When commentators regret the ferocious polarization in the United States following the election of President Donald Trump, conservatives must be wary. Polarization as a term to describe the political scene has strategic value for liberals. In calling what has happened to our country a problem of a disappearing middle, liberals obscure actions of the Left that have produced the antagonisms of the present. Here’s how it works.
We begin with a longstanding norm, one embraced more or less by everyone. At some point, a vanguard of progressives comes along to challenge, decry, and subvert the norm. At first, the populace rejects the critics and the middle is secure (for instance, the way the Beat Generation was confined in the 1950s to small social enclaves).
But the critics don’t give up. They press the point in movies, the media, classrooms, and courtrooms, turning those spaces into forums of dissent.
They begin, too, with a benign premise: let’s not take our values for granted, let’s examine our assumptions, consider alternative viewpoints. We are a relatively open society, we have a natural American penchant for innovation, and so the consideration moves forward.
As the genuinely radical nature of progressive critics emerges, conservatives, traditionalists, and some moderate liberals step up and cry, “Whoa!” It’s not that they are trying to shut the other side up or end the debate. Instead, they have examined the progressive line of thinking and judged it wrong. The goal, then, is to oppose any action taken on the basis of the critique. Keep on talking, they say, but we don’t want to change our laws, our education, our norms, our country.
Once again, the progressives don’t vie up. They make films and TV shows that sentimentalize leftist representatives (“All in the Family”). They glamorize youthful revels and tar old-fashioned authorities (“The Breakfast Club”). They make t-shirts (“It ain’t easy / bein’ sleazy”), write songs (“Cop Killer”), and rewrite history (The 1619 Project). It’s a cultural-educational campaign to change the connotations. The old normal is now uptight, boring, oppressive; the formerly radical is now interesting, expressive, incisive.
It takes effect by pulling moderate liberals and conservatives to the left, little by little. The centrist who liked “family values” in 1992 now supports same-sex marriage. He used to regard integration as the antidote to racial tension; now he countenances separate dorms and graduations for students of color.
Some of those in the center shift because they accept the inevitability of the leftward trend. By going along with this or that revision, they think they can preserve this or that institution and policy. Others go with the flow because they fear the reaction of the Left should they not comply.
Progressives are inspired. They force people into either/or positions; they don’t do grey. And if they manage to control the gateways to success, as they do in academia, technology, entertainment, mainstream media, and, increasingly, the professions, individuals have to play ball.
Polarization is the result. But here is the salient point for understanding those who have not submitted: they have not changed. They think and say what they have always thought and said. The God, family, and country they hold to now are the same ones they held to 10, 20, 30 years ago. They didn’t think of those beliefs as particularly political or ideological, but in 2020 they find themselves located well toward the rightward end of the political spectrum. They thought they were just regular people trusting in regular things, only to hear that they are flirting with the “extreme right.”
This explains why liberal commentators and leftist groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center issue grave warnings of right-wing extremism on the rise. The numbers don’t add up, but the warnings accomplish a crucial purpose: they obscure the near-total responsibility of the Left for the disappearing middle. It is but a small step from complaining of polarization to worrying about extremism on the Left and the Right.
In balancing the two, commentators pretend two things: first, that hard Left and hard Right are equivalent forces; and second, that our society does not now exist in a condition that only a few decades ago would have been considered downright radical.
If you were to tell an average Bill Clinton voter that, in a short time, drag queens would be performing in libraries and on awards shows; 14-year-old girls would wear t-shirts blaring “F— IT!” (I saw this a while back at Union Square); a formerly distinguished newspaper would backdate the American Founding to 1619, a good portion of the population would applaud efforts to undo a national election; and conservative individuals would be hounded and assaulted on college campuses, he wouldn’t believe you. It is the triumph of the Left to make the ordinary centrist conservative in 1990 a hidebound reactionary in 2020, someone on the fringe.
This is how the Left uses “polarization” to discredit its foes. The sober, objective social critic who announces it, then proceeds to the outer reaches of Right and Left with a pox-on-both-their-houses summation is concocting a fantasy. He is no impartial observer. The polarization set-up works to liberal advantage and conservative disadvantage but maintains the guise of moderation.
The moment a conservative hears talk of polarization, he should say, “And who caused it?” Remind these civic-minded moderates that conservatives don’t want polarization. They don’t like extremism. Progressives do. They know that a society with a large, generally contented middle doesn’t easily slip into social reform. Tell these neutral observers that polarization is not an unfortunate consequence of rising extremism or some other trans-ideological cause. It is exactly what the American Left has wanted all along.