Of Course, We’re Polarized. We Should Be!

Do a search for “America polarized” and you’ll see that serious observers are very concerned:

The Pew Charitable Trusts: “America Is Exceptional in Its Political Divide”

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “What Happens When Democracies Become Perniciously Polarized?”

The New Yorker: “How Politics Got So Polarized”

The New York Times: “America Has Split, and It’s Now In Very Dangerous Territory”

The Atlantic: “The Doom Spiral of Pernicious Polarization”

And so on. But polarization is a symptom, not the disease.

The following is from “Political Polarization Isn’t the Real Problem in America”, an interview with two University of North Carolina political scientists at Salon:

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the idea that American political life was dangerously polarized was controversial, and often vehemently denied…. Today things look quite different…. Polarization research has exploded, exploring many different dimensions — social, ideological, affective — all resting on the premise that polarization is a big problem, if not the central problem, in American politics today. But this research too often tacitly yearns for a lost golden age of greater consensus, an age that was never golden for those effectively excluded….

Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor, both at the University of North Carolina, … argue that the focus on polarization as such, while ignoring the actual content of politics that produces polarization, is fundamentally mistaken….

I was reading the Axios newsletter this morning and they used the language of polarization to talk about how college students are making choices on the basis of state laws around reproductive rights. Basically they bemoaned the polarization that means people aren’t going to go to school in red states if they value abortion access. But the problem there is not polarization, it’s that 18- to 24-year-olds, very logically, are like, “We want to be make sure that we have reproductive freedoms and can make autonomous choices for our own bodies when we go to school.” Polarization is beside the point….

It’s not to say that polarization is not something to be concerned about. There are all sorts of ways that citizens have skewed understandings of the other side, when it comes to the beliefs that citizens of different parties hold, and those things are all potentially concerning. But when you have an assault on our nation’s capital, as we did on Jan. 6, that was designed to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a safe and a secure election, the problem is not polarization, it’s anti-democratic extremism. It’s unfair and illegitimate power grabs by a set of dominant groups in a white-dominant political party. It’s not the fact that we’re so divided. I just think a lot of scholars have been drawing the wrong conclusions and focusing on the wrong questions when it comes to what we should be concerned about….

One way to think about [this] is to ask: “Why is the contemporary right obsessed with trans issues right now?” I think this is a clear example of constructing identitarian appeals that work with white men in particular. That also came right on the heels of all the “critical race theory” bills that swept across the country, all with similar language about protecting, in essence, whites from feeling guilty from learning about racial history, from being accountable for racial histories….

If you’re considering the democratic consequences of polarization, you also have to consider what the poles you’re comparing really are. Polarization only says what’s of concern is that distance between two groups, whereas we’re arguing that one group is anti-democratic extremists and the other group is a multiracial democratic movement. The concern is not that they’re so far apart….

The polarization frame is the easy one. It’s politically neutral. It’s easy to be like, “Oh, we’re all so polarized!” Consider that Axios newsletter I mentioned: A more careful analysis is to say, “Maybe 18 to 24-year-olds are concerned about the fact that they’re going to have access to reproductive care while they’re in college.” Or to cite another issue, the problem isn’t that we’re polarized around guns, the problem is we have mass shootings once a week in this country. I think it requires having a much clearer diagnosis of what’s at issue. 

But that also means taking a stance. And I think a lot of journalists and a lot of social scientists, a lot of people in public life feel very uncomfortable with that. We can’t call out guns, but we can call out polarization. But from my point of view, the problem is guns. The problem is anti-trans laws. The problem is white supremacy. Those are the issues that I think we should focus on, and be clear-eyed about.

Polarization becomes a way to talk about politics without talking about politics at all, without actually getting at the underlying issues. We all just need to be much sharper in our analysis and much clearer in our commitments when we talk about these issues, without the lazy way out of relying on polarization speak.

The basic problem isn’t polarization. As the Salon article says, the basic problem is that one pole is a lot worse than the other. From Vox:

A 2019 survey of nearly 2,000 experts on political parties from around the world asked respondents to rate political parties on two axes: the extent to which they are committed to basic democratic principles and their commitment to protecting rights for ethnic minorities. The higher the number, the more anti-democratic and intolerant the party is.

The following chart shows the results of the survey for all political parties [among] wealthy democratic states, with the two major American parties highlighted in red. The Republican Party is an extreme outlier compared to mainstream conservative parties in other wealthy democracies….

Its closest peers are, almost uniformly, radical right and anti-democratic parties. This includes Turkey’s AKP (a regime that is one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists), and Poland’s PiS (which has threatened dissenting judges with criminal punishment). Experts rate the GOP as substantially more hostile to minority rights than Hungary’s Fidesz, an authoritarian party that has made demonization of Muslim immigrants into a pillar of its official ideology.

