We need to be a lot more critical towards the pervasive polarization narrative, towards “polarization” as the central diagnosis of our time. “Polarization” obscures not only what the key challenge is – the anti-democratic radicalization of the Right – but also transports a misleading idea of America’s recent past and how we got to where we are now.
We start by outlining the central arguments and claims of the polarization narrative. We then offer an empirical, normative, and historical critique. On the empirical level, it is true that the gap between “Left” and “Right” is very wide in many areas, by international standards. But where that’s the case, it has often been almost entirely a function of conservatives moving sharply to the Right. Most importantly, the “polarization” narrative completely obscures the fact that on the central issue that is at the core of the political conflict, the two parties, and Left and Right more generally, are very much not the same – that issue is democracy. One party is dominated by a white reactionary minority that is rapidly radicalizing against democracy and will no longer accept the principle of majoritarian rule; the other thinks democracy and constitutional government should be upheld. That’s not “polarization.”
On the normative level, the “polarization” paradigm privileges unity, stability, and social cohesion over social justice and equal participation. It doesn’t adequately grapple with the fact that the former stifles the latter, that calls for racial and social justice will be inherently de-stabilizing to a system that is built on traditional hierarchies of race, gender, and religion – that they are indeed polarizing, but from a (small-d) democratic perspective, are necessary and good.
As a historical paradigm, “polarization” tends to mythologize past eras of “consensus” and supposed unity. But in U.S. history, political “consensus” was usually based on a cross-partisan agreement to leave a discriminatory social order intact and deny marginalized groups equal representation and civil rights. In many ways, “polarization” is the price U.S. society has had to pay for real progress towards multiracial pluralistic democracy.
Why do scholars, politicians, journalists, and pundits cling to the idea of “polarization”? The answer lies in the fact that the empirical, normative, and historical inadequacy is not a bug, but a feature of the polarization narrative – it is precisely the fact that it obscures rather than illuminates the actual problem that makes it attractive. The “polarization” concept is useful if you want to lament major problems in American politics, but either don’t see or simply can’t bring yourself to address the fact that the major threat to American democracy is a radicalizing Right, is the threat of rightwing authoritarian minority rule. In this way, the concept even provides a rhetoric of rapprochement since it does not require agreement as to what is actually ailing America, only that “polarization” is to the detriment of all. The “polarization” narrative never breeds contention, it makes everybody nod in approval; it engenders unanimity. That’s the genius of the polarization narrative: It provides the language for a lament that blames nobody and everybody, and satisfies the longing for unity – which it constantly fuels in turn! – by offering a consensual interpretation; consensus re-established through the back door.
Daniel Kreiss / Shannon C. McGregor, ‘A Review and Provocation: On Polarization and Platforms,’ New Media & Society, April 11, 2023
Liliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, Chicago 2018
Thomas Zimmer, ‘Reflections on the Challenges of Writing a (Pre-) History of the “Polarized” Present,’ Modern American History, 2 (2019): 403-8