Withered Democracy? The Future of a Fractured American Politics

By Matt GolosinskiDecember 13, 2016

Long before Thomas Ogorzalek examined America’s political landscape as a scholar to help decipher its shifting complexities, he was taking “imaginary voyages,” that cultivated a passion for the research on “space and place” that he pursues today at Northwestern.

“I’ve been obsessed with geography since I was a kid,” says the political scientist and IPR faculty associate, whose expertise includes urban politics and the politics of race and ethnicity. “When I was seven, I had a tiny suitcase that was full of maps that I’d ripped out of old issues of National Geographic. I’d memorize those maps so my brother and I could use them during our pretend excursions, when our bunk bed became a pirate ship.”

Those fanciful journeys complemented the real ones that his family would take during the summers, when school was out and Ogorzalek’s parents — both teachers — packed the car for months-long road trips. He recalls these expeditions as “exhaustive and exhilarating,” imbuing him with a “thirst for the new” and affording him, as a junior navigator, a chance to put his maps to practical use.

“My parents were relentless volunteers for all kinds of organizations in our town,” says the Schaumburg, IL, native. “They taught me to participate in life, particularly to be a leader in the social life around me and to pay attention to both ‘Big Issues’ and the individuals you’re working with on a given day.”

Those values and the drive to make sense of the world inform Ogorzalek’s research now. His scholarship explores the American political fabric, including the dynamics and dichotomies that animated the 2016 US presidential election. Divisions such as urban/rural, black/white, rich/poor exert tensions across the nation, and also provide fertile subjects for Ogorzalek’s investigations. He’s done so in manuscripts such as Cities on the Hill: Urban Institutions in National Politics; in papers such as “Pride or Prejudice? Heritage, Hatred, and Support for the Confederate Battle Flag;” and in the Chicago Democracy Project, a new digital platform to educate, engage, and inspire greater civic connection, including between academia and the public.

“The urban/rural divide in American politics has been growing for a long time, but it took a big jump in this last election,” says Ogorzalek, who also voices concern at how race has continued to polarize a country that, after Barack Obama’s election, some mistakenly heralded as “post racial.” In reality, he says, even 2008 was a “most-racial moment, and now we’ve gone farther down that path.”

Equally troubling to him is how the 2016 presidential race has exacerbated frictions between the state and certain individuals: “So many persons were part of groups insulted by Candidate Trump, and these people will now be even more vulnerable to state action under President Trump,” says Ogorzalek. “The US government is the most powerful organization in the history of the world, and when it attacks, rather than defends, vulnerable persons, where can those people turn?”

Research News spoke with Ogorzalek about the election and what America’s divisions may mean for the country’s future.

Has the election of Donald Trump put us in uncharted waters politically? Can you recall a time when the electorate has been so stirred up?

It seems like a critical juncture here, but mainly because of the election’s effects, not its causes or dynamics. The campaign was all over the place, with outrageous events and statements, but the actual voting was basically in line with what we would have expected from a more conventional campaign. The Rust Belt states that Trump unexpectedly won were all very close, but their internal dynamics weren’t that different from the last few cycles. We’ll see that partisanship remained a powerful predictor of vote choice, despite the unusual nature of this election and of Trump in particular.

The urban/rural divide did strengthen a bit. In general, it looks like cities and suburbs got a little bluer and the countryside, especially in those places in the Midwest that flipped from Obama to Trump, got redder. Those are places where rural resentment of and alienation from big cities is very strong, and in states where the cities themselves are not doing particularly well. Detroit is the big example: they lost about 40,000 people since 2012.

Do these demographic realities make it more challenging to discern the “voice of the people” through our current electoral institutions?

Because of the strength of the urban-rural divide, there’s this powerful disconnect between “the people’s” preferences and the way those preferences are aggregated that is hitting at the state and national level. This really disadvantages metro areas, which is where most people live and where even more of the nation’s wealth is produced. There are a lot of institutions in American politics that privilege land over people; the Senate and the Electoral College are probably the worst examples. Many folks, even President Obama, are saying “the people have spoken” in response to the state-by-state results that aggregate towards Trump. But the Electoral College, as it typically operates, doesn’t even pretend to reflect the popular vote.

