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Why America’s Elites Love to Decry “Polarization”
The fact that it obscures the actual political conflict is the feature, not the bug of the “polarization” narrative – A Manifesto, Part II
Cover illustration: iStock / Credit: zimmytws
Last week, I published a long piece outlining my empirical, historical, and normative critique of what I call the “polarization” dogma: a narrative that doesn’t simply diagnose polarization in distinct areas and dimensions, but presents it as an overarching diagnosis, as a governing historical and political paradigm, paradigmatically demanding we put “polarization” at the center of our interpretation of the present and accept it as the key challenge the country is facing today. But as such, “polarization” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: The narrative does more to obscure than to illuminate the current situation; it indulges an ahistorical nostalgia for a golden age that never existed and distorts the recent past into an inadequate tale of decline; and normatively, the “polarization” paradigm privileges unity, stability, and social cohesion over social justice and equal participation without ever fully acknowledging or honestly grappling with the implications of such a position.
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Perhaps the best illustration of the “polarization” dogma’s pervasive influence on our current political and cultural discourse is the way even some of the otherwise admirable work from journalists and scholars suffers from “polarization”-induced nostalgia and distortion. Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, for instance – one of the better and certainly most well-known, most commercially successful examples amidst a sea of polarization books that target a broad audience – inadvertently provides a good case *against* polarization as the master diagnosis of our time. Ezra Klein is undoubtedly one of America’s most influential commentators, and he has strongly impacted what a self-proclaimed liberal, reasonable camp thinks for many years. Why We’re Polarized came out in early 2020 and received a ton of attention. I actually think people should indeed read it. The way Klein summarizes and synthesizes important work by political scientists, sociologists, and political psychologists on the conflicts that are shaping American society is quite instructive. But the main problem with this book is that, fundamentally, what the author lays out is, by his own admission, not adequately interpreted as “polarization.”
In the final third of the book, Klein himself emphasizes that we are not looking at a radicalization on both sides of the political spectrum. He emphasizes the difference between the Right, entirely focused on the interests and sensibilities of white conservatives, and a Democratic coalition that is much more diverse – ideologically, racially and ethnically, and in terms of cultural sensibilities: “Sorting has made Democrats more diverse and Republicans more homogeneous. As a result, appealing to Democrats requires appealing to a lot of different kinds of people with different interests.” (p. 230) As a matter of fact, Klein sees Democrats as extremely resistant to political extremism due to this heterogeneity of their supporters: “Democrats,” the author argues, “have an immune system of diversity and democracy.” (p. 229)
To account for these rather crucial differences between Left and Right, Klein employs the concept of “asymmetrical polarization.” But that doesn’t really solve the problem. Even when it comes with the qualifier “asymmetric,” the term “polarization” still implies *both sides* moving towards the extremes at least to a somewhat significant degree – and that is certainly how the term is used in the broader public discourse and understood in widely accepted parlance today. But based on the evidence Ezra Klein himself presents, there is no liberal version of Fox News and the rightwing media bubble, the Democrats don’t have a Trump, and there is no equivalent on the Left to the influence of reactionary and white nationalist forces inside the GOP. If, by the authors’ own standards, de-emphasizing the concept of “asymmetric polarization” and instead foregrounding the idea of a radicalization of the conservative movement and the GOP would capture the central development in recent U.S. history and politics more adequately and precisely, why doesn’t he?
