by Thomas Neuburger
No established democracy in recent history has been as deeply polarized as the U.S. —Yascha Mounk
It’s almost a commonplace to say that Americans are politically polarized. “At each other’s throats” would be more accurate. A recent study from the Carnegie Endowment has — no surprise — found as much. (See “What Happens When Democracies Become Perniciously Polarized?”)
The rise of an “us versus them” mindset and political identity in American sociopolitical life is evident in everything from the rise of highly partisan media to the decline in Americans’ willingness to marry someone from the opposing political party.2 Even more concerningly, these dynamics are contributing directly to a steep rise in political violence.3
Again, no surprise.
The article’s scary conclusion: “Placing the United States’ struggles with pernicious polarization in a broader context yields a deeply troubling picture. … Reducing the threat of pernicious polarization to democracy requires deliberate, urgent action. Or, as this research suggests, American democracy itself may cease to be.”
This observation is both very troubling and, as I said above, a commonplace. We live indeed at a time when “everything new is old again,” a time that’s tucked between the start of a world-historical collapse and stories about it that sound too old to be new.
Writers in the serious world are taking note, of course. Witness this piece by Yascha Mounk in The Atlantic, which leads Mounk to conclude, “No established democracy in recent history has been as deeply polarized as the U.S.”
Once more, no surprise to anyone living here, or indeed to anyone in range of competent news.
The Cause of Our Current State
The cause of our fall to this state, however, is less easy to discern, at least according to the mainstreamers at Carnegie or The Atlantic. Mounk, for example, handles the cause this way: “But if many citizens come to believe that letting the other side rule poses a threat to their well-being, even their lives, they may no longer be willing to accept the outcome of an election they lose.”
Apparently, citizens just “come to believe” that Republicans or Democrats — not some, but all of them — are existential threats to life, or democracy, or both. Many politicians, indeed, are both — threats to both life and democracy — but our fellow citizens too?
Apparently so, according to this far-right religionist:
We’ve often been exposed to similar invectives on the left, people who have said both publicly and privately that Trump voters are Putin lovers, or anti-mask and -vaxxers deserve what they get.
For an example of the former, consider this from Newsweek earlier this year: “While a significant majority of Americans agree that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not justified, Republicans are more likely to hold an unfavorable view of President Joe Biden than they are of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a new poll.”
I’m not arguing the yes or no of the statement; I’m pointing out that Newsweek, a liberal establishment publication, decided to print it. The implication is clear — Republican voters love Putin.
As an example of the latter, Howard Stern has been as clear as anyone, and echoes the sentiments of many who say the same thing, if less publicly:
Howard Stern said on the Jan. 19  episode of his Sirius XM radio show “The Howard Stern Show” that hospitals across the U.S. should not admit patients who are unvaccinated against COVID (via Uproxx). Stern has often used his radio show to speak out against anti-vaxxers, but he was more blunt than ever when he told listeners this week, “If it was up to me, anyone unvaccinated would not be admitted to a hospital. At this point, they have been given plenty of opportunity to get the vaccine.”
“… It’s time for you to get it [the vaccine]. Now, if you don’t get it, in my America, all hospitals would be closed to you. You’re going to go home and die. That is what you should get. Absolutely.”
Again, he’s not talking about the bought-and-paid leaders of the Republican Party. He’s talking about their voters — all of them.
Howard Stern is not paid to say this (though Newsweek may be in a much more subtle way), any more than the preacher linked to above is paid to speak his anti-Democrat wisdom with such force.
So where does these invectives come from? Are they just “in the air”?
Johnny Mack Brown and the Great American Mob
In fact, these ideas are “just in the air,” if by “the air” we mean “the air we listen to.”
Consider the old-time Westerns, the ones with Tex Ritter, Hopalong Cassidy and Johnny Mack Brown.
In many of these shows there’s a scene where a mob of angry townspeople gather outside the jail calling for the hanging death of some usually innocent prisoner caged inside. The mob is usually large and exceptionally mean.
Then the sheriff, the hero or someone allied with him, would go outside to deal with the threat. Would he accuse them all of wickedness and threaten to take their own lives if they attack the jail? Sometimes.
But mostly he picked the mob apart. “Sara,” he’d say to one woman. “You came to this valley poor, and now you and Jim” — her husband, standing beside her — “are good and decent folk. Do you really want to go outside the law, the law that keeps this valley safe for you and your kids?”
Sara (and Jim) would look down, ashamed, and back away from the rest. One by one, the sheriff would pick at the mob, peel parts of it away, until only a few, the mob’s real leaders, its angry core, remained. Not enough people to actually storm the jail, not with the deputy inside, the one with the shotgun. The mob was beaten.
Most mobs are like this — a few instigators, people who will never let go of the cause, surrounded by many far less committed than they, but momentarily caught up, swollen by the atmospheric anger of the rest. Remove that atmosphere and most people will return to “normal” — exactly the right word, since “normalize to groups” is what human beings do best. It’s why, in fact, we survived as long as we have. Rugged individual die alone. Groups, united by a common culture and mind, breed and live on, however strange that mind may appear to a neighboring tribe caught up in its own group thought.
The Evil That Men Do
This leads to two ideas.
The first is that we all — the lefties and the right — should treat the opposite mob as teachable, not intractable; as fixable, not fixed. Farmer Sara in the example above was screaming for violent death, a hanging death, until she wasn’t, until she normalized to a different group — the town’s mind, not the mob’s. Or, to say it more politely, she came to her senses.
In 2016 there are many stories of angry, change-seeking voters not sure whether to cast a Trump ballot or a Sanders one in states with open primaries. Not all Trumpists are, at their core, like the worst; just as not all Democrats (or liberals) are, at their core, like the ones satirized accurately in the Phil Ochs song:
All of us live on a line that contains both our worst selves and our best. And most of us move along it, from better to bad, embarrassingly often. Almost no one is cemented permanently to her worst self-presentation. For the left, this means that treating the 47% of the country that voted for Trump as racist lost-cause fools is not just wrong, it’s itself a self-fulfilling lost-cause prophecy.
But the second idea that leads from our mob analogy is even more important, since it answers the question, “How did we get this way?” The fact is, we’re as divided as we are because the division is manufactured, and both sides’ leaders are doing it.
Liberal voters are told from dawn to dusk by their well-paid in-house media that the other side is, in a word, evil, though the accusation, as befits that crowd, is much more cleverly put. (See the Newsweek article above for a small example; watch MSNBC at any hour of the day for a larger one.)
Similar examples from the right — or worse ones yet — are endlessly available:
In fact, the American Right has financed a decades-long project — has been doing so, in fact, for most of the last 50 years — to make sure that Farmer Sara and her husband not only stay with the mob, but are emotionally rewarded daily for doing so.
Put simply, our mobs are manufactured, especially the one on the Right (though liberals are catching up). And the output of that manufacturing is, as we mentioned above, the reason — unless it’s stopped — the country will fail.
As things stands today, the country is becoming ungovernable, except in the “rich rule us all” sense that oligarchies always share. It’s certainly ungovernable by the people, and has been for a while. Our participation in manufactured mobs ensures that the blame for this falls, not where it belongs, but on the angry mobs themselves that were gathered up to scream across the fence in the other side’s face.
And as long as those mobs exist, and the rich that swell the ranks of each of them are allowed to inflame us all against us all, for just that long will democracy fail in America, and we will be the cause. To escape the rich, we must escape their mobs, and encourage others to escape them with us.