Polarization Prevails: Roy Moore’s unwavering fan base by Emily Masse @ Boston University
Even under a dark cloud of sexual misconduct allegations, Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore, referred to as the “Ten Commandments Judge,” maintains support from constituents.
On November 09, 2017, The Washington Post reported allegations of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore, a staunchly religious and conservative former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama who is now running in the special election for Jeff Session’s Senate seat.
As Moore aims to shake up Washington, for example by pushing for the impeachment of judges issuing rulings in favor of same-sex marriage, it is no surprise that establishment Republicans trying to salvage the rocky state of the party have backed his primary opponent. Advocating for the renewal of Christian values in the U.S., Moore has had a very controversial career, being removed from his position twice for refusing to comply with federal orders; he refused to remove a Ten Commandments monument (which he installed) from the Supreme Court of Alabama and instructed probate judges to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Having beaten out fellow Republican Luther Strange, whom President Trump initially supported, in the primary, Moore has a fervent following amongst Alabamians. After these accusations, Republicans such as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain have called for Moore to withdraw from the election.
However, Moore will do no such thing. He denies any instances of sexual misconduct. However, when asked in an interview with Sean Hannity if he remembered dating teenage girls when he was in his thirties, Moore replied, “Not generally, no.” He is now urging his supporters to donate to his campaign, as the National Republican Senatorial Committee no longer supports his candidacy. It seems that during this time of scandal, Moore has managed to bolster support amongst his incredibly loyal following.
What allows Moore to maintain his popularity with the Alabama electorate under such serious allegations? The answer: polarization and political paranoia.
Alabama is a very conservative state, voting Republican in every presidential election since 1980, with deep religious traditions holding true for many citizens. As a result, the Republican candidate in this special election is the favorite to win. Since the allegations, surveys have shown that Moore’s supporters have dwindled slightly, primarily amongst the female population, making Moore and his Democratic opponent Doug Jones essentially neck and neck. Yet, division within the Republican Party makes this race a little more difficult to predict, though marginally.
Roy Moore’s candidacy presents a battle within a battle: center-right against far-right and Republican against Democrat. Though one may think the former of the two battles has already been resolved in the primary, the moderate Republicans who voted for Strange are now left to decide between a Republican alleged with sexual misconduct and a Democrat. For some, this may seem like an easy decision. However, in a conservative state like Alabama, the decision is the choice for the lesser of two evils. Larry Powell, a professor of communications at the University of Alabama at Birmingham predicts that in the election, which is already expected to have low voter turnout, moderate Republicans will simply not vote. In Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Cass Sunstein acknowledges that when moderates leave a political group, no one is able to temper the passions of the extreme members (Sunstein). Here many moderate Republicans are disgusted by Moore’s alleged actions, and are pulling away as a result.
Thus, the supporters of Moore, who’s commitment to the candidate has only been ignited further by the allegations, will have a much stronger presence in the polls. In an interview with The Star, five Republican county chairmen offered their support for Moore. Jerry Pow stated that even if the accusations were proven to be true, “I would vote for Judge Moore because I wouldn’t want to vote for Doug. I’m not saying I support what he did.”
In this extreme example of polarization, Pow determines that voting for a Democrat would be more harmful than electing a man with a history of sexual misconduct. As Lilliana Mason notes, polarization is a social phenomenon that causes voters to make decisions based on emotional and psychological reasoning rather than policy. The political party becomes a team, and the constituent a cheering fan. Party victory is most important, taking precedence over issue stances, and in this circumstance morality as well (Mason).
Many far right Republicans view these allegations as nothing more than a left-wing conspiracy to demolish Moore’s so far successful campaign. Some state officials and Moore supporters have pointed out that the women did not come forward during Moore’s previous campaigns that did not involve a crucial Senate seat, which if won by the Democrats could make passing contested Republican legislation even more difficult. These conspiracies also highlight media reports saying that one accuser was a sign-language interpreter for Hilary Clinton and other Democrats. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon has drawn a connection between these accusations and the “Access Hollywood” recording from ten years prior exposing Trump’s comments about inappropriately touching women, released when Trump was gaining momentum during the 2016 Presidential election.
In using rhetoric that claims Moore, and Trump, are victims of a Democratic conspiracy, Bannon and those with similar views are employing Hofstadter’s paranoid style of politics. Hofstadter writes, “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization” (Hofstadter 29). Moore’s campaign revolves around the belief that our most basic rights, written in the Constitution, come from God. Therefore, he feels that removing any semblance of God from the government strips us of our morality. He also maintains that the high crime rates in the U.S. are punishment for neglecting God’s power in government.
Moore and his supporters, seeing the allegations as part of a broader conspiracy, treat the allegations as another step in the attempt to rid American government of the conservative Christian values upon which the country was built. As a result, Moore’s supporters are coming not only to Moore’s defense, but also to the defense of what has been painted as the very backbone of American morality.
If Moore is elected, the Senate could vote to expel him after he is seated due to lack of character. Yet, even in the event that Moore remains in the Senate, he will not spell the end of American democracy as we know it. The present concern is not so much about what will happen once (if) Moore takes his seat in the Senate, but rather the phenomena that got him there. The extreme polarization undermining this election, and nearly all American elections, raises concern that the intense party devotion and competition polarization creates prevents the electorate from voting for the candidates who truly represent their views and are most fit to lead the country. And the paranoid style only adds fuel to the fire, pitting one side against the other and turning fellow Americans into the enemy. Of course, competition is a necessary part of any democracy. However, polarization and political paranoia launch this competition to a new level: a level that prompts many Americans to uphold partisan identity over moral values. As a result, in a system that is theoretically dependent on the needs and desires of the people (translated into votes), many are left wondering if the candidates the American constituents elect into office are right for the job.
Sunstein, Cass. 2009. Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide. New York: Oxford University Press: Chapters 1 and 2.
Mason, Lilliana. 2015. “‘I Disrespectfully Agree’: The Differential Effects of Partisan Sorting on Social and Issue Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59(1): pp. 128-145.
Hofstadter, Richard. 1952. The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays. Paperback. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Chapter 1.