Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Polarization and Parroting - How We Got There

I have mentioned before that I loathe politics - particularly current politics. I decided to dive back in, however, not to write about a particular candidate (such as The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named), but to examine a troubling trend and how I think it originated.

To set the stage, let me related a recurring conversation that I have had with a few intelligent and thoughtful friends.

“Have you noticed that most people agree with their political party, not just a majority of things, but on every single thing?”

And it really is true. Not just about the predictable things either. For example, if you have a friend who is part of the Religious Right, you would not be surprised that they have certain opinions on abortion or gay marriage. But think about this: you can guarantee that about 99% of them will also have these opinions:

Opposition to any form of gun control
Opposition to immigration (at least by Muslims or Latinos)
Belief that universal health care is of the devil
Climate Change is a conspiracy
Belief that police brutality is a media invention
Belief that society is made up of “producers” and “consumers” and that the “consumers” are at fault for all our problems. (This is classic Ayn Rand, in case it wasn’t obvious.)
Opposition to most government programs (except for Social Security and Medicare)

And there are a myriad of smaller issues, and people will almost entirely say the exact same things about each and every one of those issues.

It’s not as if any of the above are core Christian doctrines, either. (And, if I am honest with myself, the teachings of Christ do not generally tend to align well with the political commitments of the Right at this moment in history.)

This pattern holds to a certain degree on the Left as well. I am less qualified to discuss that side - I grew up in the Religious Right, live in a conservative city -  so I am going to speak more of what I know than speculate about the “other side.”

Now add another factor into the list. I have quite a few friends from the Religious Right, so I see what they post and say and think quite a bit. Just in the last month, I had a series of things show up that fit a pattern. A friend would post a ludicrous and clearly alarmist article claiming someone in the other party was doing something horrid - and usually unbelievably stupid in the bargain. I would step in and point out the actual facts of the case (with links to actual data, for example), and the poop would hit the fan. Even in those cases where the other party had to admit I was right (such as the case where the “news” was from a spoof site), they would still cling to “but he/she’s so evil that this seemed credible.”)

For what it’s worth, one post was claiming that President Obama just issued an executive order limiting everyone to three guns. (That one was from the spoof site. And really, Obama isn’t stupid. And his actual record on gun control is moderate at worst. But none of that mattered, because the person had already “decided” that Obama is out for our guns.) The other was a claim that the Health Secretary had advocated for mandatory abortions. (Also false. Here is the Politifact breakdown. Let me also note that this came from conspiracy-monger extraordinaire Glenn Beck, so that should have been enough to raise a red flag…) 

Third would be the person who jumped into another thread to claim that The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named was a fantastic person, good in every way, blah, blah, blah. The proof? Another politician she liked had endorsed him. When I cited his racist rhetoric and bullying temperament - both of which are public record - she accused me of being “not teachable.”

The thread that ties these together is this: the actual facts do not matter. What really matters is what side a person is on. Our side: good. Their side: unspeakably evil.

I usually leave links until the end, but I think these two really are part of this discussion.

First is this one, by my friend Joe Holman. Joe is generally conservative, and serves as a missionary to Bolivia. He puts his money and his efforts where his mouth is, actively working to make life better for others. This post is so good, I saved it in my links list.

IMHO You Should Stop Saying IMHO!

Joe points out that most of what we claim is “our opinion” isn’t an opinion, let alone an informed opinion. It’s just parroting of the talking points from someone else who we believe is on the “good” side.

The other is this column from David Brooks, and was posted by a thoroughly conservative relative. I don’t always agree with Brooks, but I think he is on to something here.

A key portion:

Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.

The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.


Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics...Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.


Trump’s supporters aren’t looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.

I believe that these two tendencies - the parroting of all the positions of “your” tribe, and the
Rejection of compromise and the legitimacy of other interests and opinions - are related.

They come from a belief that the “other side” isn’t made up of people with different  - or even merely wrong - opinions, but enemies that are actively malevolent and evil to the core.

