Hot political rhetoric & fake polarization make us weak

Summary:  We underestimate our leaders, confusing their skillful political engineering with folly. But their successful manipulation of us gives them the last laugh. For example, see the hot political rhetoric that keeps us fragmented and weak, hiding the consensus of the 1% that runs America.

Not the politics the Founders intended.

American politics as warfare
© Publicdomainphotos | Dreamstime.

Many Americans rage at the dysfunctional polarization of our politics. How can our representatives agree upon necessary policy reforms when the two parties have such different positions and refuse to compromise. But are the American people becoming more politically polarized? No. But the rhetoric is getting hotter, which reveals an important thing about America.

Americans are not becoming polarized

Journalists and political gurus say that we have become more polarized. As so often the case these days, that is a fable made fact by their repetition.

Partisans Without Constraint:
Political Polarization and Trends in American Public Opinion

By Delia Baldassarri and Andrew Gelman (both with Columbia)
in the American Journal of Sociology, September 2008 (ungated copy).

“In contrast, scholarly research on mass opinion polarization offers a more complex view. Scholars have shown that, over the last 40 years, American public opinion has remained stable or become even more moderate on a large set of political issues, while people have assumed more extreme positions only on some specific, hot issues, such as abortion, sexual morality and, lately, the war in Iraq.”

Political Polarization in the American Public.“

By Morris P. Fiorina (Stanford) and Samuel J. Abrams (Harvard),
in the Annual Review of Political Science, June 2008.

“This article surveys the literature on mass polarization. It begins with a discussion of the concept of polarization, then moves to a critical consideration of different kinds of evidence that have been used to study polarization, concluding that much of the evidence presents problems of inference that render conclusions problematic. The most direct evidence – citizens’ positions on public policy issues – shows little or no indication of increased mass polarization over the past two to three decades. Party sorting – an increased correlation between policy views and partisan identification – clearly has occurred, although the extent has sometimes been exaggerated.”

Another finding of the Baldassarri-Gelman paper: our elites are becoming more polarized – from the rest of us.

“Our work reinforces the findings of McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal (Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, 2006) on the relation between elite polarization and inequality, by suggesting that substantial partisan and issue alignment has occurred within the resourceful and powerful group of rich Americans. The wealthier part of the political constituency knows well what it wants and it is likely, now more than in the past, to a affect the political process, thus potentially increasing inequality in interest representation, not only through lobbying activity and campaign financing, but also in the ballot (Bartels 2005: ‘Economic Inequality and Political Representation‘).”

Tom Jacobs gives us the bottom line in “American politics go tribal” at the Pacific Standard — “A political scientist explains the disconnect between our moderate policy views and our intense hatred for the other side.”

“Political scientist Lilliana Mason’s analysis is more subtle, and more disturbing. Her research suggests that, in terms of our attitudes towards issues, we are no more polarized than we were decades ago. But our emotions, and the behaviors they drive, have largely uncoupled from our actual analysis of the issues. Essentially, the Stony Brook University scholar argues, our identities have become increasingly intertwined with our political affiliation. As a result, we feel ever more certain that our party is right and the other is wrong – even in cases where their positions aren’t far apart.

“Our attitude towards the opposing party has become, basically, tribal: We detest them simply because they’re the other side.

“‘The American public can hold remarkably moderate and constant issue positions, while nonetheless becoming progressively more biased, active and angry when it comes to politics,’ she argues. ‘Even as we agree on most issues, we are becoming increasingly uncivil in our approach to politics.’”

Not the politics the Founders intended.

Two Male Deer Fighting - Dreamstime_xxl_82937539
© creativecommonsstockphotos ID 82937539 | Dreamstime.

The real polarization

We see the real polarization all around us – in the political rhetoric used by both parties. Bush Jr was a fascist, probably a NAZI. Obama was a socialist Muslim pretending to be an American. Trump is worse than Satan.

There is a good reason for this. Our elites agree on an unusually large number of important areas of public policy. The political parties must conceal this in order to maintain party cohesion. The rank and file must believe the parties differ, and are more than two gangs seeking power.

