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Who's Polarizin' Who?
Polarization is a symptom of deep rot. It can also be an excuse for inaction.
It’s 1964. Gus Hall is the General Secretary of the Communist Party USA. And he is deeply worried about what’s to come.
“It is now an inescapable reality: The United States is face to face with a most serious reactionary challenge,” he tells a crowd in New York City. “A grave confrontation with a force that imperils the very existence of our democratic institutions.”
The next 90 days, he says, could make or break the country.
“The very essence of this time period is political confrontation, political decision, political mobilization, mass organization, bold initiative, creative and imaginative mass propaganda,” he continues.
Some of this, he says, is good. Labor has made real progress in recent years, and the civil rights movement, particularly after the March on Washington, has the wind at its back.
Plenty of it is bad. The rabidly anti-communist and deeply conspiratorial John Birch Society is infecting American society with fears of a secret cabal with a plan to impose a one world totalitarian communist regime. A newly invigorated Ku Klux Klan is stoking racial paranoia, warning white Americans that their political power is being taken away. (White) Citizens' Councils have become effective grassroots organizations, taking advantage of parents’ racial hostility during the desegregation of southern schools.
And now Americans must chose: The Democratic Party, headed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, has nearly exorcised its pro-segregationist southern base and become the party of social progress. The Republican Party inherited that ghost, nominating arch-conservative Barry Goldwater to give voice to that reactionary anger.
The crossroads we’ve arrived at, Hall says, will determine whether progress continues or the reactionary forces will take hold. Leadership will determine whether social movements crystallize into effective vehicles for change, whether they will simply flounder — “or worse, they can become victims to extreme reactionary demagogy.”
Facing this “new level of political polarization,” Hall makes a decision: He endorses Lyndon B. Johnson.
This speech was printed off and distributed as a pamphlet: The Eleventh Hour: Defeat the New Fascist Threat! Roughly a hundred thousand copies were distributed across the country. True to his word, the Communist Party USA does not field a candidate against Johnson.
Hall correctly diagnosed a deep coming-apart of American society. It was primarily on the reactionary right, but it threatened the political fabric of the country more broadly.
The United States, and the West more broadly, has not seen polarization of that kind in the half-century since. But there is, I think, good reason to think we have arrived back at that level of distrust, disaffection, and disconnection.
Poll after poll shows that Americans are drifting apart politically, and increasingly viewing their political opposites as an actual threat to the country. America may be a world leader in dysfunctional participatory democracy, but it is far from the only one.
Regular readers of the newsletter know I spent a significant part of my year working with the Public Policy Forum to produce a report on the state of polarization in Canada: Far and Widening.
I argue, in short (too late! -ed), that the state of polarization in Canada was precipitated by a rise in hyperpartisanship which began decades ago, accelerated by the internet, and supercharged by the pandemic. The same can be said, with some variations, for most other rich countries.
Unsurprisingly, in recent months, focus on the idea of polarization has blown up. Suddenly, after years of growing vitriol and dysfunction in our democratic system and civil discourse, hand-wringing about polarization has reached the national media and become a political talking point.
Historian Thomas Zimmer recently took aim at the growing polarization industrial complex on his Substack:
Polarization, Zimmer writes, has become a convenient out. A way to distract from the growing anti-democratic and radical trends present on the political right. He continues:
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.
I think that is dead wrong.
And so this week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, I’ve decided to do something I’ve been meaning to do for ages: Start a beef with another Substacker.
So, Thomas Zimmer, you’re on notice.
Bug-eyed and Shameless didn’t come here to make friends. Bug-eyed and Shameless came here to win.
Alright, I’m joking. I actually liked Zimmer’s essay. (And the rest of his Substack: Go subscribe!) But I disagree with it.
If I can vulgarize it a bit, he argues that concerns around polarization — the suggestion that the political left-of-center moving further to the left while the right-of-center moves to the right — are really obscuring the problem, which is that the political right is moving towards an acceptance of political violence, demonizing minorities and engaging in anti-democratic behavior. Criticisms of the left’s supposed move to the “extreme” is really an accusation that social progress is too destabilizing and must be reined in.
But what he’s really arguing against, I think, is a rather superficial — and very American-centric — notion of polarization. He’s accepting the terms of those who weaponize polarization to justify bad behavior, instead of looking hard at how polarization actually frustrates social progress.
Before we tackle that more directly, here are a few points that I think are worth keeping in mind:
Polarization is not two-dimensional. And it does not require that all sides be equally responsible, nor that they be polarized at the same time.
Radical actors both affect and are affected by polarization. Their success hinges on the extent of our polarization.
The world is bigger than America, and she is not an island.
Polarization can’t be treated directly. But it makes everything you want to do more difficult.
Polarization is good in healthy doses.
With those axioms in mind, let’s talk about William F. Buckley Jr.
“Tensions are factors for freedom.”
