Episode 112: How “Polarization” Discourse Flattens Power Dynamics and Says Nothing
Episode 112: How "Polarization" Discourse Flattens Power Dynamics and Says Nothing
published on "Polarization Is Dividing American Society, Not Just Politics," laments The New York Times. "The…
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Adam: Yeah, we’re doing a lot of News Briefs, some of which are on Patreon, you can definitely check that out. There’s about 50-plus of those little mini episodes so if you subscribe on Patreon you can listen to those and as always, feel free to rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast. That’s always appreciated as well.
Nima: “Polarization Is Dividing American Society, Not Just Politics,” laments The New York Times. “The Constitution Is Threatened by Tribalism,” frets The Atlantic. “American politics has reached peak polarization,” declares Vox. After the past few election cycles, and as uprisings occur throughout the country, we’ve seen endless fretting about our alleged zenith of “polarization” and “tribalism.”
Adam: The Right and the Left, we are told, have grown too radical and today lack the ability to, quote, “get things done” and, quote, “come together” with a quote, “shared reality.” It’s a superficially appealing narrative — one nostalgic for a non-specified past time of ideal consensus building and Reasonable Centrism.
Nima: But it’s also a narrative driven by a fantasy that ignores material forces that have shifted the U.S. political establishment further to the right, as the ruling political and economic class has meanwhile helped sow distrust and paranoia with decades of deadly wars, runaway and rampant inequality, lethal racism, and the failed promises of endless economic growth.
Adam: On today’s episode, we are going to explore the origins of “polarization” and “partisan tribalism” discourse, profile its biggest pushers, detail who it serves — and who it gets off the hook — and lay out why reductionist and vague “polarization” lamenting is so beloved by our media and political elite.
Nima: Later on the show we will be joined by Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic.
Osita Nwanevu: So one of the things I notice all the time, in debates about radical action, activism, is that there’s often an effort to sort of, before the fact, before you get any kind of data in on public opinion, to declare that something will be divisive, right? Before you know whether it’s actually divided the public. We see this time and time again, where the polarization discourse seems to be something that pretends to special knowledge about what people are willing to support and attempts to use that impression to sort of control political behavior and control political discourse.
Adam: Over the past roughly 10 years, you basically can’t look anywhere in media without hearing someone lament about the increase of polarization or political tribalism.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Woman #1: If you think America seems politically polarized, who better to mend the divide than a marriage counselor?
Man #1: It’s such a polarized time both then and now that there’s tribalization.
Man #2: whoever’s elected president is going to become immediately polarizing.
Man #3: I think this is a big test for how tribal our politics have become.
Man #4: More in Common is an international organization that’s devoted to understanding and combating fracturization and polarization in society.
Man #5: As we’ve talked about, sort of the rise of red and blue culture, red and blue America, tribalism…
Man #6: …Has been the rise of partisan polarization. That is the increasing ideological divide between the political parties.
Man #7: It was all a piece with the rising the rising political polarization.
Man #8: The rise of tribalism, all over the world…
Man #9: Americans have fallen prey to tribalism.
Man #10: We’re at new heights of political polarization.
Woman #2: We also have increased political tribalism at the same time.
Man #11: I’ve been hammering the media for its role in creating our climate of political polarization for years.
Woman #3: Our single greatest weakness, as a people, as a country, and as a global leader, is our profound political polarization.
[End Clip Montage]
Nima: To be “polarized” has existed as long as conflict has and its existence is, speaking very fundamentally, the product of political tensions. Yet the particular media framing that we see in the present day, one marked by patronizing finger-wagging, frustrated head-shaking, and accompanied by a general shift toward right-centrism, has a much more recent history.
Adam: One of the most useful barometers we use on this show to kind of gauge the centrist usage of a concept is The New York Times. And so the paper of record, The New York Times, if you search “political polarization” in the paper’s archives it’ll yield 650 results, the vast majority of which are in the last 10 years.
Nima: But even this cursory research is revealing. The phrase generally seems to have first surfaced in the media in the middle of the 20th century; and in The New York Times specifically, it first appears in the mid-1960s. The vast majority of examples, from the mid-‘60s through the early ‘90s, use the term in reference to the fraught politics in countries other than the United States, namely Latin American countries like Chile, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and usually to justify the violent American action in those places.
Adam: There are about a dozen articles on Chile that use the term “political polarization” in the early ‘70s to discredit the former socialist president of Chile at the time, Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in a 1973 coup led by the British and the Americans. The New York Times said in April of 1974, quote:
It is generally acknowledged…that deterioration in the Chilean court system began during the Allende years. Although the country has had one of the strongest legal traditions in Latin America, the courts were drawn into the political polarization between Marxists and anti‐Marxists that was evident throughout Chilean society during Dr. Allende’s presidency.
Then The New York Times again in 1989 said, quote, “After three years of inflation and political polarization, Mr. Allende, a left-wing socialist, was deposed in a bloody coup.”
So the people who are trying to redistribute wealth and the fascists who are seen as stopping them are sort of presented as moral equals who are simply polarizing society.
Nima: Similarly, the Times featured over a dozen articles that use the term “political polarization” to minimize the destruction of the U.S.-backed right-wing Contras attempting to stifle the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. So this from a March 9, 1981 edition of The New York Times, quote:
Even before Washington charged Nicaragua with allowing its territory to be used for transshipment of weapons from Cuba to Salvadoran guerrillas, the regime was already struggling with growing political polarization and economic troubles at home.
But, while this usage continued throughout the ‘80s, by the mid-‘90s, the term “political polarization” was more commonly applied to domestic politics here in the U.S., cemented with the presidential tenure of George W. Bush in the early 2000s and adopting a more ostensibly scientific or academic tone.
Adam: A 2019 New York Times opinion piece by three political scientists estimated that the number of stories about polarization in the media had grown 20 percent since the year 2000. 2002 saw the release of the Yale University Press book Partisan Hearts and Minds: Political Parties and the Social Identities of Voters, authored by political scientists at Yale, Harvard, and UC Berkeley. The book argued that people form partisan attachments in early adulthood, and that those attachments tend to never change. In June of 2004, Times columnist David Brooks called political polarization, quote, “the dominant feature of our political life” and celebrated the book for positing that quote, “politics is a tribal business.” And David Brooks, as you may know, has since rewritten this article about 8,000 times. In 2005, The Washington Post also ran a story headlined, quote, “Partisan Polarization Intensified in 2004 Election,” which it claimed continued, quote, “a trend that has defined voting behavior for most of the past decade and that has left the two major parties increasingly homogenized and partisan.”
Now to be clear, as we will discuss with our guest, there’s indications that the parties themselves have become more clearly ideologically distinct. So, for the longest time you had liberal Republicans, you had conservative or racist Democrats, you had liberal Democrats and it wasn’t really until the mid-‘70s to the ’80s that you really saw the kind of ideological shift that began during the civil rights movement when Democrats in the South fled to the Republican Party in the wake of civil rights legislation that was supported by Democratic politicians like Lyndon Johnson. But it didn’t really codify or cement really until all the liberals left the Republican Party when Reagan took over in 1980, that sort of coup began in 1976 during the Republican National Convention there, and then from there you can sort of empirically show that there is more polarization in the sense that the parties are more clearly, distinctly divided whereas before you had polarization but it was cross party lines in many ways. When we’re talking about polarization and ideological differences, we are 100 percent, and when all these people are talking about this, they are 100 percent talking about domestic issues, e.g. we’re not talking about the almost uniform decades-long bipartisan consensus when it comes to what we call quote-unquote “foreign policy” which is really about U.S. imperialism, the war machine, sanction regimes, that which harms the poor.
