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The Treacherous Allure of the “Polarization” Dogma
On the limits and pitfalls of a narrative that obscures more than it illuminates – A Manifesto, Part I
cover illustration: iStock / Credit: Douglas Rissing
“How did we get here?” On October 30, 2022, Washington Post columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria addressed his TV audience with a heavy heart and a seriously concerned demeanor. Zakaria drew a dark picture: Congress paralyzed; the parties hating each other, unwilling to cooperate; norms and civility a thing of the past, replaced by hostility and aggression – America falling apart. How did we get here?
Zakaria was certain to have found the explanation for why things were going so wrong: In America, he argued, “democracy has actually become minority rule, and the minority holding power is unrepresentative, angry, and increasingly radical.” Crucially, he wasn’t just talking about the MAGA movement’s hold over the GOP – he called out radicalizing minoritarianism on both sides! As he concluded: “The central factor is surely the way that US politics, over the past few decades, has increasingly empowered the extremes of political parties at the expense of the mainstream.” In short, the problem was polarization. And with that diagnosis, he could be sure to find himself in agreement with much of the journalistic, political, and academic commentariat.
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Was he right though? Zakaria offered his interpretation of the American predicament less than a week before the 2022 midterm elections in which over half of the Republican candidates coming out of the GOP primaries were election deniers and Big Lie truthers who denied the legitimacy of the Biden presidency and publicly stated that they believed the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from Donald Trump. There was no equivalent to this on the Democratic side – just as there has been no Democratic equivalent to Republican attacks on the political system, to GOP attempts to subvert the democratic process via voter suppression, laws to criminalize political protest, attempts to purge election commissions and bring them under the control of Republican-dominated state legislatures, or pressure and harassment campaigns against election officials.
Zakaria offered his take on the supposed radicalization on both sides in the midst of an election campaign in which Republicans had dramatically escalated the political rhetoric. On October 1, for instance, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene had told her audience at a rally that “Democrats want Republicans dead and they have already started the killings.” Greene is, by any reasonable standard, a militant extremist. Every society harbors people like her. What makes her significant, however, is the fact the Republican Party is embracing her. Not only has she remained a member in good standing with her party – she has significantly risen within the Republican hierarchy, emerging, for instance, as a key ally to Kevin McCarthy in his ultimately successful quest to become Speaker of the House. Her extremism is increasingly that of the Republican Party itself – and once again, there is no equivalent to this on the Democratic side.
It’d be hard to argue that the situation has changed much for the better since the 2022 midterms. If anything, it has gotten worse – even though an anti-MAGA coalition came out for the third consecutive time after 2018 and 2020 to remind the GOP that Trumpism is not popular in blue and purple states. While President Joe Biden keeps talking about his personal friendship with Republican politicians and is eager to promote legislative successes like the IRA as bipartisan achievements, it has become entirely normal for Republican elected officials to speak of Democrats as the “enemy within,” or to deride their political opponent as a party in league with pedophiles. And while the big electoral debate on the Left is whether or not Joe Biden is too old to run again in 2024, Donald Trump is squashing all his rivals on the Republican side – the fact that he has now been indicted four times has only strengthened the resolve of the Republican base to unite behind him.
The problem isn’t confined to just the Republican Party and its base either. There is also no equivalent on the Democratic side to a reactionary intellectual and pundit sphere declaring that “conservatism is no longer enough,” openly embracing state authoritarianism, calling for a mobilization of the coercive powers of the state to defeat the leftist enemy within, and demanding that those who voted for Joe Biden be excluded from the body politic. I am sure there are lefty corners somewhere on the internet where you find something similarly disturbing. But serious people should be able to distinguish between what annoys them one the one hand and what is actually characteristic and significant about a political movement or party on the other. The authoritarian plea isn’t merely coming from fringe corners on the Right, but from people and institutions that are very close to the centers of conservative political power. They are capturing and channeling a widespread longing for a “counter-revolution” against what they perceive as a fundamentally un-American threat of “woke” radicalism.
None of these developments are adequately captured by an interpretation that emphasizes “polarization” of both political parties and “extremism on both sides.” And yet: The least controversial thing one can do in American politics is to decry “polarization.” Whoever does it will be rewarded with a steady stream of nodding heads from almost across the political spectrum: Yes, polarization! The root of all evil that plagues America!
