The Presidential Cult and Political Sectarianism

It's difficult to ignore indicators that partisan animosity has grown more ubiquitous and toxic.

“The mischiefs of faction,” James Madison told us in the Federalist, “are sown into the nature of man.” So we shouldn’t be surprised that Americans, a fractious, combative bunch in the best of times, have never disagreed over politics all that amicably.

However, staring into the Hellmouth of Twitter—or even across the Thanksgiving dinner table—difficult it's to overlook signals that political hatred has grown more prevalent and corrosive in recent months. Politics has become all too terribly personal, and the personal has become political. Joe Biden has taken note. “Let this grim era of demonization begin to end here and now,” the president‐​elect declaimed in his victory speech last November; it’s time to “see each other, not as adversaries, but as neighbors, [to] stop the shouting and lower the temperature, for without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.”

But the toxic partisanship that plagues us can’t be cured with a change in presidential tone. The modern presidency is a divider, not a uniter. It has become too powerful to be anything else.


We’ve entered “an acute era of polarization,” two Stanford political scientists report in a 2018 study: during the first two decades of this century, “partisans’ mild dislike for their opponents has been transformed into a deeper form of animus.”

Politics, according to Henry Adams, is "the methodical organizing of hatreds." But what has been deforming our everyday lives was not the outcome of a master strategy. We've been falling apart more by chance than purpose. We've physically moved away from folks who don't share our ideas in order to pursue our particular preferences— for Republicans, bigger yards and mansions; for Democrats, density and walkability. The phenomena was called "the Big Sort" by journalist Bill Bishop in 2004, and it has only grown since then. The majority of counties on the electoral map are now reliably red or blue, and in 2020, approximately four out of ten registered voters supporting Donald Trump or Joe Biden told pollsters they had no close friends who supported the opposing candidate. A similar ideological segregation has occurred online, as partisans create their own "Daily Me" of politically palatable content, bolstering their belief that it is the other side's scumbags who are wrecking the country.

“I can’t believe Nixon won; I don’t know anyone who voted for him,” goes the quote attributed to New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. Apocryphal though it may be, the phrase has become shorthand for the political myopia afflicting people who never meet and therefore can’t understand fellow Americans with different political views. If current trends continue, it won’t be long before we’re all Pauline Kael.

What’s worse, we’ve begun to fear, even hate, those we don’t understand. Sixty to seventy percent of Democrats and Republicans now view their political opponents as “a serious threat to the United States and its people.” Forty‐​two percent go so far as to affirm that the other team is “not just worse for politics—they are downright evil.”

The names used by political scientists to describe this phenomenon—"negative partisanship" and "affective polarization"—are clinical and anodyne. Even the term "tribalism" falls short of capturing the terror and hatred that our political differences elicit. A phrase coined by a group of academics last year in Science, "political sectarianism," gets closer to the mark. They argue that, while "tribalism" connotes kinship, "the basic metaphor for political sectarianism is religion," implying "strong trust in one's sect's moral righteousness and superiority." Indeed, the smell of fire and brimstone pervaded scenes of political turmoil throughout 2020, from violence at Black Lives Matter marches to the January 6 Capitol riot.

“There is a religious war going on in this country,” Pat Buchanan proclaimed in a notorious speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. The pundit class recoiled in horror at the time, but it looks as if Buchanan’s dark prophecy was just slightly ahead of the trend.


Meanwhile, as our politics took on a quasi-religious intensity, the presidency's authority was increasingly concentrated in the early twenty-first century. The "most powerful office in the world" got more more powerful during the Bush Obama years, with dragnet covert surveillance programs, global drone warfare, and a growing reliance on pen and phone rule.

In their significant new essay, "Presidential Polarization," law professors John O. McGinnis and Michael B. Rappaport warn that this is a combustible mix. "Our government structure's distortion" toward one-man rule exacerbates polarization and makes it more hazardous. For major policy changes, the original constitutional framework needed broad consensus. "Now, the president may make such modifications unilaterally," McGinnis and Rappaport write.

Because of the widespread transfer of legislative authority to the administration, the most essential regulations governing our social and economic lives no longer "come from a process fostering compromise among lawmakers of many parties and groups.... Instead, the President's department chiefs are in charge of enacting federal legislation. Fundamental concerns of governance that were formerly left to Congress, the states, or the people are increasingly being decided in a winner-take-all way by whatever party wins the White House. Is it any surprise that keeping the peace among competing religions is getting more difficult when so much depends on whose party holds the presidency?

“We’re all in this together” was one of President Barack Obama’s favorite rhetorical tropes; it also aptly describes our current dilemma. When one man has the power to reshape broad swathes of American life and law with the stroke of a pen, we raise the stakes of our political differences and risk fostering the sense that every election is a “Flight 93 election.”


