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29 Apr 2023
By Paul Rosenberg

NextImg:Political "polarization" isn't the real problem in America: One pole is a lot worse than the other

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the idea that American political life was dangerously polarized was controversial, and often vehemently denied. In 2004, Morris Fiorina and his co-authors published "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America," which argued that the electorate hadn't fundamentally changed much since 1964, when Philip Converse argued that the vast majority of voters were "innocent of 'ideology.'" Some scholars pushed back against this centrist, denialist consensus, but Fiorina's book ran through a third edition in 2010 — the year of the Tea Party wave election. 

Today things look quite different — at least on the surface. Polarization research has exploded, exploring many different dimensions — social, ideological, affective — all resting on the premise that polarization is a big problem, if not the central problem, in American politics today. But this research too often tacitly yearns for a lost golden age of greater consensus, an age that was never golden for those effectively excluded: most women, people of color, LGBTQ folks and so on. 

This unspoken anti-political and even anti-democratic bias is addressed in a new paper from Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor, both at the University of North Carolina. They argue that the focus on polarization as such, while ignoring the actual content of politics that produces polarization, is fundamentally mistaken: "As a concept, polarization does not provide a normative or even conceptual way of distinguishing between White supremacists and racial justice activists, despite their asymmetrical relationship to liberal democracy."

This paper was written for other scholars in political science and communications, not for the general public, but its implications are profound, particularly as the 2024 election begins to shape up as a 2020 rerun. Repeating that exercise strikes almost everyone as exhausting and frustrating. But repeating it with a full awareness of the stakes, liberated from the supposedly even-handed frame of polarization, could instead be liberating. "Groundhog Day" had a happy ending, after all. Hoping to bring this argument to a wider audience, I reached out to Daniel Kreiss for a lengthy conversation. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Your paper, "A review and provocation: On polarization and platforms," argues that the "analysis and normative conclusions of much polarization research ... are wrong." You launch that argument by giving a brief history of the Black Lives Matter. Why is it wrong, and how does Black Lives Matter fit in? 

Starting out at the broadest level, what Shannon and I argue is that too many scholars in fields like political science and communication focus on polarization as being the foremost democratic concern, whereas in the context of movements of our own time, like Black Lives Matter, polarization is actually the byproduct of various groups struggling for political and social equality. So polarization itself might not necessarily be bad. Put it into a broader framework of understanding relations between various groups: Who gets to exercise citizenship, who gets to exercise their basic right to life. When we have groups that are protesting for equality and threatening dominant institutions such as the police, the concern should be that we have groups that are deeply unequal, but not necessarily that those groups pushing for equality cause polarization or cause other people to backlash against them.

In the abstract you argue that "polarization can only be seen as a central threat to democracy if inequality is ignored," and in the paper itself you note that scholars' conceptions of polarization "have overwhelmingly focused on its harmful democratic effects." So what are they missing in terms of more positive effects, and what are the consequences? 

"In the context of movements like Black Lives Matter, polarization is the byproduct of various groups struggling for political and social equality. Polarization itself might not necessarily be bad."

Let's take an example of the civil rights movement. You had a post-World War II consensus between the two main parties, in essence a white-dominated consensus that the civil rights movement had to work against in the push to dismantle the Jim Crow South and various other racist structures that existed across the country. Polarization researchers — if we take the analogy to the work being done today — would say, "We're all so polarized because these groups are threatening an existing social order." Polarization, by considering only the distance between groups on various ideological or affective measures, would say the real concern is that we're so fractured with so many different ideas about the way the country should live, about whether Black people should have equality, etc. 

But looked at through the lens of the civil rights movement, clearly the movement for political and social and civil equality was the movement in line with democracy. You can see this on any of a number of dimensions, whether it's trans equality or LGBTQ equality more broadly, the push for Black equality, women's rights, etc. The concern, I think, shouldn't be "Oh! People are so far apart!" when it comes to whether we should accept certain people as citizens of whether we should diversify the economy. The concern should be that there are vastly unequal structures, and various groups that are looking to achieve political and social equality. 

As I read your article I was reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail," in which he takes on the flawed centering of superficial cohesion, and the charge that he was a disruptive force of polarization. His argument was basically that he was bringing things to the surface so they could be dealt with, so problems could be solved. Would you relate what you're saying here to King's argument? 

I think that is 100% consistent with with what we're arguing here. And amazing scholars like Juliet Hooker, who's at Brown, have argued this as well, that white moderates historically have held up this idea of a politics of solidarity as the thing we should always value from a democratic perspective, that idea of cohesion. The political work that that does, however, is to paper over larger differences and discrepancies when it comes to social groups that are positioned very differently in social structures and fight for change in various ways. 

