One of the most important characteristics of this "new" form of polarization is that there is nothing new about it. Tribalism has been the prevalent mode of social organization for all but approximately the most recent 2% of years that humans have lived on the planet. What needs explaining is, first, why it should be asserting itself so powerfully now after decades of relative dormancy, and, second, why our standard means of containing it seem to be failing.
As to the first question — why so much tribalism right now? — the causes are, as social scientists say, overdetermined. There is no shortage of reasons why public demand for extreme polarization might have increased. Among those commonly cited is the decline of civic organizations like unions and clubs, which has reduced individuals' sense of connectedness and agency, impelling people toward connectedness through identity and tribe. Stagnant wage growth for the less-educated causes disappointment and resentment, creating openness to demagoguery. The declining hold of organized religion and especially the collapse of mainline Protestant denominations have displaced apocalyptic and redemptive impulses into politics, where they don't belong. Identity politics on the left and market fundamentalism on the right erode the feeling of shared citizenship and identity. Changing demographics and high penetration by immigrants inspire fears of economic and cultural displacement among whites. The decline of traditionally masculine jobs and social roles leaves working-class men feeling emasculated and marginalized. The fragmenting of media isolates us in our separate information bubbles. Algorithmic social-media platforms provide a lucrative business model for viral outrage. The flowering of lifestyle diversity and consumer choice makes social differences more blatant.
It is impossible to know just how to evaluate the relative or absolute merits of those and other contributors to tribalization. Take your pick and add your own. The common theme, in any case, is that humans were designed for life in small, homogeneous groups where change was slow and choices were few. So if we find ourselves living in large, heterogeneous populations with fast-paced change and a bewildering array of choices, we may be more apt to build a tribal cocoon for ourselves: a form of emotional rescue that partisan polarization can provide if more pro-social ways of connecting fail.
Friday, December 27, 2019
Jonathan Rauch on why we are seeing a surge in angry political polarization now: