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RE: Polarization: 3

June 26, 2019
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Tea Party leader, Ray ­­­­­Warrick, and Black Lives Matter leader, Hawk Newsome, shared the same platform at the Better Angels convention, June 21, 2019. David Blankenhorn, co-founder and president of Better Angels, moderated their discussion.

Hawk Newsome is chairman of Black Lives Matter NY. He previously worked for a law firm and the Bronx County Office of the District Attorney. He founded the Bronx Sharks, an athletic club that has sent numerous at-risk youths to college on scholarship. He lives with his wife and two children in the New York area. Hawk spoke at a rally of Trump supporters in a way that bridged the divide.

Ray Warrick is a founding board member of the Cincinnati Tea Party, founder of Warren County (Ohio) Liberty Alliance, and former chairman of the Warren County GOP. He attended the first Cincinnati Tea Party gathering on March 15, 2009, and then spoke at the first Tax Day rally in Cincinnati, an event at which Cincinnati streets had to be blocked off to accommodate the thousands in attendance. Ray is a member of the Better Angels SW Ohio Alliance.

Click here to watch the video.

This blog is the third in a series on moving beyond polarization. See #1 here and #2 here.


Roy Herndon Smith

I'm writing this post in response to the claim, made by a few of my friends and a large number of pundits and centrists, that the substance and cause of the current trouble we're in is polarization or, to quote one friend, "extreme partisanship that the internet has enabled." This claim is wrong in at least three ways. First, the existential threats we're facing do not come from polarization or partisanship, but from five related crises: the climate and extinction crises; the attacks, in this country and around the world, on democratic institutions and human rights, by autocrats, totalitarians, oligarchs, and their nationalist supporters; the growing desperation of masses of poor, working class, and middle-class people who, in a time when 10% of the world's population owns 85% of the wealth, face difficulties surviving and a realistic fear that their children's lives are going to be worse than theirs; and the violent reactions against the masses of desperate refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers fleeing war zones, systemic persecution, and devastation caused by the climate crisis. Second, each of these crises has a long history, predating the internet, even just in their most recent manifestations in the US, by at least decades and, arguably, centuries. Third, at this time, the dominant party in the US, the one that controls the Presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court, is actively and intentionally aggravating the crises with systematic lies, denials, and counterfactual attacks on anyone who is facing the reality of the crises.

What Paul Krugman calls “the fanatical centrists,” who claim that the crises are due to polarization, and who call for “unity,” “civil” conversation, and compromise, are increasingly, at best, irrelevant; at worst, they exacerbate the threats by joining those who are attacking those who are facing these crises. The contours of the centrist position are evident in a youtube video of a conversation, set up by Better Angels, between a leader of Black Lives Matter and a founder of the Tea Party Movement, articles and opinion pieces about the “America in One Room experiment” that brought together “a scientific sample of 523 registered voters” for a “civil and evidence-based dialogue across our great divides of party, ideology and identity” (New York Times), and statements by prominent “moderate” Democratic presidential candidates, such as Joe Biden, Amy Kolbuchar, and Pete Buttigieg.

In the Better Angels conversation, the Black Lives Matter organizer did identify one major cause of the crisis of democracy and human rights in the US, the systemic racism that disenfranchises and disempowers Black people. He challenged his conversation partner to take racism seriously by explicitly supporting specific criminal justice reforms that would hold police and others accountable for injuring and killing people. He explained how the Black Lives Matter was organizing a mass movement to elect and pressure representatives at various levels of government to implement these reforms. His conversation partner did not accept his challenge, but indicated, instead, that his main commitment was to reducing government spending and the size of government. No one, not even the Black Lives Matter organizer, confronted him with the fact that the economic and political positions he espoused grew out of, enacted, and exacerbated systemic racism. No one, again not even the Black Lives Matter organizer, challenged the audience to join the mass movement in support in criminal justice reform. Instead, the moderator of the conference articulated what appeared to be the consensus of the meeting that politicians are bad, the Constitution is unqualifiedly good, and how wonderful it is to engage in civil conversation. The meeting thus negated any serious engagement with systemic racism or any of the other threats we are facing.

The America-in-one-room “experiment” was a partly successful effort to indoctrinate its subjects in the delusion of centrist dominance. The “great news” coming out of the experiment was that “The idea that our divisions are entrenched and unbridgeable is overstated” (New York Times). The organizers of the “experiment” claim to be objective researchers, who do not have an agenda. However, the experimental design rests on and enacts the false centrist assumption that what threatens us as a democratic nation is polarization between two equally legitimate (or illegitimate) political positions, the left and the right; and that, between these two poles, is a “neutral,” “nonpartisan,” “civil and evidence-based” space or “room,” in which people can, by reading and discussing equally legitimate (or illegitimate) policy proposals from the two sides, move away from more “polarized” views towards explicitly “centrist” positions. In a striking and unacknowledged instance of confirmation and experimental bias, the researchers find that the subjects of their experiment confirm the centrist assumptions on which the experiment is based; they do indeed move away from their more “polarized” views towards the centrist positions.