I will admit the diagnosis has a certain intuitive plausibility, on the surface at least, considering the dysfunction in Congress and the way American society is seemingly disintegrating into two camps that regard each other with increasing hostility and aggression. Nevertheless, we should be a lot more critical towards the polarization narrative, towards polarization as the central diagnosis of our time. In most cases, at least in the way the concept has been popularized and is popularly used, it obscures more than it illuminates, and quite often, those who deploy it do so deliberately. In many ways, the fact that it obscures the actual political conflict is precisely what makes it widely attractive – it is the feature, not the bug, of the polarization narrative.
I would like to offer an empirical, a historical, and a normative critique of the “polarization” framework. On the empirical level, the “polarization” narrative gets the diagnosis of the current situation wrong; on the historical level, it indulges an ahistorical nostalgia for a golden age that never existed and distorts the recent past into an inadequate tale of decline; and on the normative level, the “polarization” paradigm privileges unity, stability, and social cohesion over social justice and equal participation.
I want to be clear what I am criticizing when I use the term “polarization narrative.” My point is not that polarization doesn’t exist, that there aren’t specific aspects or dimensions of American politics, society, and culture that are adequately described as “polarized.” No one disputes that party polarization – defined as the distance between the two major parties widening – is particularly pronounced today: In Congress, it has increased basically every year since at least the late 1970s. Bipartisanship among elected officials in Washington is currently at a historic low while negative partisanship is defining political allegiances well beyond the capital. That is undoubtedly a problem for a system that wasn’t made for political parties to begin with.
Polarization research has also developed into a diverse interdisciplinary field that has produced many valuable insights, distinguishing various kinds of polarization. “Social polarization” (emphasizing the differentiation between social groups, and how there is now often little overlap or contact between them, how our many different social identities increasingly align) and “affective polarization” (focusing on how social and political groups tend to feel about outgroups in increasingly negative terms) both describe real, observable phenomena. But these concepts have mostly descriptive rather than explanatory value. The question is how to explain these phenomena, how to relate them to other political, social, and cultural developments, and how to delineate their relative significance for an overall interpretation of what is currently happening in the United States. What I am criticizing is a narrative that doesn’t simply claim polarization exists as an observable phenomenon in distinct areas and dimensions, but dogmatically demands we put it at the center of our interpretation of the present and accept it as the key challenge the country is facing today.
Here is an analogy, imperfect as it may be, to illustrate my point: In the 1990s, “globalization” was suddenly everywhere. In the contemporaneous perception, there was hardly any doubt that the world had entered a new age of global interconnectedness, even interdependence: a global economy, the globalization of culture and consumption, the weakening of national borders in an era of global travel and globalized migration. If academics, pundits, and journalists were to be believed, almost everything people on either side of the Atlantic experienced in their everyday lives was somehow related to “globalization.” The fact both the 1940s as well as the 1970s had been characterized by similar perceptions of supposedly unprecedented global interdependence was not enough to prevent contemporaries from emphasizing how entirely unique their experience supposedly was. “Globalization” was widely described as an overwhelming force affecting all spheres of society, and politicians on either side of the Atlantic constantly referenced globalization as the central challenge and justification for far-reaching reforms both in the foreign policy arena as well as in the domestic realm. To be clear, many observable developments towards the end of the twentieth century were indeed adequately described as features of “globalization.” But presenting “globalization” as a catch-all diagnosis – as that which defined and animated the political, social, and cultural conflict, as the central problem as well as the key signature of an era – was a claim that operated on a completely different level. And as such, it didn’t hold up to serious scrutiny. But it revealed a lot about the political strategies, intellectual landscape, and cultural anxieties of the 90s: The “globalization” narrative’s rise to prominence was indicative of a search for meaning in the post-Cold War moment, of a widespread longing for orientation and a new grand narrative to restore order to a world that, all of a sudden, seemed quite chaotic.
Similarly, as a catch-all interpretation, the “polarization” narrative doesn’t hold up. Once “polarization” is adopted as an overarching diagnosis, as a governing historical and political paradigm, it not only obscures what the key challenge to achieving a pluralistic democracy is – the anti-democratic radicalization of the Right – but also transports a misleading idea of America’s recent past and how we got to where we are now.
The first and maybe most obvious reasons why the “polarization” narrative doesn’t provide a particularly useful assessment of the current situation is that it leaves little room for – and actively directs our attention away from – significant areas of American society and culture that simply are not “polarized.” There are absolutely issues where we find relatively broad consensus across large parts of the political spectrum and not what historian Matthew Lassiter has rightfully criticized as an “artificial red-blue binary.” Not coincidentally, these are often policies that preserve the existing racial, political, social, and economic hierarchies. When it comes to America’s political economy, police reform and law-and-order policies more generally, or education, housing, and urban development, it is simply not the case that the fault lines of the political discourse neatly fit the picture of a polity split into two increasingly “extreme” camps, and the situation on the ground does not exactly mirror the polarized party-political divide in Congress. America’s elites, in particular, certainly seem quite enamored with the status quo.
