When polarization is deep, the large and only slightly differentiated middle that normally has nothing to do with anti-modern extremists is repeatedly forced to take sides against whichever is, from their perch, easier to see as the greater existential threat. Thus, we see those leaning left largely internalizing the message of postmodernism and those leaning right widely embracing the message of premodernism. Everyone knows on some level that the anti-modernists are a threat to Modernity itself and thus the other side’s anti-modernists must be massively and directly resisted. This results in nearly everything becoming yet another political battleground, every election is an existential fight for the “soul” of the nation, and extremists on one’s own side are repeatedly excused and defended in the name of the Greater Good.
. . .A New Center is therefore the wrong way to bypass existential polarization. For most individuals on too many political choices, the stakes are just too high. As political events of 2016 showed, when forced to choose consequentially between representatives of two apparent existential threats, mostly everyone just loses their mind and digs in a little deeper.
Thanks to a reader for the pointer.
1. The title of the piece is “A Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity.” They characterize the noisy left as post-modern and the noisy right as pre-modern.
2. Much of the essay strikes me as good, but some of it strikes me as daft. The attempt to squeeze Hayek into their pre-modern category was not persuasive to me.
3. In the quoted paragraphs, I think they come close to an important observation, which is that as the stakes of politics come to be perceived as high, centrists get thrown off balance. Michael Anton’s infamous flight 93 election essay is a case in point. In conversation, Yuval Levin has argued vehemently against the thesis of that memo. He prefers a point of view that says, “Wait, things are not that bad. The political process works very slowly. We are not on the verge of total defeat at the hands of the left.”
4. Part of the support for extremism comes from the view of each side that it has been losing. Ask someone on the left what has been the most important political development of recent decades, and they will answer “neoliberalism.” For them, policy has been taken over by free-market economic ideology. Ask someone on the right the same question, and they will answer, “the rise of the administrative state.” For them, policy has been taken over by technocratic interventionist ideology.
5. Both sides may suffer from over-simplification bias. If you believe that social problems have simple causes and obvious solutions, then the fact that the problems persist is evidence that some ideological demon has taken possession of the nation’s soul. If only they would let go of their free-market ideology. If only they would let go of their technocratic elitism.
6. I think that the media environment reinforces this tendency toward apocalyptic thinking. In the context of polarization, “If it bleeds it leads” translates into “If the issue can be used to illustrate in an exaggerated way the transgressions of the other side, it leads.” This accounts for the attention paid to a story of professional football players kneeling that otherwise belongs about 300,000th on any rational news-consumer’s list of concerns.
7. Perhaps the antidote to polarization is the attitude, “Things are not that bad.” And perhaps that applies even to the phenomenon of polarization itself.