Think about an example: the gay rights movement in our own time. They had to push and agitate and protest and cause backlash from people who didn't want things to change, who didn't want to accept equality. And that backlash is not the problem. The problem is that we had a society that didn't accept people's civil rights, and didn't treat them as people deserving of equal protection under the law. That was the issue then, and that's also the issue with Black Lives Matter now. The problem is not that people are protesting in the streets. It's that some people just don't have equal protection under the law.

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I was reading the Axios newsletter this morning and they used the language of polarization to talk about how college students are making choices on the basis of state laws around reproductive rights. Basically they bemoaned the polarization that means people aren't going to go to school in red states if they value abortion access. But the problem there is not polarization, it's that 18- to 24-year-olds, very logically, are like, "We want to be make sure that we have reproductive freedoms and can make autonomous choices for our own bodies when we go to school." Polarization is beside the point.

"If young people aren't going to school in red states because they value abortion access, the problem there is not polarization. It's a logical decision. Polarization is beside the point."

The broader argument we want to make is that there are many different types of groups located in various ways and social structures, and that can include differences based on gender, class, citizenship status or religion, in addition to race and ethnicity. There's clearly a set of dominant power relations across all these dimensions. A functioning democracy is premised on equality. You certainly need political equality, but also a certain degree of social equality, in order to be a democratic society. The concern should not be that certain groups are fighting for equality. The concern should be that we live in a vastly unequal society. That's really the critique that we want to make front and center. 

It's not to say that polarization in all cases is not something to be concerned about. There are all sorts of ways that citizens have skewed understandings of the other side, when it comes to the beliefs that citizens of different parties hold, and those things are all potentially concerning. But when you have an assault on our nation's capital, as we did on Jan. 6, that was designed to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a safe and a secure election, the problem is not polarization, it's anti-democratic extremism. It's unfair and illegitimate power grabs by a set of dominant groups in a white-dominant political party. It's not the fact that we're so divided. I just think a lot of scholars have been drawing the wrong conclusions and focusing on the wrong questions when it comes to what we should be concerned about. 

Well, we have white supremacy on the right side, more or less, and multiracial democracy, multi-gender, multi-identity democracy on the left side. Can you say more about that?

This is where it gets really complicated. So what does the social science say? In general, we know that the two U.S. political parties are sorted along a number of different dimensions. Lilliana Mason has written an amazing book on this, "Uncivil Agreement," that basically shows that partisanship has become a mega-identity, within which a number of different social groups fall. Within the right it tends to be people who are comparatively wealthier, white evangelicals, white rural residents. The Democratic Party, as you note, is more of a multi-racial coalition. It has more people on the lower end of the economic spectrum. it includes more women, more groups that historically have been outside the dominant center in U.S. society. 

Now where things get really interesting —  I would turn to W.E.B. Du Bois in "Black Reconstruction in America" and other work he did, which basically showed that white capital works in all sorts of ways to constructs white interests across the economic spectrum, what Du Bois called the "psychological wages of whiteness." In essence, if you're white you acquiesce to a grossly unequal economic order, because your racial and ethnic identification still put you in a higher status group than people who are not white.

There's all sorts of ways that power works to structure relations between groups in order to keep dominant interests in charge. Other scholars, Daniel Ziblatt is one of them. have argued that conservative economic interests, in part, are able to hold on in countries around the world because they create these identitarian wedge issues in various ways.  

One way to think about that now is to ask: "Why is the contemporary right obsessed with trans issues right now?" I think this is a clear example of constructing identitarian appeals that work with white men in particular. That also came right on the heels of all the "critical race theory" bills that swept across the country, all with similar language about protecting, in essence, whites from feeling guilty from learning about racial history, from being accountable for racial histories. 

"Why is the contemporary right obsessed with trans issues right now? I think it's a clear example of constructing identitarian appeals that work with white men in particular."

If you think about it from that perspective, it's doing this work shoring up in-group identity within a dominant coalition that overlaps with not only being white, but also being heterosexual and cisgender. It creates this overlapping set of group identities that can be defended along the lines of social and identity appeals. And guess what we're not talking about? We're not talking about economics in the context of that story. Du Bois really pointed out that if you create various status gradations among various groups that work in tandem with capital, you can maintain certain relations of economic production. That's why he's one of the forerunners of "racial capitalism," to show that capital works hand-in-hand with various constructions of racial order. 

So what do people need to do to break out of this way of thinking, get a clearer vision and articulate an analysis that's more helpful?

I'd like to frame this in two different ways. One, our paper was geared toward an academic field of study. This wasn't a public-facing piece. This is more like, "How do we intervene in various debates?" Within the research community, I think it's doing a few things: Any study of polarization needs to layer onto that an analysis of social groups and social structures. And then the second move would be, if you're considering the democratic consequences of polarization, you also have to consider what the  poles that you're comparing really are. Polarization only says what's of concern is that distance between two groups, whereas we're arguing that one group is antidemocratic extremists and the other group is a multiracial democratic movement. The concern is not that they're so far apart.