Of course, the fact that presidential elections have effects is nothing new. It's long been a tradition in American politics that when the outgoing party retakes power, the new president reverses some of his predecessor's actions with a stroke of the pen. President Bill Clinton, for example, reversed two executive orders issued during the Reagan-Bush administration: one required foreign aid recipients to certify that they would not promote abortion as a method of family planning, and the other required federal contractors to post notice that no employee is legally required to join a union. Following Republican presidents, the policies were switched back on—and off again by Democrats—with the requirements blinking in and out of existence as the office changed parties.

However, in recent years, the ramifications of a presidential party switch have become significantly more significant. President Barack Obama determined in 2012, not long after asserting the right to unilaterally modify immigration law—"that's not how our democracy works"—that it actually is. He signed executive orders granting legal status and eligibility for government benefits to about half of the country's 11 million illegal immigrants. President Trump has taken steps to reverse those orders and enact his own, including a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. The Obama administration established a very wide definition of sexual harassment in a "Dear Colleague" letter to institutions receiving federal money, and pressed schools to reduce due process safeguards for students accused of it. In college adjudications, the Trump administration overturned this norm and increased the burden of proof.

The “power of the pen” and the party affiliation of the president now govern such questions as these: who gets to come to the United States and who gets to stay, what rules govern free speech and sexual harassment disputes on college campuses nationwide, what apps are permitted on your children’s phones, and which sports can they play at school? They may even determine whether you’re still on the hook for your student loans. One of the key benefits of “energy in the executive,” Alexander Hamilton assured us in the Federalist, was that it would ensure “steady administration of the laws.” Today, the law itself changes radically every time the White House changes hands.

Even when there is a majority of support in Congress to overturn them, legal changes enacted by presidential decree may be locked in for as long as the president's party is in power. That's owed in part to a 1983 Supreme Court ruling, Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, which held that attempts to rein in presidential lawmaking must go through the normal legislative process and be signed or vetoed by the president. As a result, the American government's default setting has shifted toward presidential unilateralism. Unless and until Congress can assemble a veto-proof supermajority, the president now has vast powers to do as he pleases.

Trump’s veto record illustrates the new dispensation. In 8 of the 10 vetoes issued during his single term, he beat back attempts to reverse unilateral actions a congressional majority opposed. Trump even seized new powers and used the veto to keep them, rebuffing resolutions aimed at overturning his border‐​wall emergency declaration and, after the targeted killing of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani, another aimed at restraining his ability to wage undeclared war on Iran.


Late in the 2020 campaign, there came a point when President Trump appeared to be making a case for his opponent. At a rally in October, Biden warned the gathering that voting for him would be a vote for "boredom." "Nobody is going to be interested in politics anymore" if we get "Sleepy Joe." We should be so fortunate.

Where credit is due, Joe Biden has managed to create a Twitter stream that is more orderly and boring than his predecessor's. But it was the tremendous powers that the presidency has amassed, not Donald Trump's incontinent and volatile nature, that made the presidency the fundamental fault line of our fractured republic.

In the first days of his administration, President Biden unleashed such a flurry of unilateral edicts that even the New York Times editorial board felt compelled to cajole him: “Ease Up on the Executive Actions, Joe.” By the 100‐​day mark, Biden had already issued more executive orders than President Obama managed in his entire first year.

The Wall Street Journal published three pieces about Biden's edicts in one single issue on a Wednesday this summer. With the incoming president rescinding a Trump order banning the Chinese-owned app, the TikTok app may remain on American phones for the time being. The Keystone XL pipeline, on the other hand, would perish after Biden revoked a vital permit allowing it to cross the US-Canadian border. A third report detailed the EPA's plans to strengthen wetlands protections under the federal Clean Water Act, significantly restricting Americans' ability to utilize their own land. Biden had moved on to showerheads by July, restoring a Trump-era Energy Department water flow standard. Americans may only legally douse their domes at a rate of 2.5 gallons per minute from now on. The presidency has the power to give and take away.

Granted, a family fight over water‐​flow standards is unlikely to ruin Christmas, but the president’s unilateral powers extend to many of the issues that divide us most. In a 2019 survey, the Pew Research Center found that on key political questions, the average difference between Red and Blue Americans had more than doubled since 1994. The “partisan gap” now dwarfs past social divides such as the gender gap or the generation gap.

Some of the 30 political issues examined by Pew were more divisive than others. Environmental regulation and immigration policy were the most divisive, with a 42-point margin between Democrats and Republicans on whether "stricter environmental rules and regulations are worth the expense," and a 47-point gap on whether "the rising number of newcomers enhances American culture." Even in these areas, a legislative compromise—on regulatory rigor or immigration numbers and criteria—might be achievable if presidential power hadn't rendered parliamentary bargaining obsolete. "Our twisted governance produces a loud argument where individuals don't have to listen to or compromise with their neighbors to achieve their goals," McGinnis and Rappaport note.

