I just got an email from Matt Yglesias saying that he is leaving his Slow Boring Substack to take up a job at DecisionHQ. So, it’s time for me to have my final say on a dispute that has been going at a fairly slow pace.
A couple of weeks ago, Matt put up a post (really a Substack newsletter, but I still think in blog terms), headlined Polarization is a choice with the subtitle, “Political elites justify polarizing decisions with self-fulfilling prophesies”
I responded with a snarky but (I thought) self-explanatory note, saying “Peak both sidesism here. Republicans want to overthrow US democracy, while Democrats stubbornly insist on keeping it. Surely there is some middle ground to be found here ”
A few days ago, Matt came back to ask “I’m curious what actual things the article says you believe are wrong. You clearly didn’t like it since you choose to mischaracterize it in a mean-spirited way, but I’m not sure what you didn’t like about it.”
So, here’s my response.
I start from the position that the Republican Party is an extreme-right party, comparable to Fidesz in Hungary, which its intellectual leaders much admire. It’s anti-democratic, racist and dominated by delusional claims and conspiracy theories encompassing just about everything.
The far-right positioning of the US isn’t new. It’s been developing over at least thirty years, notably since the launch of Fox News. But the rise of Trump has crystallised the transition from a more-or-less normal rightwing party to an organisation of the far-right.
By contrast, the Democratic party is a moderate party of the centre and centre-left: even members perceived as leftwing in the US context, such as Sanders and AOC would be unremarkable centre-leftists elsewhere.
This shift has cost the Republicans some political support. From being the unchallenged majority party in the 1980s, they have become a minority, which has accelerated their shift to anti-democratic positions. But they still command the support of nearly half of American voters, and, within that half, the majority is committed to Trump personally, and to positions that can fairly be described as fascist.
In this context, what can we make of an article headlined “Polarization is a choice: Political elites justify polarizing decisions with self-fulfilling prophesies”. My brief and snarky response was “Peak both sidesism here. Republicans want to overthrow US democracy, while Democrats stubbornly insist on keeping it. Surely there is some middle ground to be found here ”
I don’t see how my claim of both-sidesism can be denied here. The headline refers to “Political elites”, with no suggestion that one side bears more of the blame than the other (except that “elites”, while presumably intended neutrally here, is widely taken as rightwing code for “educated people we don’t like”). The article is entirely consistent with this reading. Republicans and Democrats alike are praised for compromise, and criticised for pursuing the policies preferred by their activist supporters. In this context, Trump’s actions in office are explicitly compared with the moderate reforms proposed by Biden on taking office (the Jan 6 insurrection is not mentioned).
Similarly, “polarization” is an inherently symmetrical metaphor, with the clear implication of an undesirable move away from a neutral or middle-ground position, defined by the views of the median voter. And here we come to a point which, I think, is at the core of our disagreement.
Matt’s argument, stated in the headline, is that political polarization results from the choices of political professionals to position their parties further away from the views of the median US voter (which are implicitly assumed to be moderate and sensible). In reality, the far-right radicalisation of the Republican party has involved a series of self-reinforcing interactions between Republican voters and activists and the Republican political-intellectual-media class. The core of this dynamic is the interaction between voters (particularly Republican primary voters) and the rightwing media, starting with Fox and extending to Alex Jones, Newsmax and Stormfront.
The intellectual and political classes have mostly followed rather than led, with the old establishment gradually replaced by delusional extremists of various kinds.
To sum up: an analysis of the US political scene that starts from the assumption that it involves a contest for the middle ground between two normal political parties, is fundamentally wrong. It’s less plausible even than the Republican mirror image of the view I’ve presented, in which it’s the Democrats who are plotting to end democracy and establish socialism. That view is crazy, but as long as you are willing to assume that anything you see or read from outside the Fox/QAnon bubble is part of the plot, it’s internally consistent.
Since I started writing this, I’ve been made aware of the 2025 Project, where the intention to establish a permanent rightwing dictatorship is about as clear as it can possibly be. To me, at least, its pretty clear where the “polarisation” is coming from.