So it's about having a much clearer set of analyses when it comes to a normative set of conclusions that you're going to draw about polarization. And then, when you're doing research on this work itself, it's about careful analysis: When you look at differences between groups and their attitudes and their ideologies, their perceptions of other groups, that you're clearly accounting for power. If you don't do that, you sort of end up in this false equivalence where you're comparing marginalized people with people who are in dominant positions of power, who benefit from the system being kept the same way at the end of the day. 

I'd also say another thing too. On the academic side of the ledger, I teach and research at a public university in the South. Polarization looks very different from my vantage point than it does to a lot of the scholars who are driving this field, working within blue states at powerful private institutions. So if you look at where very interesting research is being done on things like inequality or things like power, it's coming from public universities around the country, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Texas, the University of North Carolina, in part because we're seeing these political dynamics play out in a very vivid, very real way, and one that's often shot through with very salient racial, ethnic and other power dimensions. 

And what's the relevance of this work beyond the academy?

From a public discourse perspective, I would say it's about just being more precise in what we're critiquing. I often think the polarization frame is the easy one. It's politically neutral. It's easy to be like, "Oh, we're all so polarized!" Consider that Axios newsletter I mentioned: A more careful analysis is to say, "Maybe 18 to 24-year-olds are concerned about the fact that they're going to have access to reproductive care while they're in college." Or to cite another issue, the problem isn't that we're polarized around guns, the problem is we have mass shootings once a week in this country. I think it requires having a much clearer diagnosis of what's at issue. 

"From my point of view, the problem is guns. The problem is anti-trans laws. The problem is white supremacy. Polarization becomes a way to talk about politics without talking about politics at all."

But that also means taking a stance. And I think a lot of journalists and a lot of social scientists, a lot of people in public life feel very uncomfortable with that. We can't call out guns, but we can call out polarization. But from my point of view, the problem is guns. The problem is anti-trans laws. The problem is white supremacy. Those are the issues that I think we should focus on, and be clear-eyed about. Polarization becomes a way to talk about politics without talking about politics at all, without actually getting at the underlying issues. We all just need to be much sharper in our analysis and much clearer in our commitments when we talk about these issues, without the lazy way out of relying on polarization speak.

Another issue here is facts. Scientists discover reality. Everyday people in their everyday lives encounter reality all the time. On the other hand, polarization is basically a mythmaking structure, as you were talking about from Du Bois. I think it's pretty clear that Black Lives Matter was talking about things that were undeniably real. Stop the Steal, with its this fantasy of a stolen election — they had no evidence at all. That's my analysis. 

A fundamental way that humans work is by telling stories about the world and then living underneath those story. I think you're right. A huge aspect here is the fact that in general the political left — that's an imprecise term — has maintained more faith and trust in knowledge-producing institutions like science, like journalism. That's not true in all and every case, but in general the orientation typically has been to have more trust in these things that produce knowledge. On the right what you really see is the product of a long campaign to undermine trust in knowledge-producing institutions. It's been a concerted campaign that stretches back over decades. it relates to all the ways that elites and people in power have critiqued media and scientific institutions who were doing their job to produce reliable facts about the world. 

If you look at science historians, for instance, a lot of what we're seeing in 2023, bends back decades to conservative groups that were fighting government regulation to cast doubt on things like tobacco research and the link between smoking and cancer. When we achieved scientific consensus loud and clear over things like climate change, there were various industry groups pushing back on scientific work. You know that great book by Naomi Oreskes, "Merchants of Doubt," right? In essence they were saying, "We don't know," working hard to undermine public perceptions of scientific institutions, of the scientific process.

All that happened well before Donald Trump. What about today?

Another line is looking at election credibility. So, in essence, when it benefits you, you can say "stolen election" and you've already primed people to not trust elections boards, secretaries of state, all the amazing people who donate hundreds of hours of their time to ensuring the peaceful transfer of power. I think one important part of the story here is that it always aligns with power, in the sense of benefiting the elites who are doing that strategic undermining of knowledge-producing institutions. 

Are some people duped by the lie of the stolen election? Sure. But at the end of the day, the more important fact is it aligns with their partisan and racial interests to believe that the election was stolen. And certainly that narrative, as my colleague Francesca Tripodi showed, the groundwork for "Stop the Steal" was laid in 2016, in case Trump lost. They didn't need to use it. This is a very strategic campaign, one designed to build power over time. We can focus on the epistemological elements of it, they're important. But I think first and foremost you have to understand this as a strategic campaign to ensure power for certain groups that benefit from pushing these narratives.

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