These days, one can’t escape an encounter with the punditocracy with out listening to the phrase “polarization”: the political phenomenon wherein the extremes (appear to) crowd out the center whereas rising farther and farther aside from one another and turning into ever extra rhetorically and virtually shrill. There is a paradox right here: “extremes” and “center” are correlative phrases whose that means will depend on the latter being a lot greater than the previous. This truism is commonly ignored or elided by journalists who suppose extremism is unidirectional—they gesture vaguely with their proper fingers—and wish these, and solely these, who disagree with them to be labeled “extremists,” in addition to, in a great world, investigated by the FBI and Department of Justice. But let that go.
Even if one makes an attempt to keep away from the punditocracy to each extent attainable, one can’t keep away from overlistening to it, because it had been accidentally. Trust me. Call it Commentariat Tourette Syndrome. They can’t assist it.
We are given to consider that the poles, and the polls, have by no means been extra, nicely, polarized.
Perhaps this perception is true. For all I do know, it might be. But one factor is definite: “polarization” isn’t—regardless of the breathless sensationalism of the traditionally challenged—new, or unprecedented (one other phrase on the laptop computer class’s very quick checklist of favourite polysyllables), or shocking. Indeed, it’s precisely what we must always anticipate.
Why? Why is the spirit of fanatical factionalism so prevalent in these United States, and why ought to we’ve seen it coming?
Various explanations are attainable. Eric Hoffer, for instance, gave a penetrating account a long time in the past in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. A large number of individuals, filled with dissatisfaction with themselves, of resentment towards others, and of boredom with life, discover refuge and escape in a trigger that’s greater than themselves. They hope that, by a dedication to one thing increased, they are going to be swallowed up in a surfeit of the that means they so desperately each lack and crave. Call this the “argument from dysfunction.” It has a great deal of explanatory energy.
But there’s extra to the story. And “the remainder of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say, is a complement, not a contradiction, of Hoffer’s thesis. If Hoffer’s thesis boils right down to a disordered pursuit of that means, the thesis I talk about in what follows boils right down to a disordered pursuit of affection. We discover this thesis—a unique and but correlative “argument from dysfunction”—eloquently expressed in an essay by Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, extra generally often called Lord Shaftesbury (1671-1713).
The essay known as “Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour,” first revealed in 1709 and later included within the influential Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.
In it, Shaftesbury, an English thinker of some significance (he was a pioneer in creating an affective account of morality), makes an attempt to point out the need of humor in each a philosophical life and a free society.
Expounding on the shape a free society takes in a state of well being, he has event to talk of politics extra typically, and it’s on this respect that Shaftesbury is of curiosity to me right here.
Let me start, although, with the slightly idiosyncratic method wherein Shaftesbury makes use of the phrase “frequent sense” (sensus communis). While we typically use the phrase to imply “one thing a usually functioning individual would know”—when, e.g., somebody rides a motorbike down I-94 with no helmet, we’re tempted to say, “Has he no frequent sense?”—Shaftesbury employs it fairly in another way. For him (he says he’s drawing on historic precedent), it means the
Sense of Publick Weal, and of the Common Interest; Love of the Community or Society, pure Affection, Humanity, Obligingness, or that kind of Civility which rises from a simply Sense of the frequent Rights of Mankind, and the pure Equality there’s amongst these of the identical Species.
This feeling for the frequent or public good relies on man’s pure sociability, for Shaftesbury agrees with Aristotle and Cicero that man is by nature a political or social animal.
If that’s so, man’s gravitation towards fellowship of some sort or one other can’t be pushed out of him by any means. It is constitutive of what he’s in his very essence.
Man’s sociability, then, can’t be excised. It can, nonetheless, be perverted. To put it one other method, it should discover an outlet, whether or not that outlet is nice or unhealthy. And in keeping with Shaftesbury, that perversion is inevitable in sure political circumstances, specifically, the circumstances of “huge empires”—which is unhealthy information for America.