Nima: Somehow we’re not polarized when it comes to that, we’re all right in line and together and unified.
Adam: Just to clarify the terms of the debate, when we talk about ideological polarization, we were talking about what pertains to Americans, specifically middle-class white Americans.
Nima: And also the term “polarization” tends to not just mean division, right? It’s not just that there are some people who are more conservative in some liberal, but that the polarized nature means that as the parties and as voters become more and more attuned to what the other side thinks, they become more entrenched in what their side is, right? So, there’s a real sort of center of gravity that isn’t rather in the center, but that is at each pole, and that there’s the constant revolving around as far apart as possible, which is the thing that is lamented by the media. Were we to actually have a center of gravity that was quote-unquote “centrist” — which, as we know, is not really centrist and is really pretty far right in terms of an ideological scale — but that is really what the media is talking about, and fretting over all the time. The fact that not only are voters divided, but they get more and more divided as time goes on and nowhere in our modern political history has the yearning for bipartisanship, rather than increasing polarization, been more heavily leaned into then during the rise of Obama and the subsequent Obama administration, bipartisanship, of course one of Obama’s pet rhetorical crutches, that was, you know, leveraged throughout his tenure, but even before the election, we saw this, you know, appeal for coming together in the media. So you have, for instance, The Boston Globe in mid-June 2008 with this article, “Division Street,” it was headlined with the subhead, “Mining the data, a sociologist contends that the American electorate is moving to extremes.” And this from the article, quote:
Ideological and political polarization, according to journalist and blogger Bill Bishop, is now the norm. In ‘a kind of self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing social division,’ he argues in ‘The Big Sort,’ Americans have formed homogenous groups, cocooned in neighborhoods, cities, and counties. These quiet revolutionaries have changed the economy, built up and emptied out cities, transformed institutions of faith and fellowship, and established two tribes, with remarkably coherent beliefs on issues ranging from abortion to gay marriage to taxes to national defense. Following their lead, politicians have stopped trying to bring people with vastly different values and backgrounds together in national community.
Adam: Yeah, this was sort of in response to the kind of polarization narrative you had the kind of counter narrative, which is what Obama personified, of course, his first major speech he gave in 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, when the Democrats nominated John Kerry, he did this kind of post racial, post ideological, just dripping with non stop platitudes. He said, quote:
The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
And so already he was sort of cementing the seed, which of course later propelled him to the White House, that he was going to sort of bring the polar opposites together. Now, of course, this ended up being a massive ideological mistake, because it turns out that the Republican Party is full of a bunch of racist demagogues.
Nima: Yeah, super racist. So they don’t really care about those platitudes, because he’s black.
Adam: And a bunch of maximalist, libertarian psychos, who have no interest in coming to terms with them because they don’t like poor people and black people, which again, the whole, ‘heal the divide,’ anti-polarization rhetoric, ultimately ends up being a very conservative charge because you’re not appealing to a counter-narrative or appealing to something to counter the extremism of the Republican Party, you’re simply arguing against a, you’re shadowboxing against a fictitious Republican Party that wants to come together and that everyone sort of imagines as sort of this John McCain figure who sort of vaguely existed but even wasn’t really, he himself was very partisan in many ways and in fact, the ultimate liberal cosplay of West Wing, who is the great Republican they go up against? It’s a John McCain carveout, because this is how you keep the Democratic Party from becoming a left-wing party.
Nima: Because we’re always almost just getting together in the middle to realize that we’re all just kind of the same, and that we all almost think exactly the same, which is simply not true.
Adam: And I think it’s important to talk about what we mean when we talk about when people say the sort of agreed upon center, and we’ll go into some of the studies later, and this is ultimately what they come up with, which is how you sort of smuggle in an ideological product of effectively what the kind of New York Times, Wall Street, socially liberal, but you still want Grandma to eat tuna cans and you’re not really going to do anything about systemic racism and you certainly don’t want universal healthcare but you don’t want the kind of vulgarities that come along with social conservatives and the kind of sort of gauche, you certainly don’t want Trumpism, and that’s really what they mean by that.
Nima: Right, which is reveling in the brutality, reveling in that cruelty.
Adam: Which is kind of what Obama’s candidacy was. Yeah, it was a fiscally conservative, socially liberal, we’ll say pretty words but get nothing done, not really offer a meaningful left wing alternative to the right’s sort of maximalists death cult and that’s kind of what the purpose of this, this constant motif of polarization is.
Nima: And so you see, even after the rise of the Tea Party, you know, explicitly astroturfed and racist movement, that the media is still hand wringing over polarization, they really want people to get together and so you have The News Journal, which is published in Wilmington, Delaware, this is in August of 2010, published an article with this headline, quote, “As political polarization rises, bipartisanship gains importance,” and it opens like this, quote:
Political polarization has risen, the economy is shaky and some states are on the brink of fiscal collapse.
In the fifth ‘How We’re Doing’ Index, a team of scholars at the Brookings Institution has looked at the past five quarters to ascertain what factors might trigger a major shakeup in November.
It does not bode well for incumbents that as of mid-July, only 25 percent of American say they are satisfied with the state of the country. Political polarization remains extremely high: There is an astounding 69-percentage point difference between Republican and Democratic approval of President Barack Obama’s performance.
Adam: This kind of polarization fetishism really reached, I think, its peak, in October of 2010 when Jon Stewart hosted the Rally to Restore Sanity, and in the promo for the Rally to Restore Sanity, we can’t play the clip because it’s a visual, but Jon Stewart laments about the extremes of the political process and he shows a clip of a gun toting Tea Partier, and then cuts to a Code Pink protester and this is kind of the ultimate false equivalency, right? These are the sort of two extremes and then the goal, of course, was not to push the left agenda —
Nima: That they’re both equally kind of kooky and nuts.
Adam: That the problem with the far right Tea Party wasn’t that they were racist or astroturfed, or climate denialists necessarily, it’s that they weren’t sane, that they weren’t rational, and that what you counter it with is not a competing moral vision of the universe, but is a sort of appeal to being increasingly more smart and more rational, that’s a sort of separate theme we’ll touch at some point, but it’s important to note that the sort of constant refrain that we need to stop being so polarized, kind of implies, again, aside from the false equivalency, sort of implies that there’s this nebulous, non polarized ideology we can push and if the Obama years taught us anything, it’s that that’s not true, that even the most rational, most sober, most polite, most respectability politics Democratic President is nominated they’re going to still call them socialist Nazi Hitler Satan. So, sort of disproved that, like sanity didn’t really get us anywhere and in fact, in many ways, it sort of exposed the, I should say portended the failures of liberal polarization discourse.
Nima: You can also really see through the entire concept of the Rally to Restore Sanity when you realize that Kid Rock was hailed as someone that could bring people together. It’s like, oh, yeah, okay, so who were they looking to counter? And it was this like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin stuff and yet their answer was still appealing to people that are extremely bigoted and have since proven themselves to really not be those who can “bring us together” quote-unquote.
