On the limits and pitfalls of a narrative that obscures more than it illuminates – A Manifesto, Part I
Don’t know where to put this comment but I think it was a Rebecca Solnit tweet — maybe re-upped by someone else recently?
How do you feel about "linearization" as a description of the underlying structural problem? I have this idea (which I've been slow to write about...) that one of the major factors that enabled the reactionary takeover of the Republican party is the way that all possible positions in policy space get projected down onto this linear spectrum that gets used to analyze everything in politics since the French Revolution. That is, the fact that you can ask a person for their views on, say, gay rights, and then take their answer and make reasonably predictive inferences about their views on tax policy is a major part of what enables transactional fellow-travelers like Mitch McConnell to support true believer anti-pluralist reactionaries like Tommy Tuberville while pretending, to themselves and others, that they're not actually doing so.
In my analysis, linearization in turn comes from the way that our electoral system fails to get a clear picture of voter preferences, compressing complex, multi-issue elections between arbitrarily many candidates into a simple "who's your favorite" question for the voter. This creates a cycle where small interest groups ally together in order to form a constituency that is larger than the natural constituency of their mutual opponents, which causes the opponents to seek allies and so on until the political environment is reduced to two closely balanced and opposing coalitions. At that point, polarization can begin to set in. Depending on the overall decision-making apparatus, this leads to dysfunction through either wild policy swings as the balance tips back and forth, or through paralysis as the whole system locks up.
In the American case, since the 1960s, the largest natural constituency has been those who opposed the changes made in the Civil Rights era. Not that these reactionaries are a majority by any means, but their opponents are people seeking to dismantle a hierarchical system built to dominate an environment that empowers sturdy majorities. The Civil Rights activists and their successors are thus necessarily a coalition of various constituencies that are individually smaller than the reactionary group, but together comprise a larger faction. This creates the asymmetry we see in today's political parties: the Republicans are fundamentally built around that singular core constituency, plus any additional constituency that stands to gain by allying with them. This means that the core constituency's concerns and beliefs dominate the Republican party in a way that enables them to project outsized power in the overall political system, over and above the deliberate scaling created by institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College. Democrats, meanwhile, are fundamentally a coalition. They have no singular core, so their constituencies aren't able to use the party as a whole to project power in the same way. Likewise, Democrats are perpetually fighting to keep their coalition intact because its stability defines the party.
What we are seeing now is a consequence of demographic shifts catching up with the linearized structure of our politics after that linearization has been hardened by long-term polarization. The reactionary core that defined the Republican party has been shrinking, putting the current Republican coalition right on the edge of political viability. But because that core is by far the largest component of the overall Republican coalition, it can squash any attempts to adjust the shape of the coalition to something more viable. In a less linearized system, this would lead the smaller components of the coalition to jump ship to another group, hastening the collapse of the Republican party, but because a linear political system permits only two parties, there is no other ship to jump to. Whichever smaller constituency is first to jump will be crushed between the two larger parties before the Republican collapse, so none does so. And the Democratic Party, as an institution, is incentivized to encourage this behavior, because if a new coalition starts to form, at least some constituencies that are currently part of "team blue" will likely find it beneficial to switch. And again, all of that is happening as Republican political viability is eroding, leading to increased desperation on the part of the core Republican constituency *without* the safety valve of a plausible new alliance, and so we see a natural turn away from the core values of the present political system.
This analysis I've outlined appeals to me because it doesn't treat "liberal" and "conservative" as fundamental descriptors, which I think is an error rooted in the linearized environment we find ourselves in, but is still able to acknowledge and even explain the asymmetry we see in how the two coalitions behave. I also like it because it's a "political institutions as social technology" framework. I think that sort of frame is important in order to avoid building institutions that rely on individuals (or groups of individuals) being fundamentally Good in some black-box way that can't be encouraged or incentivized by passive structure and must instead be actively cultivated. All that said, I'd love to hear some feedback from others critiquing what we could maybe call the essentialist view of polarization, where it is a fundamental feature of politics and/or a source of Badness with no shape or cause to examine.
This is a great article. It caused me to subscribe. Thank you!
Also, if someone says "Your group's basic rights should be taken away," and the other responds "No, my group should have rights," they're having a disagreement, but it's unfair to imply that their positions are exact mirror images of each other. Only the first person is trying to take away the second person's rights; the second person is not trying to do the same to the first.
