Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Political Sectarianism

A group of 15 senior social scientists have authored a short paper arguing that "political sectarianism," as they call it, is greatly endangering America:

Political sectarianism consists of three core ingredients: othering—the tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself; aversion—the tendency to dislike and distrust opposing partisans; and moralization—the tendency to view opposing partisans as iniquitous. It is the confluence of these ingredients that makes sectarianism so corrosive in the political sphere. Viewing opposing partisans as different, or even as dislikable or immoral, may not be problematic in isolation. But when all three converge, political losses can feel like existential threats that must be averted—whatever the cost.

The authors say there are three main causes of rising sectarianism. First, the parties really have become more different, in the sense that most of the conservatives are now Republicans, and most of the liberals are Democrats, etc. But:

As distinct as Democrats and Republicans actually are today, partisans nevertheless vastly overestimate such differences. They view opposing partisans as more socially distant, ideologically extreme, politically engaged, contemptuous, and uncooperative than is actually the case, thereby exacerbating political sectarianism. For example, Republicans estimate that 32% of Democrats are LGBT when in reality it is 6%; Democrats estimate that 38% of Republicans earn over $250,000 per year when in reality it is 2%.

Second, the rise of partisan media, but you have read enough about that lately. Third, "elite ideological polarization":

In contrast to the equivocal ideological-polarization trends among the public, politicians and other political elites have unambiguously polarized recently on ideological grounds, with Republican politicians moving further to the right than Democratic politicians have moved to the left.

Personally I find all of these points both debatable and inadequate to explain the extreme feelings that are driving riots and support for overturning the vote. The Republican and Democratic parties have moved farther apart on some issues, but the divide is still minor compared to, say, that between the Bolsheviks and the Whites, or the Royalists and the Jacobins.

But I do think what we are experiencing is dangerous. It encourages people to forget about democracy and pursue winning at all costs, and democracy can only take so much of that. Thomas Edsall put together a piece for the Times in which he solicited comments from the study's authors and put them together with other material, which I think is much stronger than the original; I suppose that had to be carefully compromised to get a diverse list of eminent signatories. Edsall samples some of the right-wing voices who have been most strident in rejecting the recent election, like this from a certain MakeLiberalsCryAgain:

It’s INSANE. Many of these contested states have REPUBLICAN majorities in their legislatures. They had the power all along to stop this, and they haven’t done blankety blank. They held hearings to give the appearance of caring, but in the end, they all cucked out like the spineless, traitorous cowards they are.

And dinosaurguy, who said, “War it is.”

Statements like that should be ominous for Americans because they sound so much like what we heard at the beginning of our Civil War, when Southern leaders all took the position that to accept Lincoln's election without a fight was cowardly and spineless. Well, they got their fight, and it was worse than any of them imagined. What will ours look like? 


G. Verloren said...

"Well, they got their fight, and it was worse than any of them imagined. What will ours look like?"

Modern civil wars only really happen when the military splits along with the nation.

The American Civil War happened at a time when state militias were still extant and potent, meaning that when the southern states broke away, they already had their own soldiers and materiel available to them with which to wage war.

But today, the structure of the military is radically different. Everything is centralized in, and controlled by, the Pentagon. There aren't entire armies that answer directly to individual states anymore. If one or more states attempted to secede or seize power, they wouldn't automatically have forces loyal to them - they would have to convince portions of the federal military to break their oaths and go traitor, which frankly is pretty darn unlikely.

And even if it were to happen, a modern army can only operate with modern supply lines and communication chains, which the turncoats would immediately lose. You could have every military base in the south throw in with a rebellion, but they would very quickly be shut out of the Pentagon's command and logistics networks.

Good luck fighting a modern war when you have no communications, your opponent knows exactly where to find you, and you have zero capacity to replenish lost resources.

John said...

@G- that's a good point about modern warfare: the side that gets the fighter planes and the drones and the infrastructure behind them has an insurmountable advantage. I think American dictatorship could only happen via a "self coup," the elected president declaring a state of emergency and the military opting to back him.

But we could still have lots of terrorism and the like, or a situation in which courts or state legislators overturn an election and the military opts to back the declared winner.

David said...

As far as set-piece war is concerned, I think Verloren is almost certainly right. I think we might be in for a wave of relatively low-level (compared to set-piece military conflict) violence, including street brawling, bombings, headquarter burnings, lone-gunman killings, and the like, in the late sixties and early seventies (a period that saw a sizable amount of violent action from the right, no longer as well remembered as that carried out by the left)). It may even get as bad as the violence in this country in the late 19-teens and early twenties. And like both of those waves, the coming wave may pass with time.

Much more dangerous would be the rise of a right-wing messiah, someone younger, more driven, more ruthless, and more fanatical than Trump, who can turn the ideological citizen right into a base of power from which to then ally with conservative institutionalists and build from there, first, an electoral victory, and then a more permanent right-wing lock on the national government via constitutional change.

Could the latter scenario be acted out from the left? I have more trouble seeing that. Liberal institutionalists and the far left make unhappy, unnatural bedfellows at the best of times. So I don't see that alliance as being able to win for itself any sort of long-term victory over the right that can be sealed with constitutional change. On the other hand, institutional liberals and the hard left are also stuck with each other. Before the last election, I could imagine a scenario in which liberal institutionalists became the party of a sort of vast center longing for order, normalcy, and respectability, and so could shed the hard left. The last election showed that fantasy to be without substance.

David said...

In the first paragraph, please insert "such as" between "and the like," and "in the late sixties and early seventies."

pootrsox said...

Heinlein readers may recall Nehemiah Scudder, ("If This Goes On," found in Revolt in 2100 and in his first novel, not published till after his death, For Us, the Living.

I see much of today's currents in the stories about Scudder.

Susi said...

There will be a competent Autocrat in the US someday. WIll our systemic defenses work? Will our population and officials accede to the demagogues offerings? I wish I had more hope than I have after watching the Republican Party and its enablers during the past five or six years.