Adam: And the rise of Trump, of course, brought this back in full display because again, if I’m a centrist, if I’m a moderate Republican or a corporate Democrat, and then Trump emerges, and this is the take that’s been done to death, which is equating Trump with Sanders or equating with Corbyn or equating treating Trump with the far left, that I want to kill two birds with one stone. ‘I don’t have a problem with Trump, I have a problem with polarization and he represents, he’s sort of a subset of some broader moral failing, that is polarization. He is not himself representative of a current streak of right wing ideology or fascist ideology embedded in the American culture or Fox News but he is in fact, a perverse extreme of existing polarization tendencies,’ which, as you may be surprised to learn, have a psychological component, which we’ll get into in a second, but we saw this, of course, gets lumped in with populism, which is sort of seen as the vehicle of polarization, which we talked about in Episode 42, which just like polarization is a sort of power flattering, ideology flattening, sort of dummy concept that people who are paid lots of money, have Harvard fellowships or think tanks or big nonprofits, they kind of need to talk about politics, but don’t have much to say, and they don’t want to piss off their billionaire donors, but they also sort of hate Trump. So what you end up with is you end up filling space with this real sort of dumb dumb stuff about polarization and populism, and it’s a good living if you’re a social scientist or a political scientist, you can make a good living, constantly lamenting about this kind of vaguely apolitical force of polarization populism, tribalism, et cetera.
Nima: The game has kind of given away when you realize that over time, everyone has been called polarizing. In 2012, in a Washington Post piece written by — who else? — Chris Cillizza, along with Aaron Blake, they call Obama, quote, “the most polarizing president. Ever,” and say this, quote, “For believers in bipartisanship, the next nine months are going to be tough sledding, as the already-gaping partisan divide between the two parties will only grow as the 2012 election draws nearer.” End quote.
You have this idea that Obama is the most polarizing and now! — who is now the most polarizing? — without ever investigating what is driving those movements to what is thought of in the media as the margins, right? So away from this agreed upon Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Joe Lieberman centrism, which is just right-wing conservatism, if not worse, and refusing to actually analyze what the two poles stand form, two alleged poles right stand for, believe in, what they believe the solutions to our historical systemic and current issues may be, what brought us to this place? Because without investigating that, it just winds up being this, ‘Oh, man, why can’t we just have someone that everyone agrees on like Joe Biden everyone and then we’ll be fine and that’s really what the country needs’ as opposed to really figuring out what the fuck we’re talking about here.
Adam: Because polarization, like populism, has no moral agent, there’s no specific person you’re criticizing, it’s just this nebulous force that happens except for like foreign actors, right? Cause foreign actors can sow polarization or sow discord, but there’s never any sense that there’s a primary mover, a domestic primary mover, far right, corporate, ideological interests that have every incentive to drive the Republican Party as far to the right as they possibly can and then when Democrats say, ‘Well, actually, that’s way too far,’ then suddenly, ‘Oh, gosh, we’re so polarized’ and there’s no sense of sort of who drew first blood.
Nima: Why aren’t you trying to understand where they’re coming from, Adam?
Adam: When you saw the rise of Trump, you saw this again and again, The Atlantic, “What’s the Answer to Political Polarization in the U.S.?” March 2016. US News and World Report March 2017, “Is Social Media to Blame for Political Polarization in America?” Brookings Institute, November 2017, “Tech Empowers, Tech Polarizes.” The Atlantic, October 2017, “America’s Political Divide Intensified During Trump’s First Year as President.” Washington Post, November 2017, “How polarization and splintered media are fostering a world of doubt.” Washington Post, March 2018, “Trump’s election has polarized Americans’ views of the future.” Washington Post, January 2019, “Trump is the most polarizing president on record — and almost nobody’s opinion of him is changing.”
Nima: Yeah, it’s a great go-to, right? And so to kind of bring it to the most current day, you know, as best as we can, we see this discourse applied not only to presidential politics, but also to actual popular uprisings in the street. Just this month, June 2, 2020 in The Washington Post, you have this, quote, “Why the U.S. protests matter to the world,” and it says this:
Then there’s the fact that Trump’s brand of ultranationalism more readily maps onto the growing divisions in other countries, with the U.S. president having explicitly made common cause with far-right movements in Europe. Animus toward Trump’s America can be a vehicle for domestic grievances, too.
‘It’s significant that Trumpism is part of a broader transnational movement,’ said Georgetown University political scientist Daniel Nexon during a webinar on Monday. ‘U.S. political polarization is now aligned with politics elsewhere.’
Adam: Right. It’s not a failure of neoliberal capitalism, it’s this vague, seemingly random tendency towards polarization.
Nima: Right. Well, and that appeals to those outside the United States rather than having it be a product of differing ideologies here in this country and so, you know, the same week, early June 2020, The New York Times had this article, quote, “Misinformation About George Floyd Protests Surges on Social Media,” which said this, quote:
The collision of racial tensions and political polarization during the coronavirus pandemic has supersized the misinformation, researchers said. Much of it is being shared by the conspiracy group QAnon and far-right commentators as well as by those on the left, Mr. Brookie said.
Brookie, referred to here in The New York Times piece, is Graham Brookie, of the Atlantic Council’s “disinformation” arm, the Digital Forensic Research Lab. Remember Atlantic Council, funded by your favorite Gulf dictatorships, oil companies and weapons contractors.
Adam: NPR of course jumped on this with their, “‘None Of This Is True’: Protests Become Fertile Ground for Online Disinformation.” This is now the go-to meta story when there’s problems in the U.S., you spend a lot of resources not talking about how to fix the problems or how to address the existential issues of the problems but you’ve read a lot about how online disinformation is fueling them, the implication is to delegitimize those grievances. Now some people say it’s not or we’re just concerned — bullshit. On a systemic level, the goal is to delegitimize the grievances and to make it look like these things are being fueled by foreign enemies. NPR said quote, “The intense polarization of the moment is fertile ground for online disinformation campaigns.” The polarization again draws false moral equivalency between those who are pro-killing black people and those who are anti-killing black people as sort of things that are just polarized, stripping it of all kinds of moral content and Ezra Klein, of course, Ezra Klein will be the subject of our interview, Ezra Klein is probably the number one pusher of this insipid polarization discourse. In Vox his article was, quote, “America at the breaking point: The social upheaval of the 1960s meets the political polarization and institutional dysfunction of the present.” He opened up with a summary of the violence in the 1960s by flattening power dynamics and glibly listing police violence and MLK’s assassination, along with riots that, quote, “set cities of flame” unquote. Then he states, quote, “But there was one thing the 1960s had, that we, today, do not: a political system designed to absorb conflict and find consensus, or at least stability.”
Nima: Which is probably news to anyone who was following politics in the 1960s. (Laughs.)
Adam: Yeah I’m not exactly sure I know what, I think it has something to do with —
Nima: The whole world is watching us hold hands together.
Adam: He’s trying to jam a current event into the thesis of his book, which we’ll critique in our interview later on, but suffice to say this is not a very meaningful political contribution to the discourse. It’s all meta critiques. You’re not critiquing the thing itself, you’re critiquing the narrative, which is how you avoid talking about the real issues at hand.
