Not polarization, but radicalization of the Right.

This critique by @JRubinBlogger is crucial. I am researching the history of the #polarization idea and how it rose to become a defining narrative of our time, and I’d like to add some thoughts.

A (long) thread: 1/
Only one party, @JRubinBlogger reminds us, tolerates violence, refuses compromise in any way, and is defined by white Christian nationalism; “Only one party conducts fake election audits, habitually relies on conspiracy theories and wants to limit access to the ballot.” 2/
As @JRubinBlogger outlines convincingly in the column, the polarization interpretation therefore tends to obscure more than it illuminates. And yet, so many politicians, journalists, and pundits keep talking about how polarization is the root of all evil that plagues America. 3/
I want to be precise: The point is not that there aren’t specific aspects of American politics, society, and culture that are adequately described as “polarized.” But as an overall diagnosis, “polarization” obscures what is the key challenge: A radicalization of the Right. 4/
The evidence @JRubinBlogger presents in her critique seems overwhelming – and so the question becomes: Why are so many people clinging to the polarization framework even though the evidence points in a different direction? What makes the polarization concept so attractive? 5/
Let’s look at a few examples of how the “polarization” narrative is employed, why it often doesn’t hold up, and how we might explain why people still cling to it. Let’s start with this, from Nate Silver, on the partisan divide in attitudes towards Covid public health measures. 6/
While the gap between Left and Right in the U.S. is indeed very wide, that’s almost entirely a function of the Right being more extreme than in other countries – something that holds true not just for COVID, but for many political, social, and cultural conflicts in America. 7/
Why call it “polarization” then? Because it’s politically advantageous. Across the political spectrum, the idea of “polarization” is unobjectionable, while correctly diagnosing a radicalization of the Right is sure to provoke accusations of partisanship. 8/
Attitudes on climate change offer another good case study for why the #polarization narrative is so misleading, even in areas in which we are indeed dealing with an enormous, and rapidly widening, partisan divide. 9/
This is different than the Covid case: In a rather narrow sense, attitudes have indeed been polarizing, with Republicans and Democrats moving away from each other, largely vacating a position in the middle which many of them used to occupy. 10/
But as a political narrative, polarization is still misleading, even here. It implies two things: a) both sides moving to the “extremes,” and b) that this move to the “extremes,” and the widening gap between the two positions that results from it, is the actual problem. 11/
Crucially, though, Democrats aren’t moving to an “extreme” position – they are getting in line with what is indisputably the factually correct position, shared by nearly all serious experts in the world. Meanwhile, Republicans are drifting further away into fantasy land. 12/
It’s also not the widening divide per se that’s the problem: If Democrats hadn’t moved on the issue, the gap would be smaller – but we absolutely wouldn’t be better off, instead just ending up with fewer people acknowledging the reality of climate change. 13/
Beyond offering a misleading interpretation of the present, the “polarization” narrative is problematic because it usually comes with a hefty dose of nostalgia for a long-lost “consensus,” and also prescribes consensual politics as the solution. 14/
Too often, the polarization story tends to create a narrative of the American polity in decline - suggesting that the status quo ante against which the polarized decades since the 1970s are measured was one of unity and order. 15/
But political “consensus” was usually based on a cross-partisan agreement to leave a discriminatory social order intact and deny marginalized groups equal representation and civil rights. A white male elite consensus was the historical norm. 16/
The frequently invoked “consensus” of the post-World War II era, for instance, was depending on both parties agreeing that white patriarchal rule would remain largely untouched. By the 1960s, however, that white elite consensus had started to fracture. 17/
The parties began to split over the question of whether or not the country should become a multiracial, pluralistic democracy - a system in which an individual’s status is not determined by race, gender, or religion. 18/
It was not a coincidence that “polarization” started when one party decided to break with the white elite consensus and supported the civil rights legislation of the 60s. “Polarization” is the price U.S. society has had to pay for real progress towards multiracial democracy. 19/
There is absolutely no need for polarization-induced “consensus” nostalgia. But that’s exactly what characterizes much of the broader polarization discourse – not just among journalists and pundits, but among political scientists and historians as well. 20/
The implied nostalgia for a supposedly better, pre-polarization era shines through even in generally excellent work, such as Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s investigation of “How Democracies Die.” 21/
Levitsky and Ziblatt provide a convincing dissection of how the pre-1960s “consensus” was based on racial exclusion and depended on a cross-party agreement amongst white men to leave white supremacy intact. 22/
And yet, in the end, the authors still combine a warning against the dangers of “polarization” with praise for the mid-twentieth-century consensus era that was supposedly characterized by “egalitarianism, civility, sense of freedom.” (p. 231) 23/
Historians are not immune to this kind of nostalgia. Let’s look at Jill Lepore’s grand retelling of U.S. history in “These Truths,” for instance – a remarkable achievement overall, but one that suffers from relying on the polarization framework for describing the recent past. 24/
The final 250 pages of "These Truths" are basically a long-drawn-out lament over America’s decline since the 1960s that was supposedly caused by "both sides" being increasingly extreme and unreasonable. And it’s largely unsupported by the evidence presented in the book. 25/
Lamenting the end of a “midcentury era of political consensus,” Lepore diagnoses “division, resentment, and malice” as the animating forces in American politics since the late 1960s. 26/
In her interpretation, “wrenching polarization” brought “the Republic to the brink of a second civil war” and shaped America “to the detriment of everyone.” (quotes on p. 633, 658, 546) But what if it did not? “Everyone” is certainly doing some heavy lifting here… 27/
Lepore’s description of the media landscape is a case in point for "both sides"-ism completely distorting the picture. She laments the emergence of radically partisan media on "both sides" resulting in what she calls "mutually assured epistemological destruction" (p. 711). 28/
