Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Why Are We So Polarized?

I've just come across an excellent blog post by Rod Dreher (whom I recommend in general)1,2 entitled "Inside The Head Of Trump Voters".  His post is in turn a commentary on a very interesting speech given by Jonathan Haidt to the American Psychological Association.  Haidt has some key insights into the nature of political polarization in the West in general, and America in particular, together with how it has developed over the course of the past few decades -- and he has the statistics to back up his assertions.  The trends are alarming, as anyone even vaguely aware of the last few election cycles will have already guessed.
1 ...which does not mean I endorse all of his opinions, of course; although I agree with much of what he says, there are enough disagreements that I cannot recommend him the way I would recommend, for example, Chesterton.
2 After reading his column for a few months, I am no longer comfortable in even recommending him with a caveat. He's beginning to remind me of Mark Shea, in that although he often makes good points, there is a bitterness about him that is shockingly contrary to the fruit of the Spirit. "For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things." St. Paul's advice is something Christian bloggers -- notably including me -- need to do a much better job of taking.

That's not to say the talk is without problems.  Perhaps the most obvious one is that when Haidt says that the country needs two parties -- one of "reform and progress" (which he identifies as a sort of idealized Democratic Party) and the other of "order and stability" (an idealized Republican Party) -- he restricts the "allowable" options for the country to those possibilities that lie between the status quo of 2016 and the most extreme fantasies of the Left.  There is no room in his schema for the many people who think the status quo of 2016 is already toxic and that the Democrats would only make things worse.  Not only would this exclude millions of people from the process, it would not be possible to go back to undo a mistake, much less to pursue an alternative goal that has never been realized in history but that is not in the direction that Obama and Clinton want to take us.  It would be like insisting that a car must have both an accelerator and a brake, but forgetting about the steering wheel.  I suspect this omission was unconscious; as the statistics and response of the crowd make clear, Haidt spends most of his time in the company of committed Democrats.

Aside from that omission -- the result of a major blind spot -- he tries to be "neutral" in his treatment of the two parties.  Oddly enough, this is also a flaw, because it leads him to completely ignore the competing truth claims.  Haidt must know that many people consider the Civil War to be a necessary price to pay to obtain the good of freedom for the slaves, and that many people consider the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be a necessary price to prevent even more casualties on both sides; he probably believes both these ideas himself.  Granted that the political tensions of today are unpleasant, we still need to know whether they are a necessary price for some greater good -- and we need to know what that greater good might be.

And the fact is that the period of increased antagonism that Haidt chronicles corresponds exactly to the period in which the "party of reform and progress" has "progressed" into uncharted moral waters.  Can it just be a coincidence that the worst polarization in American history since the Civil War begins with the legalization of abortion and culminates precisely with the unprecedented claim that two persons of the same sex can have a real marriage with each other?  Haidt is talking about moral psychology -- his term.  Wouldn't it be reasonable to investigate a link between dramatic changes in moral psychology and dramatic changes in morality when the two happen simultaneously?

Now Haidt would probably say that the laws about abortion and marriage are merely symbolic, but the idea that they don't actually affect the lives of many people is demonstrably false -- as is agreed by those on both sides of the issue.  Regardless, and in spite of the fact that I feel very strongly about these issues, the conflict over both these and many other issues is a consequence of a larger and more fundamental cultural conflict over the question whether or not there is a fixed answer to what it means to be human.  If the answer is yes, then we must abide by that fixed answer, and if the answer is no, then someone -- each individual?  the general population?  elected politicians?  judges?  academia? -- must choose an answer on an ongoing basis.  

It is hard to overstate how much rides on the answer to this question.  If there is no real right or wrong, then "right" ultimately becomes a servile euphemism for the will of the powerful.  Our world dissolves into a nightmare of Nietzsche and H. G. Wells; already we see something straight out of The Island of Doctor Moreau. This is something that transcends the traditional division between Right and Left; during the French Revolution, the Royalists believed that the king was "the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil," and the Revolutionaries believed in the Rights of Man, but they each thought that they were defending ideas that were objectively true.

I don't think many people put all this together, but they sense it, and many of them don't like it one bit.  That is why the changes have lead to such antagonism.  Something fundamental and important is at stake, and both sides know it.  A few awkward moments at family gatherings is not too high a price to pay.

One last thing:  The recent change has all been in one direction, as the Democrats have adhered with increasing fidelity to the idea that human nature is only a fiction and the Republicans have largely moved to take the same positions Democrats held ten or twenty years ago.  This again leaves those who are happy with neither the current position of the Democratic Party nor the position of the Democratic Party two decades ago frustrated and excluded from the debate.  On the other side, it gives proponents of the Democratic Party's worldview the sense that they are on the cusp of a conclusive triumph; they smell blood in the water and want to press their advantage to the maximum.

So yes, there are notable omissions, but it would be a mistake to undervalue Haidt's speech.  No sane person wants these political tensions to spill over into violence, and the statistics Haidt shows are truly alarming.  I have to wonder what similar statistics would have shown on the eve of the American, French, or Russian Revolution.  His advice for toning down the conflict is good, though I don't think it is sufficient to prevent what seems to be a looming crisis.

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