Nima: Well, right, and that’s the thing that, you know, so now the political polarization that is making these uprisings even more fraught is that it’s Trump’s America, and that that’s the issue, as if in the ‘60s it being Kennedy or Johnson, or then, you know, Nixon’s America somehow was better, more bipartisan, when actually the issue is racism is systemic, structural, historical, embedded, entrenched, foundational racism and that is not really discussed, I mean, Klein’s article about “America at the breaking point,” barely mentions police rioting against protesters. I think there’s one mention of it in the article. So, clearly, it’s about shifting the discourse to talk about what is happening at a federal leadership level rather than entrenched systems that actually need dismantling.
Adam: So we’d be remiss of course, not mentioned that much of this hinges on a lot of pop psychology. Much of Ezra Klein’s work and some of the other polarization work effectively says that polarization is sort of hardwired in or partly hardwired into the human condition. And this was exemplified by Obama’s UN speech on political polarization, and is also coupled with the concept of tribalism, something that in the context of major American media is never really defined, but sort of denotes identification on the basis of ideological similarities. Notions of tribalism have been given some scientific veneer based on questionable studies. So the kind of landmark, holy grail of studies about polarization of late came out in October of 2018, it’s called, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” and it was written by four social scientists who are fellows or members of this organization called More in Common, which we’ll get into in a second, this includes Steven Hawkins — not Hawking the astrophysicist, but Stephen Hawkins — Daniel Yudkin, Miriam Juan-Torres and Tim Dixon. In this study, which was 160 pages long, relies heavily on a lot of self-identification and basically, it spends a long time saying that the extreme left and extreme conservative right in the middle, there’s what they call “the exhausted center.”
This is sort of people who tune out of news and social media because it’s too polarizing and that this exhaust of center is actually where, their sort of prescriptive part, where politicians should attempt to reach, that there’s these people who are sort of moderate and kind of come together. And the piece sort of avoids messy ideological issues, largely because the goal is to sort of pathologize what they view as extreme ideology so it’s a sort of moral failing versus something you actually truly believe in. And The New Yorker jumped on this, “A New Report Offers Insights Into Tribalism in the Age of Trump,” which sort of uncritically repeats the More in Common study.
The More in Common study is basically a product of the Skoll Foundation. The Skoll Foundation was created by Jeffrey Skoll, an eBay billionaire who sort of does liberal causes, a lot of this anti-Trump resistance stuff, but is very much like most billionaires, sort of center punching left, think tank world. One of the authors of the piece, Stephen Hawkins, his biography reads he, quote, “has a background in measuring and advising on public opinion for political candidates, Fortune 100 companies such as Microsoft and Ford, and public sector organizations such the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and UNHCR.” One of the other authors, Tim Dixon, he also works at the Skoll Foundation, he’s constantly boosting David Brooks, The Economist, the sort of center-center-right, industry of worrying about polarization as such, without any indication as to what we’re really striving for, so the point of politics is to kind of push an agenda to win but it’s not really sure what that agenda is and the the sort of nut graph of the study I think is worth reading because it says a lot without saying anything at all. It reads, quote:
It is difficult to break this cycle of polarization. Tribal outrage works as a business model for social media, cable television and talk radio. It succeeds where redistricting has shifted the political contest from the center ground in general elections to the mobilized base in primary campaigns. It is metastasizing from national politics and online forums to campuses, workplaces and the dinner table at Thanksgiving. The well-documented result is that growing numbers of Americans are segregated into echo chambers where they are exposed to fewer alternative ideas, and fed a constant stream of stories that reinforce their tribal narratives. Over time, this environment spawns increasing extremism, as start-up initiatives from political campaigns to new media outlets seek to out compete established players through ideological purity and aggression.
Again, one extreme is correct, one extreme genocidal. One extreme says ‘We need basic human rights, universal healthcare, respect minorities, trans people, gay people, these people are human beings,’ the other side says, No they’re not human beings, they’re not really important.’ And it would seem that if that’s the case, that you would want to side with a group that’s fighting for basic humanity, rather than obsessing over, I guess, coming to a compromise that will give 30 percent of these people their basic humanity, and will give, will fight for the other 70 percent and there’s a whole ecosystem of this anti-populist, anti-polarization social sciences, you read a whole study, a whole 160 page study, and you come out of it, and I have no fucking idea what they’re actually arguing for. It’s not clear to me what they’re arguing for, other than shaping our politics around the lowest common denominator and if that’s the case, then let’s just replace Congress with fucking AI.
Nima: Well, I think that would be a lot of what these studies would prefer, at least their funders, you know, I think that no one does this better than, as you mentioned earlier Adam, Ezra Klein of Vox.com. He has a new book out, which was published just in time for a pandemic and uprising, in January of this year — 2020 — the book is called Why We’re Polarized and while we will talk more about this with our guest, New Republic staff writer, Osita Nwanevu, we do want to point out that in this book, we just want to kind of set this up, in this book, Klein argues that U.S. politics really, quote, “polarized around identity” end quote, in the 20th century, and that people should be less invested in national politics, rather, that they should be more invested in say, state or local politics, simply because at the national level politics are just too inflammatory. But I think the current uprisings around the country right now show how far engagement in state and local politics actually can get us. Democratic governors and mayors are calling for the National Guard at times, right? And in these Democratic politician run cities, we are seeing cops be as cruel, vicious and violent as they want to be and yet Klein, in his book, which admittedly came out before the current state, and yet it has been this way for a while, Klein writes this, quote:
Human beings evolved to exist in groups. To be part of a group, and to see that group thrive, meant survival. To be exiled from a group or to see our group crushed by its enemies, could mean death. Is it really so strange that we evolved to feel the life and death stakes of group belonging and status?
Now, the thing about this, though, is that when you look outside the borders of the United States, this analysis is different — that Americans are seen as being innately partisanship because of caveman tribal identity — and in other countries where there are, say, multi party systems, they don’t have that same analysis. They don’t suffer from Trumpism in the same way, unless you look at, you know, Trump-esc figures which are always kind of grouped with Trump like your Boris Johnson or say Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Orban or India’s Modi, and so they’re kind of grouped together in this neofascist analysis but the idea that a polarized American public has everything to do with innate human characteristics actually undermines that there are political ideologies at stake, which kind of undermines the entire idea of this analysis in general.
Adam: Yeah, because really, it’s, and we’ll get into this with Osita, because he makes this point in his review in The New Republic, that the whole thing is based on an obvious contradiction, which is that it is both uniquely American problem, but both hardwired as humans, both of those things can’t be true. And there are real material forces in the United States as to why we have an extremist right wing party that gets further and further to the right, as does the Democratic Party, minus a few issues, and there isn’t a sense of and of course, there’s no account for the fact that “foreign policy” quote-unquote, is not tribal at all. Wild consensus when Trump bombs Iran, you know, total consensus when Trump sanctions and kills 40,000 Venezuelans, uniform consensus, no polarization at all. And it just seems like Ezra Klein grew up in a political blogging atmosphere where he was the wonk blog guy, right? He spent 2003, 2004, he’s roughly my age, so he was at that point in college, he was this sort of prodigy kid who self identifies as a sort of West Wing liberal who viewed politics as a game. He viewed it as something that was sort of a sport. He was sort of vaguely liberal, but it was all about the smartest best policy and we got to listen to Paul Ryan because he, you know, he stated his Ts and crossed his Is and he’s really fit and got the right bar graphs, and I checked the numbers and then and then it was like, he gets to this point, you know, he’s handed $200 million by Comcast to run Vox, this, you know, political vertical, and he doesn’t really have anything to say, he has nothing to contribute to this moment because he’s not lobbying for some vision of the world. He has no apparent ideology other than status quo fetishizing or resume humping and so what’s he going to talk about? He’s going to do what all the people do who get paid money, or work in academic departments doing politics, when they don’t really have anything to say, which is you start working on the meta, you start working the refs, you start complaining about how politics manifest rather than the goal of politics.