In short, there is a consensus among comparative politics scholars that the Republican Party is one of the most anti-democratic political parties in the developed world. It is one of a handful of once-centrist parties that has, in recent years, taken a turn toward the extreme….

Over the past decade and a half, Republicans have shown disdain for procedural fairness and a willingness to put the pursuit of power over democratic principles. They have implemented measures that make it harder for racial minorities to vote, render votes from Democratic-leaning constituencies irrelevant, and relentlessly blocked Democratic efforts to conduct normal functions of government.

And consider that this survey was conducted before the “Stop the Steal” bullshit, the attack on Congress, the Supreme Court’s forced birth decision, Republican extortion on the debt limit, etc. You’re damn right we’re polarized.

American Politics of the Past and Present

Paul Krugman, economist and NY Times columnist, is a very bright person. Here, he accurately sums up where American politics used to be and where, heaven help us, it is now.

It’s 2023. What will the new year bring? The answer, of course, is that we don’t know. There are a fair number of what Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) called “known unknowns” — for example, nobody really knows how hard it will be to reduce inflation or whether the U.S. economy will experience a recession. There are also unknown unknowns: Will we see another shock like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

But I think I can make one safe prediction about the U.S. political scene: We’re going to spend much of 2023 feeling nostalgic for the good old days of greed and cynicism.

As late as 2015, …, we had a fairly good idea about how American politics worked. It wasn’t pretty, but it seemed comprehensible.

On one side we had the Democrats, who were and still are basically what people in other advanced nations call social democrats (which isn’t at all the same as what most people call socialism). That is, they favor a fairly strong social safety net, supported by relatively high taxes on the affluent. They’ve moved somewhat to the left over the years, mainly because the gradual exit of the few remaining conservative Democrats has made the party’s social-democratic orientation more consistent. But by international standards, Democrats are, at most, vaguely center left.

On the other side we had the Republicans, whose overriding goal was to keep taxes low and social programs small. Many advocates of that agenda did so in the sincere belief that it would be best for everyone — that high taxes reduce incentives to create jobs and raise productivity, as do excessively generous benefits. But the core of the G.O.P.’s financial support (not to mention that of the penumbra of think tanks, foundations and lobbying groups that promoted its ideology) came from billionaires who wanted to preserve and increase their wealth.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Democrats were pure idealists. Special-interest money flowed to both parties. But of the two, Republicans were much more obviously the party of making the rich richer.

The problem for Republicans was that their economic agenda was inherently unpopular. Voters consistently tell pollsters that corporations and the rich pay too little in taxes; policies that help the poor and the middle class have broad public support. How, then, could the G.O.P. win elections?

The answer, most famously described in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” was to win over white working-class voters by appealing to them on cultural issues. His book came in for considerable criticism from political scientists, in part because he underplayed the importance of white racial antagonism, but the general picture still seems right.

As Frank described it, however, the culture war was basically phony — a cynical ploy to win elections, ignored once the votes were counted. “The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ,” he wrote, “but they walk corporate. … Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.”

These days, that sounds quaint — even a bit like a golden era — as many American women lose their reproductive rights, as schools are pressured to stop teaching students about slavery and racism, as even powerful corporations come under fire for being excessively woke. The culture war is no longer just posturing by politicians mainly interested in cutting taxes on the rich; many elected Republicans are now genuine fanatics.

As I said, one can almost feel nostalgic for the good old days of greed and cynicism.

Oddly, the culture war turned real at a time when Americans are more socially liberal than ever. George W. Bush won the 2004 election partly thanks to a backlash against gay marriage. (True to form, he followed up his victory by proclaiming that he had a mandate to … privatize Social Security.) But these days, Americans accept the idea of same-sex marriages almost three to one.

And the disconnect between a socially illiberal [Republican Party] and an increasingly tolerant public is surely one reason the widely predicted red wave in the midterms fell so far short of expectations.

Yet despite underperforming in what should, given precedents, have been a very good year for the out-party, Republicans will narrowly control the House. And this means that the inmates will be running half the asylum.

True, not all members of the incoming House Republican caucus are fanatical conspiracy theorists. But those who aren’t are clearly terrified by and submissive to those who are. Kevin McCarthy may scrape together the votes to become speaker, but even if he does, actual power will obviously rest in the hands of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene.

What I don’t understand is how the U.S. government is going to function. President Barack Obama faced an extremist, radicalized G.O.P. House, but even the Tea Partiers had concrete policy demands that could, to some extent, be appeased. How do you deal with people who believe, more or less, that the 2020 election was stolen by a vast conspiracy of pedophiles?

I don’t know the answer, but prospects don’t look good.