Rightwing populism in the 90s was “in part a backlash against globalization” is not at all the same claim as “the polarization narrative was launched by the Republican Party’s Tea Party,” as you said above. Need to be a lot more precise here. Also, “a backlash to globalization” adopts and repeats two contemporaneous claims of the Right that should be questioned and investigated rather than just perpetuated: the “backlash” narrative (about which I’ve written here before) and the contemporaneous “it’s all because of globalization” discourse. Again, just like with all the “polarization” talk: We need to critically investigate these claims, not simply parrot them.
Disagreement among citizens is not the problem. Polar opposites will exist on every political spectrum. But how we disagree matters. Reasonable discourse about what exactly constitutes the public interest is the activity missing from our politics. To defeat destructive forces at the polls requires persuasion of a large majority of a diverse electorate. Facts and reason, not rage, must predominate, in my opinion.
Thanks for putting into words the feelings i have about the those who claim we are equally " polarized"! You explained it perfectly and exposed the hypocrisy in the networks today and the misunderstanding of what is actually happening in this country today-the demise of democracy by one party.
This is so well thought-out and well written. Thank you. It also gives me a framework to discuss "polarization" with others who do not see it for what it is.
When ever someone extols the necessity of compromise with the current Republican Party, I feel compelled to point out that there are just some areas where compromise isn’t good or tenable.
What is the acceptable middle ground between, “I don’t think LGBTQ+ people should be tolerated, and we need to take away any rights and protections they have.” And “I think all people, including LGBTQ+ should be afforded their civil and human rights as set forth in our constitution and laws?”
There's no sensible middle ground with people who are convinced their lives would be better if they were allowed to go back to openly harassing, abusing, discriminating against, and murdering “others” without consequences.
Meanwhile the “radical left” is trying to address climate change and the unaffordability crisis in housing, healthcare, childcare, etc… AND they’re not even actively trying to exclude republicans from the benefits. In fact much of the new investment laid out in the inflation reduction act is going to southern states that didn’t vote for Biden.
One party wants to subvert and eradicate their opposition, the other just wants votes to amount to actual reasonable representation, and to make everyone’s lives a little better, so then maybe authoritarians peddling fake populism don’t appeal to you as much as they do now. 🙃
Can’t wait til part II!
"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." I disagree. It was launched by the Republican party's Tea Party as a weapon against the changes in immigration and economic policies it foresaw within the Democratic party.
This is why "polarization" is a myth. Polarization implies there are 2 sides of equal merit but opposing viewpoints. In America today, we see one party hellbent on destroying the country and replacing democracy with authoritarianism, and the other desperately fighting against it.
I find myself spouting this narrative often myself. Recently, someone backed me into a corner by asking: "what do liberals need to compromise to conservatives? And, what tradition are they conserving?" Touche.
Yes, the so-called left function as European centrists and the right is beginning to function as European fascists. Local party functionaries emulate their national leaders.This is all very much top to down transmission of tactics and policy. In central Illinois we see Republican elected representatives blocking the vote of Democratic elected representatives, thereby gaining control of a purportedly representative body.
I appreciate your thoughtful exploration of this dominant framing that the for-profit (thus for-"polarization") media continues to place around an Overton window that's been pushed by and to the Right for decades. It's maddening to hear even genuinely pro-democracy public intellectuals, pundits, and reporters tut-tut at "both sides" while the GOP sets out to methodically destroy democratic institutions and blame Democrats and progressives for bringing it on themselves. I look forward to reading Part II.
I don’t have a good way to put it, but if I am in the middle and reacting to a growing extreme right, it naturally forces me further left to balance things out a bit. This will appear also as polarization. I can’t win or even achieve a draw by fighting fair when you fight dirty.
Excellent political analysis of where we are in America due to the mainstreaming of radical right-wing extremism. The outright attack on democracy has reached a critical juncture where minoritarian rule for decades forward is a real possibility. It is most alarming that such a high percentage of Americans actually appear to support the move to authoritarianism. 74 million that voted for an extremist candidate that would essentially end the American democratic system is disturbing and more so now after all we know about the dysfunctional criminality of his regime has come to light. Hopefully, there is a “silent majority” that will break the authoritarian fever that has taken hold in this country.