The metaphor is striking—but it is not supported by the evidence presented in the book and hinges on the questionable characterization of Fox News and MSNBC as equally partisan. 29/
When Lepore gives a detailed account of Rush Limbaugh’s outsized influence on conservative politics or the machinations of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, it becomes clear that there are simply no equal counterparts on the left. 30/
And yet, the narrative of polarization indicates that there should be, and encourages the search for (false) equivalence. 31/
(For a longer discussion of the pitfalls of using #polarization as a governing historical paradigm and the challenges of writing a (pre-)history of the polarized present, see my @ModAmHist piece from 2019) 32/
I think the best case *against* polarization as the master diagnosis of our time can be made by critically examining what I consider the best case *for* polarization: @ezraklein’s “Why We’re Polarized,” which came out in early 2020. 33/
I really think everyone should read "Why We’re Polarized." I learned an awful lot from this book, and the way @ezraklein summarizes and synthesizes the conflicts that shape U.S. politics and the forces that are shaping American society is truly impressive. 34/
But the main problem with @ezraklein’s interpretation – and with the polarization framework in general, is that, fundamentally, I’m just not convinced that what the author so powerfully lays out in his book is adequately interpreted as "polarization." 35/
In the final third of the book, Klein himself emphasizes that we’re not looking at a radicalization on both sides of the political spectrum, only on the right. As a matter of fact, he sees Democrats as largely immune to extremism due to the heterogeneity of their supporters. 36/
In fact, @ezraklein emphasizes the difference between the Right, entirely focused on the interests and sensibilities of white conservatives, and a Democratic coalition that is much more diverse - ideologically, racially / ethnically, in terms of cultural sensibilities. 37/
To allow for some differences between Left and Right, Klein employs the concept of "asymmetrical polarization." But I would argue that doesn’t really solve the problem. 38/
The problem is that even when it comes with the qualifier "asymmetric," the term "polarization" still implies *both sides* moving towards the extremes at least to a somewhat significant degree (that is certainly how the term is used in the broader public discourse). 39/
But based on the evidence @ezraklein himself presents, there is no liberal version of Fox News and the rightwing media bubble, the Democrats don’t have a Trump, and there is no equivalent on the Left to the influence of reactionary and white nationalist forces inside the GOP. 40/
If, instead of “polarization,” we foregrounded the idea of a radicalization of the conservative movement and the GOP – wouldn’t that capture the central development in recent U.S. history and politics more adequately and precisely? 41/
The question remains: If, at best, it is debatable whether or not the “polarization” framework adds any analytical value, and at worst, it is a misleading narrative, lacking empirical evidence, obscuring more than it illuminates – why are so many smart people clinging to it? 42/
The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that the analytical inadequacy is not a bug, but a feature of the polarization narrative – it is precisely the fact that it obscures rather than illuminates the actual problem that makes it attractive politically. 43/
The “polarization” concept is useful to all those who want to lament major problems in American politics, but either don’t see or simply can’t bring themselves to address the fact that the major threat to American democracy is a radicalizing Right. 44/
In this way, the concept even provides a rhetoric of rapprochement since it does not require agreement as to what is actually ailing America, only that “polarization” is to the detriment of all. 45/
I suggest that the polarization narrative’s rise to dominance should be seen in the context of an ongoing search for unity in the wake of the white elite consensus’ fracturing in the 1960s. Is there nothing America’s elite can agree on? There is: #Polarization is the problem! 46/
“Polarization” is so attractive partly because the interpretation confirms the unease with which America’s white elite has looked at the contentious developments that have shaped the country since the 60s – providing alleviation by legitimizing the nostalgia for “consensus.” 47/
Look at what happens on the Sunday Shows when the state of the union is discussed: “Polarization” is the villain, everybody can agree. “Polarization” never breeds contention, it makes everybody nod in approval; it engenders unanimity – consensus through the back door. 48/
That’s the genius of the #polarization narrative: It provides the language for a lament that blames nobody and everybody, and satisfies the longing for unity – which it constantly fuels in turn! – by offering a consensual interpretation: Consensus re-established as discourse. 49/
Rightwingers, by the way, seem to be very much aware of this feature of the “polarization” narrative, and delight in using it to their benefit. Here is Ben Shapiro, of all people, decrying polarization, presenting himself as an advocate of unity: 50/
It’s farcical, of course, for someone whose entire shtick is to rage against the Libs and to present an utterly deranged caricature of the supposedly Un-American, radical Left to lament “polarization,” urging us to “de-polarize.” That’s why it’s so telling. 51/
As #polarization has become something of a consensus narrative, invoking it as a big problem is guaranteed to garner a lot of support and approval from across the political spectrum, including from most of the mainstream media and much of the centrist punditry. 52/
That way, it allows even people like Shapiro – “polarizers” in their day job, if you will – to present themselves as reasonable and generally within the realm of “consensus.” I say beware of such unity that rests on obfuscation (and, in this case, shamelessness). 53/
Let’s be more critical of a paradigm that can’t distinguish between the fact that, in a vacuum, unity is good—and the fact that in the reality of American history, consensus politics has always stifled necessary change and real political and social advancements. 54/
And let’s not content ourselves with accepting the omnipresence of the polarization idea as a mere representation of supposedly unprecedented division, but instead strive to critically examine the use of the concept and properly historicize the polarization discourse. 55/
If the goal is to capture the central development in recent history and the current threat to democracy as precisely as possible, we need to de-emphasize the concept of “polarization” and instead foreground the radicalization of the American Right and the Republican Party. /end