It all stems from this. Once you dehumanize the other side to this degree, the rest follows.

Why do people follow every single minor detail of their party’s platform? Well, if the other side is evil and malevolent, then any position they take is by definition suspect. Even on issues that seem to be naturally a balancing of interests and compromise between priorities, such as, say, alternative energy subsidies.

Likewise, of course you believe the other side would do something politically suicidal. Obama doesn’t just disagree with you, he’s an evil demon out to intentionally wreck America. Muahahaha! A post says he eats puppies? Of course it’s true!

And the third one is true too. If you believe that you are faced with, not a competing set of interests, not difference of opinion, but the very forces of evil, of course you want a superhero, not a politician.

And those people who have different opinions and different interests? They don’t matter. They are not to be compromised with, but destroyed.

How did we get here?

This is pretty much the most accurate vision of 21st Century American politics.

Well, I won’t be so naive as to say we haven’t been here before. Nineteenth Century politics were often brutal. And we did have that whole Civil War thing that killed a half a million people. (If we had the same death rate, that would be 6.2 million deaths.) The rhetoric was similarly heated, with both sides believing they were on the side of God himself. Which obviously couldn’t be equally true for both parties. So there is unfortunate precedent for this.

I think the modern polarization, though, can be traced to its origin, at least on the Right. (Again, I am more center right these days, and was raised on the far right. Thus, I cannot really speak to the development of the left.)

For the right, I believe that the polarization began in earnest when the coalition that became what is now the Religious Right adopted abortion as its cause. (I need to blog on that one.) On a related note, the original glue for the coalition was an opposition to the Civil Rights movement. (Don't forget that prior to her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Schlafly's first foray into political involvement was pro-Segregation. And that's just one of the many connections.) Thus, one could combine the fear and hatred that drove the coalition emotionally (but now baptized by the teachings of Ayn Rand) with an easy “black and white” issue. Once the “other side” was dehumanized as depraved baby killers, the polarization was inevitable. Nothing the Democrats advocated for could be trusted. They were evil, and must be destroyed. This belief gained even greater traction during the 1990s, with the rise of talk radio, which further served to whip up the fear and hatred for the other side that the James Dobsons of the world had been stoking for so long.

That this came with a whole bunch of baggage from the Civil Rights era wasn’t a bug, but an intended feature. Now that the left/right polarization was based on a perception of good versus evil, then a host of really poisonous ideas could be accepted. It did take a while for this to truly develop, of course. Ayn Rand wasn’t always accepted as the new prophet of Christianity like she is now. (That needs to be a separate post.) But this election has brought out what what always lurking under the surface: a view of politics as a jihad against the forces of evil, rather than the compromising and balancing of competing interests and viewpoints.

And that’s why, for a great many on the right, the idea of voting for a narcissist running on a platform of racism will eventually start to look appealing. When the other side is the devil incarnate…

I think that there is a cure for this, but it is one many will not want to hear. First, we need to grant the basic humanity of the other side. With the exceptions of a few loud and obnoxious people on both sides, people are people, not evil caricatures. Perhaps if people spent time around those they disagree with and just listened, rather than argued, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

Second, we need a lot more humility. As Joe Holman pointed out (seriously, read it!), most of what we think is our opinion isn’t even our opinion. It’s just parroting. So if we don’t even have an informed opinion, based on actual research and documentation, why do we think we can declare it is absolute truth? The other side may well have some valid points. And other people may indeed have interests which compete with ours. True community doesn’t come from destroying people who threaten your own privilege, after all, but from finding common ground.

Third, as a Christian, I believe that I am called to love my neighbor as myself. This means that I need to do my best to place myself in the shoes of others, before I declare their viewpoints wrong - or worse, evil. This means that I believe I must evaluate the policies I call for through the eyes of the others the policy affects. Not just me and my tribe, but the “other” as well.