You have said that Obama’s election, far from being a post-racial watershed, actually highlighted America’s ongoing racial divisions. How has race factored into the 2016 election?

When the data are in, I think we’ll see an intensification of the racial divide. There was this narrative out there in 2008 that the election of an African American president meant we were a post-racial society. That obviously wasn’t true. We saw a backlash against Obama’s policies and heritage; durable inequalities across groups; disparate rates of state violence. The list is too long. But most commentators missed the fact that even the 2008 election was one of the most racially polarized events we have data on. White voters were more distinctively supportive of John McCain than they were of George W. Bush or other candidates. Maybe the 1968 or 1980 elections were defined by similarly divided electorates.

The American mythic story is one about people coming together — e pluribus unum. Yet, lately we’ve seen more visible harassment of minority groups. Many contend that Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policy proposals have helped fuel this reaction. What’s going on today and how does it compare with the country’s historical treatment of minority groups?

These kinds of attacks are appalling and depressing. Trump mildly distanced himself from these attacks, but this kind misogyny, racism, and disrespect for others was at the heart of his campaign and will apparently be at the heart of his administration, based on the advisers he is choosing. It takes a lot of hard work by communities and institutions over time to establish norms of toleration and keep oppressive behaviors at bay.

While there are all kinds of people everywhere, the culture around difference varies by the size and character of community. In my book, Cities on the Hill, I analyze how the policy and ideological commitments that we call progressive liberalism grew out of the local management of urban communities, and how they became more closely identified with the Democratic Party over time. Handling race is a big part of where the urban-rural divide comes from.

The spatial dynamics of this behavior helps us understand some of this: not to simplify overmuch, but in the United States we’ve had different patterns of intergroup relations in different kinds of spaces. Especially on race, the differences between urban and rural group relations is pretty stark. Most of the 19th century’s racial diversity was at the margins, in rural places in the South and West. National policy and personal practice was mixed, but it was mostly about domination by force. The American and local state supported all these efforts, by empowering slave owners, building frontier armies and fighting wars, and encouraging settlers to concentrate themselves so they could use demography and force to overwhelm the Native Americans who lived out West.

How did these dynamics shift as the country became increasingly urban?

When cities hit their moment of stark diversity, beginning with massive immigration in the late 19th century, followed by other waves of African Americans and other immigrants in the 20th century, the response was adaptive and different. Heavy-handed segregation and racial disparities were common, but state violence was not as open or official. In part, this was because of the circumstances in dense communities: under normal conditions, people get to know those different from themselves and see that cohabitation under conditions of social equality is fine, and constant threats of violence are too stressful and costly. Under the emergency conditions that sometimes happen, at moments of intense intergroup conflict like riots, densely packed minorities can better organize for self-defense and are less exposed to attacks on vulnerable individuals.

When those conflicts do occur, they are far more costly to everyone in densely developed areas. If a riot happens in a cornfield, the crops will grow back next year. If it happens on a commercial corridor, it might take decades to recover. So leaders from all groups in the city seek bridging solutions that minimize their chance of occurrence. This has led to a new political approach, based in pluralism — the idea that legitimate differences exist, and that politics is about resolving or managing these, rather than insisting on a unity that oppresses minority viewpoints. Cities are not post-racial wonderlands, of course. Racial and ethnic identities continue to powerfully shape political choices and personal experiences, and there are local backlashes as well. Think about Chicago’s politics in the 1980s. But the broader point is that these places and their local politics allow greater possibility — indeed, pressure — to build coalitions and manage these intergroup tensions, because we really do need to get on with the business of governing.

Your research on the Confederate battle flag seems relevant in the current moment, when we are seeing resurgence of white nationalism.

Pretty much everybody agrees that it’s reasonable to interpret the flag as a symbol of aggressive white supremacy, but some want to reserve the right to claim that they’re flying it for some other reason — usually some vague notions of Confederate army valor or Southern culture. We find in our paper that, on average, people who support the display of Confederate symbols tend to know less about the Civil War than do the people who oppose it, and are no more likely to report affection for those fuzzy notions of the South. On the other hand, the supporters do tend to be more racially resentful than people who oppose the flag.

