Swinging for the Fences: Polarization in America Today

[This is the third piece on the dynamics of polarization. The topic was introduced at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=11109 in “Polarization as a Form of Cultural Breakdown,” and then the way polarization helped bring on the American Civil War was discussed here www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=11192.]

Back in the 1990s, when I was focusing more on polarization, I saw it primarily in terms of the dynamic between people whose interactions were pushing each other further away from an integrated and balanced approach to dealing with competing values. We could see it in issue after issue, each side having its own half truth and mistaking it for the whole. A lot of my work was devoted to the idea that our task as a society was to find the how the different parts of the truth that seem in contradiction –on liberty vs. order, on patriotism vs. criticism, on top-down vs. bottom up, on God-said-it absolutism vs. anything goes relativism—could be integrated into a higher wisdom where the different pieces of the truth were in dynamic harmony.

It has become clearer to me over time that the polarization of the American people was being fed not only by that polarizing dynamic that occurs between people acting in good faith but nonetheless driving each other apart. In addition, polarization was being fed by that destructive spirit that’s taken over the political right in our time as part of a divide and conquer strategy against the American people.

If you can divide the people into warring camps, the two sides essentially cancel each other out. 1 + -1 = 0. With the will of the people nullified, that opens the door for another will to prevail. That will belongs to the force that’s taken over the right wing.

That spirit has led its political agents to propound to its followers absolutist positions –all consideration for this value, no consideration for that equally legitimate and competing value—that insure that the American people will be at each other’s throats, we’ll be at each other’s throats and not notice as they abscond with our birthright as Americans.

So a polarizing dynamic that emerged out of a failure of integration in the political culture opened the door to a destructive force that continued to feed the divisive fires of polarization so that it could work its destructive will.
As this force on the political right gained in power, the increasingly bullied and overpowered forces of liberal America grew less attached to its half-truths and sought more to preserve what was left of its set of values.

Thus during the 2012 campaign, in a piece of mine published in the Washington Post, after showing how on issue after issue, the Democrats were defending positions that had long been the national political consensus, I declared:

“No, this nation is not polarized. Rather, it is under assault from a political force that has taken over the Republican Party and promotes extreme and divisive positions.”

Yes, we have all the incessant conflict that goes with polarization. But the picture is not the one of both camps representing an equally unbalanced, one-sided point of view.

The intention of my piece was to debunk a widespread bit of conventional wisdom about “both sides do it.” Near the end of the column, I say:

When people talk about our nation being polarized between two parties that have moved to the extremes, I hear one more illustration of the mindless “evenhandedness” that has made today’s liberals such pushovers.

Actually, that statement points subtly to a deep way in which this destructive spirit did create a true polarization between the parties. Not at the level of the “issues,” but at the level of basic human posture.

As I said many times during the campaign, the degradation of America stemmed from our two major political parties devolving into two opposite forms: We have one major party (the Republicans) who insist on making a fight over everything, even when the need of the nation is for cooperation. And we have the other major party (the Democrats) who were willing to fight for nothing, even when the nation urgently needed for them to stand and fight.

The destructive force thus could open the way for it to work its will by separating power for righteousness: it made one party good at power but utterly uninhibited by moral concerns, while the other party remained morally respectable but impotent in the struggle for power.

Fortunately, this very fundamental and dangerous form of polarization has begun to erode. The first step in this had to be for the Democrats to become stronger and braver in confronting the amoral force on the right. That began in the aftermath of the debt ceiling fiasco of July/August 2011, and this greater willingness to fight has led to a major shift in political power away from the destructive force, as shown by the results of the 2012 election.

If the Democrats continue to undo that polarization that robbed them of courage and resolve, the Republicans will eventually face the choice of either freeing themselves from their possession by that dark spirit or being driven into oblivion.

Either way, the nation will become more whole.

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  1. Richard H. RAndall

    Agreed. However, barely recognize the turnaround, as I see Obama making nice with the GOP who are fine with the sequestration at this point.
    Agreeing to this foolish legislation was a huge mistake for the president: I knew when I learned of it that the Republicans would not rush to put out the house afire it was supposed to entail. Perhaps it will take time to register with the average guy and gal, that these cuts hurt good programs.
    THough I may like the man, I have strong doubts as to his ability to tough it out for a moral, balanced budget which will require additional tax revenues.

  2. I have seen almost nothing that shows that Barack Obama is a strong enough President to lead his party down the path of strength. I could still be convinced but time after time giving up good and strong positions that make sense to try to compromise with those unwilling to compromise shows me he is unwilling to take that path. Sometimes his showing of his willingness to compromise does expose the Republicans for their duplicitousness but the Republicans don’t seem to care. I am hoping that the Progressive Liberal tide of Democrats become strong enough in the next 12-14 years to remove the no-longer conservative conservatives to their bastion in the Southeast and in some mountain states as a permanent minority that can no longer command a 40% minority in the Senate or a simple majority in the House even with the Gerrymandering now in place.

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