In defense of political polarization

The attempt by a deranged individual to assassinate a group of Republican legislators was all too illustrative of the ugly rhetoric of force, the last resort of those who know not how to reason. It cast a pall over the collective mood of the nation’s elected officials and led to a rare moment of universal clarity, causing both Democrats and Republicans to descry the discourse of venom and acrimony which seems to increasingly dominate politics in the Trump era.

The sobriety of the occasion contributed to an atmosphere of rare bipartisan accord, where one side listened gravely and nodded in solemn agreement as the other pleaded in raw, impassioned tones for a draw down to the escalation of violent political rhetoric.

All rational people can immediately see the problems with the language of civil war in which political discord is increasing expressed. Differing partisan identities are not a reason to repudiate the humanity of another.

But civility should not be a standard of acceptability when it comes to political rhetoric; too often civility is a mark of social approbation, as if to be in agreement with the popular position lends some basic level of validity to an actor’s position.

This attitude does not eliminate discord but sanctions a new form of divisiveness, which delegitimizes any who refuse to go along with the crowd. Hence the argument that Steve Scalise, by taking a conservative position on certain social issues like gay marriage and opposing gun control, put himself in the crosshairs, the insinuation being, had he simply gone along with the enlightened majority, he never would have been a target.

Civility is simply a refuge for the bigotry of a morality whose ultimate defense is that it is majoritarian. It is ultimately hollow and self-reinforcing—what is popular is moral because it has the most support and what has the most support is moral because democratic thought instills morality in the largest group.

This is simply masked tribalism, and there is nothing of substance grounding the moral code that develops beyond a reflexive demonization of “the other” simply because they are “the other.”

While this kind of tribalism is often descried, and rightly so as it frequently promotes fractiousness and bloodshed, it does make some sense as the basis for a system of social organization.

Tribalism can promote the bond of a commonality so strong it renders irrelevant all other differences. When this commonality is a principle or idea, identity becomes a matter of substance rather than ephemera.

This is why political polarization should not be treated as innately dangerous to civil discourse. So long as there are substantive differences between political parties and the values and policies they believe best promote their idea of what is best for the country, polarization should exist. Individuals should believe strongly that their position is ultimately the right one. Discrimination is inherent to belief; to stand for one idea is to reject all others as containing some inherent flaw.

Polarization is dangerous when partisans fail to delineate between ideas and the people who give voice to them. Ideology reflects something of a person’s character, but a person is not an ideology; they are a vehicle for expression. People act; ideas do not. Political rhetoric is ultimately not the impetus of action, whether it is violent or not. Action must be preceded by either thought in a rational actor or impulse in an irrational one. This is true of partisanship as well.

A person’s political identity ultimately does not say anything about them; their ideology does. Political identity is ultimately an association with the platform of a group which most closely identifies with a strain of personal beliefs. There is a reason there is dissent and debate between members of the same party. Politics does not shape ideology; ideology shapes politics. In order for politics to emerge and become organized, ideological belief must precede it in existence.

In short, political life is not autonomous; it is dependent upon the characters and actions of the most dominant actors. If political discourse is polarizing and promotes the division of the polity into tribalistic blocs along the lines of party identity, this is a reflection of the failure of leaders to develop and live by the tenets of a personal ideology. It is intellectual laziness that is to blame for the current rhetoric, not something in the nature of politics.


Also published on Medium.

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