Should transgender athletes be eligible to compete in women’s sports? Per a recent Gallup poll, 62 percent of Americans say no, with a 45‐​point split between Republicans and Democrats on the issue. The Biden Justice Department asserts that the majority view is based on “misinformation and fear.” In a recent brief, the department argued that the logic of the Supreme Court’s Bostock decision, barring employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity, extends to educational institutions receiving federal funds. The question will likely be settled via administrative diktat before it’s resolved in the courts. Biden’s first‐​day executive order on “Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity” set the stage for uniform policies on “access to the restroom, the locker room, [and] school sports” at all levels nationwide.

In the Pew study, racial issues, unsurprisingly, proved among the most polarizing, with Democrats and Republicans 55 points apart on the significance of “white privilege” and whether “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days.” Here, too, the president will have his say. In April, Biden’s Education Department jumped feet first into the roiling controversy over critical race theory in schools with a proposed rule for federal grants in American history and civics. The proposal endorsed the work of self‐​described “antiracist” radical Ibram X. Kendi. It’s not yet clear how Biden’s executive order on “Advancing Racial Equity” will cash out in terms of policy, but its pledge to root out ill‐​defined “systemic racism” flirts with Kendi’s totalizing approach.

In all likelihood, the worst is yet to come. It has been clear from the jump that in a bitterly divided country with a 50/50 Senate, President Biden would face enormous pressure from the left to bypass a deadlocked Congress and rule by decree.

That’s just not who he is, Joe Biden has insisted repeatedly. “I am not going to violate the Constitution,” the then‐​president‐​elect told civil rights leaders in December. “Executive authority that my progressive friends talk about is way beyond the bounds.”

But, amongst friends, what is the Constitution? According to the president's shamelessly illegal extension of the statewide eviction moratorium in August, not much has changed. On the basis of a Trump executive order, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the ban in 2020. As the moratorium was about to expire, President Biden informed progressives that he couldn't do anything because the moratorium was unconstitutional, as five federal courts, a majority of Supreme Court justices, and the president's own legal staff had agreed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, "Get better counsel." "The courts made it obvious that the present moratorium was not constitutional; it wouldn't stand," Biden said, ordering the extension.

Biden’s progressive friends have an extensive wish list, and they’re sure to keep the pressure on now that they know he can be pushed around. The American Prospect has identified “277 Policies for Which Biden Need Not Ask Permission,” including “break up the big banks,” “give everybody who wants one a bank account,” “make it easier for 800,000 workers to join a union, and much, much more.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D‑NY) has urged Biden to “call a climate emergency”: “he could do many, many things” that wouldn’t have to go through Congress. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D‑MA) is after him to declare an executive jubilee on student loans, forgiving up to $50,000 per debtor, at a cost of around a trillion dollars. Should Biden decide to embrace his inner autocrat and “go big” with the pen and the phone, one thing is clear: that’s not going to “stop the shouting and lower the temperature.”


Are there any measures that could bring our tumultuous politics to a halt? There is no scarcity of ideas among America's "thinking leaders." "Weekly Bipartisan Senate Meetings" and coercive nostrums like "Mandatory National Service" are examples of ineffective but mainly harmless ideas.

It's striking how many reformist remedies call for stepping up presidential engagement. For example, political scholars William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe argue in their 2020 book Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy that the president should be given the "agenda setting" ability to force Congress to vote on his favorite legislation unamended.

We should be going the other way: reducing the harm that presidents may cause and decreasing the stakes of presidential elections. Emergency powers, war powers, trade authority, and the capacity to declare law with a stroke of a pen all need to be reined back.

But relimiting the presidency isn’t enough. We need fewer one‐​size‐​fits‐​all decisions made by the president and fewer such decisions made by the federal government. The “Big Sort,” by which more Americans have chosen to live near like‐​minded neighbors, has helped turn our national politics into a winner‐​take‐​all death match, but the same conditions ought to enable a reinvigorated federalism. Americans trust their state and local governments far more than they trust the federal government, according to polling data. Even in the midst of the pandemic summer of 2020, 60 percent of respondents had strong faith in their state administrations, with 71 percent expressing confidence in municipal governments. Those figures support devolving more authority to states and localities: if crucial choices were made closer to home, we'd have fewer fights.

One hopes that Americans rediscover the "better angels of our nature," put politics in context, and find what brings us together. While we wait for such moral awakening, we urgently need structural reforms to minimize the harm we may cause one another in the midst of partisan warfare. One of the most important is limiting the commander‐​in‐​chief.

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