Such distortions characterize not just journalistic approaches and the broader polarization discourse in general, but also some of the most prominent scholarly work on American history and politics of the past few years. The nostalgic longing for a supposedly better, pre-polarization era shines through even in generally excellent work, such as Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s investigation of How Democracies Die. Published in 2018, How Democracies Die is arguably the most famous – and certainly one of the best – among the many books in the “liberal democracy in crisis” genre that have successfully targeted a wider audience since the beginning of the Trump era. Levitsky and Ziblatt are political scientists. What positively distinguishes their analysis is that they provide a convincing dissection of how the pre-1960s “consensus” was based on racial exclusion and depended on a cross-party agreement amongst white men to leave white patriarchal supremacy intact. And yet, in the end, the authors still settle on a warning against the dangers of “polarization” and combine it with praise for the mid-twentieth-century consensus era that was supposedly characterized by “egalitarianism, civility, sense of freedom.” (p. 231)
Historians are not at all immune to this kind of nostalgia. Jill Lepore’s grand retelling of U.S. history in her 2018 book These Truths, for instance, suffers markedly from relying almost exclusively on the “polarization” framework for interpreting the recent past. The final 250 pages of These Truths are basically a long-drawn-out lament over America’s decline since the 1960s that was supposedly caused by “both sides” becoming increasingly extreme and unreasonable. It’s an interpretation entirely unsupported by the evidence presented in the book. Bemoaning the end of a “midcentury era of political consensus,” Lepore diagnoses “division, resentment, and malice” as the animating forces in American politics since the late 1960s. In her interpretation, “wrenching polarization” brought “the Republic to the brink of a second civil war” and shaped America “to the detriment of everyone” (quotes on p. 633, 658, 546). But what if it did not? “Everyone” is certainly doing some heavy lifting here…
Lepore’s description of the media landscape is a case in point for “both sides”-ism completely distorting the picture. She laments the emergence of radically partisan media on both left and right resulting in what she calls “mutually assured epistemological destruction” (p. 711). The metaphor is striking—but it hinges on the questionable characterization of Fox News and MSNBC as equally partisan and extreme. When Lepore gives a detailed account of Rush Limbaugh’s outsized influence on conservative politics or the machinations of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, it becomes clear that there are simply no equal counterparts on the Left. And yet, the narrative of polarization indicates that there should be, and encourages the search for (false) equivalence. Ultimately, it primes people to accept a politics focused on turning the clock back to a supposedly better past – before all the nastiness, before “America Got Mean,” as David Brooks moralized recently in typically ahistorical fashion.
Investigating and historicizing the “polarization” narrative
If the “polarization” framework offers little analytical, diagnostic value and instead almost invariably creates a misleading narrative that distorts our understanding of recent history and the current political conflict – why are people from across the political spectrum so insistent on clinging to it?
To answer that question, we need to make the narrative of “polarization” itself the focal point of our analysis – rather than accepting the omnipresence of the polarization talk as a mere representation of supposedly unprecedented division. From a historical perspective, this is what we should do with any grand societal diagnosis, past or present: strive to properly “historicize” them – especially those that were so ubiquitous at certain moments that contemporaries stopped questioning them.
I already mentioned the “globalization” discourse of the 1990s – there is a lot more to learn there about the post-Cold War era once it is analyzed as a specific narrative rather than simply a quasi-objective manifestation of an unprecedentedly “globalized” world. Similarly, we wouldn’t look at the ubiquitous talk of “crisis” in the 1970s and be content with concluding that, well, it was a decade of crisis. And to add a slightly more distant example: We certainly shouldn’t accept the “neurasthenia” discourse, so pervasive on either side of the Atlantic around 1900, that centered around a vague pseudo-medical diagnosis of weak nerves as evidence that people were collectively losing their marbles.
Instead, we should be asking questions: What made this specific idea so attractive to so many people at a particular moment? We should investigate its genesis, its rise to prominence, how was used and abused politically, how it was theorized in the social and political sciences, how it was popularized and popularly represented, how it shaped the broader political discourse and the ways in which contemporaries conceived of their own society.
Approached in this way, the triumph of the globalization discourse in the 1990s provides a window into a specific intellectual constellation and search for orientation in the post-Cold War moment; we can trace the ways in which the omnipresent crisis talk of the 1970s was shaped into an overarching diagnosis by academics and commentators and used as a political strategy to justify a significant shift to the right; finally, we can trace how the neurasthenia diagnosis channeled and crystallized the widespread anxieties with which contemporary elites looked at the breakthrough of industrial society, the advent of cultural “modernity,” and the challenges and opportunities of modern life in general.
If we apply those same questions to today’s “polarization” discourse, it becomes clear that its tendency to obscure more than it illuminates is a feature and not a bug: It is precisely what makes the “polarization” narrative so widely attractive.
Neutrality-theater journalism gravitates towards “polarization”
Mainstream journalists, for instance, are drawn to the polarization framework because it allows them to formulate a critique of the dismal state of American politics without violating the dogma of “nonpartisanship” and “neutrality,” which is disastrously defined as keeping equidistance from either side and then mistaken for objectivity. Neutrality-theater journalism gravitates towards the “polarization” narrative precisely because it dissolves the specifics of the political conflict into a vague lament over “division” and “lack of unity.” Instead of having to offer a precise assessment of what ails the country and how we got here, “polarization” allows journalists to signal to the world how above the fray they are. The desire to appear “balanced” is perhaps most apparent in opinion pieces that explicitly employ a “both sides so extreme” framing – but the ways in which the “polarization” dogma distorts supposedly “neutral” reporting is arguably doing more harm.