Nima: Right. Which is why you have, you know, Klein writing right when his book was coming out in January of this year, an article, quote, “Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, but Republicans Don’t,” in which Klein writes this:
Democrats can’t win running the kinds of campaigns and deploying the kinds of tactics that succeed for Republicans. They can move to the left — and they are — but they can’t abandon the center or, given the geography of American politics, the center-right, and still hold power.
Adam: Yeah, I mean, this is the kind of reductionist poll reading nonsense that passes as political insight. He said the same thing in 2016 and they lost. You can just be wrong over and over again but go to the center to win elections is like, people pay this guy millions of dollars to come up with this analysis, I mean, this is boilerplate, poli-sci 101 crap, you know, when you write an essay, even in high school, like this is not an original insight. He just kind of jams together a bunch of pop psychology and pop science and says like, ‘Oh, lo and behold, the Democrats need to do the thing that aligns with my ideology of centrism.’ So it’s like, I don’t know, the whole thing is just a bunch of white noise and when we set out to work in this episode, there’s no great gotcha in this episode. It’s just a lot of real kind of flat, dumb-dumb stuff. It’s just talking about politics without talking about politics.
Nima: So to talk more about politics without talking about politics, we are going to be joined by Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Osita Nwanevu. Osita, it’s great to have you back on Citations Needed. Thanks for coming on today.
Osita Nwanevu: Thanks for having me.
Adam: So I want to begin by sort of laying out the argument of the too much polarization crowd and sort of try to be as fair as we can to them, namely, the patron saint of that crowd, Ezra Klein, whose book you reviewed for The New Republic. In your excellent review, which I actually found to be quite kind, you make the case that the broader argument of polarization is sort of founded on kind of dubious pop science and in many ways a kind of circular pathologizing where we sort of start from the sort of mind if you will, and then we work backwards to then sort of reverse engineer the material. What is Ezra Klein’s sort of primary argument — I know it’s hard to generalize — what is the primary argument and where do you generally think it kind of falls short?
Osita Nwanevu: So to continue being kind, is my habit to do, a good place to start would just acknowledge that polarization as you described, is a real kind of phenomena. There is this big gulf between Democrats and Republicans, liberals, conservatives, not only their political beliefs but in the way they understand political reality, that’s, I think, everybody’s impression just engaging in or observing politics but, you know, there’s data to support that. You can look at the different responses people had to the Coronavirus crisis and how seriously they took it. You can look at how, you know, people are less willing to have their family members or themselves interact with people who disagree with them politically, that’s all like a real kind of thing and so Klein tries to unpack this and understand what the roots are and where he basically lands is in a very sort of deep prodigious literature on political psychology, basically, people who’ve spent a lot of time trying to pin our political allegiances, our political differences to aspects of our brains. One part of this is how he talks about the literature on openness and closeness, there are people, supposedly, who are just sort of predisposed to trying new things, learning new things and going new places and those people tend to be liberal and there are people who are more conservative in their tastes and habits and those people tend to be conservative. And so this is one of the things that leads him to believe that, okay, if these habits are sort of hardwired into our brains, if they correlate with our politics, that means that these structures internal to us as individuals that shape who we are politically and on top of that there are forces also within our brains that make us attracted to groups that make us want to sort of bond together with people who are like us and that’s sort of the germinating seed in his theory of polarization, that there’s something that’s going on all of our heads that over the course of the past couple decades in American politics is really sort of driven by big political divisions that we’ve seen. As I think I mentioned in the piece that literature is kind of interesting in the way that Myers-Briggs stuff is vaguely interesting, like astrology is vaguely interesting.
Nima: (Laughs.) Right.
Osita Nwanevu: There are all kinds of complications that you can think about immediately. One of the things I mentioned in the piece is there’s a section where he talks about, again the literature on openness and conservatives, actually I have the passage here, I can quote from it.
‘The job of the conservative,’ wrote National Review founder William F. Buckley, ‘is to stand and thwart history yelling, Stop.’ You can see that might appeal to a person who mistrusts change, appreciate tradition, and seeks order. That kind of person might also prefer living in a small town nearer to family, going to a church deeply rooted in ritual, celebrating at restaurants they already know and love. You can see the tethering of personal habits to politics in that crowd.
And, you know, while it is certainly true that there are a lot of ways in which conservatives are superficially respectful of tradition and sort of talk about small towns and all this, National Review is a magazine based in New York City, William F. Buckley spoke multiple languages. Not many superficial distinctions you could make between people who wrote for that magazine, and still write for that magazine, the sort of upper-class liberal commentators, if you’re just sort of looking at them as people and the kinds of things they do and engage in, but there’s obviously still this ideological division. On the flip side, there are a lot of consistently liberal Democrats who go to church a lot and really love churches and institutions and are deeply religious. This is often something you can say about the African American community, Latino community, they might have socially conservative attitudes about certain things, but broadly speaking, they’re among the more liberal sections of the population. So like right there in that sort of very simple, taking a step back, you come to understand things are a lot more complicated than he lays them out to be.
Nima: So one of the things you note in your writing, Osita, is that on its face this is pretty illogical that the current state of American politics is a product of human nature simply and you write in your piece, quote, “If an intense tendency toward group formation and identification is an inescapable fact of human nature, shouldn’t it loom large not only over politics in the United States, but over politics everywhere.” End quote. So, why are Americans polarized in a way that adheres to the inner workings of our brain or psyches or biology and yet, this is something you can write about the American populace, but maybe not so much, it’s not as translatable elsewhere where you’re not reading about, quote-unquote “polarization” the same way. So it seems like a pretty compelling gotcha that you get to kind of pull on Ezra, can you talk about how maybe other countries outside the U.S. mix up this reductive pop psychology that is very popular with the Ezra Kleins out there? Like how do other countries’ politics kind of fuck this up?
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t write that section as an expert on European politics, I just sort of had this kind of background knowledge that the American political system looks very, very different from what you see in other Western democracies in places like France, in places like Germany, other developed democracies in Europe, you have multi party systems where in order to get anything done, you have these coalitions forming between a jumble of different parties, and it just doesn’t seem like you have the kind of very, very tight, almost spiritually meaningful relationship with those smaller parties that people do have here with the Democratic Party and Republican Party. You know, I don’t know that there are that many people in France, talking about epic cutbacks that Emmanuel Macron is making or sort of are that deeply invested as a part of their personal identity, they can’t really be because that was a party that was created, if I’m not mistaken, just a couple of years ago, and sort of swept the French political scene. So I had expected a little bit of discussion about this in the book, something to say that this isn’t just a pattern that holds true United States but look at X or Y example in this other country where you can see the same kinds of tendencies shaping their politics, but there really is no discussion of any country beyond the United States in this book, which I found really kind of surprising, given how elemental he’s saying these forces are.
