Allow Me To Translate..And Pontificate

In a recent column in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall once again returned to the subject of political polarization, and–as is his typical approach–quoted scholars on the subject. As a former member of that tribe, I will admit that the problem with quoting academics is the occasional impenetrability of the language. (It’s not a problem limited to academia–not long after becoming Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I was counseled by a member of the national staff to stop sounding like an “ACLU lawyer.” Every career has its jargon…)

At any rate, allow me to quote–and then translate–one of the scholars who responded to Edsall:

Interventions to reduce affective polarization will be ineffective if they operate only at the individual, emotional level. Ignoring the role of polarizing politicians and political incentives to instrumentalize affective polarization for political gain will fail to generate change while enhancing cynicism when polite conversations among willing participants do not generate prodemocratic change.

In other words, polarization isn’t just a matter of individual hostility for those on the other “team.” Political leadership bears considerable responsibility for MAGA resistance to democratic norms. The polarization reflected in our everyday conversations is cultivated by political “culture warriors” like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Green and her Indiana clone, Jim Banks. As a different scholar (one evidently more comfortable with normal English usage) put it:

I don’t think any bottom-up intervention is going to solve a problem that is structural. You could reduce misperceptions for a day or two, or put diverse groups together for an hour, but these people will be polarized again as soon as they are exposed once more to campaign rhetoric.

A recent study evidently found that widespread popular opposition to anti-democratic policies is insufficient to prevent their adoption. That research found that what the scholars called “backsliding behavior by elites” occurred irrespective of a lack of public approval or support; and that much of the problem is rooted in the fact that “Americans, despite their distaste for norm violations, continue to elect representatives whose policies and actions threaten democracy.”

In other words–and this will most definitely not come as a shock to any citizen who’s been paying even the slightest attention–virtually all of the current dysfunctions of governance are caused by the various doofuses we’re electing. (I cannot restrain myself from reminding you, dear readers, that it is frequently thanks to gerrymandering that we are electing these performative, anti-democratic culture warriors.)

As another scholar opined,

Whatever techniques might exist to reduce citizen animosity must be accompanied by efforts to reduce hostility among elected officials. It doesn’t matter if we can make someone more positive toward the other party if that effect is quickly undone by watching cable news, reading social media, or otherwise listening to divisive political elites.

In other words–as several of the researchers contacted by Edsall confirmed– positive effects of efforts to intervene and ameliorate polarization “are almost immediately nullified by the hostile rhetoric in contemporary politics.”

A professor of psychological science at the University of California-Irvine attributed the persistence of polarization to what he dubbed a “moralized political environment,” and that phrase resonated with me. I am hardly the only person to see today’s political disputes as evidence that contemporary political combat takes place between partisans who hold significantly different values. 

As Edsall noted,

The issues dividing the parties have changed. When the two parties fought over size of government, taxes, social welfare programs, it was possible for partisans to imagine a compromise that is more or less acceptable even if not ideal. Compromise on issues like abortion, gender roles, L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights, the role of religion is much more difficult. So losing feels like more of a threat to people’s values.

From my vantage point, we have moved from good faith arguments about the proper approach to various issues–the “how”–to arguments about “whether.” Rather than debating, say, the best way to feed poor children, we confront self-identified “pro life” politicians who simply oppose spending any tax dollars on food for poor children. Rather than debates about America’s global role and the least dangerous way to approach Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine, political figures like Braun and Banks vote–as conservative George Will wrote–“to assure Vladimir Putin’s attempt to erase a European nation.” Etcetera.

We aren’t having “political” arguments. We are having deeply moral ones.

Survey research confirms that a majority of the American public is on the right side of those moral debates–but that obsolete political structures allow MAGA Republicans–a statistical minority– to ignore We the People.

Political structures empowering ideological minorities are the reason we can’t just “make nice” and “all get along.”


  1. It seems very hard to compromise with crazy.. When the nut jobs want to kill all of the gays and the other side say we should NOT kill the gays then would their compromise be to kill HALF of the gays? The solution is to defeat the crazy.

  2. “We aren’t having “political” arguments. We are having deeply moral ones.”
    I think that’s what bothers me the most.

  3. I can remember when academics were free to write whatever they wanted without fear of recourse. Those days are long gone. Tenure no longer protects them from being moral leaders. Many of the presidents aren’t even from an academic profession anymore. They are political hacks or fundraisers. It’s the reason the students across the country are protesting.

    Speaking of hacks, the politicians were given free rein to say whatever preposterous claim they could conjure up go unchallenged. Senator Tom Cotton called the protests “Little Gazas.” Speaker Mike Johnson wants the FBI to investigate the student protesters because many at Columbia had “similar tents.” That was a conspiracy going around social media. “Tents were bought by George Soros or anti-Israel terrorist groups like Iran or Hamas.”

    The media once again plays a huge role by calling anti-Genocide protests, pro-Hamas, pro-Palestine, pro-terrorists, or anti-Israel. Anything but anti-Genocide. We can’t have the youth taking the high road with moral leadership because that would place universities, media, politicians, and Israel on the amoral low road.

    How do you clean up that mess when our government is immoral and protected by our elected officials and the media?

    It’s going to take a lot more than academic pontification, especially when most academics are muzzled unless they are ex-employees of our university systems.