In October 2022, for instance, the New York Times published a big report on how the political rhetoric in the United States had changed in concerning ways since 2010. The Times had tasked a software to identify “divisive political content” in millions of (semi-)public statements from elected officials, including emails newsletters, social media posts, and in the Congressional Record. The results demonstrated a rather drastic radicalization of the Right, especially among the most Trumpist of GOP lawmakers, who routinely engaged in extreme demonization of Democrats and regularly described them as not just a political opponent, but a radically anti-American enemy.
Here are just some of the many, many examples the Times presented in the piece: Representative Mary Miller from Illinois is described as routinely vilifying Democrats by “calling them ‘evil’ communists beholden to China who want to ‘destroy’ America and its culture”; she is quoted as saying that President Biden plans to “flood our country with terrorists, fentanyl, child traffickers, and MS-13 gang members”; she described “the Left” as “not only an anti-American party, they are an anti-Christian party”; and, of course, she saw herself as doing God’s will, arguing that “Christ is on our side and we will prevail!” Rep. Andy Biggs from Arizona is not only a Big Lie truther, but also loves to do a little Replacement Theory – he had this to say in an email from March 2021: “The Leftists, who are authoritarians with a DNA that leans toward tyranny, believe that loading up the nation with unskilled workers from underdeveloped nations will provide Democrats with voters.” Oh, and from the vast canon of Marjorie Taylor Greene extremisms, the Times chose a tweet from June 2022, accusing liberals of “grooming our children, pushing drag queen shows in elementary & middle schools, teaching gender lies and advocating teenagers go through genital mutilation.”
But here it comes: “The rise of polarization is not limited to Republicans,” the New York Times informs us. The authors present two pieces of evidence – and really only these two – for their argument that we are actually looking at a radicalization on both sides. First, there is Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. from New Jersey “who tweets almost daily about Republicans, particularly what he says are their efforts to ‘overthrow democracy’ and install Mr. Trump as a ‘dictator.’” And secondly, there is Rep. Betty McCollum from Minnesota who had the audacity to send an email to her constituents on the first anniversary of January 6 “calling the event an ‘attempted coup’ and asserting that ‘our democracy is in danger.’”
Including these statements as evidence that “The rise of polarization is not limited to Republicans” is rather telling. Quibble with the term “dictator” if you must, but there is no question that January 6 was an attempt to “overthrow democracy.” And what else than an “attempted coup” are we supposed to call Team Trump’s multi-level initiatives to nullify the results of a democratic election that ultimately resulted in a violent Insurrection? “Our democracy is in danger” is a statement any serious scholar and observer of American politics supports – but when a Democratic elected officials says it, it’s a highly problematic sign of “polarization”?
The New York Times reporters do admit themselves: Whatever has been happening on the Democratic side is qualitatively and quantitatively very different from the kind of extremism that characterizes the Republican Party. And yet, they insist on presenting their findings as a story of “polarization on the rise.” Yes, what these Republicans are saying is presented as bad, but the key concern is not that it is entirely detached from reality, substantively extreme, and fundamentally anti-democratic – it’s that these lawmakers have “joined the drumbeat of polarization,” that they are “fueling polarization.”
The “polarization” framework only distracts from the substantive findings of the New York Times study. If the task were to assess and describe the situation as precisely as possible, the authors would have regarded this as a problem. If, however, the task is to cover U.S. politics in a way that allows the Times to adhere to the ideas of nonpartisanship as they are commonly understood in mainstream journalism, then employing the “polarization” paradigm adds just the right amount of faux-balance to make this report palatably “neutral.”
It’s that very same logic that has the Washington Post call General Mark Milley a “polarizing Joint Chiefs chairman.” Doesn’t matter what, exactly, he did and said – and if, from a (small-d) democratic perspective, it was even necessary and good; from within a paradigm that prizes unity (in this case: with the Trumpist Right) above all else, Milley’s tenure was problematically “polarizing”; and presenting him as a “polarizing” figure because “admirers say,” but “critics contend” lets the paper demonstrate that it is devoted to “balanced” coverage that presents all sides.
These “polarization”-induced distortions are not exclusive to mainstream journalism. A very similar dynamic applies, for instance, in academia as well, where scholars are trained not to sound “partisan” and are instead always incentivized to demonstrate how “objective” they are. More generally still, the “polarization” narrative is extremely attractive to members of elite centrist circles (broadly defined, from the center-left to the center-right) who certainly aren’t comfortable with Trumpism, but will always be worried about the dangers of the “Left” and any leftwing attempt at leveling existing hierarchies. Think back to Fareed Zakaria calling out “unrepresentative, angry, and increasingly radical” groups on *both sides*, his diagnosis of how we supposedly got to where we are with which I opened Part I of my manifesto last week: “The central factor,” Zakaria said, “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.” Framing the problem as extremism on both sides, accelerating polarization, allows him to suggest an evidently self-serving solution: Let’s simply restore the rule of traditional centrist elites – rational people, like him!