At that point, one can start to envision the uncomfortable compromises that must be made for people to live together in peace. Sure, nobody will be 100% happy. “Get used to disappointment.” But compromise is infinitely better than “winning” through the destruction of others.

As a final point, let me rewind to a time from my childhood. Before George H. W. Bush was Ronald Reagan’s Vice President, the two vied for the GOP nomination. It’s pretty clear that neither would be remotely welcome in today’s GOP. I still cannot get over the fact that Bush is actually concerned that immigrant children would feel stigmatized. It’s like basic human decency - something nearly impossible to find in politics right now.

One more link that is excellent is this one:

I would add that it isn’t just the Republican Party which has attracted authoritarians. We have seen the same trend in American Evangelicalism. We have had our Trumps for decades. From Bill Gothard to Mark Driscoll, the promise of halting of social change has had a powerful appeal, and has led us to embrace evil ideas and authoritarian teachings. Maybe I should blog about that some time.


Just one bit that occurred to me later. The amount of vitriol that President Obama has taken during his two terms seems to me to rather unprecedented. Particularly the way that substantial portions of the Right still seem to believe he is a foreign-born Muslim, despite all evidence to the contrary. I have finally had to conclude that, for most of these people, this accusation is a socially acceptable projection of their real objection, which is that there is a black man in the White House.


  1. Per the opposition to compromise thing, a few years ago a Tea Party type talk radio listener told me that they "had to pull hard to the right to get any change at all," which okay, I guess is a strategy. BUT that's only legitimate if after you've pulled hard to the right, you come together with the other side and negotiate to some kind of compromise. Which is exactly what the Tea Party types demonize doing. So with a few years of hindsight, it's become quite apparent that this was BS and the real position is "give us everything we want or we'll throw a huge hissy fit."

    "Have you noticed that most people agree with their political party, not just a majority of things, but on every single thing?”

    Sheesh, at this point in time I don't even know what party I "should" be in. I can sometimes be overly hampered by my awareness of when I haven't researched something enough, which results in me not taking firm positions on what most other people consider "simple" questions. Like for instance, abortion. It's hardly simple or clear, but it always gets reduced to something like "abortion clinics are concentration camps" (yeah, read that one on FB just today) and "all pro-lifers want women to be literal sex slaves."

    1. I think there's a more prosaic reason for our polarization. Voter turnout is very low and the people most likely to vote are the ones who feel most strongly. This makes it to every politician's advantage to make sure their voters feel as strongly as possible. A small handful of zealots are worth MUCH more than a large number of thoughtful analyzers.

      Add to that the struggle of modern journalism. Thoughtful analysis might be great, but they won't get paid unless they get views. You get views with sensationalism.

      Add them together and it's the perfect storm that describes the current season. What's nice about this analysis is logistics changes would fix the whole thing. If voting were easier (and maybe mandatory with an option to vote for "no vote") this whole system would change overnight.

    2. One thing that does come to mind regarding the claim that "we had to pull hard to the right to get any change at all" is this: There has been a fundamental shift in the GOP that has taken it dramatically to the right. (If you haven't watched that clip from the 1980 election, you should.) It is hard to sugar coat it, really, but for the Tea Party/Ayn Rand/Libertarian crowd, there seems to be a desire to go back to the pre-New Deal days (although some would preserve Social Security and Medicare - because old people should get things nobody else gets, right?). If your position is that we need to be radically out of step with the rest of the civilized world, then yes, it is *extremely* hard to get progress in your direction. And many on the other side (or even those of us who were Reagan Conservatives) might not want to go your direction at all. I guess if the whole idea of social democracy and a safety net are anathema, then one can get to feeling like "your" side never wins. I can't help but wonder, though, if the Tea Partiers were looking at a world without Social Security and Medicare, if they would suddenly feel a bit differently.

