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Our Problem Isn't Polarization. It's Fascism.
A new paper makes the case.
Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA, 2008
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
Scholars increasingly point to polarization as a central threat to democracy—and identify technology platforms as key contributors to polarization. In contrast, we argue that polarization can only be seen as a central threat to democracy if inequality is ignored [italics mine.]
In a succinct recent paper at Sage Journals, scholars Daniel Kreiss and Shannon C. McGregor make a measured, methodical case that the current scholarly discussion of polarization is a blinkered moral vacuum which implicitly upholds white supremacy and bigotry.
It’s a brutal and thoroughly convincing argument—though I think it could go even further. Scholarly appeals to social harmony and unity aren’t just sidelining inequality as an issue. They’re leaning into a staple of white supremacist ideology and nationalist rhetoric. “Unity,” as an overriding virtue in the United States has long meant, “unity of white people.” A social science that sees polarization and partisanship as the main threats to democracy is a social science that implicitly—and often more than implicitly—is calling for white, Christofascist solidarity against Black (and feminist, and queer,and disabled) demands for justice.
Partisanship for Good Things Is Good. Partisanship for Bad Things Not So Much.
Kreiss and McGregor’s article is a survey of the state of play in social science research on polarization. That state of play centers mostly on concerns about division. “To many researchers,” they write, “it is of foremost concern that Americans seemingly no longer respect or even tolerate one another, and fear the other side poses an existential threat to their very way of lives and livelihoods.”
In the US, social identities have hardened around partisan political identities, which has “given rise to othering and the dislike and distrust of the opposition, in addition to claims of moral superiority for one’s own side.” Cue the hand-wringing discussions about how Republicans and Democrats don’t want to marry each other any more.
Polarization researchers see polarization and increased distrust between groups as a threat to cohesion, which in their view undermines democracy. Kreiss and McGregor argue that this view has little empirical basis and ignores huge swathes of political science research on inequality, American history, and social movements. They point out that ”the work of political historians, sociologists, and racial and ethnic studies researchers shows how the efforts of marginalized groups to achieve political and social equality—undertaken on and off platforms—often provoke powerful backlash from dominant groups, especially Whites in the United States.”
In other words, social justice movements create conflict and lead to polarization. But “Reconstruction-era politics, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Lives Matter have been central to moving the United States toward becoming a multi-racial democracy.” Unity in the name of, say, disenfranchising Black people is not democratic unity; it is in fact a unity opposed to democracy. Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow south had high levels of social cohesion and public unity, in part because dissent was met with violent reprisals. But neither of those societies were healthy democracies, to say the least.
Much of polarization literature focuses on social media platforms (especially twitter) and worries that the dynamics and algorithms create incentives for disunity. Researchers push for tech based solutions to encourage less outrage and more exposure to different views.
Kreiss and McGregor point out, though, that there’s little empirical evidence that the main drivers of polarization are social media platforms.
More, they note that polarization is in large part the result of people disagreeing on substantive issues. The problem is not “mere misperceptions of the opposing side” if, for example, you’re a trans child denied gender-affirming care, or a Black relative of a family member shot in the back by police. In that vein, the authors conclude, “It is not polarization, but racial repression that has been far more challenging and destabilizing to democracy over the past centuries if looked at from a non-White perspective.”
The Unity of Tyranny
Kreiss and McGregor do an excellent job of showing why both-sides social science is an inadequate tool for advancing democracy in a nation with an active rabid Christofascist movement. I think it’s also worth noting, though, that calls for a unified national identity have long been a staple of Christofascist propaganda.
The most dramatic example here is probably Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) which visually and narratively codifies the neo-Confederate ideology of post-Reconstruction America. The movie presents the Civil War as an iconic tragedy of disunity. James Baldwin at his most ironic explains, “the film is concerned with the Reconstruction, and how the birth of the Ku Klux Klan overcame that dismal and mistaken chapter in our—American—history.”
