polarization

Trump, the Unavoidable

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on May 2, 2016

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Is Political Polarization Destroying Democracy?
 

 

 

Image from Pew Research Center. The increasing polarization of the US electorate has destroyed all the previous certitudes in politics, generating the unavoidable rise of Donald Trump.

 

 


The hurricane named Donald Trump has taken everyone by surprise by going against all the established rules in politics. So far, candidates were always trying hard to avoid taking extreme positions; aiming for the center of the political spectrum was seen as the way to win, and it worked. But Trump has taken exactly the opposite strategy, always aiming to positions that not long ago would have been seen as extreme and even unspeakable. But he is having success. How can that be?

 

For everything that exists, there must be reasons for it to exist, and this universal rule must be valid also for Donald Trump. And, indeed, the rise of Trump should be seen not only as having reasons to exist, but even as unavoidable. Let me try to explain why.

In 1929, Harold Hotelling developed a model of spatial competition among firms that today is still well known and takes his name. The idea is sometimes described in terms of what the best location for selling ice cream on a beach. Assuming that customers are distributed evenly along a linear beach, it turns out that the best position for all of them is to cluster exactly at the center. Something similar holds in politics: it is called the Hotelling-Downs model. It says that, in a political competition, the most advantageous position is at the center. This is a well known and traditional political strategy; those who are at the center win elections.
 

 
So, did Donald Trump disprove the Hotelling-Downs model with his strategy based on taking extreme position? No, but all models work only within the limits of the assumptions that produced them. If the assumptions change, then the models change as well. The Hotelling-Downs model, as it is commonly described, works on the assumption that voters' preferences tend to cluster in the middle of the spectrum of political views, something like this
 
 

Image source

Imagine that the horizontal axis describes the voters' preferences about, say, war and peace. At the two extremes of the diagram there are absolute warmongers and absolute pacifists, At the center, there is a majority that takes an intermediate position; preferring peace but not ruling out war.

This was the situation up to not long ago for most issues. But the recent data indicate a remarkable ongoing transformation, something more like this:
 

(image from Pew research center)

 
You see how the preferences among American voters are splitting into two halves. Liberals and conservatives are becoming more and more different, a split that may increase in the future.

In a previous post of mine, I interpreted this trend as the result of the growing impoverishment of society, a phenomenon that increases the competition for the remaining resources. The increased polarization derives from the fact that some categories or social classes tend to find it easier to gather resources by stealing them from those who have them rather than creating them out of natural resources (e.g. banks vs. citizens or the elites vs. the middle class). If this interpretation is correct, political polarization is here to stay with us for a long time.

 

The problem is that polarization has deep political consequences. If society is split into two ideologically incompatible halves then the mechanism of the "primaries" enhances the split even more. The Hotelling-Downs model still holds, but separately for the two halves. At this point, in order to win votes, a candidate may be better off by aiming for one of the two peaks, either at the left or at the right; a position that's in practice obligatory with the primaries, where voters are split into two halves as well.

Indeed, Donald Trump has been playing king of the hill in the republican hump while pushing most of the other candidates in the Republican desert of the center. The only Republican rivals that survived Trump's onslaught are those, like Ted Cruz, who are competing with him for the same rightmost peak. Something similar has generated the relative success of Bernie Sanders on the opposite side of the political spectrum; even though that may not lead him to the nomination. So, Donald Trump was really an unavoidable phenomenon.

And now? It seems increasingly likely that Trump will obtain the Republican nomination by means of his successful polarizing tactics. But, in order to win the presidency, Trump should abandon the safe but limited hill on the right and try to conquer the center. But can he really do that after such an aggressive and divisive nomination campaign? Trump has nearly supernatural communication skills, but this may be too much even for him. The problem is that the President of the United States is supposed to be the president of everyone, not just of those who voted for him. But, we already saw a dangerous crack in this arrangement with President Obama, when a considerable number of people seemed unable to accept the idea of having a black president. As president, Donald Trump would be likely to generate similar reactions from a different section of the public. That could produce a split in society that, euphemistically, we could define as a little difficult to manage.