We also spotted a pattern of the recurrence of controversies over Confederate symbols over time. The flag really was a symbol of affection and memorial for Confederate soldiers themselves until the 1920s or so, when the last of them were passing away. Then it was pretty much gone from the public sphere. In the 1950s, though, right after Brown v. Board and other national developments began to threaten segregation and formal white supremacy, there was a big Confederate battle flag fad. Even congressmen started wearing neckties with the symbol, and they didn’t pretend it meant something other than defending white supremacy. They had gained historical distance from the Civil War, and everyone who actually experienced that war was gone.

In addition to the Confederate flag, Nazi symbols have again surfaced today. Are you surprised?

It’s striking to me that a similar timing applies to today’s emergence of explicitly racist and neo-Nazi rhetoric and symbols appearing after the election. These people have become visible at the center of national politics in the same year that my grandmother died. Along with so many members of her generation, she served in World War II, actually fighting fascism, and her parents once had a cross burned on their lawn because they were Catholic. The “Greatest Generation” is passing on, and it seems like some of their children and grandchildren missed the memo on what the greatest American efforts of the 20th century were really about.

What, if anything, does the 2016 election suggest about the strength of our political institutions? Some worry that the “alt-right” trend puts these institutions at risk.

White supremacists have always been present in American politics, and they’ve often used American institutions to reinforce white supremacy. For instance, the 3/5 rule, Dred Scott, and the Senate filibuster. So it’s not just that explicit racism has re-entered the public sphere. There are two distinctive things that make me more worried about our institutions than I might otherwise be.

The main thing is Donald Trump’s personality and track record, as revealed over the campaign. In his business dealings, personal interactions, and campaign speeches, he showed a strong tendency toward authoritarianism. He hasn’t been constrained by norms or rules so far. In the election, the GOP’s base rewarded him for it, so it seems unlikely that Republicans will do much oversight: after all, finally having the president from their party will enable them to pass an agenda that Obama prevented. Without that oversight by other institutions, the executive’s power gets enhanced.

Second, Trump’s not much of a policy wonk or systematic thinker on most issues, and he doesn’t seem to care that being president a very demanding job. This means he’s likely to be erratic in decision making and be easily persuadable by those around him. We’re seeing that this team is made up mainly of people who hold extreme views on political dissent, race, immigration, and foreign policy. After Trump’s initial meeting with Obama, some supporters of the Affordable Care Act were encouraged that Trump said he was interested in retaining some of the legislation’s core elements. But that meeting should be deeply worrying, because it really indicates that even a political opponent can talk Trump into anything in a short time, either because he doesn’t have strong beliefs, doesn’t have much information, or isn’t very good at critically processing new information and so just accepts what he’s told. In another month, it won’t be Obama who speaks with Trump in the minutes before he makes a final decision on something important — it will be [Chief Strategist] Steve Bannon or [National Security Advisor] Mike Flynn.

Do you expect greater resistance and more political engagement by people?

Chicago’s social movements and organizers have been very active recently, but in reaction to the election, people in Chicago and beyond are showing that they do not support the ideas that Trump represents. Clinton’s margin of victory was more than 70 percent in the city and a comfortable majority in the suburbs. In fact, if we combined Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Iowa into one “Midwest” pool, Clinton got more votes here, too. The election’s outcome is more a function of the Electoral College than democratic will, even in the middle of the country. Local officials are following suit. On immigration in particular, the city (like others across the country) has reiterated its official policy to be welcoming to new Americans, in pre-emptive defiance of Trump’s signature policies. Cities are likely to be the biggest countervailing force against the most aggressive policies of the administration and Congress. And cities won’t drop their connections to each other, or to the world, even if Trump’s avowed isolationism makes trade or immigration more difficult for average people.

Resources such as the Chicago Democracy Project — an initiative you’ve helped create — seem well positioned to contribute to a richer political discourse. What’s the vision for CDP?

We’ve just launched the CDP as a website, and I hope that we can use it as a tool to connect the University to the community more broadly. Its first element is a user-friendly database to learn more about Chicago politics: you’ll be able to search any election in the city for the last 10 years and see local patterns and results.

But the broader effort is to build bridges to civil society groups, to better understand the ways in which policies and politics in Chicagoland work — how democracy works. I’m very interested to see what kinds of new organizing strategies — political, social, economic, local, global, networked — arise during this time.