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. But, over time, I think it will show that, however frustrating, dysfunctional, and downright antagonistic the old elites may be, they became elite for reasons—not always good ones, but some of those reasons may still be operative.
I think the polarizations are rearranging. A group usually in the Left masses has changed to backing the Right elite because its candidate promised to be anti-elitist. Some of the Right elite are sometimes joining forces with the Left elite in reaction to these anti-elitist moves. Perhaps this is turning into the Old Washingtonian Elite vs. the New Nationalist Billionaire Elite. One has bureaucracy, the other has money.
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.
Okay, so now it is mid-2020. We are three and a half years into Trumps term and half a year into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trump has been very consistent. He has torn down social support every way he can; he has smoothed the way for big money, especially old big money; he has made racists feel comfortable about going public, without every quite saying anything racist himself, thanks to his facility for speaking very unclearly; he has alienated all our old allies without making any real new ones; the foreigners he likes best are authoritarians of all stripes. He shows great ignorance of the law and a strong (and widely remarked) tendency to regard rule of law as a nuissance. He has collapsed the dual polarities of elite-vs.-mass and Left-vs.-Right: the Right is mass (populist) leaving the Left to be elite, because, as Lewis remarks, opposite evils don't cancel; they aggravate each other.
This mutual aggravation is bringing out the worst in the Left as well as the worst in the Right. The Left has split into Progressive and old-fashioned Liberals, and the Progressives are heavily into identity politics ("Can a non-white be racist?") and cancel culture (making it clear that the ideal of freedom of expression only applied to the correct expressions).
The Right, meanwhile, is burrowing into its own private reality, in which science and all but select media are tools of the American Left and the rest of the world (to whom our Left looks centrist or a bit right of center). Rightists cheerfully wear T-shirts reading things like "I'd rather be a Russian than a Democrat" and "F&%k your feelings."
Then we had the pandemic and, shortly after, a new outbreak of demonstrations and outright riots about racial friction. Trump tries to pretend the pandemic isn't at all serious and offers/threatens military force about the protests.
While the Left makes a vice of loyalty (never hesitating to cast someone out for impure thoughts), the Right makes it an idol, so that, whatever they privately (or even publicly, on occasion) thought of Trump, the Republicans backed him. Trump has a now-famously immovable "base" of supporters. As far as I can tell, they are mainly:
This is starting to unravel, in the face of the pandemic, as Trump's indifference, denial, and incompetence starts to endanger the lives and power of the people in those blocs, including the Republican politicians themselves. And the moderate Republicans are starting to come out of their closets, some even saying they want their party to lose the presidency and the Senate, so as to purge it. But there are always some who will not be swayed.
It is now definitely worse than the Sixties. Racial tension is as high as then. There is no war on (more than usual), but the economy is crashing like it was 1929, and public health is as bad as in 1918, or worse, and many people won't admit that. People mutter about civil war. They did that in the Sixties, too, but then we did not have so many polarities lined up in one big polarization: Left vs. Right, Democrat vs. Republican, elitist vs. populist, urban vs. rural, integrationist vs. white supremacist, all at once, while being "led" by a totally self-serving vindictive fool, who makes noises about not accepting the results of an unfavorable vote.
Do I make my feelings clear?
People wonder what the "new normal" will be like after the pandemic. I think part of it will be that the United States will no longer be a world power. Our economy will be further down that the rest of the developed world, because we will not protect ourselves from the virus, and people will be reluctant to deal with us, because we are disease-riddled, massively in debt, have a lousy economy, and have shown that our political system and culture is capable of throwing a piece of slag like Trump.
And what of the polarization? Even after Trump and the pandemic, I don't see it going away, even if the Democrats take the federal government and have more state governors and legislatures. Trump is just a symptom, not the germ. (Of course, it's the symptoms that kill you.) The Red tribe and the Blue will both still be in the population, and will probably have a new bone to pick: whose fault our sorry state is. The remnants of Trump's base will still be there, mad as hell and still numerous.
But I think that, in time, the Red tribe loses to the Blue. Demographics are famously against them: they are the older faction, and will simply die into insignificance. Trump will have damaged their reputation, and there is a growing number of people (I think) who are simply sick of the polarization itself, like me.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2020