As we enter this fraught election year, one thing we are all increasingly aware of how is politically polarized we are as a nation.
As Georgetown political scientist Thomas Zimmer has remarked, « the least controversial thing you can do in American politics is to decry polarization. »
But at least as important as decrying polarization (political or otherwise) is understanding it. What does it mean in the here and now? How does it matter, and what might an alternative be? These questions are also of particular importance for the Church, both because the Church is tasked with the ministry of reconciliation [2 Corinthians 5:18-19] but also, somewhat sadly, because the U.S. Church herself is also currently characterized by deep divisions that reflect and mimic the political polarization that so preoccupies political analysis today. (The increasing politicization of religious identity is itself a significant issue, which deserves additional separate treatment another time.)
Speaking as a one-time, would-be political philosopher and continuing observer of our political scene, it is, of course, clearly obvious that our two political parties have moved apart, which is to say that the once central middle ground previously occupied by moderate Republicans and moderate-to-conservative Democrats has largely disappeared. This has happened steadily over the last 50 years, thanks to a multitude of political factors, which students of the subject have easily identified. At the risk of seeming stuck in a sort of institutional determinism, these include the declining power of party leaders (« bosses ») and the increased role of party primaries in choosing candidates, the role of money in campaigns, the changed incentives for elected politicians in a media-centered celebrity culture, the increasing number of « safe districts » in which there is no incentive to appeal to and persuade voters beyond one’s own party, and the increasing nationalization of American politics, due to the loss of local newspapers and other factors which once made local politics different from national politics. With all due respect to the traditionally recognized institutional factors, this last diminishing of local life may deserve more attention that it has generally received. (For many people on a practical level, local involvements with neighbors and the wider community, including people with different political sensibilities, may be their one opportunity for constructive engagements which counteract the overwhelmingly national pattern of polarization.)
It is likewise obvious and particularly problematic that Americans have increasingly re-sorted themselves socially, politically, and even geographically. American pluralistic politics used to be characterized by what were commonly called « cross-cutting cleavages. » Such « cross-cutting cleavages » described a situation in which different groups and interests overlapped, in which voters allied with one another along different lines on different issues depending on their different interests, in which all the aspects of one’s life did not all align together. One can trace some appreciation of this back to James Madison’s Federalist 10, and it was the staple of mid-20th-century pluralist political thought. In contrast, « reinforcing cleavages » occur when the groups and issues one identifies with all fall on the same side of the political spectrum.
The primary point of actual concern in this regard is not that there are different groups and different interests, which is inevitable; but that the differences (« cleavages ») are increasingly reinforcing, rather than cross-cutting.
So, whereas previously Americans allied with one another along different lines depending on the issues, now they have largely sorted themselves into two alternative cultures – one increasingly urban/suburban, wealthier, better educated, and living in relatively stable family and community situations; the other increasingly rural, poorer, less educated, and living in relatively unstable family and community situations. Apart from the Civil War’s regional polarization between Northern and Southern States, this is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics.
It is also obvious that this division is replicated (or replicates, depending on your take on economic causality) our increasing economic inequality, the growing gap between the better off and the worse off, a gap which has always existed but which was less problematic in living memory. My « Greatest Generation » father, for example, worked two jobs to earn a blue-collar wage and lived in a largely working-class community in the Bronx. His boss lived at One Fifth Avenue – obviously richer, obviously more privileged in so many ways. But not only was the dollar difference between them significantly smaller than their comparable equivalents would be today, but also their cultural perspectives and moral values would have been much more closely aligned in a way almost unimaginable now. Today, in contrast, being a Democrat or a Republican reflects adherence to a distinct set of cultural perspectives and moral values, differences which used to cross party lines. No wonder that more and more members of one party express dismay at the thought of a family member. marrying someone in the other party, now seen as a party of hostile, existential enemies rather than a party of rival, political interests! All of which at best tests, at worst corrodes our capacity to advance the country’s interests and the common good.
On the other hand, while the middle of both political parties has disappeared and both parties have really moved farther left or farther right, it is evident that both parties have not done so equally. It is beyond obvious that one party has moved so much more radically than the other. Assuredly, the Democratic party has moved definitely to the left (having lost its traditional constituency of conservative Democrats and having arrogantly alienated much of the so-called white working class). That said, the U.S. Democratic Party recognizably resembles a regular center-left European political party (perhaps even more than it used to). The Republican party, on the other hand, hardly resembles a conventional center-right European party (like the Conservative Party in the UK or the Christian Democratic Party in Germany, for example), but has become much more like an extreme, far-right political party.