So as policy differences narrow between the parties, policy differences are replaced by rhetoric. “You are evil” replaces “Your policies are bad.” Politics becomes a blood sport to entertain a passive and apathetic public. “Treason”, “fascist”, and “Nazi” become commonplace rhetoric.

There is no crippling polarization, just distracting music masking a bipartisan consensus on key points of economic and foreign policy. It serves the valuable secondary purpose of distracting the proles. It gives us mock battles to fight and tribal loyalties to adopt (dirty hippy commies vs. puritanical ignorant fascists). Preventing the discovery of common causes, mutual allegiances, and the need for fundamental reform.

America is well-governed. But it is not governed in our interests.

Let's make a choice!

How to choose a political party

Today we get to choose a political party like cattle at the Chicago stockyards get to choose a chute. The cattle (being smarter than us) don’t bother with party identification. They don’t cheer the “left-side” pen, or admire the virtue of its prisoners, the beauty of its fence, the wisdom of their keepers, or the free food. Those in the “right-side” pen don’t wear logos or trumpet their superior intelligence over those in the other pen.

It need not be like this. Both parties belong to us. Both must and can be retaken. America needs a choice, not an echo (to borrow Phyllis Schlafy’s memorable phrase).

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the Democratic Party, about the Left in American politics, about ways to reform America’s politics, and especially these…

  1. The good news: America’s politics are neither polarized nor dysfunctional. That’s also the bad news.
  2. 2016 revealed the true nature of America’s left & right. It’s bad news.
  3. Our Right & Left have lost their way. Saul Alinsky points to a better politics.
  4. The secret reason for America’s white-hot political rhetoric.
  5. Left and Right use race as a way to divide America.
  6. The Left embraces racism. The result could be ugly.
  7. Watch the Left and Right move against America.
  8. Democrats betray their principles & embrace the Deep State.

Books describing our broken politics, and how we got here

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank.

The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics by Jefferson Cowie.

"Listen, Liberal" by Thomas Frank
Available at Amazon.
The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics
Available at Amazon.

10 thoughts on “Hot political rhetoric & fake polarization make us weak

  1. ……in terms of our attitudes towards issues, we are no more polarized than we were decades ago. But our emotions, and the behaviors they drive, have largely uncoupled from our actual analysis of the issues. …. our identities have become increasingly intertwined with our political affiliation. As a result, we feel ever more certain that our party is right and the other is wrong – even in cases where their positions aren’t far apart.

    “Our attitude towards the opposing party has become, basically, tribal: We detest them simply because they’re the other side.

    “‘The American public can hold remarkably moderate and constant issue positions, while nonetheless becoming progressively more biased, active and angry when it comes to politics,’ she argues. ‘Even as we agree on most issues, we are becoming increasingly uncivil in our approach to politics.’”

    Very true, and a very important insight. Not one found in the mainstream media. The question is why its happened, and what if anything can be done to reverse it. Questions at more than a rhetorical level – I don’t mean, take personal responsibility. Right, and do what exactly? The meme that its all down to ‘manipulation’ by the one percent is not helpful either.

    The important question is what practical, on the ground, political action can be taken that can be expected to have real effects on the phenomenon? What is one to do tomorrow and the day after, in the place one lives?

    1. George,

      “The meme that its all down to ‘manipulation’ by the one percent is not helpful either.”

      Propaganda works. That’s an essential fact in order to understand our world. It does not relieve us of responsibility, but is a major force to contend with.

  2. Historical parallels can be suspect, and this one may be completely wrong, but I’ve been reading The China Mirage by James Bradley. When American plans and visions for China came crashing down with the Communist takeover, when it turned out that Chiang’s government was a very expensive Potemkin village, and it was Mao, not Chiang, who was China;s future, the American ruling class had a nervous breakdown. A very messy, very public nervous breakdown with consequences that included witch hunts at home, and eventually a couple of very nasty foreign wars. Well, the 2016 election has produced the same sort of nervous breakdown in the ruling class. The witch hunts have already started (Russiagate), and the wars may come in due course.

    The word polarization ought to be used carefully. I do think we pretty much have two cultures and a culture war in this country. But a lot of times when you hear the word polarization what it really means is that there are wreckers not going along with The Plan. The country really isn’t polarized over immigration, but the word can be used to try to delegitimize opponents of open borders (favored by the ruling class). Words like divisive and racist get used in the same way.