While working on Far and Widening, I really wanted to understand how the idea of polarization emerged in the raucous 60s. That’s how I first came across Gus Hall’s tract.
Hall’s speech is so useful, I think, because it paints polarization both as a problem, an opportunity, and a pitfall. He situates the reactionary backlash to integration and social progress as the starting point of polarization: One side grows increasingly intolerant of systemic and endemic injustice, and the other side grows hostile to attempts to dismantle that system. Those not already at one pole or the other face a magnetic pull to one side or the other. That is the polarization we want.
In fact, one of the best descriptors of this phenomenon comes from an unlikely source: Conservative pugilist and Goldwater booster William F. Buckley Jr. In the days after the Republican loss in 1964 — and, more particularly, Robert F. Kennedy’s election to the Senate — he took to his column to celebrate a new polarization within the Democratic Party.
“The two party system does not begin by being right vs. left,” Buckley wrote. “It begins by being something against something.” Defining yourself against a problem is the only way to bring about a solution, he wrote. “Tensions are factors for freedom.”
Indeed, polarization is a kind of secret sauce for a functioning democracy. If diverse voices don’t argue and compete, and can’t identify problems in need of fixing, then the majority consensus will simply impose its will on an entire nation. The courts, the media, legislatures, elections: Polarization is baked into our very institutions of government.
And that brings us to polarization as an opportunity: All else being equal, good organizing and effective communication should push us towards that greater freedom. The idea of abolishing slavery was once a polarizing idea. As was gay marriage, womens’ suffrage, and so on. Polarizing society by putting those ideas on the table, and then mobilizing the masses to enact that change, is a brilliant feature of our society. It’s not always a straight line, but as Dr. King told us: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Hall saw this tension as a way to rally those who have always gotten the short end of the stick into action and change. Yes, maybe it meant putting up with LBJ for another term, but helping those social movements crystallize into real mass mobilizations could finally supercharge the gravitational pull of social justice and win over a nation. It was a radically optimistic view that, with the hindsight of history, was not entirely misplaced.
But he also recognized the risks of a movement which turns in on itself, and falls prey to disorganization, distrust, and schism. I would add on top of his theory, by pointing out that it is critical that polarization be somehow mediated. That’s not to say it needs to be subjected to compromise and capitulation. But polarization needs a way to resolve itself: It needs to enact change, spark a constructive debate, and propel a change in popular sentiment. If that polarization has no outlet, or if it is deliberately frustrated, then it speeds up and intensifies into radicalization.
That’s what we saw in those ensuing years. Violence, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, robbed social movements of their leaders. George Wallace and Richard Nixon worked their southern strategies to help mobilize the reactionary white working class against civil rights. A feeling that the Vietnam war would never end spurred hostility that eventually boiled over into the ‘Days of Rage’ and led to domestic terror campaigns such as the one perpetrated by The Weather Underground.
Turning to recent years, we can’t ignore the fact that Donald Trump was able to succeed because many of the grievances of his voters, particularly the economic injustice in rural and rustbelt towns, was not mediated. Their polarization was a blinking indicator, and Trump’s charlatanism was the most effective response to it.
These years are so much more complicated than a facile summary of: Both sides were rushing to the extremes. It is a showcase of how polarization can give way to dysfunction.
The information wars
What irks me about the polarization discourse — be it the lazy wielding of it, the political positioning around it, or even Zimmer’s dismissal of it — is that it rarely steps past the topline politics, measured in politician discourse and opinion polling.
We need to bring in so many other variables to fully understand what polarization is, how it manifests, and when it has crossed into danger territory. Civil unrest and politically-motivated violence are certainly leading indicators. A rise of reactionaries and demonization of minorities is another.
We also have to understand that there are information feedback loops which feed polarization.
Consider Donald Trump: It is impossible to ignore that he has radicalized his followers. But it is worth noting that they have radicalized him in turn. The new media ecosystem, the social media thunderdome, and even the lunch counter conversations have all worked as incubators for his mania. His increasingly vitriolic, even dehumanizing language, has sharpened and hardened every year he has been in politics. In this way, polarization is self-perpetuating.
That has spurred a reaction from the other side. The Democratic Party is now talking about Trump and the Republicans in increasingly apocalyptic terms. They, too, now see their opponents as the “enemy.” To be part of Trump’s project is no longer a mistake but representative of a deep moral failing.
Zimmer, rightly, points out that the reaction has some simple logic to it. “Would we really be better off if Democrats *didn’t* see him and the party that has elevated him as a major problem?" he writes.
He’s right, of course. But that’s why we cannot view polarization as a plainly negative thing. It is just a reality, like gravity. Even if letting go of the bowling ball is not, in and of itself, a violent action, the mess it causes when it lands 30 storeys below certainly is.
The simple fact is that painting your political opposites in stark moral terms makes it harder to find compromise, cooperate, or even to hold dialog. That, in turn, makes our democratic system less functional. It makes social interactions less productive. It makes relationships more difficult. Our political polarization bleeds into affective and social polarization, and that, in turn, feeds back into our politics. Radicalization is, without a doubt, one of the pressing problems of our time: And polarization makes it harder to do the deradicalization necessary to bring us back from the brink.