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More from @tzimmer_history

20 Nov
The #Rittenhouse verdict does not come as a surprise - but in conjunction with the reactions on the Right, it reveals a lot about this country and our current political moment, and none of it bodes well for the future of democracy.

My main takeaway - a thread:
A country defined by a political and social culture - characterized by white nationalism, gun fundamentalism, toxic masculinity, and glorified militancy - that is bound to produce many iterations of Kyle Rittenhouse…
A country in which the Right quickly unifies behind not only defending, but glorifying Rittenhouse’s actions…
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18 Nov
Just got my Covid booster.

Great experience at the local CVS: Wonderful staff, nice conversation with others who were relieved to receive their booster.

Fighting against the pandemic could have been a great effort of communal solidarity. Shame on those who keep sabotaging it.
Getting the vaccine feels great. Not just because it protects me - but because acting in solidarity with the community, helping to keep others safe in a very concrete and direct way is wonderful. It puts me in an almost festive mood: I’m doing my part, we’re doing this together!
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13 Nov
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Pay attention. Because this is what’s coming.
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10 Nov
This captures the narrative that is animating the moderate / liberal turn against “wokeism,” but doesn’t hold up empirically: It is based on an implausible analysis of the political situation and a misleading perspective on racial conflict in American history. Some thoughts: 1/
Let’s start with the category error that is shared by lots of moderates and liberals: The assumption is that all the *talk about racism* is what irks many White people – when it’s actually the attempt to *dismantle racist structures and narratives* to which they object. 2/
The difference matters greatly: If it were just the supposedly incessant *talk* about racism, we could plausibly devise a strategy of appeasing White / reactionary sensibilities by *not talking* about it while still pursuing the project of realizing multiracial democracy. 3/
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8 Nov
From the reactions we’ve witnessed since the VA election, it’s clear that there are a lot of White folks out there who consider themselves Democrats/Liberals and are all too willing to go along with scapegoating and demonizing Black intellectuals if it promises electoral success.
I want to reflect in detail on a reaction that I have personally gotten to the tweet below. I believe it is emblematic of a widespread - and rapidly spreading - attitude among White Liberals and seems to be quickly gaining the upper hand (again) within the Democratic Party.
Here is the reply I would like to dissect. It is from someone with a fairly big Twitter following, someone I’m sure won’t be happy about being called out (I have purposefully blacked out all individual information as I want neither abuse nor attention coming their way).
Read 26 tweets

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