    1. The Man,

      That’s a great historical analogy! The loss of China was destabling to America, following the loss of Eastern Europe. Not just to the government. For example, America missionaries had invested a lot in China. That the Chinese instead choose atheist communism was a shock.

      “The country really isn’t polarized over immigration”

      I’m unsure of that. The polls I’ve seen show the public almost evenly divided. It depends on the question asked, since “immigration” is an almost meaningless term by itself. Open borders for poor uneducated people from failed states? Open borders for people with education or money? People who opposed the former get rebuttals as if they oppose the later (that’s a trade-mark tactic of the Left).

      Supporting the “polarized immigration” theory is that open borders (eg, amnesty for illegals, abolish ICE, fast easy track to citizenship, lavish benefits for immigrants) has become a core belief for liberals and the Left. The opposite is true on the Right.

  3. “Supporting the “polarized immigration” theory is that open borders (eg, amnesty for illegals, abolish ICE, fast easy track to citizenship, lavish benefits for immigrants) has become a core belief for liberals and the Left. The opposite is true on the Right.”

    Probably true, although my sense of it is that the People In Charge want to take things further than most of the country, which is why they don’t want to be seen voting for open borders. They prefer lax enforcement and catch and release. You’re right about it being a core belief on the Left, though.

    1. The Man,

      “although my sense of it is that the People In Charge want to take things further than most of the country”

      I agree. But many on the Libertarian Right and Radical Left want to open the borders and wash America away in a sea of immigration from the 3rd world. We’d be another on the list of nations destroyed by utopians.

  4. Some observations after a week spent in Western New York:
    – Eastern Europe and Middle East immigrants were hired on in the 1920s by the steel mills, and new-wave from these areas not only have integrated, but revived the area with new businesses, as have Vietnamese and Indian immigrants.
    – I saw no Central American immigrants at all.
    – Black guys and white guys working alongside one another just fine, but black guys do not hold public office.
    – Immigration as a topic of conversation simply never came up.
    – Same tropes about Southern blacks being given bus tickets North were brought up by old white fellows, except these old fellows were baby boomers. They repeated the stories their parents had told them, without any conception of when these events happened (they misplaced their dates by about 30 years).
    – Public money has cleaned up hazardous waste sites and created viable tourist areas in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. The American side of the Falls is awesome. Folks from all parts of the globe are happy to be there.
    – The suburbs – all of them – are well kept.
    – The city is a different story. Areas that are designated arts or tourism areas are well-kept. Neighborhoods that I remembered were kept immaculate by German and Polish families in the ’60s – including the home where my father grew up – now look shabby. The difference, I suspect, is that those areas were transformed from privately-owned homes that had 2nd floor rental-flats, to a completely rented-out slum with no one who lives in a home they actually own.

  5. Plato suggested that democracy was the last step before tyranny and that the surest sign of tyranny was a two party democracy which he directly stated could not function as a real democracy.

    You can counter with “who the hell cares about Plato?” but since Plato’s “Republic” is our first reference to political theory we have to consider Plato. I think he was right, a two party democracy can not function as anything more than a weigh station on the path to tyranny, in a healthy democracy each citizen is their own party and larger coalitions are numerous, not scarce right down to the 2 party minimum like in the USA.

    We can not take back both parties because “we” (the majority) never hads them in the first place, two 2 party democracy will never represent anything but the elite, its like good cop or bad cop, our divisions are not the problem, the problem is the consensus that one or the other party can solve things when they cant, nether the good nor the bad cop works for the defendant and in a monetary economy one must constantly defend against poverty.

    We need more divisions, a lot more, and way less consensus, we are all rubes for believing a two party system can solve anything, the sickness is not diversity and contention but unity and agreement, all agree the solution is to promote a party and that is the problem, never, ever promote a party. Promote ideas, man up and make the independent determination, defend what you as an individual believe in, ignore group declarations.

    Support or oppose individual statements and actions regardless of who or what party they come from, avoid deferring to mass opinion, explain YOURSELF, not someone else, end the cults of personality, both positive and negative, if we are to LEAD we can’t be followers of people or slogans or organizations, we MUST address principals as individuals, this is the one and only source of change.