But, again, Trump is not the cause of anything, he is just the unavoidable result of the rising internecine competition within an increasingly poorer society. He may fail in his bid for the presidency, but the social and political factors that created him will remain. And these factors might easily lead to something much worse than Trump if the economic situation deteriorates further, as it probably will.

So, where is the institution we call "democracy" going? It is difficult to say, but, in order for democracy to exist, there must exist certain conditions, in particular a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth in society. And this is something that we are rapidly losing. As we slide down the Seneca Cliff, democracy may be rapidly lost as well.

 

 

America at the Crossroads

Off the keyboard of  Jaded Prole
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empathy

First Published on The Jaded Prole, January 12, 2015.

 

Let this be the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms
this is the year
that dark-skinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendents
of their executioners

Martín Espada

 

I found the 2014 holiday season a strange combination of seasonal cheer and rising racial tensions as a result of continuing police violence, protests, and the ugly reaction to them. This strange confluence of good will and ugly polarization has caused me to further consider our moment in the dynamic evolution of culture. By culture, I mean the social self-image and mindset that defines how we how see ourselves within the social context and how we interpret the world around us. As I have written before, culture defines our language, our thinking and our actions just as our collective attitudes and actions shape the larger culture. In my observation, we are at a tipping point.

The Senate report on torture was a disturbing indication of this as so many Americans are willing to accept, support, and attempt to defend such monstrous behavior. This cannot be separated from the rise in racist reaction we are witnessing around the country regarding protests of police abuse. In Virginia Beach a “rally to defend police” is one example. As Kareem Abdul Jabbar wisely pointed out, “Police aren’t under attack, institutionalized racism is.” These rallies are not so much support for police as they are thinly veiled expressions of racism.

What we are witnessing is the playing out of the vicious, competitive corporatized culture and attitudes the public has been fed for decades. Cop culture, military, or “warrior” culture, rape culture, and Wall Street culture are inseparable. All are racist, misogynist, inherently violent, alienated, antisocial, and ego-centric. Vengeance, greed, and prejudicial judgment are key to this mindset. It seems the three headed monster of racism, militarism and poverty Martin Luther King warned us about is coming home to roost.

This is the cultural perspective that justifies victim-blaming, criminalization of poverty, racism, sexism, police abuse, torture, exploitation, corporate theft, destruction of the ecology, imperialism, and war. It is the fascist ideology of raw power or, Power of the Will, where the brutal rule of those with power is justified and under which illness and poverty are seen as character flaws and deserved conditions of the weak.

Years ago, I wrote an article called “The Cannibalist System or What’s Eating You” about how the alienated culture of materialism, individualism and greed pushed by the market system causes us to devolve from higher, cooperative animals to the lower variety. Higher animals are those showing cooperation and empathy like apes, elephants and porpoises. Lower animals like crocodiles are anti-social loners who will eat their young. The right-wing/libertarian ethic is an example of this devolution. We as a species are hardwired for empathy. We identify with the experience and even feel the pain of others. Without empathy, there cannot be sympathy or compassion much less ethics or a concept of the common good. We are social animals whose ability to cooperate for the common good not only allowed us to survive the rigors of the Pleistocene but also to create civilizations. Empathy defines our humanity and is the basis of all religions. Economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin writes, “Biologists and cognitive neuroscientists are discovering mirror-neurons–the so-called empathy neurons–that allow human beings and other species to feel and experience another’s situation as if it were one’s own. We are, it appears, the most social of animals and seek intimate participation and companionship with our fellows.

This is not true for all of us. Some people lack the physical capability of empathy. They are called sociopaths or psychopaths. MRIs of the brain show that the area responsible for empathy in these individuals is underdeveloped. Psychopaths tend to do very well in competitive areas like politics and business where having a conscience can be an obstacle to personal gain at the expense of others.

Fortunately, not all are taken in by this pathology, though “conservatives” and the G.O.P seem to have made this their credo, reflected in both campaign rhetoric and policy. The influence of this anti-social mindset has resulted in a more extreme polarization that threatens to build on itself increasing violent repression, class and race antagonism and tearing our country apart.

