Politics & Policy

Today’s Political Polarization Isn’t as Striking as We Think

A supporter of Donald Trump faces protesters outside Trump Tower. (Reuters phoot: Mark Kauzlarich)
Our partisan battles are over power, not ideology.

‘Polarize” is a funny word. I hear it all the time, including from my own mouth. The country is polarized. The parties are polarized. President Trump is polarizing. I think that’s true, but I don’t think the word means what people think it means.

First, let’s go to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers three definitions, the first two scientific and then this: “to break up into opposing factions or groupings, (e.g.) a campaign that polarized the electorate.”

That looks right to me. But when people hear the word “polarized,” they think it means something like “the maximum distance” apart from each other — like when we think about how the North and South poles are on opposite ends of the planet.

In other words, the metaphor implicit in the word suggests that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, could not be any further apart ideologically. And that’s really not true.

The other day, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza said on Twitter, “No question Republicans have moved further right than Democrats have moved left. But Democrats have moved way left too.”

It is undoubtedly true that on some issues, Republicans have moved right and Democrats have moved left. I am agnostic about which team has traveled further, in part because I do not cede to Cillizza or anyone else the authority to define what constitutes the center.

The more important point is that in many respects, this just isn’t true. Consider Trump. His position on trade, his signature issue, represents not a sharp break from the left, but a closing of the gap with it. Protectionism and “fair trade” have been staples of the Democratic party’s base for a very long time, which is why both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Likewise on infrastructure spending and entitlement reform, Trump hasn’t staked out some extreme libertarian stance, he has stolen the issues from Democrats. Just look at health care. The Republicans just unveiled their plan to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. It’s likely no Democrat in the House will vote for it, not because of its radicalism, but because it is an insult to Barack Obama’s legacy. I can understand their frustration, but their anger isn’t proof of a major ideological disagreement.

And this points to the source of the confusion. There is a natural human tendency to believe that those we hate must believe the opposite of what we believe. This is part of what psychologists call “the narcissism of minor differences.”

George W. Bush campaigned on “compassionate conservatism,” triangulating against the libertarian rhetoric of (the old) Newt Gingrich and the dour pessimism of social conservatives. His first legislative priority was bipartisan education reform, supported by Senator Ted Kennedy. Bush’s prescription-drug benefit constituted the largest expansion in entitlements since the Great Society (at least until Obamacare). He rejected the conservatism of William F. Buckley Jr., arguing that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”

George W. Bush’s prescription-drug benefit constituted the largest expansion in entitlements since the Great Society (at least until Obamacare).

And for these sins, Democrats instantly and continuously insisted he was some kind of radical.

Before Bush, Republicans denounced Bill Clinton as a left-wing extremist, even though he was a free trader, supported the death penalty, and campaigned on — and signed — welfare reform.

Even on social issues, where there are certainly significant ideological differences, the two sides are rarely on opposite sides of the issue. They are merely on opposing sides of some narrow questions. Conservatives don’t seek to outlaw homosexuality or transgenderism. They don’t seek to ban women from the workforce. To the very limited extent there are Republicans still seeking to forbid gay marriage, their position is the same one that Obama and Hillary Clinton held until a few years ago. Were they right-wing extremists in 2012?

In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote about how metaphors can do our thinking for us and bad metaphors can lead us to faulty conclusions. If “thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”

“Polarized” is precisely the kind of “dying metaphor” Orwell had in mind. The country is indeed polarized. But it is more socially and politically divided than it is ideologically. The root of the disagreement has more to do with making sure “our” team has power. What it does with that power is, at best, a secondary consideration.

— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com or via Twitter @JonahNRO. Copyright © 2017 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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