Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Political polarization

At, Shankar Vidantam casts some light--unfortunately not enough--on the growing political polarization in this country. Here is a portion of what he has written.

"Conservatives are angry. They are angry about President Obama, about taxes, and about government spending. If it were legal, Tea Party conservatives would like to vaporize much of Blue America.

"Liberals are not angry—they are disgusted. They are disgusted by the endless questions about President Obama's birth, by the hysteria over "death panels," over Republican candidates demanding an end to masturbation. If it were legal, liberals would move all of red America behind a large screen where its antics would be less "embarrassing.

"If the dominant tone of conservatives is shrill, the dominant tone of liberals is saracastic. The philosophical position of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, expressed in body language, would be a raised fist and a clenched jaw. The philosophical position ""of Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher would be a raised eyebrow and a wrinkled nose. Angry coverage on Fox News has become the standard bearer of the right. Irony and mockery on Comedy Central have become the standard bearer of the left.

"Right-wing blogs reek of blood and guns, violence and revolution. The tree of liberty, they remind us, needs to be refreshed with the blood of patriots. Look at the weapons of the left—Colbert's sly smile, Maher's snigger, and the endless jokes about the stupidity of George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Christine O'Donnell. Even the bumper stickers of the right are grave in tone. They ask, "What Would Jesus Do?" Their opponents' bumper stickers respond, "What Would Scooby Doo?"

"The right is convinced that the left is evil. The left is convinced that the right is retarded.

"In the conspiracy theories propounded by the right, Barack Obama is not an idiot but a clever double agent whose purpose is to destroy capitalism, Christianity, and America from within. If you listen to the left, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are small children who have gotten their hands on very large bazookas and need to be told to put down the weapons—preferably using words with few syllables.

"Both anger and contempt have deep psychological roots. Anger usually stems from feelings of unfairness or betrayal. Contempt is anger mixed with disgust. Anger and contempt are not just emotions. They are scripts that determine our political conversation. If you are a conservative blogger, you will hunt out material that shows liberals to be unpatriotic and dangerous, because your audience wants affirmation of its underlying feelings. If you are liberal, you will play up material that shows conservatives to be stupid, because your audience wants affirmation of its sense of superiority."


As so often occurs in such analyses, Vedantam lets the liberal-left side off too lightly. There contempt stems from an almost insufferable sense that theirs, and only theirs, is the "reality-based" view. Too much has happened over the last few years to sustain this hubris. Perhaps it should be otherwise, but the liberal world-view is now deeply incoherent. Yet the liberal spokespeople keep acting as if nothing has happened.

Why is liberalism incoherent? The source of the rifts goes back almost a hundred years, when the Labour Party rose to eminence in Britain, gradually supplanting the Liberal Party. In the nineteenth century the movement of Gladstone and Mill had opposed Tory paternalism by favoring free enterprise, free trade, and free speech. The Labour Party, echoed by the Democrats in the US, saw fit to erode all of these principles in the interests of an ill-conceived "social justice." Above all, this Second Liberalism found the answer to all social problems in increasing government intervention. One can see the clash of the two views--Liberalism I and Liberalism II--in the difference of the two approaches with regard to free speech. A dwindling band of Liberal I stalwarts gives unqualified support to freedom of speech. Ye the Liberalism II group favor speech codes on campus (whether overt or covert) and punishment of "hate speech." Of course this latter trend has gone much farther in Western Europe. As I write, the Dutch politician Wilders is being tried in the Netherlands for daring to say things Muslims have deemed offensive.

Obama's election was supposed to ratify and restore this hoary liberal faith. It appears now that it has done nothing of the sort. The irrelevance of liberalism is shown by the fact that it is being defeated by two truly puny enemies: Republican obstructionism and Tea Party infantilism.

If liberalism offers a true account of how the world works, how could it be threatened by such adversaries? Threatened it is, but the liberals and the left see no need for rethinking their premises. Above all they claim to be the champions of the working class, the "people." Yet the people are deserting them. Abolish the people and appoint another? I don't think so.



Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Wayne-

If ... "Too much has happened over the last few years to sustain this hubris." .. that means that events have supported the left narrative. Which I agree with! What do you think of Palin, Beck, and Gingrich? Are they paragons of rational discourse to you? At the end of the piece, you display distain, not to say sarcasm yourself.

And what is this "ill-conceived "social justice.""? Want to go back into the closet? What part of social justice ill-conceived?

"Obama's election was supposed to ratify and restore this hoary liberal faith. It appears now that it has done nothing of the sort. "

But it did, since he was elected.. the act ratified the faith, and his performance in the office has justified it.

"If liberalism offers a true account of how the world works, how could it be threatened by such adversaries?"

They are not puny in one important way.. money. The super-rich support regressive policies and astroturf politics across the board. Or are you new to politics? People are deserting Democrats (to a small degree only) because of the vitriol of the right, served up in house organs like Fox.