We have choices. We can be blindly guided by culture and those who manipulate it to their advantage or we can think for ourselves and with each other in mind, actively influencing the culture in better directions. I know this, because as little as I have in material advantage or power of any kind, I’ve been doing what I can for decades. I do it in conversation. I do it by writing articles like this. I do it by publishing books and the “Blue Collar Review” literary journal which I’ve done for 18 years. The focus of what I publish is progressive working class literature. What does that mean? Most of us are not independently wealthy. We must work for others or for ourselves. Like it or not, we are all dependent on each other even for the opportunity to support ourselves. This creates shared interests that include and transcend differences of gender, race, religion and national origin. Working class literature speaks to our common humanity and helps us realize that our collective interests are best served through solidarity. It is a rejection of the alienated hyper-individual pathology of corporate culture that polarizes us. Samples of poetry in the journal can be seen on the website: http://Partisanpress.org. As the ugly reality of corporate right-wing culture is bared, the best remedy is the recognition and rejection of this destructive paradigm, reclaiming and recreating our older, healthier, more community-focused working class culture.

It boils down to this: we can have a self-destructive society based on egotistical hoarding, tribalism and raw competition in which we all suffer for the benefit of a few or we can have a society based on the cooperation that got us this far — a society based on psychopathy or one based on empathy. Many issues are connected to this, from living wages and how we organize work to whether we have healthcare for all or only for those who can afford high-priced insurance. It is connected to affordable housing, as well as energy, environmental and foreign policies. Will we continue to allow corporate psychopaths to run our government in their own interests or will we demand a restoration of our representative Republic, separating wealth from power?

In considering this choice of cultural emphasis, our recent warming of relations with Cuba comes to mind. Cuba is a small, poor, developing country which was a colony of Spain and then run by the US under various dictators until the early 1960s. It remains relatively poor due in large part to the enforced economic isolation of the embargo by the US and has literally been under various kinds of attack every day since its revolution. Though they have problems with corruption, they are far less than what we see in our own country but Cuba has a culture of empathy. Cubans have basic social guarantees and good public health care. They have higher literacy rates and lower infant mortality than in our country. While the US trains torturers and killers at the former “School of the Americas” in Ft. Benning Georgia, Cuba trains physicians. They educate them for free with the requirement that they put in five years serving the poorest people in the poorest countries. We export soldiers and ultimatums. They export doctors. When Katrina devastated our Gulf Coast, Cubans lined up to give blood – which the US refused. While big US corporations drool at the prospects of invading and exploiting Cuba, we would do better to welcome their influence.

As I wrote earlier in this article, I believe we are at a tipping point, both socially and ecologically. I hope that we can recognize this and make the right choices. The quality of our lives and our future existence are dependent on our ability to come together. As Jeremy Rifkin writes, “What is required now is nothing less than a leap to global empathic consciousness and in less than a generation if we are to resurrect the global economy and revitalize the biosphere.” Achieving a critical mass of “empathic consciousness” sounds like an impossibly difficult goal but we can all begin by interpreting our world through what the philosopher Martin Buber called the I in Thou. This means listening to the experience of others and seeking to understand rather than judge. It means recognizing each other, even strangers, as spiritual beings like ourselves and realizing that our individuality, much less our survival, exists only in the context of others – not just other people but all life in the fragile biosphere of which we are a part.

Let this be the year we overcome the manipulated polarization and partisanship, finding our much larger common ground. Let this be the year we turn away from the rancid, barbarian psychopathy that idealizes violence, militarism and greed, recognizing the real cost to all of us of Dr. King’s three headed monster. Let us resolve to make this the year when “us” and “we” replaces “them” and “me.” Let this be the year we begin building a culture of empathy.

 

Jaded Prole is the nom-de-plume of a freelance writer and poet as well as a publisher, and philosopher living in Virginia. His blog is hereHe also publishes The Blue Collar Review, a quarterly whose purpose is to expand and promote a progressive working class vision of culture.

http://partisanpress.org/

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