COVID-specific federal spending, more than three times as much as Washington's response over five years to the Great Recession, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Meanwhile, since early 2020, the Federal Reserve has injected a staggering $4 trillion into the economy, with nary a complaint from either party's leaders.

Economics is the arena in which the left-right convergence is most obviously apparent. But there are other places in which the two movements, though superficially worlds apart, are tracking in the same disturbing direction at a deeper level.

Two Sides Turn on the First Amendment

According to the old American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) mythos, one of the group's finest hours came in 1977 when it successfully defended the First Amendment right of neo-Nazis to demonstrate in Skokie, Illinois. Some 30,000 people reportedly canceled their ACLU memberships to protest the decision, but the group stood by it on the high grounds that speech protections, to mean anything, must extend even to the least popular in society.

That commitment carried the group all the way to Char​lottesville, Virginia, four decades later. But in the aftermath of the infamous Unite the Right rally in 2017, ACLU leadership appeared to break. The following June, The Wall Street Journal published a leaked document that had been drafted to help state chapters decide which cases to take a pass on. While insisting the civil liberties organization would "continue our longstanding practice of representing" even repugnant speakers "in appropriate circumstances," the guidelines created an impression that circumstances were highly unlikely to be deemed appropriate when it came to the likes of white supremacists.

As former board member Wendy Kaminer explained in a commentary for the Journal, "The speech-case guidelines reflect a demotion of free speech in the ACLU's hierarchy of values." It's a demotion that is evident across the progressive movement, where "systemic equality," "racial justice," and other manifestations of identity politics that include an ever-more-militant LGBT agenda have sidelined practically all concern for the speech rights of those seen as on the wrong side politically.

"The quest to suppress objectionable reading material in America" was once mostly confined to the right, author Kat Rosenfield argued in a March essay. "But as progressives became increasingly focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the arts—and on the potential harm wrought by books that didn't do enough to champion the proper values—they started issuing challenges of their own. By 2020, the [American Library Association's] list included almost as many complaints about racist language, white savior narratives, or alleged sexual misconduct by an author as it did ones about bad language or LGBT themes."

Not that conservatives have abandoned censorship. Cry as they might when their own speech faces adverse consequences, they have few qualms about punishing expression that runs up against right-wing pieties.

J.D. Vance, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Ohio, has called for punitive taxation to "seize the assets" of nonprofits that push a "woke" agenda and of companies like those that dared to oppose voting legislation in Georgia and other states last year. "Harvard University's $120 billion endowment is ammunition for our enemies," he said on one occasion, "and we can't let the enemy have that much ammunition or we're going to lose."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has gone beyond lobbing threats. After Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Chapek criticized a law regulating instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida public schools, DeSantis pushed through another law stripping Disney World of its self-governing jurisdiction. It was a clear and worrying example of government retaliation against a private actor for political speech displeasing to the party in power.

The law that sparked the brouhaha is one of dozens that seek to clamp down on what can be said in classrooms across the country. Introduced in a mad rush to scrub curricula of what conservatives call critical race theory and progressive sexual politics, these legislative efforts are often sloppily written and open to abuse. Nor do all of them stop with state-run K-12 education. Some claim to apply to private schools; others target higher ed. A different Florida law represents such an egregious violation of the rights of professors and college students to discuss controversial topics that the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has asked administrators to consider refusing to comply.

These days, prominent voices on left and right alike stand against free speech "absolutism." Michael Knowles, a conservative writer with over 750,000 followers on Twitter and a podcast co-hosted with Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), published a book last year in which he argued that speech in America is too free. Conservatives must "not only articulate a moral and political vision," he wrote, "but also suppress ideologies and organizations that would subvert that vision."

More recently, the Biden administration's erstwhile disinformation czar, Nina Jankowicz—perhaps under the influence of a ubiquitous progressive talking point that hateful words are actually violence—said she "shudder[ed]" to think about "free speech absolutists" running social media platforms such as Twitter. To stop online abuse, she said, "we need the platforms to do more, and we frankly need law enforcement and our legislatures to do more as well."