The goal here is to use any delegitimization of Trumpism as a chance to also declare “the Left” illegitimate, to redraw the boundaries of what is considered “respectable” in a status-maintaining way that excludes Trump as much as it excludes AOC, that ostracizes the Trumpist base as well as those pesky “woke” leftwing activists. It’s all a game of “Oh, hey, while we’re in the process of defending the Republic against (real, immediate) threats of rightwing extremism, let us not forget to also fight back against (mostly imagined, disingenuously demonized) threats from the radicalizing Left.” For elite centrists, the “polarization” framework and all the talk of radicalization and extremism “on both sides” is a way to legitimize and re-assert their own status at the top.
Elite consensus re-established
In general, the “polarization” concept is useful if you want to lament major problems in American politics, but don’t see, simply can’t bring yourself, or deliberately want to obscure the fact that the major threat to American democracy is a radicalizing Right. In this way, the concept even provides a rhetoric of rapprochement since it does not require agreement as to what is actually ailing America, only that “polarization” is to the detriment of all. We should see the polarization narrative’s rise to dominance in the context of an ongoing search for unity in the wake of the fracturing of the white elite consensus in the 1960s. Is there nothing America’s elite can agree on anymore? There is: Polarization is the problem! “Polarization” is so attractive partly because the interpretation confirms the unease with which America’s elite has looked at the contentious developments that have shaped the country since the 60s – providing alleviation by legitimizing the nostalgia for “consensus.” Blaming “Polarization” never breeds contention, it makes everybody nod in approval; it engenders unanimity. That’s the genius of the polarization narrative: It provides the language for a lament that blames nobody and everybody, and satisfies the longing for unity – which it constantly fuels in turn! – by offering a consensual interpretation; it is elite consensus re-established through the back door.
The “polarization” framework is very useful to the Right
The American Right, by the way, is very adept at using this feature of the “polarization” narrative to their advantage. Ben Shapiro, for instance, has decried polarization, presenting himself as an advocate of unity:
It’s farcical, of course, for someone whose entire shtick it is to rage against the Libs and to present an utterly deranged caricature of the supposedly Un-American, radical “Left” to lament a lack of unity and urge us all to “de-polarize.” That’s why it is so telling. As “polarization” has become something of a consensus narrative, invoking it as a big problem is guaranteed to garner support and approval from across the political spectrum. That way, it allows even people like Shapiro – “polarizers” in their day job, if you will – to present themselves as reasonable and generally within the realm of “consensus.”
More generally, the Right has discovered “polarization” laments as a strategy to shift blame and attention away from the extremism they exhibit, support, and enable. Is all this “division” not at least as much the Democrats’ fault? By latching onto the new consensus discourse, conservatives are counting on its obscuring-rather-than-illuminating features to present their actions and positions as legitimate and in line with the mainstream. After Republicans had blocked voting rights legislation in the Senate in early 2022, for instance, Senator Rob Portman explained how the actual problem was that “Democrats forced the Senate to vote on controversial … legislation,” which, according to Portman, “will only increase the division and polarization of our politics instead of bringing us together.” And in the wake of the assault on Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul last October, Republicans were eager to shift the narrative away from “threat of far-right violence” to “both-sides extremism” – much better to join the mainstream of published elite opinion in bemoaning the problem than to be identified as the problem’s cause.
Finally, lamenting “polarization” was also the preferred strategy in conservative circles to attack Joe Biden’s “soul of the nation” speech in Philadelphia on September 1, 2022. “Joe Biden holds a Trump Rally,” the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board seethed with anger the next day – and declared that the President “has become his foe’s polarizing image.” A few days later, Bret Stephens made a very similar accusation in his New York Times column. Biden’s actual argument, that MAGA’s ascent within the Republican Party represented an immediate threat to democracy, was difficult for any serious person to refute. And so, instead of engaging with the actual diagnosis, conservatives warned of “polarization”: Forget the question of whether or not an urgent plea from the President was actually warranted and overdue – we demand unity!
If nothing else, the way the “polarization” narrative feeds and propagates an ahistorical nostalgia that helps provide fertile ground for a politics of reaction, the way it allows the Right to deflect blame and distort the picture, the way it sanitizes and legitimizes elite anxieties over a changing society should be enough to make us more skeptical towards assertions of “polarization.”
As a master narrative of what is wrong with America, the “polarization” paradigm is not just analytically inept – it is actively misleading.
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