Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Some thoughts on political polarization

Everybody seem to agree we live in times where partisanship and enmity between political factions have reached unprecedented levels. Even where traditional parties are experiencing significant voters’ disaffection (like in Italy, Greece and Spain) and new parties have surged to occupy a political space they saw as insufficiently represented, they have done so along very recognizable conservative/ progressive (or right/ left) lines. There is an apparently greater than ever inability for the heads of each faction to walk in the other faction’s shoes that constitutes the basis for collaboration and finding of common ground, and thus the vitriol and condemnation that is spewed towards the opposite side of the proverbial aisle seems to mount day to day.

I believe this doesn’t need to be so, and I can still remember how towards the end of the last century the talk of the sociologists was rather about the “end of ideologies”, and how after the crumbling of the communist model political discussion would turn more technocratic and devoid of passion, as politicians would discuss about fringe issues, whilst they kept a basic agreement about how to organize society, sharing a core of ideas that would be beyond discussion (the candidates for those ideas were things like representative democracy, the rule of law, private property  widely recognized, and a certain amount of redistributive taxation so the state had enough resources to ensure a modicum of dignity for everybody, regardless of merit or social circumstances, through the provision of free or very cheap health, education and old age pensions). In those times, that now seem so distant, the far right all but disappeared in most Western societies (outside of some skinhead and white nationalist movements in Anglo-Saxon countries, and Nazi sympathizers in Germany that were never that much popular), and although there were some old dyed in the wool leftists and anarchists, you probably could count ‘em with the fingers of a single hand. There were some countercultural elements that seemed to be still hung-over since the late 79’s and the only serious contender for a coherent narrative outside the mainstream was the environmental movement, that every now and then seemed to toy with achieving mass appeal and being close to be a deciding force in some parliament or other  where they could break a potential stalemate between the traditional parties, and even have some governing responsibility. Back then, alternating parties from one sign and the other seemed like a normal thing, almost a desirable built-in trait of the system, and when the party you less identified with won the elections you just assumed you would live a little worse than it would have been the case (most people assume the party not of their choice would be a somewhat worse steward of the economy, and that stewardship of the economy was really the big deciding factor on who to vote for), but that things would sort themselves out in the medium terms without much fuss.

Now if we take a look at what candidates say during the most recent (or still ongoing) political campaigns we can identify a clear difference. In Spain the governing party declares that an opposition win would spell the death of the country (as supposedly anybody but them would cave in to the demands of the separatist Catalonians they have done more than anybody else to encourage) and the triggering of a recession more severe than the one started in 2008 (which served to propel them to power). In Greece each party accused the other of certain doom, social collapse, and the expulsion from the European Union (never mind that the electorate had chosen a few weeks before to reject a set of bailout conditions that should have meant the same automatic expulsion they suddenly were eager to avoid, and that nevertheless the same party that championed that rejection was now campaigning to avoid it). In the USA… what should we say of the USA? As in so many other fields, they seem to lead the rest of the world in the level of hate and spite each side of the political spectrum holds for the other side. We are hearing, and we will hear it more as the electoral cycle advances (and there are still almost thirteen months to go until they finally vote, in their interminable electioneering!)  from each faction that if the other side wins every kind of unspeakable horrors will befall the nation: the end of the American dream! The end of American world hegemony! (probably the first somehow requires the second). The fall of the republic in the hands of an imperial presidency! The imposition of tyranny from a communistic world government led by the UN after they forcibly take away every law abiding citizen’s guns! The loss of any value, and all that is sacred! The forbidding of any public display of religious faith, and the prosecution of religious practice! The imposition of religious belief and of fundamentalist morals! The prohibition of abortion (depriving women of the right to decide over their own sexuality and forcing them back to the home and out of the labor force where they could be legally raped by their husbands)! The continuance of the massacre of innocent fetuses to sell their organs for profit! One yearns for the time when the disagreement were about a few percentage points on the marginal tax rate, the degree of reduction of the defense budget or the amount of federal deficit that was wise to reach on a certain year.