Note the attention on government action to shut down disfavored speech. Jankowicz's comments represent an emerging consensus among Democratic activists and politicians in favor of an approach more like the one being pursued in the European Union, which has moved to require social media companies to delete user-generated content deemed suspect by the state, from "hate speech" to supposed COVID misinformation. In June, Biden announced a new federal task force (composed of eight cabinet secretaries, among other officials) aimed at stopping "online harassment and abuse"—a category that almost certainly includes some forms of speech protected by law in this country.

Republicans, for their part, have taken up legislation to prohibit social media companies from viewpoint-based moderation of content. While the new Democratic paradigm runs afoul of the Constitution by ordering private companies to engage in censorship, the GOP would violate those same companies' right to control the material that appears on their platforms, forcing them to amplify speech with which they do not wish to be associated. Such laws have already passed in Texas and Florida, though both face preliminary injunctions.

Free expression is not the only First Amendment freedom that has lost its luster in recent years. Religious liberty is also under attack.

In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The New York Times had editorialized in favor of the bill, and the ACLU had urged its passage. "What this law basically says is that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion," Clinton said at the time. "This judgment is shared by the people of the United States as well as by the Congress. We believe strongly that we can never, we can never be too vigilant in this work."

Today, the idea that people should be protected from government actions that would impinge their religious beliefs is all but anathema on the left.

In 2015—a year after the Supreme Court found that family-owned businesses could not be forced to pay for employees' abortifacient drugs—the ACLU abruptly called on Congress "to amend the RFRA so that it cannot be used as a defense for discrimination." The group has taken numerous Catholic hospitals to court in an effort to make them perform abortions and gender transitions against their will. Christian small business owners have faced human rights investigations and fines for not wanting to be involved in same-sex weddings, and parochial schools have been targeted by the state for making hiring and firing decisions based on would-be employees' adherence to tenets of the faith.

But at least conservatives are solid on religious liberty, right? Alas, a new intolerance toward nonbelievers (or wrong believers) has crept in on the right, with a cohort of "post-liberal" intellectuals trying to build a case for less separation between church and state.

The most radical fringe within this group—people like the Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule and the Cistercian monk Fr. Edmund Waldstein—are the so-called integralists, whose "political Catholicism" calls for a civil government that is subordinate to the Catholic Church and actively privileges the true faith (and its adherents) through the law. A robust understanding of religious liberty that ensures equal rights even for dissenters is a hindrance to the integralist project.

In contrast to social media regulations, these desires seem unlikely to enter public policy anytime soon. Even on the right, there is minimal appetite for enforcing the tenets of Christianity, let alone traditional Catholicism, on a secularizing society. The focus is instead on culturally conservative priorities, such as restricting trans athletes from competing in women's sports, that have little to do with religion per se.

Nonetheless, a number of increasingly influential writers and media personalities have gained a following with calls to reinstate Sabbath laws, ban blasphemy, return school- sponsored prayer to the classroom, and otherwise use the state to root America's "public life" in Christian teachings—all with little concern for whether such policies violate the spirit or letter of the Constitution.

The Rhetoric of Radicalization

In January, The Atlantic published a long article by an Irish writer who had lived through the ethno-nationalist conflict known as the "troubles." Describing a perception of civil war just around the corner, he writes: "Once that idea takes hold, it has a force of its own. The demagogues warn that the other side is mobilizing. They are coming for us. Not only do we have to defend ourselves, but we have to deny them the advantage of making the first move. The logic of the preemptive strike sets in: Do it to them before they do it to you. The other side, of course, is thinking the same thing."

An analogous logic is on display in America today. It is mostly rhetorical so far. But it is happening at both ends of the ideological spectrum.

The tropes come in escalating stages. One is that the other side is irredeemably evil and out to destroy all that is good. A second is that our side is weak and overly beholden to procedural niceties, whereas our opponents are shameless about breaking the rules in their pursuit of power. The third, following from the other two, is that whatever it takes to win is justified; any institution standing in the way can be demolished; and doing any less amounts to cowardice and surrender.