No broad societal diagnosis will apply to and be able to cover all spheres of life equally. Fair enough. But even some of the so-called “wedge issues” that are central to the “polarization” narrative don’t necessarily look quite so polarized: Take abortion, for instance. Since at least the 1990s, there has been a pretty stable two-thirds majority that thinks abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Relatively few people support the total, no-limits legalization of abortion, and even fewer support a complete ban under any circumstance. The position that Republican-led states are taking and that movement conservatives have been pushing for decades – ban! Criminalize! Persecute, even across state lines! Punish! – is incredibly unpopular. Public opinion on abortion has not “polarized” as much as it has actually been clustered pretty consistently between the poles, with a stable majority leaning significantly more towards the “liberal” position (and favoring something close to the compromise between the interests of the person who is pregnant and those of the unborn life that Roe v Wade actually sought to implement). Or take Americans’ changing views on LGBTQ rights. It can be difficult to remember this as the Republican Party has re-activated its crusade to ostracize LGBTQ Americans from public life. But once again, this isn’t a reflection of “polarized” attitudes in society as much as it is a manifestation of authoritarian reactionaries taking over one of the major parties. Since the 1970s, for instance, the percentage of people regarding homosexuality as an “acceptable lifestyle” has steadily increased; the idea that queer Americans deserve civil rights protections at the work place reached near-consensus status long ago. It would seem that there is a story to be told about a clear majority of Americans coming around on some major issues. Within a narrative that subjugates everything under the “polarization” headline, however, that story hardly receives the attention it may well deserve.
Then again, it is true that, in an internationally comparative perspective, the gap between Left and Right (if you’ll excuse the very broad way in which I am using these terms here) is very wide, and has been widening. But in many areas where that’s the case – say: on guns, pandemic response, the question of whether you should accept the results of an election your side doesn’t win or stage a violent coup – this has been almost entirely a function of conservatives moving sharply to the Right.
Let’s look, for instance, at the partisan divide in attitudes towards Covid public health measures during the pandemic:
Data journalism guru Nate Silver tweeted out this poll conducted by Pew Research in August 2021 – and presented it as yet more proof of polarization. But look again: While the gap between Left and Right in the U.S. is indeed very wide, it’s the result of the American Right taking a much more extreme position than its counterparts in other countries.
Ok, but what about areas in which we are indeed dealing with a rapidly widening partisan divide that is *not* mostly caused by conservatives moving right? Take climate change, for instance. Here are the results of a Washington Post poll from November 2021 and a Pew Research survey conducted in March 2022:
The exact numbers will vary depending on the specific phrasing of the question in any given moment – but the general trend is clear: Attitudes have indeed been polarizing, with Republicans and Democrats moving away from each other. Among Republicans, the share of people who see climate change as an urgent problem has, at best, stagnated at a very low level over recent years, and very likely gone down – among Democrats, the percentage of people regarding climate change as a major threat has gone up. But as a political narrative, “polarization” is still misleading, even here. It implies two things: a) both sides moving to the “extremes,” and b) that this move to the “extremes,” and the widening gap between the two positions that results from it, is the actual problem. Crucially, though, Democrats aren’t moving to an “extreme” position, certainly not by international comparison – they are getting in line with what is the position shared by nearly all serious experts in the world. Meanwhile, a sizable percentage of Republicans is drifting further away into fantasy land. It’s also not the widening divide per se that’s the problem: If Democrats hadn’t moved on the issue, the gap would be smaller – but we absolutely wouldn’t be better off, instead just ending up with fewer people acknowledging the reality and urgency of climate change.
There are many such examples where the “polarization” narrative is misleading even when applied to developments where the moniker fits on the purely descriptive level. For at least a decade now, the mainstream media has loved citing surveys about how Republicans and Democrats feel about each other as supposedly irrefutable proof of how polarization is tearing the country apart. As NPR put it in August 2022: “The age of Trump has been hotly polarizing in a country that was already seeing its social fabric stretched thin. A large Pew survey out this week shows how bad it’s gotten. … The survey's biggest finding? Democrats and Republicans agree: they really don't like Republicans and Democrats.” You will all have encountered the same few data points over and over again: Ever more Americans wouldn’t want to marry – or want their children to marry – someone from the other side of the partisan divide; and actually, roughly 80 per cent of Democrats and Republicans now regard the other party as a threat. Such developments fall under the rubric of what’s been termed affective polarization. It is certainly a major contributing factor to what may be the most worrying manifestation of partisan hostility: The percentage of both Democrats and Republicans who say they regard the use of political violence to achieve their political goals as justified under certain circumstances has gone up significantly over the past few years.