Nima: But don’t you know that Americans are a different species than the rest of the world?
Osita Nwanevu: I guess so.
Adam: Yeah, that would muddy things up a little bit. So one of the things I think we find uniquely grading about this posture, at least I do personally, I think I can speak for Nima, but —
Nima: Sure, why not? It’s been a while.
Adam: When Ezra Klein launched Vox, two of the first interviews he did — I think it may have been the first two, well after Bill Gates, the big sponsor was Walmart — their first interview was with Cass Sunstein, and it was about conspiracy theories, and how you stop conspiracy theories, right? And the second interview was with Steven Pinker, it was about how the world’s getting really great and how we need to create news that makes people know that and there’s this thing they do, which is that they sort of just get past the really interesting and rich and morally complex political questions of what is a conspiracy theory? That’s a really fascinating topic, who decides what’s a conspiracy theory? Are notions of conspiracy related to power? You know, is the world getting better? These sort of deep questions that I find fascinating, Ezra Klein doesn’t give a shit. He just skips right past them, and goes straight to the sort of pathologizing. Everyone who doesn’t agree with Ezra Klein is not wrong, they’re just cranks, they’re sort of psychologically deficient and I find this a kind of very anti-intellectual exercise. He does seem to be very deeply incurious and deeply, not very cynical, and one of the things I like about your writing is that you read right through Republican bullshit, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s obviously not true.’ Whereas Ezra Klein, of course, spent half of his career and one of the reasons he got to start a $200, $300 million media company, was that he was Paul Ryan’s waterboy, effectively. He sort of seems deeply incurious about what’s under the surface. And I want to talk about that anti-intellectualism and why is it so popular. Is it popular because it sort of just reinforces ruling class ideology or is it just kind of fun to sort of assume everyone who doesn’t agree with neoliberal pluralistic capitalism is just fucking nuts?
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah. So this is something I’ve thought about a good bit, actually in direct relation to Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan emerges as this patron saint of deficits. Deficits have long been — or had long been, when he was still around as a political figure — the thing that you would talk about in political discourse that would mark you as a serious person, there was no obvious, the partisan valence as it was presented was not that strong, you could be a Democrat who was very into deficits as a problem that was affecting, so you’re a Republican you say the same thing. But it was this kind of discourse where your enemy was our own political habits, you could say that you are a responsible person who unlike most Americans was really thinking about how much spending was going to cost us and every American should just sort of develop a more realistic understanding of our limitations and buck up and sort of constrain their understanding what politics should be about. I think polarization occupies exactly the same kind of space. There is this appeal to the same kind of person, kind of technocratic mentality where you are isolating a particular thing that doesn’t really seem to implicate anybody in particular, but it does sort of implicate the populace and sort of tries to make people feel guilty for believing in definitive political outcomes, if that makes sense. I feel like it’s a discourse that follows a lot of the same rhetorical patterns, it’s a discourse that appears a lot of the same places — The Atlantic, New York Times op-ed page — I guess, now that I think the credibility of sort of deficit hawkery has sort of eroded or dissolved —
Adam: I hope so.
Osita Nwanevu: This becomes the kind of thing you talk about in that kind of smarmy tone, to mark yourself as a sort of responsible adult and I think it marks too, I should say, it dovetails too with the turn towards cultural politics and the culture wars, right? The deficit discourse was something that was still tethered to a robust sort of set of fights about domestic policy and actual policymaking and now that we have this kind of cultural war and meta-discourse all the time, you need something else that fulfills the same role for the kinds of debates we are increasingly having about race and about gender and about identity politics and the big move, if you want to mark yourself out as, you know, a responsible pundit and a thought leader is to put yourself above the fray with this new polarization discourse.
Adam: Yeah, and we sort of have accidentally develop a sort of vertical on the show, which I’m sort of beginning to call anti-politics, but things like discourse around populism discourse around civility, discourse around electability, the sort of pundit brain, discourse around purity politics, it’s all kind of refereeing. You’re not really making normative claims, or first principle claims about the way the world ought to be, you’re kind of just like managing discourse. And the problem with this, as we’ve talked about numerous times is that normies and average media consumers begin to internalize that.
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true.
Nima: Well, right, because when you’re talking about that all the time, that becomes the thing that replaces actual policy or actual politics or actual ideology. So then it is just this kind of talking about what people are talking about, rather than actually talking about things. And so, you know, like, this kind of argument, this idea that we’re hardwired and that polarization is this natural order of things that is not tethered to policies, it’s not tethered to realities, lived experience that can, you know, be adaptable and changing, thinking about that, and that being published in the pages of Vox or The Atlantic or The Times or wherever, that’s really in stark contrast to what we’re seeing right now in the midst of a multi city uprising fighting back against white supremacy, against police brutality, so Ezra Klein goes on Twitter and basically talks about the rioters, quote-unquote, “rioters,” at these protests and how they, as distinct say from other demonstrators, are irrational and illiberal zealots, right? And so it’s not really clear what the purpose or utility of this kind of analysis is other than reducing ideological differences to, again, these kinds of hardwired frailties, and therefore delegitimizing, potentially, I’d say, justifiable anger. Osita, can you kind of talk about how this meta narrative around polarization or tribalism, what does this look like to you in the midst of these uprisings, in the midst of these protests?
Osita Nwanevu: So one of the things I notice all the time, in debates about radical action, activism, is that there’s often an effort to sort of, before the fact, before you get any kind of data in on public opinion, to declare that something will be divisive, right? Before you know whether it’s actually divided the public. So, you know, when we saw the initial protests in Minneapolis, and the vandalism, property damage and looting and all of that alongside the peaceful protesters, there was a wave of people who were very sure that all of this was going to turn off a large section of the public, that was going to alienate people, it was going to harm the cause and that people were going to sort of move away from thinking about George Floyd to criticize the protesters. We now have actual information on what the public thinks and that’s not true at all, the majority of the American public is clearly with the protesters. They understand why they’re out there, they support them. We see this time and time again, where the polarization discourse seems to be something that pretends to special knowledge about what people are willing to support, and attempts to use that impression to sort of control political behavior and control political discourse. I wrote about this in another case, for another piece about the protests, I was thinking back to the caravan discourse, if you remember that back before the midterm elections. You had people like David Frum at The Atlantic saying, ‘Well, if you don’t denounce the caravan, if you don’t make a show of saying you’re going to get serious at the border, you’re just going to convince the American people that you’re at one end of this polarized extreme and you’re extremist just like Trump and people really want to see hardheaded, realistic solutions, that means you say you’re going to turn away the caravan and you make a big deal out of it.’ Now, thankfully, I don’t think most Democrats adopted that approach and they did pretty well in the midterm elections in spite of it, but you see this again and again and again, where you have people who think because they have particular views on what people should substantively support, they will try to launder their opinions by claiming that the great American middle is actually exactly where they are —
Osita Nwanevu: And it has exactly their preferences.
Osita Nwanevu: And so if you don’t want to alienate them by being a polarized extremist, sort of do what I recommend, do what I say.