The left insists that conservatives are engaged in an "eliminationist" and "genocidal" struggle against marginalized communities such as trans people, women, and the working class. "Conservatives are animated by a vision of 1950s-style white Christian patriarchal dominance," a Georgetown visiting professor wrote in The Guardian recently. "It is the only order they will accept for America." The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade is "the culmination of a decades-long conservative assault on the constitutional foundations of our modern civil rights regime," tweeted Slate legal reporter Mark Joseph Stern. It's not just that "abortion bans are class warfare" (per the DSA) but also that "austerity is violence" (per Chapo Trap House). The very idea of reducing government spending now has existential stakes.

The right has its own purveyors of dire warnings about what progressives are up to—which supposedly includes grooming children for sexual assault, using immigration to replace native-born Americans with a Democrat-voting electorate, and eradicating traditional Christian beliefs and practice from the public square. Nothing less than conservatives' survival is on the line, they say. In 2020, Vermeule tweeted that the attendees of an anti-Trump conference would not be spared the gulag when the extremist left takes over; four years earlier, an essay in the Claremont Review of Books implored readers to elect Trump with the memorable words, "2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die."

Observe the equal-opportunity demonization and the industrial-scale hyperbole about the threat posed by the other side (stage one). Likewise, left and right seem equally convinced that passive co-partisans are undermining the cause (stage two). "Tea and crumpets fussiness and chickenshit unwillingness to wield power is going to end democracy," tweeted the progressive journalist Ryan Cooper last year, in a pitch-perfect instance of the genre.

Finally, each side frequently declares that desperate measures are now required (stage three). And why wouldn't they be, if the other guys really are as bad as all that?

On the left, this most often takes the form of proposals to radically reform governing institutions seen as impediments to enacting policy. Since 2020, the progressive media have issued calls to pack the Supreme Court, strip states of control over elections, abolish the U.S. Senate (or at least ​​the filibuster), eliminate the Electoral College, and generally engage in what one Jacobin article called "an extremely necessary assault on the undemocratic power of the judiciary." All told, such a program would dramatically weaken America's system of checks and balances, making it easier for a slim majority to impose its will on the rest of the country.

Short of restructuring the entire system, there's always executive action, such as Biden's efforts on behalf of the environmental lobby to hamstring energy producers. The administrative state can also be deputized to prosecute the culture war, as when the Justice Department decided last year to treat parents expressing concern at school board meetings as potential domestic terrorists, or when the Department of Education was tasked with ensuring K-12 schools give students access to locker rooms matching their gender identities. And if all else fails to make the left's policy preferences a reality, the implication goes, there's always violent uprising.

On the right, radical ideas are similarly in vogue. Vance's desire to punish left-wing corporations is just the beginning. Vermeule has promoted an alternative to "originalist" jurisprudence that would empower (presumably friendly) judges to read "substantive moral principles…into the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution." Adherence to rule of law seems, at best, like an afterthought. "Among some of my circle," one right-wing podcaster toldVanity Fair reporter last year, "the phrase 'extra-constitutional' has come up quite a bit." In March, Curtis Yarvin, a wildly popular blogger on the "neoreactionary" right, published a long essay arguing that the "only possible cure for 'wokeness' is a change in the structural form of government." His suggested replacement: dictatorship.

More concretely, the GOP has been working since 2020 to make state voting laws more restrictive and to elect or appoint Trump loyalists to key positions at the state and local levels. The goal, it appears, is to prevent a situation in 2024 like the one in which officials in places like Georgia and Arizona willingly certified a Republican loss that members of the party base consider dubious. It's no exaggeration to say that the expectation for a peaceful transition of power is in doubt in America today.

The point is not that either side is wholly unjustified in its motivating grievances. The left really has trained its guns on traditionalist Christians, for example, as the volley of ACLU lawsuits against religious hospitals makes clear. Social media platforms did, as if in lockstep, block a damning news story about Hunter Biden from being shared in 2020, thus choosing sides in the midst of a contested presidential race. And the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania did step in to unilaterally decree that absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should continue to be processed, piquing conservative suspicion about procedural irregularities surrounding the contest.