The mistaken chapter of Reconstruction, during which Black people briefly gained voting rights and some measure of equality, is overcome specifically through a rejection of polarization. North and South realize that the battle which separated them was a mistake, and come together in a great tidal wave of whiteness—symbolized by the massed Klan in their robes. The sweeping pale tide swamps the architects of disunity. Not, in this case, social media platforms, but Black people.
You might, of course, point out that Black people are also Americans, and a unity that involves murdering them in large numbers is not in fact unity, but its opposite. And you’d be right!
But the film performs the exact same transubstantiation of division as do social scientists with their brow-furrowing over “polarization.” Cohesion is defined so as to erase Black people (analyticaly and, in Griffith’s fevered imagination, physically.) Calls for justice and equality are framed as polarizing, and the solution to that polarization is national conciliation, effected by lowering over all (white people) the same white hood.
Birth of a Nation was hardly alone in its dreams of white unity. Scholar Donald Yacavone, following the work of James Loewen among others, analyzed the narratives in US history textbooks and found that authors “wished to avoid cultural strife.” The textbooks do this, Yacavone says by insisting that the (white) North and (white) South in the Civil War were both principled, and heroic. He points to one book from the early 60s—in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement—which praises Robert E. Lee. “His name is now loved and respected in both North and South…We know that he was not only a gallant Southern hero but a great American.”
Lee’s statue, and statues of other Civil War heroes, have become a flashpoint of (ahem) polarization. As Black people have gotten more of a say in public discourse, and as antiracist principles have gained some tentative ground, people have started to wonder whether it’s a great idea to build national unity on a racist traitor who is famous for shooting people to defend racist treason.
Lee, again, is one of the symbols of white supremacist unity in the US; including him, and the Confederacy, in our civic religion is one prominent way that textbooks and public officials have signaled that white unity is more important than rectifying inequality, or than including Black people (or other marginalized people) in the body politic. The push to remove Confederate statues therefore provoked fierce backlash, most notably in the neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. Per the path recommended in Birth of a Nation, and in the name of preserving nationalist white unity, fascists rioted, assaulted counter protestors, and murdered one of them.
Donald Trump was president at the time, and his response was couched in terms that resonated both with those 60s textbook and with the work of anti-polarization scholars. In response to a reporter’s (accurate) assertion that Neo-Nazis were involved in organizing the white mob, Trump said, infamously, “You have some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
Image: Michael Vadon, CC BY-SA 4.0
Trump said later that he had responded “perfectly”—and from the perspective of polarization researchers, he has a point. If the only evil in the polity is disunity, then shouldn’t presidents try to bring people together and see the good in all, white supremacists and violent racist murderers alike? The reporter was trying to get Trump to take a strong, polarized position against Nazis. Trump instead went for nuance and balance, trying to see the very fine people on both sides. Shouldn’t researches into polarization cheer that?
More antifascist polarization, please
I’m sure most researchers into polarization did not cheer that, because they are aware (like most people) that refusing to take a partisan stance against Nazis and white supremacists is bad.
And yet, in their research and policy recommendations, as Kreiss and McGregor make clear, polarization scholars mirror Trump, refusing to take a moral stand where a moral stand is very much required.
More, polarization scholars aren’t just coincidentally supporting Trump. They’re work buttresses him because they are part of the same tradition of white supremacist unity that he orangely embodies. National unity in the US has almost always meant white unity. Warning of the dangers of political conflict has almost always meant warning of the dangers of letting Black people vote and thereby dividing white power.
Polarization scholars are not, as they often would have it, observing from a position of non partisan neutrality. They are instead advancing the cause of fascism and white supremacy, using the fascist’s own language of nationalist cohesion.
That language is neither neutral nor just, and Kreiss and McGregor make a strong case that scholars should abandon it. Researchers might instead take the words of Martin Luther King as a guide. “Peace is not simply the absence of conflict, but the existence of justice for all people.”
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
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