Adam: On the show, we call that the Bill Maher.
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Nima: Well, right.
Adam: Where you have bigoted views and you don’t want to say ‘I believe this’ you say, ‘Look, Joe Six Pack in the middle of Schenectady, or whatever Weehawken is not going to like this’—
Nima: Right. Like, ‘I don’t really care if you do that, but you know who’s not going to like it?’ It’s this glorified projection where the mysterious “they” is really just the writer or the speaker, like it’s you, you don’t like protests that aren’t what you deem to be quote-unquote, “peaceful” or movements that don’t have lovely, articulate media friendly leaders that you can whitewash and post up everywhere. That seems not as neat as these writers or these pundits or these commentators want and so they project out, right? They’re like, ‘Ooh, this isn’t going to work well for you and I, and I really want this to work for you.’ It’s like, you don’t want this to work, you’re not on their side, you don’t agree with them.
Adam: And the poll I think you were referring to was taken between May 28 and June 1 — May 28 was the night of the precinct burning — and they found that 78 percent of Americans, it was a Monmouth poll, it was actually a pretty significant poll, found 78 percent of Americans thought the protests were justified and a whopping 54 percent, the majority, thought that burning down the Minneapolis precinct was justified after George Floyd’s death. 78 percent is high. That’s about the popularity of Tom Hanks, so, you know, again, you’re right. They sort of preemptively said, ‘This is divisive,’ but it’s like, no, people probably can see that cops are racist assholes, even if they agree with them, you know, they can sort of see ‘Oh, yeah, obviously cops are racist assholes.’ This is actually a pretty uncontroversial thing to protest.
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, you know, I think that the function of polarization discourse is often to sort of control people’s sense of what is politically possible in exactly this way by convincing them that they’re on the radical edge, when really, there might be a solid majority behind them and if you believe the majority should get their way, then I think you come to a more radical understanding of how we get through polarization, then Klein is willing to explicitly support towards the end of the book. He does sort of say that in order to basically bring the Republican Party to heal, you need institutional reforms that would take away the structural advantages they have in the Senate, the Electoral College, that kind of thing. What he doesn’t really acknowledge is that that in itself would be a hugely divisive and polarizing thing.
Osita Nwanevu: And there’s no way you get there by saying, ‘We need to sort of hold hands with the Republican Party and come to solutions together as one united country,’ that’s just not how you’re going to actually fix the problem. What you actually need to end polarization, if you do see polarization as a problem, is you need to win. That’s one solution to divisions, you just win. And you develop hegemonic power and authority with majority support.
Adam: I think through other writing of yours, you sort of make the case that, and maybe I don’t want to, I’ll just say this, which is that, I think that there was a deliberate effort in the 1970s, a sort of post-liberal reactionary-ism and all this kind of money and effort, big think tanks went into basically making the Republican Party, since Reagan, as kind of radical as possible. The sort of death of the liberal Republican pretty much happened in the 1980 Republican Convention, as it were right? And you now have a party which is sort of gone, which again, the Fox News feedback loop, et cetera, et cetera, which is, you know is effectively run by white nationalist, end times, climate denialist cranks boosted by cynical corporate lobbyists who just care about tax cuts and their quarterly bottom lines, who I think are sort of very nihilistic and they’re full of racist and anti-woman hotheads. And then you have another party that agrees with them on major issues, which we’ll get into with my next question, but really sort of obsesses and still fetishizes to this day this idea of compromise. It’s sort of Nancy Pelosi in every speech has this kind of, so it seems to me like you have to put blame on the material forces that have polarized a particular party. White people are dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, if they’re not effectively white nationalist, right? Like, I can’t really be a black Republican, I can’t really be an immigrant Republican because they don’t even recognize my basic humanity, right? So, to pathologize that as polarization which is effectively a kind of place you go to survive and this is what the Democratic Party’s been for the last 20 years which is just surviving, sort of fending off fascism, that seems kind of dickish. It seems dickish to call that a sort of brain tic. You know what I mean?
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, I agree. I mean, you know, I think whenever I address this question in this debate, I kind of alternate between two ways to take whack at it. I took a different tack, with really the same conclusions, but starting from a different place, when I wrote a piece for The New Yorker, I believe, last year on Ben Sasse’s book, which was also about polarization and tribalism, all this. And one of the ideas I get at in that piece is, you know, you can think about polarization beginning around 1968, white backlash to the civil rights movement and movement of white working class people, the Republican Party and that whole story. There’s definitely a look of polarization where you can say polarization started in like 1492, right? From the jump in this country you have hierarchies, and you have people doggedly committed to defending certain hierarchies and you have, broadly speaking, two different kinds of societies emerge. In the 17th century you have a sort of Southern plantation society that is rooted in this sort of system of racial hierarchy, you have a northern society that is more amenable to industry, taking in more immigrants as a sort of more egalitarian small “d” democratic culture. And so while we’ve had multiple party systems and party arrangements within the history of this country, that basic goal has basically been there from the very beginning and what we’re seeing now, I think, can in part be understood as a sorting of the two different parties along that already baked-in-from-beginning division. And that, as you said, is a division that’s rooted in material politics. It’s not just a matter of people only reading tweets they agree with or necessarily only watching one channel that emerged, you know, within the last 20, 30 years, it’s like, there are systems of wealth and racial oppression that have always sort of been here and they’ve always sort of guided our politics in different ways and now they happen to be guiding our politics in a way that corresponds with a divide between the two parties that did not, that was not as clean 50 years ago, but you have to base your analysis in material understanding of different factors here. It’s just not a matter of telling people that there are things that they can do in their own personal lives to sort of turn this thing around and that is what the last portion of the book is. It’s kind of this set of self-help recommendations that’s like, ‘Well, if you’re reading an article and you think it’s written to make you mad, then read another article or take a walk or something and then in useful ways we can reorient the American political system.’
Nima: (Laughs.) Aww. And then we’ll go come together.
Osita Nwanevu: I guess so.
Nima: And still support all the wars and foreign bases, which actually kind of brings me around to the next thing we want to talk about with you, which is this frustrating aspect of polarization discourse, where the reality of it and, you know, Klein doesn’t really talk about this all that much in general in his writing, is that this has to do with this understanding that politics is only domestic, right? That whereas on a lot of major issues, especially those that we talk about on this show, that matter to a lot of people who are, you know, possibly a little to the left, things like — oh, I don’t know — imperialism and wealth extraction from the Global South and wars, coups, drone murder, you know, on these issues, Democrats and Republicans are very much not polarized, right? They are wonderfully together and so, how does this focus on domestic differences, things that can be neatly kept as where the greatest, greatest divisions are, how does this really work to fundamentally obscure these bipartisan war crimes and erase the routine kind of normalized, as you said, baked-in violence that the United States inflicts overseas all the time?
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s good you ask this question when James Mattis has been inaugurated as a #Resistance hero thanks to his piece in The Atlantic.