Meanwhile, the right really does seem woefully indifferent to, for instance, the lingering effects on black communities of three centuries of legally sanctioned oppression. Trump did begin priming his base to reject the outcome of the last election months before votes were even cast, to say nothing of his encouragement of the January 6 riot. And Senate Republicans did pivot shamelessly from refusing to hold confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland to rushing through approval of Amy Coney Barrett, leading many progressives to wonder why they should feel constrained by the norms of congressional process where their opponents manifestly are not.

But each side is using some legitimate complaints to build a permission structure for seizing power by any means necessary and raining down destruction on its foes. One result is a sort of bipartisan apocalypticism: A recent Yahoo News poll found that more than half of each major party believes it's likely that America will "cease to be a democracy in the future." Under these circumstances, extreme medicine can start to seem like the only logical response.

The other side is mobilizing. They're coming for us. Do it to them before they do it to you.

Against Total War

This is what feels most broken in our politics. It's not the ways left and right are further apart than ever; it's the ways they're closer together, with powerful elements on each side having jettisoned the longstanding liberal ideal of respecting the rights of even those with whom you strongly disagree.

The two camps, of course, have different substantive moral visions for the society they wish to construct. But each views a broad conception of individual liberty as a barrier to achieving that vision.

Economic liberty, including international trade and private property rights, stands in the way of progressives' desire for an egalitarian and democratic order in which no one is ever again expected to work for someone else—and in the way of natcons' desire for a revivified American manufacturing sector in which male breadwinners can support a large family on a single income. Speech protections prevent both sides from controlling the conversation as they wish. Religious freedom is seen as either a cover for rank bigotry or a rationalization for excluding God from the public square. And liberal toleration, with its norms of fair play and civility, is at odds with the reigning conception of politics as total war.

As the journalist Sam Adler-Bell (who covers trends on the new right from a perch on the far left) put it in a 2019 essay, both sides "agree that liberal proceduralism, its pretension of neutrality, tends to enervate and disenchant the practice of politics. Both left and right radicals desire—at least affectively—a hot-blooded politics….In this way, both have come to adopt German theorist Carl Schmitt's concept of the political as reducible to the existential distinction between friends and enemies."

But if it's clear that left and right radicals have turned on liberal values and institutions, there is less evidence that the country as a whole has done so. Until now, this article has used the left and the right to stand in mostly for the activist and intellectual class, along with a few politicians here or there. The American people, on the other hand, are instinctual liberals by and large—not in the sense of being left of center but in the sense of believing at a deep level that even one's fiercest opponents have rights.

The American Aspirations Index, a study released last year that used survey research to rank Americans' priorities for the future of the country, tested 55 "national aspirations" to see whether people care more about having a country in which "people receive a high quality education" or "the middle class is thriving"; one that "is the leader of the free world" or one that "has a criminal justice system that operates without bias"; and so on. For all the sense that Americans are further apart than ever, guaranteeing that "people have individual rights" emerged as the No. 1 answer for every demographic group, regardless of age, ethnicity, urbanity, gender, and education level. It was viewed as twice as important overall as the next-most-chosen result.

Individual liberty, equality under the law, protections against the arbitrary exercise of governmental power—these are unmistakably American values. While influential elements on both the left and the right have turned against them in recent years, most Americans are not on board with total-war politics.

Much has been made of rising affective polarization, and there is some evidence to support the concern. People have become more likely over time to say they would be displeased if they had a son or daughter who married someone from the opposite political party, for example. Yet Americans from both parties are still significantly more likely to say they would not be bothered at all. In fact, a 2020 survey commissioned by The Economist found just 16 percent of Democrats and just 13 percent of Republicans saying they would be "very upset" in that situation. Severe affective polarization remains mostly an elite phenomenon.

In a poll commissioned last year by the group More in Common, three in four respondents agreed that "the differences between Americans are not so big that we cannot come together." Demonization of the other is a powerful political weapon, and those inclined toward authoritarianism are particularly comfortable using it. But what is sometimes called the "grand liberal bargain"—a social truce in which each side broadly agrees to respect the other's freedom, even if it doesn't like what the other side will do with it—is a powerful defense, and one in keeping with the natural ethos of America. It's not too late to choose it.