“Love of Party” or “cantonizing…inside the State” is, for Shaftesbury, a pure impulse in a basically unnatural political association. As he notes, “Vast Empires are in lots of respects unnatural.” This unnaturalness is primarily attributable to their mammoth measurement and the just about comical disproportion between the few who rule and the various who don’t. Crucially, a structure, nonetheless good, can’t eradicate this downside. “[B]e they ever so nicely constituted,” in keeping with Shaftesbury, “the Affairs of many should, in such Governments, flip upon a only a few; and the Relation be much less wise, and in a way misplaced, between the Magistrate and People, in a Body so unwieldy in its Limbs, and whose Members lie so distant from each other, and distant from the Head.”
But as a result of the pure order—that’s, man’s innate impulse towards sociability—can’t be expunged however solely corrupted, such a state of affairs is ideal for the creation of factionalism, attributable to the truth that factionalism is a disordered expression of man’s annoyed want for neighborhood within the context the megastate.
Or, as Shaftesbury says extra eloquently:
’Tis in such Bodys as these that robust Factions are aptest to engender. The associating Spirits, for need of Exercise, type new Movements, and search a narrower Sphere of Activity, when they need Action in a larger. Thus we’ve Wheels inside Wheels. And in some National Constitutions, however the Absurdity in Politicks, we’ve one Empire inside one other.
Because “[n]othing is so pleasant as to include,” human beings will discover both salutary or deleterious methods to take action—however they are going to discover them. In this fashion, complaining about polarization with out addressing its actual root causes is akin to lamenting slip-and-fall accidents in previous comedies with out addressing the existence of bananas. For, to repeat, “the very Spirit of Faction, for the best half, appears to be no aside from the Abuse or Irregularity of that social Love, and frequent Affection, which is pure to Mankind.”
What is to be finished? Unfortunately, most likely not an entire lot. In its unique structure (and Constitution), the United States was supposed to present us the advantages of each “huge” (or the nationwide) and “small” (or the native) by the system of federalism in a territory solely a fraction of our present measurement. But that United States is not any extra: a rustic of—with apologies for geographical fat-shaming—continental girth, we now handle a home and international military-commercial empire that may be a far cry from the early republic. Or, slightly, “we” don’t—and that’s the issue. Curing the illness of factionalism, to the extent that it may be cured, would require an nearly wholesale dismantling of the behemoth of the nameless and degrading administrative-corporate state that runs our affairs each at residence and overseas and a return to the previous imaginative and prescient of a humane scale and a humane political artwork. The forecast for such an eventuality just isn’t good.
Short of that, it appears important to channel the need for sociability into extra concrete and native manifestations reminiscent of church buildings, civic organizations, and native authorities. Shaftesbury didn’t like such alternate options, which he noticed as signs of a fragmented and disordered sociability slightly than cures for it, however right here I demur from him. The freedom for a lot of loyalties is an antidote to slavery to any of them, together with Washington, D.C.
However, given the ubiquity and intrusiveness of the octopoid federal state, whose tentacles attain in every single place by a bureaucratic equipment increasing extra shortly than the universe itself, in addition to by our unremitting media that principally serves as its mouthpiece, localization, too, is hampered. This, I believe, is by design, for the nationwide administrative state is parasitic on the physique politic and thus has a vested curiosity in sustaining its illness. Strong native bonds and the free trade of concepts, particularly on ethical issues, are in opposition to its self-interest.
As lengthy as all that is the case, then, “polarization” is right here to remain, and due to our specific circumstances with respect to know-how, conventional media, and social media, it’s more likely to worsen. That’s the unhealthy information, and I’m unsure there’s any excellent news to observe it up with. Is it nonetheless helpful to higher perceive why our political malaise appears so intractable, and to see how it’s based upon one thing that’s important to our very nature as human beings? Maybe. As so typically occurs, our demons are proof of the existence of our higher angels, and that existence maybe brings some consolation.
But on this occasion, one might be forgiven for locating that consolation chilly.