A growing acceptance of political violence, even in theory, is deeply concerning. And yet, all of these developments and all of the survey and polling data that captures the growing hostility needs to be interpreted in context. People didn’t just wake up one day and decided on a whim they don’t quite like the other party anymore. The Republican Party is currently dominated by a radicalizing, increasingly authoritarian faction. It remains largely supportive of Donald Trump – not just the elected officials and party apparatus, but especially the base. The GOP seems poised to give Donald Trump another chance at the presidency, and there is no indication it wouldn’t fall in line once he emerges as the nominee. Every serious scholar and observer of American democracy, politics, and history agrees that a return of Donald Trump to the White House would constitute an acute threat to the future of democracy and constitutional government in this country. Would we really be better off if Democrats *didn’t* see him and the party that has elevated him as a major problem? Fewer Democrats describing the current Republican Party as a threat would, within the logic of the polarization narrative, be normatively good, something we should hope for and work towards. But actually, it would just be a manifestation of Democratic voters either not understanding the situation as it is assessed by every serious analyst in the world or not caring enough about democratic self-government to be worried.
And as for the growing percentage of people saying they see the use of political violence as justified: Actual acts of political violence in the United States are indeed on the rise – but they are coming almost exclusively from the Right. That difference between surveys and actual violence matters very much. As does the fact that only one party can’t seem to quit a demagogue with a long history of encouraging violence against his enemies, embraces extremists who fabulate about the other side actively pursuing mass murder, entertains close ties to violent extremist groups, and has made gun-toting militancy a key element of its political identity.
Liberals as the “aggressors” in a polarizing America?
There are, finally, areas in which the widening gap between Left and Right is mostly a function of Liberals and Democratic voters moving to “the Left.” Conservatives and centrists specifically point to changing attitudes in the realms of race and immigration as proof that polarization is *not* asymmetrical, and that, as Damon Linker put it, progressives are “the aggressors in the culture war, too.”
Once again, purely on a descriptive level, this is accurate. Just compare the Democratic party platform on immigration under Clinton in the 1990s to prevailing opinions among Liberals today and it becomes clear that there has been quite a bit of movement (although that certainly hasn’t translated all that well into actual immigration policy pursued by Democratic administrations). It is also true that white Liberals and Democratic voters have become significantly more progressive in their racial attitudes – and that has been a rather recent development. Even halfway through the Obama era, a high percentage of Democratic voters was “racially conservative”: Less than half of them believed racial discrimination was the main reason for the vast inequality between Blacks and Whites in America – and among white Democrats, a significant portion, about one third, explicitly still blamed Black people for simply not trying hard enough. The numbers look very different for Democratic voters today. This has a lot to do with the fact that those “racially conservative” white people have since mostly left the Democratic party once Obama and then Trump “simplified the politics of race,” as political scientist Michael Tesler has put it succinctly. In addition to these sorting effects, there has also been some actual ideological movement to “the Left” among Liberals – much of it in response to Trump’s rise, partially as a way to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Trump.
As with all the other survey and polling data, however, the key question is: What are we to make of all this? Does it really make Liberals as much if not more of the aggressors in the political conflict that defines America today? Is it indeed evidence that the “polarization” framework is the best way to understand the present? Not so fast. The “polarization” narrative stipulates that polarization is bad, and therefore this kind of movement of Democrats to the Left is bad, as it increases the distance between the two camps. But as Julia Azari has rightfully pointed out, it’s really not like past iterations of immigration consensus between the parties were necessarily glorious moments in U.S. history, instead often leading to aggressively racist, discriminatory immigration policy. A similar case is to be made about “consensus” eras on race, which I’ll get into in a minute, in my historical critique.
Furthermore, presenting these developments within a narrative that suggests America today is defined by both sides embracing ever more radical positions completely obscures the fact that on the central issue that is at the core of the political conflict, the two parties, Left and Right more generally, are very much not the same: That issue is democracy itself. When one side is moving left on immigration and the other is rejecting majoritarian rule, they are not actually engaged in equivalent behavior. Democracy is not just one issue among many – it is THE issue. It defines the political conflict, it’s an overarching concern that permeates nearly all areas of public policy, setting the conditions for how the polity decides. The social, political, and cultural divides are inextricably linked to the struggle over democracy – the central conflict is the one between a vision of traditional white Christian patriarchal authority and one of egalitarian, multiracial, pluralism. That is the fundamental reality of American politics right now: The conflict over whether or not the country should actually be an egalitarian pluralistic democracy maps onto the conflict between the two parties – democracy itself has become a partisan issue.
