GOP leaders’ embrace of Trump’s refusal to concede fits pattern of rising authoritarianism, data shows
It’s the latest sign of the party’s lurch away from democratic ideals and practices, a shift that predates Trump but one that has accelerated precipitously since. Now, according to data released by an international team of political scientists just before the Nov. 3 election, it’s possible to quantify the extent to which the Republican Party no longer adheres to such principles as the commitment to free and fair elections with multiple parties, the respectful treatment of political opponents and the avoidance of violent rhetoric. “The Republican Party in the U.S. has retreated from upholding democratic norms in recent years,” said Anna Lührmann, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and a former member of the German parliament. “Its rhetoric is closer to authoritarian parties, such as AKP in Turkey and Fidesz in Hungary.” Lührmann is deputy director of the university’s V-Dem Institute, which compiled the data. For the project, researchers recruited more than 600 political scientists around the world to make annual assessments of political parties’ adherence to a number of key small-D democratic values. Those assessments are combined into the main measure in the chart above, which tracks parties’ overall commitment to democracy. Lührmann points out that the Republican Party score started to edge downward during the Obama administration but fell off a cliff in 2016 with the ascent of Trump. The Democratic Party, by contrast, hasn’t changed much. This is a prime example of what political scientists call asymmetric polarization — a growing partisan gap driven almost entirely by the actions of the Republican Party. While V-Dem’s data only runs through 2018, that asymmetry has only become more apparent in the aftermath of this election, Lührmann said: “It is disturbing that most leading Republicans are still not objecting to President Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud and attempts to declare himself the winner.” As a result, she says, GOP scores are likely to sink further when 2020 data is released. Daniel Pemstein, a political scientist at North Dakota State University who helped develop V-Dem’s methodology, acknowledges that the project “seeks to measure things that are inherently difficult to observe.” There’s no universally accepted measure of “illiberalism,” for instance. In the absence of such a measure, the best alternative is to interview numerous experts on the topic to determine whether there is a consensus. V-Dem essentially systematizes this process, collecting and standardizing expert assessments on a massive scale. “We combine ratings from a huge number of local experts on political parties, leveraging the pattern of agreement across experts to estimate real-world party characteristics,” Pemstein said. Lührmann notes the project has collected data on nearly 2,000 political parties. The drivers of the Republican Party’s drift toward authoritarianism are visible in the sub-indicators that make up the main index. Consider the demonization of political opponents: In 2006, V-Dem’s experts judged that GOP leaders “usually did not” resort to demonization and severe personal attacks in characterizing the Democratic Party. But the rise of the tea party was a turning point, research shows. “Angry protesters have frequently made claims ranging from proclaiming Obama’s ‘socialist’ intentions to making explicit Nazi comparisons to suggesting that the President is defying or even subverting the Constitution,” the Anti-Defamation League wrote at the time. By 2016, that sort of rhetoric had become the norm among GOP leaders. Encouraging violence has become alarmingly common. From the 1970s through roughly 2010, V-Dem’s experts note that both Republican and Democratic leaders consistently rejected the use of violence against political opponents. For Republicans, that began to change under Trump. It’s tempting to write off these worrying trends as Trump-era aberrations that will subside after he leaves office — Biden predicted a post-Trump “epiphany” among the GOP, for instance. There are some in the Republican Party who are critical of Trump’s efforts to undermine the election. Former national security adviser John Bolton warned in a recent Washington Post op-ed that the party may suffer “permanent damage to its integrity and reputation because of President Trump’s post-election rampaging.” But V-Dem’s data underscores how much of the Republican Party has adopted the authoritarian beliefs and tactics of the president. Many of the GOP leaders going along with Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud will still be in office after he leaves. “That leading Republicans are not willing to defend the electoral process shows that Trump is not the only GOP politician who has a problem with key democratic norms,” Lührmann said.