Our Supposed “Polarization”

by Will on October 12, 2010

It is a platitude of the chattering class in this country that one of our major problems is the excessive polarization of our political factions. This platitude is a lazy bit of received wisdom. It allows the person who professes it to avoid taking a stance, and thus to preserve an illusory position of impartiality. It is so prevalent that it issues from even such otherwise friendly figures as John Stewart. It is crap. I take issue with it on two separate counts.

First, the notion that polarization is necessarily bad, or even abnormal, belies an ignorance of American history. Our country has drifted between periods of rivalry and periods of consensus with some regularity. The very early history of the Republic was one of intense factionalism between the ruling Federalists and their opponents: it was common for Jefferson and Madison to outright accuse Washington and Hamilton of treasonous sympathy for the English, and for the Federalists likewise to decry their Jeffersonian opponents as dupes of the French Terrorists: both sides thought their opponents willing to sell out the country to a foreign power. And this mutual hostility was not confined to the political leadership, but played out in conflicts between common partisans of the two sides all over the country (I noted a number of examples, cited from primary sources, in my college thesis, which is sadly not a good piece of writing!). This era of animosity gave way to the Era of Good Feelings after the War of 1812. And that lasted a decade or so and then gave way to the heated feud between the Whigs and the Jacksonians following the contested election of 1824. That battle grew more and more feverish, and increasingly defined by regional interests, until it resulted in outright civil war in 1860. Following the war and Reconstruction, the country seemed ready for a calm and corrupt period of Republican rule. But almost immediately class rivalry began heating up, with unions engaging in strikes and other confrontations, often suppressed by state violence, and farmers banding together to demand easier money and state action against exploitative monopolists. This period resolved in strange comity during the Progressive Era, when the leadership of both parties became curiously committed to boosting the prospects of the little guy and binding the powerful from going too far. That went to tatters with WWI and the Palmer Raids, when the public wearied of the different schools of social betterment and their internecine squabbles. And so on. Consensus tends to be fleeting in our political life, and to be often replaced by new factionalism. And never has scolding been a useful way to get the factions to “moderate” their positions.

Second, the only polarization in this country today is cultural. Politically, there is very little room between the leadership of the two parties. One party wants to run large deficits, avoid offending the rich and powerful, engage in radical militarism, and try to address some of the more urgent concerns of the poor and middle class. The other party wants to run large deficits, aggravate them with tax cuts, cater slavishly to the rich and powerful, engage in radical militarism, and engage in a lot a symbolic talk about “small government” that panders to white people who wrongly believe that most state spending goes to people culturally unlike them. I won’t pretend that I don’t prefer one party to the other for many reasons. But my frustration is not that the political classes are too polarized, but that they are not polarized enough! Where is the Democrats’ will to end our pointless, costly, bloody wars, to put the budget on sane footing, to end our immigration hypocrisy, to put the financial sector in its proper place, to end the de facto prohibition of new unions? It is almost as if our chattering classes were paid to scold our elites for imagined wrongdoings and to conveniently and politely ignore their actual sins.

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