  4. I find myself wondering, who are these so-called elites? Are they well educated, well read, and financially comfortable. Is that what it takes to be an elite? If so, many people I know are elites, but you’d never know it just chatting with them. I’m surprised that so many of my friends so powerful! How is it that we don’t control the world?

  5. We aren’t having “political” arguments. We are having deeply moral ones. And I am saying “Great!”
    This is long overdue for a society that has lost its way. For a society that turned prosperity into greed for all at the expense of the working class. For a society that looked the other way as thousands of children were abused by the Catholic Church, taken from their parents at the boarder, and voted for a liar and cheat for president. For a society that turned its religiosity into a money and power industry. Yep, long overdue.

  6. Let’s see…a majority of Americans believe that the rich and corporations should pay more taxes, are taking over healthcare, are running up prices, are not doing enough about climate change, etc.. And the Parties are busy waging culture wars to district us from those issues. Could there be a relationship? Check out the major donors to DEM leaders…..

  7. While I agree that there is more polarization than in the past, any scholar that speaks about both-sides “polarization” without casting a lot of blame on right-wing extremism is doing us all a disservice.

    If one side pulls suddenly away from the center and the other side resists that pull, calling that polarization is not an accurate description. Especially when the radicals are moving toward destroying the democratic system altogether.

  8. Positions involve both knowledge and emotion. Most liberals I know believe that the knowledge component polarizes the left and the right. Most right-wing acolytes are all about emotions. They feel cheated because they remember being young as better than being old. (Of course, old is better than dead.)

    How do you have meaningful conversations through that gap?

  9. So Edsall notes that “the issues dividing the parties have changed?” This is a necessary harbinger of my oft-noted observation that “the nature of change is itself changing.” Thus horse and buggy ordinances have little application to AI today as we navigate the “what the market will bear” philosophy in antedeluvian economics and propaganda-laden voters who vote against their own interests in political science.

    Strange, and in keeping with the underlying theme of this post today and the public deportment necessary for elevation of the common good, borderline immoral.

  10. “I don’t think any bottom up intervention is going to solve a problem that is structural.”
    We can identify the structural problems such as gerrymandering, the electoral college, the fact that party primary elections favor extremists, campaign finance laws that practically guarantee many legislators will be purchased, House and Senate rules that allow a single individual to cause governing to grind to a halt, lack of Supreme Court ethics rules, etc. Unfortunately, changing those structural problems depends on the people who have been elected as a result of those structures. Initially, it seems impossible.
    However, there has been movement on gerrymandering. Also, the Democrats in the House helped more moderate Republicans break the deadlock over funding for Ukraine.
    The United States has previously encountered and overcome severe challenges to the ideals expressed in our founding documents. The result has generally been progress toward “a more perfect union.” Do not give up hope that we can continue that progress.

  11. We’re all being played, no matter what our vocabulary is. Allowing the micro managing of private lives without regard to individual limitations is from the prescience dark age Churches. Politicians bringing the old church ways into our public sphere is only for confusion and control. We have the right to progress and evolve and interference and blockage from church or state is unacceptable.
    Grass roots bubbling up does cause pressure on the existing structure. If the problems could be understood by the majority the power harnessed from that unison could bring about positive change.

  12. Todd,
    We absolutely know, how the media stokes the fire of discontent. It gives them something to do. Imagine if some fictional country launched missiles into hospitals? I would call that abominable! It doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter the reason for launching those missiles. But to dehumanize humans as vermin the way they did in Nazi Germany, in Joseph Stalin’s USSR, and Mao’s China, in the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, is absolutely without a doubt immoral. But then you have the drum beat of certain media elements that tend to gain traction, pointing out that the vermin do need to be eradicated because they could be considered a threat somewhere down the line.

    It’s disgusting! It’s immoral! It’s self-serving! It’s just plain out and out evil! Then again, with the amount of evil being given a pass in our current culture, would we expect anything better?

    Compassion and empathy, hope and love, were ridiculed endlessly during Barack Obama’s two terms in office. There is no bulwark against lunacy or immoral bloodlust, any of those who actually would fight against these things, run from office, because they’ve created a monster that they cannot control. Absolutely no foresight, absolutely no critical thinking! Just a bunch of coffee clutches that promote immoral buffoonery against one’s fellow man.

    That in itself gives rise to even more tumult, because those on the receiving end, continue to store up hatred and anger waiting to release it at a proper or improper time, just to cause chaos and to settle wrongs! It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not even kind of sad, it is actually a sign of hopelessness in how humans relate to their fellow man.

  13. Roger Ailes said that Richard Nixon would not have been impeached if there had been a Fox News. Protecting GOP lawbreakers from legal and political defeats was Ailes’ goal in founding Fox News. If it takes destruction of democracy to stay in power, so what? Increasingly, I fear the Ailes and ALEC supporters view democracy’s doom as their goal in itself as long as they are the ones left permanently in power. They don’t seem to realize this is riding the back of a tiger. The Trump tiger is loyal to no one but himself and usually requires a fee to get and stay in his good graces, mocking those who pay all along the way.

  14. I remember when Congressional representatives used to work together to achieve acceptable standards for our population. You’re right, there are too many “doofuses” in Congress today!

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