  2. Excellent post!

    My friend and I were chatting recently when he made the observation of how conservative politics is like a religion unto itself. Evangelical protestant connections aside, you have the Constitution which is the sacred scripture through which all things must be interpreted, America (or Texas) viewed as the "Promised Land" or "new Jerusalem", the acolytes on talk radio and Fox News who propagate the talking points, the cult of the balanced budget on which all socioeconomic policies must be sacrificed, etc. I was heavily involved in that world due to my upbringing from about the time I was in high school up through my college years and just prior to meeting my husband. The longer I stayed in the conservative religion, the nuttier I saw it becoming and I had to get away from them just to save my sanity. Ignorance is not just a virtue, but a mark of pride with people like that.

    I can truly thank the Catholic church for saving me from that insanity (I remember learning in my catechism class about Pope Leo XIII who had quite an extensive written body of work with regards to America, communism, and also social justice). Because of it, the conservatives with whom I previously associated, even if we go to the same church, with call me a communist because I support expanding social programs and ecological responsibility. However, modern liberals don't like me much because I am religious and because I live by my faith, I am at odds with them over gay marriage and abortion.

    When you don't fit in either party, stand up and walk away.

    1. I may have to blog on the issue of the "balanced budget" at some point. From what I can tell, it makes a nice cover for what is - at the core - Ayn Rand economic policy. After all, the driving force behind the deficits are the costs of programs for seniors. (They have grown far faster than any other category - simple demographics.) But those aren't on the table. Just payments that benefit non-seniors. Hmm.

      I left the GOP a few years back for those same reasons. I'm not sure Reagan would even qualify as center-right these days. More like left.

  3. Such good stuff here. I enjoy your political posts best of all. Maybe because I also hate politics. Coincidentally, a friend of mine shared this on Facebook today:http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind?language=en&utm_campaign=social&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_content=talk&utm_term=humanities

    The guy is obviously liberal, but I think he really makes the case that the balance between liberal and conservative is healthy and important, and that learning to understand the other point of view and reacting to it with humility can be much more effective than shouting down your opponent.

    1. Jonathan Haidt's book, The Righteous Mind, was one of the best books I have read in the last couple of years. While Haidt is liberal, the book is equally useful for liberals and conservatives.

  4. I guess I am center right? Not sure I don't feel like I belong anywhere these days on the political spectrum. I have huge concerns about the southern border not because I hate immigration but because it is now a massive exploitation vehicle. The drug cartels control all who pass through the border and literally enslave the immigrants for years the days of people crossing the border on their own ended about 20 years ago. Those illegal immigrants owe money and allegiance to the cartel when they arrive here and sometimes the jobs they have are tied to the control of the cartel as well. The penalty for not doing as you are told and keeping your mouth shut is persecution and possibly even death. This awful culture of exploitation is supported by low wage paying corporations and individuals. Many of the individuals complain loudly about the "illegals" and "Mexicans" while fostering the culture of exploitation. Yes I find the older generation (now mostly boomers) extremely hypocritical on this they want Social Security, Medicare, and cheap labor all at the expense of the younger generation while berating the younger generation for being lazy and the wrong color. This behavior of selfishness I find across the political spectrum from conservative to liberal in the over sixty age group. I am mostly conservative but I find Ayn Rand horrible and completely opposed to my Christian beliefs. I hold positions that might be considered liberal on other fronts but I find no party addressing these concerns of mine in a rational way. My brother holds out hope that maybe some sanity will enter the political process in ten years when the current voting block of Senior citizens has begun to thin substantially due to death. I can only hope.

  5. Excellent post, as usual.
    You see the same vitriol cast at Bernie Sanders. Single payer health care? Seems to work for lots of other countries. Many variations to pick and choose parts of. Could increase quality of care and access to care overall.

    But the Right demonizes the idea as "socialist" (the new "communist"), even though Republicans were floating similar concepts not too many years ago. If someone on the "other" side has an idea, it MUST be opposed because if the idea succeeds then the other side will look good and gain strength. The impact on citizens is a distant after-thought. (But the impact on big donors is front and center.)