Polarisation

The polarisation of politics, particularly in the US but to lesser degrees elsewhere as well, has chewed up a lot of column space in the last few years. That's been prompted largely by the meteoric rise of the Tea Party, and the subsequent refusal of many Republican representatives to make any compromises in Washington.

I don't know about the cultural and social phenomena that might have originally seeded all this, although I was struck recently in reading a 2008 New Yorker article by this observation from conservative David Frum:
The thing I worry about most is if the Republicans lose this election—and if you’re a betting man you have to believe they will—there will be a fundamentalist reaction. Not religious—but the beaten party believes it just has to say it louder.

So whatever the reasons might be, they evidently weren't as latent and impossible-to-predict as some commentary might have us believe. In any case, I want to offer not a fundamental cause but something more cyclical which I think contributes to the increase of polarisation once it's been kicked off: the apparent loss of reasoned historical thought.



I heard some time ago about the Liberal Party club at Melbourne University handing copies of The Wealth of Nations (or some part of it) out during orientation. That troubled me, because most of the content of that book isn't really in dispute in Australia's politics. The ALP is not a Communisty party; the fact that free markets generate wealth more rapidly and effectively than other structures is broadly accepted. This means that people reading things which are uncontested because they are pretty straightforward and true, and then interpreting that straightforward truth as evidence of the inherent idiocy of the Labor Party. I don't have a specific example for the reverse situation, but it's easy to imagine the preaching or handing out of material supporting basic social justice, which (in Australia, at least!) is largely uncontroversial, being used to suggest the inhumanity of the right.

But speaking of The Wealth of Nations, how about this: that same scion of liberty and the free market, advocating the suppression of that liberty for a common good and the regulation of markets to ensure their stability. Most people who quote Adam Smith are more likely to pull out this one, also from The Wealth of Nations:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
 The reality is that most historical thinkers have far, far more nuance than the people who quote them, let alone the people who attack them, will ever give them credit for. Adam Smith was not an unrestrained economic libertarian; John Maynard Keynes never wrote that public deficits should be an indefinite feature of a national economy. Once the seeds of polarisation have been planted, however, then every time an extreme laissez-faire adherent quotes Smith, or an apologist for massive government spending refers to Keynes, their opponents associate those great thinkers with the most extreme and narrow variants of the arguments they actually made.

The effect? For someone on the left, who has only ever heard the most radical versions of laissez-faire theory and libertarianism, the idea that that philosophy - and, by virtue of Smith being lumped in with it, all the great thinkers of that side of the spectrum - is ridiculous becomes ever easier to accept. Equally someone on the right, who only hears that deficits never matter and understands Keynesianism to be in support of that view, won't accept that there is a nuanced, reasonable and well-argued position that is different from theirs.

In either case, the result is people who believe more and more that the views opposed to their own are extreme, simplistic, naive or heinous, and as a result subscribe even more rapidly and vehemently to their own views. The polarisation feeds on itself, because as long as it continues the notion that any view other than your own has even a basic level of credibility slips further and further away.

Solution? Beats me, but perhaps in the short term we should read more books.

Comments