    A representative democracy is a caveat democracy, its literally elitist democracy so we are not living under direct or real democracy at all, representative democracy is not democracy, crony monopoly capitalism is not capitalism, it is caveat capitalism. This means the claims of both sides to be participating in a democracy are abject lies.

    The USA was the model slave holding state, only the elite got real democracy and had real opinions, all the rest got scammed, the original senate was a non elected aristocratic body and so it still tends to be, only tacitly and in the back room.

    We have no heyday of freedom to point to at all, it never existed and never will exist so long as we kid ourselves about two party representative democracy being any other than a tool for implementing a scam on the majority in favor of privileged inherited elites.

    Every country on earth, regardless of political structure, has a few aristocratic ruling alpha families so politics does not determine the structure of society, instinct does and instinct favors a group ruled by alphas as with all social pack animals, humans are not different.

    Let me reiterate, a few families rule each society so POLITICAL IDEOLOGY has nothing to do with the basic structure of society or this would not always be the case, ideology can only tack a little moderation or exaggeration onto the deal instinct has set in DNA.

    If we look to politics to change things we are certain to be disappointed. In China 33 families own the whole plot of land, in the USA its about 200, in Saudi Arabia and North Korea its 1, in Mexico its 10 families. The fewer the controlling families the less the rights of the majority.

    This is absolutely consistent with Darwinian evolution where diverse families compete for genetic dominance, economic dominance establishes genetic dominance, intolerance of every variety is an essential part of this process.

    We kid ourselves about technology assuming for egos sake that the technological advancement equates to political advancement which is not at all true, technically we are highly advanced animals but politically we are not in the least advanced, we are still poor dumb animals with no control over their future, helpless but to go extinct if nature randomly heads that way.

    Until we attempt to counter rather than indulge our instincts we will never escape being enslaved by them, conservatives submit to the instinct to deffer to alphas but to attack the low ranking, while liberals submit to the instinct to attack the alphas while submitting to the low ranking. In both cases its instinct not reason which is only good for coming up with plausible excuses for what are irrational instinctual indulgences.

    Supporting alphas because they are alphas and attacking the low ranking because they are low ranking will never work to improve or change anything.
    Attacking alphas because they are alphas or supporting the low ranking because they are low ranking will never work to improve or change anything ether.

    The vast majority of Americans adopt one or the other of these two instinctual roads to neurosis and stasis against all real reason.

    What is needed is that we act as individuals and support what we support and reject what we reject regardless of whom it comes from, what is needed is the end of cults of personality and the adoption of rule by principal rather than by gang. Its not the person , its what they represent, a person can be destroyed in an instant but an idea once published is hard to kill.

    Giving in to one party and ending our sham democracy (ether party will do) would at least allow us to proceed into tyranny and perhaps then we could become motivated to surpass it instead of being perched on the edge of tyranny forever as seems to be the current situation, just as Plato described it.

  6. As Gore Vidal once said, we have a one-party political system, with a Republican and a Democratic wing. Previous to Mr. VIdal’s assertion, it was Geoerge Wallace who stated that there was not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties. The billionaires exploit the poisonous trivialities that divide the electorate, using mouthpieces such as Sean Hannityj on one side, or Micheal Moore on the other, to cite examples. The divide and conquer strategy was first enunciated by Julius, but in our nation successfully employed in the wars against Native Americans. THe strategy is Noe used by the billionaire class to insure their status.

    HAs no one in that affluent class read histories of the French or Russian Revolutions?

    I, a peon, have done the reading. I do not anticipate guillotines or firing squads with any pleasure.

    1. Philip,

      (1) There are substantial policies differences between the two parties. How can anyone deny that? Unfortunately, neither is on our side.

      (2) The aphorism divide and rule has been attributed to Philip II of Macedon, although any attributions that long ago should be regarded skeptically. As you note, our ruling elites keep us fragmented to keep us weak.

      (3) “HAs no one in that affluent class read histories of the French or Russian Revolutions?”

      Successful revolutions against domestic rulers are extraordinarily rare in history. We all know about the French and Russian revolts because they are so exceptional. Less well known are the many many many societies in which the population were successfully exploited by their rulers for long long long periods of time.

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