The most frequent explanation you can find for these apparently absurd levels of polarization have to do with the advent of the Internet, that allows people to get their news and with them their whole worldview from self-chosen, self-segregating  sources in a perennial self-reinforcing feedback loop that makes them more and more extremist, and also forces them unconsciously  to march in lockstep with the rest of the members of their particular tribe, so what used to be loosely defined groupings of people that intermingled with each other, so each member was frequently exposed to the thinking and opinions of the other side has become a couple of perfectly defined, zero overlap couple of groups, each of which has exactly zero exposure to the other, and is thus free to straw man their every position, to expose it to ridicule, make a cartoon of it and mercilessly mock it and degrade every person that entertains it for being stupid enough not to see it for the obvious idiocy it is (see Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly describing any liberal position, or alternatively Bill Maher or Paul Krugman describing a conservative one, although you may also notice a significant difference both in tone and substance between both camps). I do recognize that internet has been a tool for people cherry-picking the sources that provide them not with the most accurate, or most impartial view of what’s going on in the world, but with the one that better tracks with their pre-defined set of preferences, which in turn help to steer those preferences towards more extreme, more insular and more insulated positions. But I’m not sure that is the whole story.

There are a number of complementary narratives, from highlighting the role of fear of the other side (in this article in Vox: Partisanship driven by fear) or by tying the sense of belonging to certain political faction to some deep seated feature of every voter’s personality (which would make it like belonging by choice to a certain “tribe”, as brilliantly described by the always dazzling Scott Alexander in his Slate Star Codex: I can tolerate enything but the outgroup where he describes the “Blue Tribe” and the “Red Tribe”, each seeing the there as their outgroup, and thus using them to define themselves in reverse, in the process making them more a subject of scorn and derision) which are illuminating to a certain extent, but I would like to highlight a different aspect that I think has been neglected so far. What I will argue (surprise, surprise!) is that in a society engineered to compete against others (both in the ability to produce material goods and to keep powerful armies, which are but two aspects of the same process) and which has been selected as the most able to win that competition but then has run out of “enemies” (alternative, viable societies) that can compete along those terms (it is irrelevant for the argument if there is indeed any other term on which they could compete, or pose a substantial threat to the society we are talking about) has no option but to turn its energies against itself, and to look within its own ranks the enemies that it has successfully primed its citizens to seek out and obliterate. The form that “turning against itself” takes is the increased intragrupal competition we see in Western societies that are at the top of the economic food chain (China, India and Latin America still have a lot of catch up in which they can exert their energies, although I see very worrisome signs both in Brazil and Argentina that they are learning fast the worst aspects of Northern hemisphere partisanship, without having attained the necessary level of affluence… thanks God it has not happened so far in China), that have ended segregating themselves by ideology, and devoting their energies in an increasingly vicious manner against the part of themselves that is not fully aligned with a certain set of ideas that naturally cluster together.
Let’s recap for a moment how we got to our current predicament. Remember that since the beginning of last century we live in societies that impose in their members the following credo (already pretty familiar for any regular reader of this blog):

1.       The goal of life is to satisfy desires

2.       The position in the social hierarchy of every person is defined by how many material goods and services exchangeable in a market he or she can exclusively command (that is, by how much money he or she has)

3.       The only desire that counts is to advance in the social hierarchy

The credo was firmly established in the West (as reflected in the works of Freud, who provided us with the canonical formulation of the 3rd rule) between the 1st and the 2nd World Wars, it started to be extended after the victory of the allies in the second conflict, and completed its expansion after the fall of communism in the 90’s (funnily enough, the communist countries adhered to a slightly different set of rules, the only difference being in the 2nd one, how the position in the social hierarchy was determined, which marked their dominant reason as bureaucratic rather than desiderative… the fun comes from the fact that it was Karl Marx, from which they supposedly derive their inspiration, who formulated the canonical expression of just the rule they chose not to follow, but that would be the subject of a separate post). As I’ve stated elsewhere, such credo is disastrous for the individual, but it has remained in force because it made the societies that most eagerly adopted it extraordinarily successful. So successful indeed that any society that showed to be somehow more lackadaisical in its adoption was either absorbed (and remade on the absorber’s image) or militarily invaded by the hegemon or its followers.

