According to one estimate last year, more than thirty-five books about American political polarization were published between 2009 and 2019. In 2020, publishing companies continued to push out titles like Trust in a Polarized Age by political philosopher Kevin Vallier, Compromise in an Age of Party Polarization by political science professor Jennifer Wolak, and Why We’re Polarized by journalist Ezra Klein.
A few months ago, USA Today published a list of helpful tips for reducing polarization, like “make social media kinder” and “avoid repeating misinformation, even to debunk it.” One item advises readers to think twice before sharing a “really funny meme” that heightens partisanship.
Reading that, I imagine a USA Today reader’s mouse hovering over the “share” button on a Facebook post. The meme is “really funny.” But sharing it would contribute to polarization! Sweat rolls down the reader’s face as they ponder the dilemma.
I’m skeptical that a series of decisions by individuals to virtuously abstain from promoting memes or debunking misinformation could ever significantly narrow America’s political polarization. Nor is it immediately obvious what else would do the trick. But let’s put that question aside and ask a more basic question about goals. Should we want to reduce polarization? If so, why?
Polarization and the Point of Politics
A few weeks ago, Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman warned in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that “polarization raises the stakes of political conflict” and that democracy suffers when “politics becomes a battle of ‘us versus them.’” But if politics isn’t supposed to be a “battle of ‘us versus them,’” what is it supposed to be?
The implicit model of political debate underlying most polemics against polarization goes something like this: Politics is about problems. Political differences arise when different factions coalesce around different proposed solutions to those problems. This only “works well,” however, when everyone remembers that they’re fundamentally on the same team. As the USA Today piece puts it, partisan disagreement is “the normal, useful tension that drives democracy,” but it’s “toxic” that things have reached a point where “destroying the other side becomes the goal.”
There are at least two problems with this picture. The first is about ideology, and the second is about interests. We can call them the Humean Objection and the Marxist Objection.
The Humean Objection is that not everyone has the same ideological goals. The problem-solving model of politics assumes that we’re all trying to solve the same problems, so the only reason we come to different conclusions about what should happen is that we’re making different predictions about how various policy proposals will work out. But as the philosopher David Hume argued, there’s a gap between facts and values. Judgments about what’s right or wrong, good or bad, or what anyone should or shouldn’t do, never rest on exclusively factual assumptions. There are underlying “should” premises.
To see how this works, think about the movement for a $15 minimum wage. Some of the disagreements between supporters and opponents of Fight for $15 really are about the empirical facts. Do minimum wage increases necessarily lead to increases in unemployment? A growing body of empirical research casts doubt on this premise, but many opponents of minimum wage hikes insist that it’s true. The argument usually stalls out in wrangling about this point.
But even if it could be conclusively proven that a federally mandated $15 minimum wage would trigger, say, a 3 percent spike in unemployment, mostly because of smaller firms with lower profit margins shutting their doors, this wouldn’t end the debate. Leftists like me would continue to advocate a $15 minimum wage. We’d just make sure to mention in the same breath the long-standing left-wing demand for a federal jobs guarantee.
The pairing of these two demands would hardly be enough to bring around right-wingers (or even liberal centrists). The growth of the public sector at the expense of the private sector would be ideologically congenial to us and ideologically abhorrent to them. They would care more about the right of small-business owners to stay in business, while we’d care more about the right of workers to make a living wage. The conflict would continue, in other words, not because of different judgments about the empirical facts, but because of different goals.
This brings us to the Marxist Objection. Not only are we not all on the same team in terms of our normative preferences, we aren’t on the same team in terms of our material interests. Mainstream political debates often include references to how “the economy” is doing, which suggests that everyone whose fortunes are bound up in “the economy” is being taken into account. But this is measured by indicators like the stock market that tell us far more about the profits of business owners and investors than about workers’ wages — never mind the public benefits paid out to those who can’t work.
Increases in corporate profit tend to coincide with greater employment, but those can come dramatically apart, as we’ve seen during the COVID crisis. And even in the best of times, the interests of people who have to work for others for a living are opposed (along multiple dimensions) to the interests of the people who employ them. Every extra cent added to a worker’s paycheck by militant labor organizing is a cent that doesn’t go into owners’ profits. High unemployment strengthens the hand of owners by dampening workers’ bargaining power.
So, if heightened polarization means that the working-class majority is increasingly committed to goals like a $15 minimum wage and a federal jobs guarantee, and increasingly angry at the business interests that stand in the way of these goals, then that’s a good thing — at least from the perspective of anyone who cares about workers’ interests. Seeing the Chamber of Commerce as “the enemy” for standing in the way is just clarity.
Class War vs. Culture War
If the mainstream reasons for thinking that polarization is bad in itself don’t make sense, does it follow that polarization is good in itself?
Not quite. To see why, we only have to look around and notice how different the kind of polarization that currently defines American politics is from the kind of hypothetical polarization I just described. The last presidential election, for example, was a bitterly fought contest with extremely high turnout, but not one that mostly revolved around bread-and-butter economic issues.
Medicare for All is supported by a majority of Americans. (The only way to skew polls in the opposite direction is to include anti–Medicare for All talking points in the question without including the standard responses.) But both Donald Trump and Joe Biden were on record as opposing it before the election even started.
Too often, the political system pits people in different regions and with different backgrounds and media diets against one another rather than against economic elites. That’s a very bad thing if you care about workers’ interests.
In saying this, I don’t mean to minimize the so-called social issues that are commonly associated with these battles. The struggles for progressive social policies are vitally important. The problem with the culture wars is that they so often turn fights that should be about institutional policies into fights about individual behavior. Instead of arguing about whether the federal government should pay people to stay home during the pandemic, we end up arguing about the morality of individual mask-wearing, denouncing “Covidiots” and hailing our commitment to science. Instead of demanding that universities shut down in-person instruction and positioning administrations that fail to do so as the enemy, students who take pandemic safety seriously end up ratting out students who violate social distancing protocols to those same administrations.
Another reason that culture war battles are less favorable ground for the Left than battles over economic interests is simple arithmetic. The vast majority of society would benefit from left-wing policy proposals. This doesn’t guarantee that the vast majority will support them, of course — but it does make the task of winning majority support much easier.
Some polls this year showed that either a bit less than half or a bit more than half of voters who identify as Republicans support Medicare for All. If Bernie Sanders had been the nominee during a catastrophic pandemic that caused many millions of Americans to lose their employer health insurance, facing an incumbent president who bitterly opposes ending the current insurance system, it’s quite likely that the election would have been as close to single issue as presidential elections get. I suspect that many voters who saw Democrats as the party of Hollywood elites might have voted for him anyway. Of course, one of the reasons we never got a chance to find out is that he had to campaign for the Democratic nomination in an environment defined by the kind of political polarization that exists, not the kind that socialists would prefer.
And so I won’t claim to have any easy answers about how to depolarize American politics along culture war lines and repolarize along class war lines. It’s an enormous undertaking. But as steep as that path might be, it’s the only one that can get us where we need to go.