I am writing in 2016. For some years now, the United States has been deeply polarized, more so than at any time since the sixties. (I assure you, it is still not as bad as the sixties. But this time, the polarization now lines up more exactly with the Democratic and Republican parties.) I think there are two polarizations going on. One is between the Right and the Left. The other is between the Elite and the Masses.
The Right-Left polarization we hear about all the time. The Elite-Masses polarization we heard about a lot, for the first time, in the last couple of years, most loudly in the Occupy Wall Street movement, so that now "the 1%" and "the 99%" have entered the political vocabulary. But of course that dichotomy has always been there, though it has gotten worse over the last generation or so, as people now often point out.
The Elite-Masses polarization is often described as a Rich-Poor polarization, and that is certainly an important aspect of it. But I think that is only looking at the Right Elite. There is also the Left Elite, which is not as well-funded, but which has more control over the media and academia—not that the Right are at all silent in those areas.
So what you have are the Right Elite, the Left Elite, and the Masses. There are Right and Left Masses, but they are not as distinct as the Elites. Being more numerous, the Masses more often come in shades between Right and Left, and more often decline to fit on that spectrum at all. Also, unlike either the academic Left Elite or the wealthy Right Elite, the Masses have to live in the real world; that has a corrosive effect on polarization, I think.
Temporary change of topic: a year or so ago, my friend Jim Burrows remarked that, in many controversies, each side has a demonized picture of the other. Examples:
And so on.
I think this can be generalized to the two big polarizations. Each side has a demonized view of the other's elite and of the other's masses.
All these characterization are, of course, more coloring than hard divisions. After all, there are thousands of people in both elites and millions of people in the various masses. Let us not get too polarized here...
All right, that was 2016. Now I am writing in 2017 and Donald Trump has just been sworn in as president. How does that work in the double-polarization scheme I just outlined?
Within both parties, a populist champion arose to challenge the elites: Bernie Sanders on the Left, Donald Trump on the Right. Sanders lost his challenge, Trump won.
Trump won the election only by the Electoral College, voted in by 28% of the electorate. Clinton got 29% but not in the states with heaviest electoral votes. 3% of the electorate voted third-party and 40% of the electorate did not vote, through apathy or despair.
Both Trump and Clinton had many different voting blocks behind them. With that narrow margin, the addition or subtraction of any one block could have turned the election, but the one that got everyone's attention was the blue-collar whites backing Trump, leaving the Democrats to ponder "how they lost the working class."
So now the elite-masses polarity is front and center, and "populism" is the political term of the day. Both Right and Left have always claimed to represent the masses (or their masses), but now we have the Right Elite either working overtime to look populist OR shifting into internal opposition, because there's a limit to how populist you can be and still be Rightist; after all, the masses have a lot of freeloaders among them.
(Contrariwise, there's a limit to how populist you can be and still be Leftist, since the masses have a lot of unregenerate opinions.)
As I write, Trump is alleging to represent the interests of the masses by packing his cabinet with billionaires. We'll see how well that works.
These billionaires are often publicly opposed to the basic goals of the departments he wants them to head. This makes good populist sense as a way of kicking the old elites in the teeth. It also makes good sense if, for instance, you want to clear a lot of inconvenient regulations out of the way for the convenience of your robber baron cronies.
I said at the beginning, in 2016, that the polarization was still not as bad as in the Sixties. I am no longer so sure.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2017