In praise of polarization

“Polarization can create the conditions for overdue reckonings, for broader coalitions. When the parties were mixed, and racially conservative whites were seen as the key swing vote, racial issues were suppressed in American politics. The passage of the Civil Rights Act is the exception that proves the rule: Civil rights laws had been blocked in Congress for decades, and the rupture required to unblock them broke the party system of that era. The polarization of the parties around race and ideology — a story I tell in detail in my book Why We’re Polarized — created an incentive for one party, at least, to prioritize issues of racial justice.

As the parties became more polarized around racial issues, it became much safer for Democratic politicians to embrace racial issues,” says Christopher Stout, a political scientist at Oregon State University and the author of Bringing Race Back In: Black Politicians, Deracialization, and Voting Behavior in the Age of Obama. “Even in 2008, there was a lot of hesitancy to talk about race. Think back to Obama and Jeremiah Wright. But as white working-class voters who were racially conservative left the Democratic Party, it created space for Democrats to talk about race and be rewarded for it rather than punished for it.

Joe Biden’s career reflects the arc of this change. As he has gotten in trouble for saying, when he entered Congress, in the 1970s, he worked often with conservative, segregationist Democrats. These weren’t just coalitions of expedience: He took positions on issues like crime and busing meant to mollify racially conservative white voters. But Biden changed alongside his party. By 2008, those Democrats were gone, and Biden was Obama’s vice president, in an administration that cemented the Democratic Party’s identity as the party of a multiethnic America.”

“Identity politics is often tossed around as a slur, an epithet. A politics of identity is said to be exclusionary, pitting Americans against each other, denying them the common ground of shared experience. This is oft-made criticism of “Black Lives Matter” as a slogan, by those who prefer “all lives matter.” But we are seeing the rebuttal to that argument in the political reality of this moment, where 91 percent of Democrats — and 92 percent of white Democrats — express support for Black Lives Matter (as do 40 percent of Republicans). A politics of identity can be inclusionary, building bridges across experiences that would otherwise remain siloed.”

“Identity is never singular. We have many identities, some of them linked together, some of them sitting in tension. The story of modern political polarization is identities fusing together: Black, Jewish, liberal, atheist, urbanite — Democrat. White, evangelical, rural, conservative, hunter — Republican. Identity fusion creates stronger bonds of solidarity between those who share identities, and can create more conflict with those who become the out-group. It is both inclusionary and exclusionary. But for groups who’ve long been marginalized, who haven’t had the power to force their concerns and their experiences to the forefront of national politics, it can be transformative.
There is no action without reaction, of course. The promise of change that thrills some Americans unnerves others. Trump is president because Obama was president. We will not suddenly find agreement on America’s oldest divides, easy redemption for our oldest sins. And our political system is designed to reflect consensus, not resolve conflict. This is why, in part, polarization is so feared: It breeds government paralysis, wanton obstruction, dangerous brinksmanship.

Even so, we should prefer the difficulties of political conflict to the injustice of suppression. Police brutality is as old as America, but it has been rare for either of our major political parties to take it seriously, much less make it — and racial inequality more broadly — central to their agendas. Change at the level America needs may not be likely, but it would be impossible if neither party was willing to fight for it. That one is beginning to do so now is the product of relentless organizing, activism, and courage among Black Americans, but it is also the product of polarization, sorting, and identity politics.”