Our information ecosystem hastens this moving apart. We can see how the news media has ratcheted up the anger and distrust in its coverage to meet the demands of their audiences. Facebook rewarded anger-inducing content and reorganized its entire platform to put people in “agitated clusters of comforting rage.” (Dispatch #65)
Much of this is fed by a false belief in popular support. Many of those who led the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally on January 6 genuinely believed they belonged to an overwhelming majority of Americans who were being silenced by a rogue state. Those who attended the ‘Freedom Convoy’ occupation in Ottawa genuinely felt, despite more than 80% of the country being vaccinated, that most Canadians opposed the vaccines.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is running a campaign, ostensibly, against polarization. “I want to bridge the toxic polarization that divides Republicans and Democrats allowing elites to capture our government and plunder our country,” he tweeted earlier this year. Yet it’s hard to imagine a campaign more polarizing that his brand of toxic conspiracy theorizing.
Indeed, even Hall’s speech was met with a newspaper editorial insisting that “it is time for all America to unite…against the left wing philosophy that is gradually eating away at individual freedom in our nation.”
The plain reality is that we can’t, really, fix this part of the equation. Sure, reducing the temperature and humanizing your political opponents is a good place to start, but watering down criticism of an insurrectionist movement or a campaign to brand COVID-19 vaccines as tools of genocide will just create other problems. And demanding your opponent be nicer to you, as Zimmer writes in part two of his anti-polarization discourse essay, is a convenient way to sidestep valid criticism.
But we can pursue deeper reforms can prevent this kind of self-moving radicalization in the future. A better-funded media, more interested in policy than personality, is a good place to start. Political financing regimes that remove the power from deep-pocket ideologues and angry small donors would be good, too. Better transparency into how social media serves us content would help as well. In essence, a better democracy reduces polarization. And that, in turn, makes our democracy better.
We are better served by a more convivial and cooperative discourse. We know that having two sides that can work together at least sometimes gives us better outcomes overall. We get there by improving the institutions where our debates happen and by removing perverse incentives, not by demanding everyone hug.
A question of state capacity
Over lunch with the former mayor of a major Canadian city, he sighed and told me: People don’t realize the impact COVID had on their cities.
We’re starting to realize. Crime is rising, homelessness is up, affordability has reached a crisis point, public transit is worse than it ever was, and so on.
Decades of prosperity ill-prepared us for sudden bad times. And when they arrived, we demanded to know: Whose fault is this?
Our state of polarization forces us to see complicated, or even unconnected, problems through an explicitly partisan or ideological lens. Even if the reasons for these issues are complicated, polarization primes us to accept simple solutions. The left blamed billionaires for inequality and anti-vaxxers for worsening the pandemic. The right castigated the lockdown-boosters for killing business and soft-on-crime liberals for releasing hardened criminals.
Mischaracterizing your opponents and blaming them for all your country’s ills is not novel or even inherently bad. That’s kind of how our system operates. Public grievances filter their way into the halls of power, and lawmakers come up with solutions. If progress is slow, or even negative, the media and courts are failsafes.
But when there is a feeling — be it based in reality or not — that things are getting worse, and that system is failing to mediate the problem, polarization becomes the funnel through which people go off the deep end.
An increasingly common tactic is an appeal to a far-off elite. The right has taken to blaming the World Economic Forum and George Soros, or peddling theories of ‘white genocide.’ But the left has slipped down some of these slides as well: Robert F. Kennedy Jr has amassed a follow of progressives distrustful of the security state and big pharma, selling them a paranoid explanation of why progress seems to have stalled.
This is not to say that both sides are equally culpable. They are not. Right wing radicalization is orders of magnitude more significant. But as we’ve seen in the 1960s and 1970s, if the left feels that the right has broken our system of government, they may take to increasingly radical tactics to strike back.
This, to my mind, is the most pressing problem of polarization. Because it turns not merely on political talking points or schlocky media articles. It strikes to a deeper sense of trust in our society and our systems of governance. People, in this sense, are not just polarizing against their rival political party, but are polarizing against the system itself.
Our systems are fundamentally fake. They exist only as long as we all believe in them. That’s what makes them so incredible. If people are willing to sign up to burn them all down, we really need to ask ourselves why.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic in the near future. This is just my first attempt to connect my Canadian research into the broader North American conversation happening on the topic. Who knows, maybe I’ll turn to Germany next. (Berlin: You’re on notice!)
I appreciate Zimmer writing so thoughtfully on the matter, because it was the catalyst I needed to put some of these thoughts to paper.
Subscribers can comment below. Am I missing something, here? Am I playing into the polarization industrial complex?
As always, I appreciate anyone who shares my dispatches with their friends and foes alike:
Until next week!