Moreover, whereas our two parties’ traditional policy differences dealt with issues like free trade vs. protectionism and higher vs. lower marginal tax rates, our two parties now differ on fundamental institutional issues like constitutionalism, democracy, elections, the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, and the U.S. role in the world. Again, apart from the special case of the Civil War, this is relatively unprecedented in American history. The problem is not that Americans disagree on specific issues, but that the traditionally presumed consensus on such values as constitutionalism, democracy, elections, the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, and (to lesser extent) the U.S. role in the world has been so dramatically undermined.
On the other hand, it is important to appreciate that the post-World-War-II golden age of political consensus, which we Boomers remember so fondly as the norm (and from which our present polarization appears to represent such a tragic departure and decline), was a relatively unique (and hence short-term) historical phenomenon. Wonderful as it may have then seemed, it was possible only because of some very historically specific reasons. These included (1) the recent victory in World War II, which left the U.S. the world’s undisputed superpower and economic powerhouse for the subsequent quarter-century; (2) the organizational vitality and political power of organized labor, which, together with the above mentioned American political and economic power, made the post-war period an era of unprecedented upward mobility and increasingly egalitarian economic prosperity; (3) the virtual end of immigration in 1924, which created an unprecedented period of cultural stability, which helped the country through the Depression and World War II, while facilitating the peaceful assimilation of earlier immigrant groups; and (4) a moderate-to-conservative consensus on cultural and moral values, symbolized by the great post-war religious revival.
Less positively, that consensus also presupposed an ultimately unsustainable racial caste system. The dominant political party during that period, the Democratic Party, was a predominantly pro-labor, progressive party outside the south, but was at the same time a racist, apartheid party in the post-Reconstruction Old Confederacy. Throughout the post-war period, in fact, slow but increasingly inexorable progress was being made to transform that discriminatory racial social order. But, as that progress developed, the latent tensions and divisions in the culture became increasingly unsustainable and the divisions we now emphasize eventually escalated. With the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the U.S. finally (but controversially) became a multi-racial democracy, while the Immigration and Nationality Act that same year set the course for the U.S. to become a multi-ethnic pluralist society. Meanwhile, modeling themselves to some extent on the changes in race relations, other liberatory movements have remapped society in all sorts of problematic ways. Discomfort with – and outright opposition to – these fundamental cultural transformations gradually, but inexorably, have undermined the older political bipartisan consensus and so also have helped to set us on the path to our present divisions.
What this suggests is that going back to any of what characterized that post-war consensus is largely impossible and would be undesirable in many cases. So what exactly might represent a genuine alternative to our present situation requires re-imagining. It is misleading – maybe even political malpractice – merely to contrast our current crisis with the post-war consensus, without also recognizing that any resolution must lie in an uncertain future rather than in the familiar but long-lost past.
The traditional pluralist paradigm no longer applies. James Madison’s famous solution to potential polarization was two-fold: first, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to temporary or partial considerations; and, second, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory … which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded.
Since Madison wrote that in 1787, the modern nationalization of our politics (a by-product of modern mobility and contemporary communications) has eradicated the advantage that the 18th-century Madison anticipated would characterize a large republic. As for the first solution, thanks to some of the transformations of our politics already alluded to, Madison’s expectations regarding representative government have demonstrably proved false. Compare, for example, the originalist expectation of how the Electoral College would function and how it actually operates now. Indeed, what does it say about the merits of those original arrangements now that the Electoral College, which originally was expected to exclude a populist democratic demagogue from the presidency, is now the main vehicle by which such a demagogue may be elected even if rejected by the majority of voters?
In the process, it is the fundamental liberal paradigm itself that has been put in political jeopardy. This really matters because there are, in fact, no seriously sustainable or palatable alternatives to the liberal paradigm on offer for contemporary U.S. society today.
Entering election year 2024, the incumbent President and his somewhat fractured coalition come closest to defending that fundamental liberal paradigm, while the former (and would-be future) President and his cult-like movement represent an authoritarian retreat from constitutional, democratic governance, an alternative that seems only to increase in popularity as a judgment against the failure of our hitherto governing elites. The historian Stephen Foster said of 18th-century Colonial America’s Great Awakening that it « unleashed the sectarian impulses within the Puritan movement in America and turned them against a portion of the establishment. » Likewise, the calamitous events of the first quarter of the 21st century – among them, unwinnable endless wars, the Great Recession, increasing inequality, the hollowing out of the industrial heartland, the decline of religion, and the sorting of Americans along reinforcing cleavages into two totally inimical tribes – have unleashed populist impulses (primarily on the right but also on the left) and turned them against the establishment in each political party, but particularly in the Republican Party.
That is where we are as a nation at the beginning of 2024. Where we will be at the end of this threatening year will be determined by how well or ill we navigate this threatening storm.
To be continued.