Friday, December 27, 2019


Jonathan Rauch on why we are seeing a surge in angry political polarization now:
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.


David said...

Two aspects of the quoted passage strike me immediately as rubbish. One is the idea that "tribalism" is how we always done things, when contemporary identity-and-ideology tribalism has very little to do with ancient kinship-and-settlement tribalism. The use of the word "tribal" in the contemporary context is purely metaphorical--it's used to refer more to what used to be called party faction, except that the term "party" in modern America has come to be confined to describing our current electoral party system, a template onto which our real political factions are overlaid with greater or lesser awkwardness.

The other rubbishy statement is the one suggesting we've made some silly, easily avoided blunder in putting "redemptive and apocalyptic impulses" into politics, "where they don't belong." The latter statement is particularly given with a self-important, oracular certitude it in no way merits. I think Rauch imagines that when "redemptive and apocalyptic impulses" are confined to religion, they're sort of quietist and conventional and moderate, like mainline Protestantism c. 1959. But when it's hot, religious apocalypticism is completely political, frequently dangerous, and dubiously "prosocial," to borrow another of his words.

David said...

Feeling a bit ashamed of my own high-handed snarkiness toward Rauch, and also intrigued by the topic, I went ahead and read the essay John linked to. It is actually quite interesting and thought-provoking. There are indeed many rhetorical gestures not to my taste, like "where they don't belong." At one point Rauch asks, "What if, to some significant extent, the increase in partisanship is not really about anything?"--when what he really means, and proceeds to explain cogently, is that contemporary partisanship is about emotion and psychology. Well, too bad for me that I'm not Rauch's editor.

Rauch seems to believe strongly in institutions, and he thinks a major part of moving past our current troubles would be a revival of our institutions. Rauch seems to especially mean the old media, the universities, and constitutional government. He's obviously got a point, but I wonder if to some extent he's not just indulging in a fantasy of returning America to the state it was in on Jan. 1, 1965, when, according to myth, America was united and happy under a beneficent and urbane alliance of Harvard, the national security establishment, and the evening news anchors. But hasn't much of our history since then been about a rebellion against that very alliance? And how will we reconstruct our institutions so that we can move past that rebellion? England managed to get past Cavaliers n' Roundheads in about 60 yrs or so, but France took two centuries or more to grow out of 1789 (and maybe it hasn't yet).