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What Happened In Portland Shows Just How Fragile Our Democracy Is

In the video, Juniper Simonis screams as they are pushed to the ground, struggling, by a group of men in military fatigues who wield large, black weapons. While Simonis is handcuffed and their service dog barks, the men surround them, a wall of camo, blocking the videographer from capturing the full extent of what’s happening. Simonis wears shorts and a tank top, but the men appear dressed for war. The officers’ uniforms bear a large patch that says “police,” but they aren’t police. They’re federal agents, but with no name tags or badges, they are, in the moment of Simonis’s arrest, impossible to identify.

Simonis is an American scientist — a computational ecologist who does data analysis for researchers and the government. Last month, Simonis was detained outside a federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, by mysterious men now known to be agents of the Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency created to fight terrorism. By Simonis’s own estimation, the scientist spent around eight hours in the agents’ custody. For the first 45 minutes or so, they said, they were held in a parking garage without having been read their rights. Simonis was then transferred to a U.S. Marshals’ lockup. Their request to call a lawyer or a friend was refused. Eventually, Simonis was given a citation for vandalism related to chalking the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, and sent out the door in the middle of the night with no way home.

Simonis’s story is not how most Americans expect law enforcement to work. But over the last few weeks, it’s become part of a familiar pattern. DHS agents in Portland have tear-gassed protesters and pulled individuals into unmarked vans, and some of those people were banned from attending any more protests as a condition of being released from jail. The agency also collected information on journalists who published leaked documents.

Late last week, a deal was struck with Oregon’s governor to withdraw the troops. The governor said it was happening immediately, but DHS officials said it was a phased withdrawal and that they wouldn’t leave until “[W]e are assured that the courthouse and other federal facilities will no longer be attacked nightly.”

These events sit in a weird nexus. They are extraordinary enough to draw the attention of legal scholars and criticism from civil liberties groups. But politically, the response has been divided. House Democrats called for an investigation, while Sen. Rand Paul is the only congressional Republican to speak out against the DHS response. The media’s reaction has also fallen along well-worn lines, with outlets like the National Review telling readers that the events in Portland were justified and The Atlantic saying justification was impossible. That divided response makes some experts almost as concerned as the arrests. Partisanship is dangerous, they told us, particularly when it’s accompanied by a long series of warning signs that could signal serious danger for American democracy.

Portland is not the first place the federal government has stepped in with disproportionate force against the will of local authorities. In 1794, George Washington himself led a militia of 13,000 men into Pennsylvania to put down an anti-tax revolt. And while that is a very long time to reach back for precedent, experts say it’s important to understand the context of American history when it comes to violation of democratic norms. “Contrary to what a lot of people assume, American democracy has always been fragile and in real danger of backsliding,” said Suzanne Mettler, a professor of American politics at Cornell University and one of the authors of “Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy.”

She, and other experts, consider our current time period one in which authoritarianism poses a serious risk — but not because of what is happening with the DHS in Portland. Instead, it’s more likely that recent events are a symptom of something bigger, a risk that has steadily grown in the last several decades. Instead, they point to the political polarization evident in public opinion on Portland as indicative of the danger we’re in.

When it comes to Portland, specifically, the partisan divide is definitely real. In a survey fielded by Data for Progress on July 28, respondents were split about Trump’s decision to send DHS to Oregon, with 42 percent calling the deployment of federal police “essential” and 45 percent calling it an “overstep.” And that split was highly partisan. Broken down by party affiliation, nearly three-quarters of Republicans favored the decision while a similar proportion of Democrats opposed it. (Full disclosure: Shom Mazumder, one of the authors of this article, is a fellow at Data for Progress.)

That, by itself, isn’t much of a shock. We are, for better or for worse, used to all sorts of issues dividing public opinion. The terrifying thing is the way it links partisan politics and authoritarianism. According to a recent report by the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group, support for democracy is in no way universal. In fact, their findings show that 1 in 3 Americans have, at some point in the last three years, supported some kind of authoritarian view, and only about 80 percent said it was very important to live in a democracy.

And separate polling, commissioned by Mazumder before Portland, from YouGov Blue, an arm of YouGov that primarily serves Democratic and progressive clients, underscores this as well. Although it found that Republicans were less supportive overall of democracy — 1 out of 4 Republicans said that democracy is a “very bad” or “fairly bad” way to govern the country compared to just four percent of Democrats. There was also more support for a strong leader, defined in the survey as someone “who does not have to bother with Congress and elections” among Republicans. But it wasn’t just Republicans driving these anti-democratic views. A significant percentage of Democrats said they preferred to have “experts, not the government” make decisions on what they think is best for the country.

That isn’t necessarily all that surprising when you consider we’ve spent the last 30 years building up an increasingly apocalyptic view of our political opponents and their intentions. Since 1994, Pew Research Center has asked Americans about the amount of partisan animosity they held. In that time, the percentage of people who rate the opposing party as “very unfavorable” has climbed from about 20 percent to more than 50 percent. In fact, as of 2016, more than 40 percent of both Republicans and Democrats said they saw the other side as a threat to the nation.

That poses a real threat to our democracy, too. “If we view that if one party gets into power they’ll be a threat to my way of life or the nation as a whole, we’ll do whatever we can to keep them out or keep ourselves in,” said Jennifer McCoy, a professor of political science at Georgia State University. That, she added, is when people start to tolerate the violation of democratic norms. “The goal is to stay in power or get in power and it overrides the value of respecting democratic principles,” she said.

In fact, research from political scientists Matt Graham and Milan Svolik of Yale University found that survey measures might even overestimate the American public’s commitment to upholding democratic norms, especially when subverting norms might help get one side’s preferred candidate pushed through.

Looking at situations in American history and around the world, McCoy, Mettler and other experts have found that extreme polarization is one major red flag that shows a democracy is in trouble. That’s because people will condone all kinds of violence in the name of protecting themselves, said Christian Davenport, professor of political science at the University of Michigan. Violations of norms — even the law — become justifiable depending on who is doing the rule-breaking and who is being targeted.

Through that lens, it makes perfect sense why Americans are politically divided on Portland: It’s actually a divide over whether you see the protesters as a threat. And that should make us all very uncomfortable — no matter which side of the aisle we’re on. Because evidence points to the fact that many Americans, regardless of their party affiliation, are willing to condone violence and repression against their political opponents.

Back in March, McCoy and other researchers surveyed nearly 3,000 Americans about their support for various anti-democratic policies under different scenarios where one party, or the other, was in power. The results from this survey have not yet been published, but their preliminary analysis finds significantly higher support for such policies as prosecuting journalists, banning protests and disqualifying political opponents from elections in situations when a respondent’s preferred party was in power — and hoping to stay there. The effect was larger among Republicans hoping to consolidate Republican power. But it existed for Democrats, as well. For instance, while 23.6 percent of Democrats and 22.7 percent of Republicans said the president should do what the people want, even if it goes against existing laws, when their party was out of power, those numbers jumped to 29.6 percent and 35.1 percent, respectively, when the rule of law became inconvenient to keeping the other side at bay.

Not all experts who study democratic erosion think what’s going on in Portland is a threat to democracy, though. Robert Mickey, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, told us he’s more concerned with threats to voting rights and sees Portland as especially dangerous political theater.

But all of the experts we spoke to said our democracy is in a dangerous place, and that the partisan split we see over things like federal agents dragging a screaming woman into a courthouse is part of that. “We’re not immune to the rise of authoritarianism in the United States,” Mettler said. “And we can’t be cavalier in thinking we are.”

CORRECTION (August 5, 2020, 1:58 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the percentage of Americans who said it was very important to live in a democracy. It was 80 percent, not 20 percent. It also said that survey measures might underestimate the American public’s commitment to upholding democratic norms, when in fact, they might overestimate them.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Shom Mazumder is a social scientist and fellow at Data for Progress. His writings focus on the role of race and class in American politics as well as the future of the American left.