Osita Nwanevu: A very belated one saying, ‘Trump might be bad.’ You know, like Mattis, I think he’s kind of an exemplary figure to show the ways in which not only is foreign policy, not an area in which you see the same divisions as you have in domestic policy, foreign policy is a space where you can become the kind of exalted, deeply respected figure by both sides, it’s not just that there are fewer divisions, it’s that actively you can earn respect and a kind of transcendent appeal by being one of the people involved in waging war and wreaking havoc abroad, advocating for wars and havoc abroad. The infrastructure that determines American foreign policy is not really all that responsive to democratic will, it’s the same people from administration to administration for the most part and I think some of it has to do with, again, the kind of appearance of seriousness that I was talking about earlier. There’s a sense that war is a big deal thing, and you have to have adults in the room and put aside petty things you don’t really even necessarily care about, like feeding the poor, and really, you know, and turn your attention to serious matters and war has always been this kind of spiritual, symbolic thing, even for people who don’t really feel that deeply about making commitments to ordinary people.
Adam: Yeah, because I think that to me, the bipartisan consensus around quote-unquote “foreign policy” kind of blows up the thesis that polarization is somehow hardwired rather than material because the material reality is the people we harm overseas have no political say, they have no stake in it. They can’t vote, they don’t participate and their exploitation and death benefits us, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. So again, if this really was hardwired, you would see these kinds of visceral, foreign policies, we would be, you know, we would trigger the libs by voting for Yemen and we would own Trump by opposing the wars in Yemen, Iran, but we don’t. We mostly, you know, liberals mostly agree with him. MSNBC mostly agrees with it. So that’s really where I think the thesis kind of falls apart because if it is psychological, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t transcend to foreign issues of quote-unquote “foreign policy” as well.
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah. One thing I think it’s worth mentioning, and I wrote about this for The New Yorker last year, I wrote a piece about bipartisanship, is that in the immediate years after World War II, through the ‘50s, basically into the early 1960s, there was a consensus in American politics that foreign policy was basically the only thing you could be bipartisan about, that there was a national interest in not letting political divisions weaken American power, but it was obviously stupid and naive to believe that the parties could ever agree on a regular basis on domestic issues, and you had people writing this conventional wisdom in New York Times, and then a lot of things sort of gradually break that down and create a sense that within domestic policy you should have more bipartisan agreements. I think part of it is this transference of bipartisanship as an ideal from the kind of military realm. We were all big enough to do this big thing to beat Hitler. Now we’re going to do that for X, Y and Z and domestic politics, you know, and conversely, like you hear more and more talking about bipartisanship as the parties become more and more ideologically separated. I mean, I guess another factor is that, as that happens, you need more and more cross party support to get anything done and so it emerges kind of out of necessity too. But yeah, it is the bipartisan impulse in foreign policy that is so strong that that is ultimately where our sort of modern sense of why bipartisanship is important even comes from in the first place, this sense that political divisions could undermine the American political project as the Cold War ramped up.
Nima: So before we let you go, Osita, what are you working on these days? Obviously, you are a staff writer at The New Republic, so it could be anything, I’m sure you’re working on a lot, but could you maybe let us know what you’ve been paying attention to lately and what we might be able to expect in the near term?
Osita Nwanevu: Oh, boy. Well, I’ve just been watching the post-Minneapolis protests like everybody else, I think it’s going to be something that sticks with us, probably more to be written about that in the future. We’ll see what happens, it’s proven pretty foolish to try to figure out how this year is going to progress so I’m just along for the ride like everybody else.
Nima: This has been fantastic. Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic, whose writing can also be found, of course, in The New Yorker and Slate. Osita, thank you again so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Osita Nwanevu: Thanks again for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I think it’s a lot of busy work. It’s sort of, you know, you’re getting paid a lot to talk about politics, you gotta talk about something and if I’m not advancing a worldview or an ideology, e.g. the whole point of politics, you’re just refereeing. And I guess that’s fine. It doesn’t really interest me. It’s certainly not the point of our show but I do think it’s important to note, the extent to which a lot of this refereeing discourse is effectively, when it’s all said and done when you have all the fancy graphs and charts and all the reductionist polling, it’s really just an appeal to conservatism. It’s a way of saying don’t try to change anything.
Nima: Well, because also there’s no way to actually define in any of these analyses, what the quote-unquote “reasonable” consensus really is, right? Who is defining that? Who is defining the middle ground of the polarized reality that we’re living in? Is it Ezra Klein? Does he get to do that? Does he know what the reasonable consensus of bringing people together is? Is it the Brookings Institution? Is it Heritage Foundation? Who gets to fucking decide?
Adam: It’s a very chickenshit way of smuggling in normative political opinions into, you know, sort of balls and strikes descriptive political analysis, and it’s that little pivot that fucking drives me crazy. It’s the same thing with populist rhetoric we talked about in Episode 42, this is sort of the spiritual sequel to that. Where look, I mean, the Civil War was polarizing, but you needed to have it. Labor strikes, you know, the Haymarket Riots, these things are all polarizing, the uprising right now and throughout dozens of cities that I’ve seen quote-unquote “rioting” and quote-unquote “looting” that’s polarizing, but it’s necessary because if it doesn’t happen, nothing fucking gets done. So I guess, what do they want people who are desperate to reform or abolish the police to do in Ezra Klein’s universe, they’re supposed to write essays for Vox, or send letters to their Congressman, change happens through polarization, historically, that’s what you have to heighten the tensions and then we really get to the meat of what we’re talking about.
Nima: But the problem is that those heightened tensions, Adam, are in a way flattened through this kind of analysis.
Adam: Well, that’s the point because it makes people like Ezra Klein irrelevant. Can you think of anyone more irrelevant last week and over the last few weeks than Ezra Klein? Who gives a fuck what Ezra Klein has to say about the uprisings in Minneapolis and other cities? What does he have to contribute?
Nima: But like beyond that even is the idea that the uprisings are on the same kind of ideological spectrum, just on one side, say like, Dan Crenshaw with his iPad writing in The Wall Street Journal, quote, “Why does reopening polarize us?” End quote. And using a similar brand of pop psychology that Klein uses except to argue that because liberals and conservatives think differently because our brains operate in different ways. Luckily enough for someone like fucking Dan Crenshaw, ‘Conservatives are right about reopening, they assess the reality of our fucking global pandemic and they accurately determined that we can safely reopen the economy,’ except that’s just purely because that’s what he wants to do, because he doesn’t actually care about the consequences because he has healthcare and he’ll be fine. It’s basically the same thing as Klein arguing ‘Why are we just on opposite ends of the spectrum, when really, we should try and find some common ground.’ It’s like there’s no arbitration of justice or equity, it’s only do you agree or disagree? And that it only really falls into this idea of partisanship, as if the only way to determine where people stand is the one of two mainstream political parties that people vote for, which aren’t even representative of how the vast majority of people think.
Adam: Well, right, because the implication is that I that, you know, above the fray, rational, reasonable person, that ‘I can be the arbiter of what is and what isn’t extremist and what is and what isn’t polarized because I am this neutral political scientist without any stake in the game. My identity is not at stake, my country’s not being invaded by the United States empire, I’m sort of, I’m a neutral party, just calling balls and strikes.’
Nima: And that that’s the ideal for most people. That if only people were seeing the way —
Adam: If only more people were like Ezra Klein and more rational —
Nima: Then we would all have a reasonable consensus. Okay, well that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Always on the upswing, always positive. We cannot thank you enough for listening, of course, everyone. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work, if you’re able to at this time, through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. As always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.