In defense of polarization

In this image provided by NBC, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, left, participates in a debate with Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski, center, and Independent Rob Hotaling, right, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in West Hartford, Conn. It’s common to hear today that politics are too polarized. (Courtesy of NBC Universal via AP)

“Americans are too divided” or “Today’s politics are too polarized” are some common refrains you’re likely to hear from political pundits in most media outlets with liberal and conservative media biases. “Polarization is killing our country,” writes John Avlon in a 2019 CNN opinion. “This is not the American way. It is the opposite of the secret of our success, summed up by our national motto, e pluribus unum – ‘out of many, one.’” 

Avlon’s take, which panders to a romantic, mythic and overly affectionate view of American society, is a paragon of the views expressed by high-educated liberals in political discourse. It fetishizes the U.S. Constitution and the political process, projecting onto them the idea that political actors have always worked together for the common goal of advancing the American project — at the very least, it poses compromise as the default and widespread disagreement as a divergence from that historical norm.  

In a certain sense, there is truth to the notion that ruling class Americans in government have historically shared aims and do so today; after all, wars of settler-colonialism were the modus operandi of this country’s construction and required support, whether explicit or tacit, from all political parties and all settlers to press forth. In fact, from the genesis of the United States proper to the conclusion of the Apache Wars, which is considered by some historians to be in 1924, the so-called “Indian Wars,” 30 US Presidents from five distinct parties commanded the military in service of seizing and occupying sovereign Indigenous land. When it comes to war, colonialism and imperialism, bipartisanship is the name of the game. 

Herein lies one of the many issues with the contemporary framing of polarization. Liberals — as distinct from the left — presume that the problem with polarization is that it produces political deadlock and high tensions between “both sides,” — a phrase which bothers me to no end as someone who recognizes that mass movements seeking meaningful changes to our political and economic system are rarely if ever affiliated with either major political party. To this point, liberal discourse never discusses that violent institutions such as poverty, hunger, policing and incarceration, the military-industrial complex and the ever-resilient fossil fuel industry only persist because party leadership — backed by their sycophants in and outside of government — walk in lock-step with their opposition on these issues.  

As systemic violence continues to fall upon marginalized communities, compromise is a totally inept strategy in order to address it. After all, how could liberals expect to compromise for social justice of all things as conservatives shift sharply to the right, especially in the advent of the Republican cannibalization of the former Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney for her milquetoast anti-Donald Trump stance? The right coalesces evermore around their platform of preserving and even heightening violence against the working class, people of color, women and the LGBTQ+ community, the genius proposition of the center-adjacent liberals is to “reel them in” to produce tangible legislative results; however, this is a fool’s errand. Pulling on the trunk of a tree with roots planted deeply into the soil will only pull you towards it. The same is true for Democrats, whose romantic pursuit of compromise and bipartisanship will only allow them to tolerate and collaborate with creeping fascism.  

The rhetorical crusade against polarization serves to obscure the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, the capitalist and the worker, the settler oil and gas corporations and the Indigenous nation, the police department and the over-surveilled communities of color. Coming together at an imagined political mid-point only benefits the class with an existing monopoly on violence, power, capital and mass information — that is to say the capitalist class which relies equally on Democrats and Republicans to secure their interests.  

There is another view of polarization that we need to adopt in order to meaningfully combat exploitation, environmental destruction, the increased dedication of resources to the US military and an egregiously violent criminal “justice” system. This view has to overturn and replace the orthodoxy that polarization harms the spirit of American democracy — the spirit was rotten from the get-go. Conventional, headline-grabbing understandings of polarization excludes without fail the masses of people who are not engaged in formal political participation, including the one-third of people aged 18 and older that didn’t vote in the historically contentious 2020 election. Many of this huge fraction of the American electorate chose not to participate in a system that has nothing to offer them, or at least one for which its promises are unattractive due to centuries of pushing oppressed groups into the margins of society.  

The new polarization has to broaden the poles from the unimaginative and suffocating confines of party politics, which only span from slightly left-of-center to ultraconservative individuals and organizations, to one which actively engages the broad masses of people who are disillusioned by an oppressive system against the laws, belief systems and individual lawmakers and capitalists commanding over their oppression. You can’t solve a problem without identifying the cause; discouraging polarization implicitly condemns educating, organizing and agitating against those root causes in the name of civility. To reverse the coursing waves of fascism, climate change, deepening economic exploitation and other forms of systemic violence, people who are attracted to leftist or progressive politics in general have to take a firm, unrelenting stance, lest they be washed away toward a right-wing hegemon.

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