For example, in economic terms, the mainstream diagnosis that Obamas policies "have not worked" is completely false. The Republican policies were to do nothing (stimulus-wise). The Democratic policies were to pass the stimulus, which has turned out to be too small. Is that Obama's fault, or the Republican's fault? Since more needs to be done on that front, it is nonsensical to reward Republicans for obstruction and hire them to take the economy backwards.

You were an educator... wouldn't citizen education be a better thing that citizen misinformation?

1:19 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

I couldn't agree with you more, BB. It is precisely because Palin, Beck, and Gingrich are so insignificant that one has to ask why it is that they are making such headway. I don't think it is simply money--there is still a lot of money behind the New York Times, CNN and so forth--not to mention the liberal universities (in one of which I once served). And of course there is George Soros and the other super-rich who support liberal causes.

If liberalism were truly a confident world-view, as it once was, it ought to be able to squash Palin and co. like bugs. But that is not what is happening. More the pity, perhaps, but we must face the actual situation.

Talk to you again after the election.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Burk said...

This is a deep issue- one our founders were quite cognizant of. Which is that democracy is in perpetual danger. History (Rome, Greece, Germany) tells the story of democracies and republics lost in various ways.

Democracy is no guarantee of stability and perpetuation. We have staked our democracy on pluralism and education, with a bit of founder religion mixed in. It seems that the education component is not really up to snuff, is all I can say.

Additionally, the election of Obama has put the more right-ist people into a bit of shock. They have "lost" "their" country, to hear them tell it. This is a very subterranean narrative/emotion working itself out through the superficially incomprehensible people you mention.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Comparative historiography suggests that 200 years is about the limit allotted to hegemonic states.

Columbus' voyages, starting in 1492, set the stage for the rise of the Spanish Empire; by 1700 it was in full decline. The union of England and Scotland in 1707 opened the way for the great surge of the British Empire. Yet by 1907 imperial Germany and the US had clearly surpassed it. The accession of Louis XIV, le roi soleil, in the mid-17th century set the stage for French hegemony. Waterloo in 1815 put a stop to that.

Why then should the US be any different?

The best treatment of this fatal destiny is a 1988 book by Paul Kennedy: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Shortly after Paul Kennedy wrote, the US prosperity of the nineties seemed to falsify his prediction. But that prosperity was due to Silicon Valley, and proved to be a kind of Indian summer.

It looks as if Paul Kennedy was right after all. It would take another whole posting to deal with the reasons for this impasse; I will return to the matter on another occasion.

8:12 PM  
Anonymous David Dalton said...

Hi Wayne...

You ask, "The irrelevance of liberalism is shown by the fact that it is being defeated by two truly puny enemies: Republican obstructionism and Tea Party infantilism."

I think your erudition works against you here. You seem to think that this is a fair and honest clash of ideas and that all the players have functioning minds and real-world information to deal with. That is not the case. Americans are stunningly ignorant, and Americans are now the most propagandized people in the world. Propaganda is not what it used to be. The old Soviet propaganda was crude, but the Soviet people at least understood that they were being propagandized, and they had some skill in working out whose interests the propaganda served. This is not the case in the U.S. The right-wing propaganda to which Americans are subjected today is extremely sophisticated and has been made so appealing to the ignorati that delivering propaganda is highly profitable to people like Rupert Murdoch. A large part of the population see this propaganda as their only lifeline to the truth. The Koch-funded "think tanks" develop the propaganda, and Murdoch delivers it. It all serves corporate interests, the people be damned, except insofar as the people are just another natural resource to be exploited.

What's puny, I'm afraid, is intellectual good faith when up against such widespread ignorance and a multi-billion dollar propaganda and distortion machine.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

When I was young, I too felt that the American people were hopelessly naive and stupid. Certainly, growing up in California (by no means our most benighted state) I saw much confirmatory evidence of this mental retardation. I longed to move, forever, to wonderful, worldly-wise Europe. And so I did--first to Italy and then to England--where I learned that there were plenty of stupid people in those lands. And so I came back.

I found much that was stimulating on these shores. In my youth I was influenced by the Beatnik writers and the counterculture in general. This trend signified a vast shift from a culture of duty to one of expressivity. And that was a major American contribution.

Then there were the Civil Rights, women's, and gay movements. Unrest, very justified, took down a crooked president, Richard Nixon, and ended the Vietnam war.

By the late seventies, though, it was clear that the new left was fading. Domestically, it had promoted simply throwing dollars at problems; abroad there was too much indulgence for corrupt "progressive" regimes in the Third World.

Into the breach came a new wave of serious conservative thought, centered (by my lights) in libertarianism. The intellectual foundations of this trend were impressive, involving such lights as Popper, von Mises, Hayek, and Schumpeter. If you don't think so, try reading them.

Alas, the movement was commandeered by the neocons, who connived to get us into disastrous foreign wars, all in the name of "national greatness." David Broder is still preaching this appalling view.

So the conservative intellectual movement collapsed. But once it was truly a contender.

Liberalism, as we have just seen on November 2, was too feeble to pick up the torch. Now, as in Gogol's vision for imperial Russia, we are careening on a mad ride; no one knows where, or if, this journey will end.

But singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" is not going to do it.

7:34 AM  

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