Let’s not to miss the forest for the trees: If we assess them mainly by how they relate to the idea of democracy, then by international comparison, the Democrats are pretty much a standard center-left, big-tent party – while the GOP is much closer to far-right parties in countries like Poland or Hungary. Those who are increasingly in charge of the Republican Party are willing to abandon and overthrow democracy because they consider it a threat to traditional hierarchies and their vision of what “real” (meaning: white Christian patriarchal) America should be. Many of them are embracing authoritarianism. Democrats… are not. One party is dominated by a shrinking white reactionary minority that is rapidly radicalizing against democracy and will no longer accept the principle of majoritarian rule; the other thinks democracy and constitutional government should be upheld. That’s not “polarization.”
Beyond offering a misleading interpretation of the present, I also find “polarization” narrative problematic as a governing historical paradigm. If we examine the past through the lens of polarization, write history as polarization, we tend to tell a story of the American polity in decline – almost always casting the “consensus” of the postwar era in a problematically favorable light, mythologizing it as a moment of unity and order. And such a declinist tale often comes with a hefty dose of nostalgia for that long-lost “consensus,” something the Right has successfully weaponized.
But political “consensus,” to the extent it ever existed, was usually confined to white male elites and based on a cross-partisan accord to leave a discriminatory social order intact and deny marginalized groups equal representation and civil rights. The frequently invoked “consensus” of the post-World War II era, for instance, was depending on both major parties agreeing that white patriarchal rule would remain largely untouched. By the 1960s, however, that white male elite consensus had started to fracture. The parties began to split over the question of whether or not the country should become a multiracial, pluralistic democracy – a system in which an individual’s status would not be determined significantly by race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Put differently, it wasn’t a coincidence that “polarization” started when one party broke with the white elite consensus and supported – albeit reluctantly – the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. In many ways, “polarization” is the price U.S. society has had to pay for real progress towards multiracial pluralism.
The historical perspective really makes it clear that, in addition to not holding up to empirical scrutiny, the “polarization” paradigm is also problematic in a normative sense: On the normative level, “polarization” privileges unity, stability, and social cohesion over social justice and equal participation. It doesn’t adequately grapple with the fact that the former stifles the latter, that calls for racial and social justice will be inherently de-stabilizing to a system that is built on traditional hierarchies of race, gender, and religion – that they are indeed polarizing, but normatively speaking, from a (small-d) democratic perspective, are necessary and good.
Let’s end this Part I of my anti-“polarization” manifesto (there will be a Part II!) with an anecdote that, I believe, illustrates the contrast between the normative assumptions on which the “polarization” narrative is built and those that should guide a liberal democracy. When I presented my critique of the “polarization” framework at a historical conference last June, a well-known colleague criticized me for focusing on the Right too much while neglecting the “radicalization of the Left” and how Democrats had also become too extreme. His example: They even rejected Trump’s Supreme Court nominees! Trump’s justices, he rightfully argued, weren’t any worse than Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito (they are clearly the worst!), yet Democrats had refused to support them. He saw that as a problem. To some extent, this was the type of reflexive self-chastising in which liberal academics and elites love to engage because they believe it demonstrates how reasonable, above the fray, and capable of critical introspection they are. But it was also indicative of how deeply flawed a perspective is that defines the key problem as “polarization” and therefore prescribes “overcoming division” as the solution. Were things really better when Democrats could be counted on to support rightwing cranks like Thomas and Alito? If “unity” is the overarching goal, then yes, bipartisan support for powerful reactionaries in previous eras was good. But if you are actually concerned about democracy and civil rights rather than worrying about abstract notions of “unity,” Democrats now rejecting such people – while indeed “divisive” and “polarizing” – is progress.
Almost 5,000 words in and I have A LOT more to say about the many blind spots and pitfalls of the “polarization” dogma, why they actually explain much of its attractiveness, and how the “polarization” narrative’s rise to dominance can tell us a lot about the ongoing struggle of American elites to grapple with the country’s political, social, and cultural change since the breakdown of “consensus” in the late 1960s. Part II of my Manifesto against the “polarization” tale is coming soon.
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