Recognizing centrist bias requires realizing that the centrism is, in fact, a partisan position, even, as Krugman observes, a “radical” one, that rests on five denials. The first denial is of the fact that, for a long time, but especially the last ten years, agreement by the majority of Americans on policies—for instance, gun registration and background checks, immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, and combatting the causes of global warming—has had minimal impact because, at least since the beginning of the Obama administration, the Republican Party has blocked any and all legislative attempts to enact these majoritarian policies. The second denial is of the seriousness of the crises discussed above or even that they are crises. The third denial is of the fact that effective responses to these crises require massive federal government programs and expenditures. The fourth denial is of the fact that the US has mounted such effective nationwide responses in the past. The fifth denial is of the fact that, in the past, mass movements of people outside the government working with representatives and advocates inside the government have brought about these effective responses.

Until the Trump presidency, the centrists appeared to be dominant, largely because the denials had widespread acceptance. Climate change and extinction appeared to be “problems” that we were effectively addressing. The systemic attacks on democratic institutions and human rights appeared to be problems other countries were facing, not the US. Poverty and the threat of impoverishment appeared to be lessening in this country, due to the improving economy and Obamacare. Other countries, not the US, were facing floods of refugees.

The election of Trump and Republican control over all three branches of government exposed the truth that, at least since the election of Obama, Republicans, often abetted by Democratic centrists, have been systematically undermining democratic institutions in their efforts to gain and maintain autocratic power over the US; they have incited and used xenophobic, nativistic, racist, and misogynist movements that oppose, often violently, democratic rule and human rights. They have exacerbated the suffering of the growing masses of people facing the threat of impoverishment and the destruction of their communities and livelihoods; they have mobilized the resulting rage to attack any government programs that have been addressing, at least partially, the crises. They have attacked and, where possible, stopped government programs to mitigate global warming, to support human rights and democratic institutions in this and other countries, and to mitigate the effects of loss of jobs and livelihoods.

One result of the America-in-one-room “experiment” points to one major way the centrists have, at least since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, abetted the anti-democratic Republican agenda. “Concern about the rapidly rising federal deficit appears to have sobered many Democratic participants about the costs of ambitious new spending proposals.” The centrist Democratic candidates have stated this “concern” more aggressively in their attacks on the more progressive candidates; they have claimed that major increases in government spending in response to the crises are economically and politically impossible, unwise, and will exacerbate polarization. They hold to this “concern” despite four historical realities. (1) The way the United States has dealt somewhat effectively with major crises facing this country in the past—for instance, World War II, the Great Depression, and, more recently, the Great Recession—has been through massive federal government spending programs. (2) This concern about raising the deficit is, with a few exceptions, only about spending on programs other than defense; the US spends more on defense, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than the next highest paying seven countries combined; centrist Democrats have joined Republicans in regularly voting for major increases in the Defense budget. (3) The evidence indicates that Republican and Democratic opposition to increased domestic spending has increased the rage at government that the Republicans deliberately incite and use to attack democratic institutions and any programs that address the crises.

This rage and the fact that centrists promote this concern is a tribute to the success of the “starve the beast” strategy conservatives have explicitly adopted since the late seventies. When Republicans are in power, they reduce revenues, usually through tax cuts on corporations and the rich and increase spending on the Defense Department and other programs that benefit corporations and the rich; these two tactics drive up the government deficit. Then, Republicans blame the increasing deficit on the cost of and cut funds for social programs. These decreases in social programs hurt people, who get angry at government. Republicans blame the government for this pain. When Democrats are in power and seek to increase spending on social programs to meet real needs, Republicans repeat the claim that the country can't afford the social programs and that governments, especially Democratic governments, are incompetent and will just waste the money. They then run against “tax and spend Democrats, who drive up the deficit.” The results have been that, since the beginning of the Reagan administration, the deficit has increased under every Republican president (Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George Bush, and Donald Trump) and decreased under every Democratic president (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama), but the Democrats get blamed for the rising deficits. Since Bill Clinton presidency, centrist Democrats, including the current centrist Democratic candidates, have parroted the “starve-the-beast” lie that we can't significantly increase spending on social programs or to address the crises because doing so will drive up the deficit or will require radically increased taxes on all Americans.

In summary: (1) Polarization and partisanship are not what threaten us. (2) What threatens us are denials of and opposition to any efforts to effectively address five related crises—climate, extinction, anti-democratic and anti-human rights movements and regimes, impoverishment, and massive movements of refugees. (3) The “centrists” or “moderates” who attack, as “unrealistic,” those who are facing the crises and are proposing significant increases in government spending to address them, strengthen the denials of the crises and thus increase the existential threats we face.

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