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When democracy slides into street fighting mode

11 Nov 2020 - 09:40

The last few days, with the anticipation, the stakes, the waiting, the nail-biting, were unique in global politics. If anything, the intensity of the stress reminded me of a long-awaited soccer match between two arch-rivals, with what seems like unlimited extra time.

And unlike some other political systems, the decisive moment in the American elections is very much supposed to be the political equivalent of the ‘sudden death’ in soccer.1 When the mark of 270 electoral votes is reached, the winner takes it all. The loser has to leave the stage.

In many respects, this run-up to – and the immediate aftermath of – the elections in the United States show similarities with a high-profile soccer match. The behaviour of some of the supporters of the two opposing teams reminds me of hooliganism.

Sure, like in soccer, most supporters are law-abiding citizens. But in the days before the actual match, windows were barricaded, security precautions were taken and some even went as far as stocking up on ammunition. Predictions had it that anything could happen. The political equivalent of soccer hooligans were out there and ready to fight.

How on earth could the US descend to this level? Democracy, that is essentially meant to facilitate the exchange of different opinions, is now sliding into street fighting mode. Some of the reasons are well-known. Polarisation runs high, for instance. Social media capitalise on this phenomenon. Polarisation has thus become a business model and we buy into it.

The social distancing and the increased use of social media amplify this ‘us versus them’ way of thinking. Moreover, the resulting destabilisation is actively encouraged by foreigners. There is a malign foreign interest in the promotion of destructive behaviour and hooliganism to disrupt democracy in the US and the European Union. We call it hybrid warfare.

The identity-based choices offer a sense of belonging in a world full of challenges and anxieties

But there is one more element. Research into the motives of the American electorate to cast their vote for president Donald Trump four years ago found that ‘identity’ plays an increasingly dominant role in politics and political choices. It is not the political agendas, programmes or policies that are the most relevant. Instead, the answer to the question “can I identify with the candidate?” seems the decisive element for voters’ choices.

Like in sports, you are either a FC Barcelona or Real Madrid supporter. Either Ajax or Feyenoord. This is because it is part of who you are. The actual sportive performance is only marginally important. You are a supporter through thick and thin. Under all circumstances, you defend your team. Even in a fight, if necessary. It is not a debating club; the ‘others’ are not part of a discussion, they are the enemy.

The identity-based choices offer a sense of belonging in a world full of challenges and anxieties. They turn the world into an easy black-white dichotomy. It taps nicely into the increasing levels of polarisation and the funnel of single-sided information that social media have on offer. Next to this, it mixes well with the polarisation that is accelerated by outside forces that have an interest in destabilising the US and the EU.

The prolonged ‘match’ between Joe Biden and Trump is indeed very much like a soccer final. And while I am writing this, it is not over. Court cases, recounting votes, fraud claims, frustrated supporters and hooliganism are all part of it.

Some have openly called to get ready to fight. Those people want to play this by the rules of masculinity. You do not give up, you fight until you are physically defeated. Meanwhile, the law-abiding citizens hope that the violence will be controllable. That seems a commendable goal in the short run.

But in the long run, somebody will have to answer the question of how we organise a political arena in times of identity politics, polarisation as a business model, and hybrid warfare. Biden has work to do.

 

  • 1. Where play ends as soon as one competitor is ahead of the others, with that competitor becoming the winner.

Authors

Peter Knoope
Senior Visiting Fellow Clingendael