So competition between different societies (adhering to the desiderative credo with different degrees of enthusiasm) kept the system going and provided it with the ultimate justification: If somebody dared to question why keep on running the rat race, putting all of their effort to keep up with the Joneses and giving the maximum recognition to those that amassed the vastest fortunes, everybody else could point to the outer enemies and say “do you want to be like that? No? then shut up and keep running/ struggling, giving it your best”, and it is that mentality that kept the discussion between mainstream political parties limited to economic details, as anybody that wanted to expand it so things like the development model, the need to preserve the environment or to significantly alter the incentives so they were shifted from reckless competition to something more cooperative was immediately dubbed a sellout to the commies, a “fellow traveler” (something that had some grain of truth, as it was found after their Glasnost that the Soviets subsidized indeed some leftwing parties and individuals in the West) and thus someone disqualified to partake of civilized discourse and serious decision making. A somewhat cartoonish “other” (in Alexander’s terminology, an “outgroup”) was absolutely required to provide the ultimate rebuff to anybody that wanted to question the dominant reason, and thus to reinforce its commandments and keep the whole thing going, the happiness of the citizenry be damned. We can say in its defense that during the period between 1950 and 2008 it kept the greatest growth rates recorded in human history (we are talking of the growth in the ability to produce material goods and exchange marketable services, which correlate only weakly with other metrics of well being), more than trebling per capita GDP (from 16,000 USD in 1952 to roughly 50,000 USD in 2015, both measured in 2009 dollars) and substantially increasing life expectancy, comfort, security and even freedom (for substantial parts of humanity).

Admitting then that many things got substantially better thanks to the drive to accumulate priced thingies and compete with each other, I still maintain that intersocial competition was crucial for the system. Now in the 90’s something funny happened: intense intersocial competition came to an end, as the whole world ended up embracing the same credo, and sharing the same dominant reason. Some nations were more liberal, some were more authoritarian. Some more religious and some more secular. Some more individualistic (libertarian?) and some more statist. But it was more and more difficult to shut up people that may propose to substantially rewrite the basic assumptions of how life should be lived with the previous “do you want to be like “those guys” out there?” when those guys are the Danes (a pretty happy, quite rational bunch, however much American conservatives may cringe at them) or the French (great wine and food!) or even the Chinese, once they have transitioned to a basically market driven economy and the only thing you can truly criticize them for is being better at this capitalism thing than their original inventors. Of course you do have some fringe actors that have espoused the three commandments much less enthusiastically if at all (I’m not saying we have reached “the end of history” yet), but they are essentially basket cases yearning to be admitted in the concert of civilized nations once they get rid of the more or less mad leaders that are preventing them from doing so (Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan just do not have the size or level of success at our own game to provide a credible alternative to our currently dominant value system, as much as neoconservatives in the USA would like to present them as so). So how do you keep the people “rowing in the same direction”, how do you keep coordinating the differing interests of the myriad subgroups that form each advanced society once the main rationale for their sacrifice (“just keep at it or we will be defeated and our values, our own identity, will be erased from the history books”) is gone? Of course, you recreate the external threat within yourself, and exacerbate what were rather puny differences until they seem truly essential, existentially defining ones. If they are secular we are religious. If they are tolerant of homosexuals we hate fags. If they like innovation we stand for tradition. If they think there should be more redistribution of riches we defend huge inequality (and justify it appealing to merit, desert and reward)…

But there is a problem with such construction. In the old days the “other side” operated from a substantially different set of values (in the case of the communist their way of recognizing social position, by adherence to the increasingly metaphysical “party line”, instead of by ability to amass money, led to a wildly inefficient set of incentives that ended costing them too much in terms of material and technological progress) that ensured that the group with the set of values better attuned to produce more material goods (us) would indeed outcompete them. But the way I see it, both groups within today’s societies operate from the exact same set of values. As much as people on the left may claim they are more communitarian, or the people on the right claim they are more for traditional values (both sound superficially as less materialistic) they share their strict adherence to the three original commandments (while of course each individual on both sides would loudly reject them and proclaim their opposition to such patently absurd rules), and it is very unclear that their purported differences (that seem to me to have to do more with group identification –cheap ways to signal their belonging to a group rather than the other than with any deep commitment to lead a significantly different life, ruled by a significantly different set of rules) may give any of them any advantage.

That may mean that we are in a stable equilibrium where we are condemned to a perpetual shouting match between irreconcilable factions ever more despising of each other, ever more scared of the other holding power and rolling back any measures towards the “good society” they may have taken in previous electoral cycles, ever more worked up about the other half of their own nation (with which they interact less and less, to the point of total exclusion) but unable to subdue each other or to convince each other. Until things finally break up and both factions finally decide they can not stand each other and rather prefer to create distinct polities. Is such creation possible peacefully? I have my doubts, but that would be the subject for another post.   


  1. Shouldn't it read dyed in the wool instead of woods?
    Or am I missing something here (as a non native speaker)?

  2. It definitely should, many thanks for pointing it out, I already corrected it