How par­ti­san­ship broke the United States in two

Three new books ex­am­ine the col­lapse of con­sen­sus and why Amer­i­can so­ci­ety is so di­vided on key is­sues

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - Stephen Phillips

In his tra­duce­ment of norms, Don­ald Trump in­vites us to view him as an aber­ra­tion. And there’s suc­cour in this: the prospect of re­stored deco­rum af­ter the or­ange comet sput­ters. But what if Trump is en­doge­nous to Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem – a “ra­tio­nal ac­tor” ob­serv­ing “the logic of po­lar­i­sa­tion”? This is al­to­gether more in­cul­pa­tory, not to men­tion dis­con­cert­ing – way­laid by his ego, Trump has proved a poor dem­a­gogue; what if a com­pe­tent one comes along?

“We col­lapse sys­temic prob­lems into per­son­alised nar­ra­tives, and… cloud… un­der­stand­ing,” writes Vox co-founder Ezra Klein. In Why We’re Po­lar­ized he ap­plies “sys­tems think­ing” to a US po­lit­i­cal fir­ma­ment that se­lects for di­vi­sive­ness. The re­sult is riv­et­ing, rev­e­la­tory, but also slip­pery – a spec­i­men of the malaise it di­ag­noses.

Wasn’t US pol­i­tics ever thus? Ac­tu­ally, Klein ex­humes a be-care­ful-what-youwish-for mis­sive from the Amer­i­can Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence As­so­ci­a­tion in 1950 lament­ing in­suf­fi­cient in­ter-party dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. If this de­prived vot­ers of mean­ing­ful choice, it also had mer­its. JFK deemed it a cen­tripetal check on an oth­er­wise divi­sive so­ci­ety, fur­nish­ing a “vi­tal cen­tre” wherein politi­cians could horse-trade and ide­ol­ogy wasn’t merely sus­pect but im­prac­ti­cal.

But this isn’t an era we should feel nos­tal­gia for to­wards mak­ing the US col­le­gial again. Un­der the as­cen­dancy within the Democrats of south­ern con­ser­va­tive “Dix­iecrats” it was sham­comity rest­ing on African-Amer­i­cans’ sub­ju­ga­tion. “It’s not that Amer­i­can pol­i­tics was not riven by sharp, even vi­o­lent dis­agree­ment,” writes Klein, “it’s sim­ply that these fights did not map cleanly onto party.” The Civil Rights Act brought them into align­ment, cleav­ing the par­ties apart de­mo­graph­i­cally and ide­o­log­i­cally – south­ern con­ser­va­tives find­ing com­mon cause with “states’ rights”– pro­claim­ing Repub­li­cans; African-Amer­i­cans flock­ing to the Democrats – to­ward to­day’s en­ti­ties.

Abet­ting po­lar­i­sa­tion is a me­dia mar­ket that skews in­cen­di­ary in its quest for clicks, re­ward­ing politi­cians who court con­tro­versy with cover­age. Then there’s Amer­ica’s “dif­fuse” distributi­on of power, hedged around with mech­a­nisms to fore­stall the

Why We’re Po­lar­ized

By Ezra Klein

Si­mon & Schus­ter, 336pp, $28

The New Class War: Sav­ing Democ­racy from the Metropoli­tan Elite by Michael Lind

At­lantic Books, 224pp, £14.99

The Age of En­ti­tle­ment: Amer­ica since the Six­ties

By Christophe­r Cald­well

Si­mon & Schus­ter, 352pp, $28 tyranny of any one gov­ern­men­tal branch. These de­sign in scle­rotic dys­func­tion by fur­nish­ing the par­ties with tools to sab­o­tage one other.

But there’s flesh-and-blood the­ory be­hind Klein’s tech­no­cratic anal­y­sis: “Iden­tity is present in pol­i­tics in the way grav­ity, evo­lu­tion or cog­ni­tion is present in pol­i­tics.” Party af­fil­i­a­tion has come to sub­sume a nexus of “iden­ti­ties”, he adds – race, gen­der, class, re­li­gion, lo­cale, even con­sumer affini­ties.

This seems self-ev­i­dent – per­spec­tive is rel­a­tive to po­si­tion. But “iden­tity pol­i­tics” is typ­i­cally wielded as a pe­jo­ra­tive, Klein notes, to dele­git­imise “the con­cerns of weaker groups . . .” In­stead, he re­casts iden­tity as a source of light not heat, even, in its im­pe­tus to­ward authen­tic­ity, a benef­i­cent force to be af­firmed.

It fig­ures an on­line me­dia entreprene­ur would find this ap­peal­ing. It com­ports with a business model of ag­gre­gat­ing de­mo­graphic sliv­ers across the in­ter­net’s long tail.

But another read­ing is that iden­tity is one among many fram­ing de­vices and fix­a­tion on it as an or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple dele­te­ri­ous. Ac­cent­ing pol­i­tics as self­ex­pres­sion seems un­likely to bet­ter dis­pose us to­wards op­po­nents and li­able to in­grain our own par­ti­san­ship. And one word you won’t find here is “nar­cis­sism”.

Also min­imised is class. Like other Brah­min analy­ses of Trump-era Amer­ica, Why We’re Po­lar­ized flaunts a quest­ing, em­pathic spirit of in­tel­lec­tual in­quiry but comes over all in­cu­ri­ous and gim­let-eyed be­fore work­ing-class pop­ulism, dis­posed of as race-tinged sta­tus anx­i­ety. We’re in­formed with faux-aca­demic grav­i­tas that, “in a care­ful review of the lit­er­a­ture” – like he didn’t merely con­sult sources and write up an ar­ti­cle but con­ducted a meta-anal­y­sis – “Vox’s Zach Beauchamp” found that the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor of pop­ulist right par­ties is “hos­til­ity to im­mi­gra­tion, par­tic­u­larly when the im­mi­grants are non­white and Mus­lim”. There’s an oddly her­metic feel to this: Klein, the dis­pas­sion­ate wonk whose start-up ar­ro­gates to it­self the ti­tle, “the ex­plana­tory news pub­li­ca­tion,” float­ing above the fray, ju­di­ciously me­di­at­ing the stud­ies.

How con­ve­nient, would, I sus­pect, be Michael Lind’s re­join­der – “woke”wash­ing multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions’ Wall Street-ap­proved “labour ar­bi­trage” – hir­ing unau­tho­rised im­mi­grants as eas­ily cowed shadow work­ers with­out the pro­tec­tions af­forded do­mes­tic labour and obliged to toil at a steep dis­count to what these com­pa­nies would oth­er­wise have to pay. Let an idea be known by the in­ter­ests it serves.

For Lind, the 2016 elec­tion opened up a transverse tear in Amer­ica’s left-right po­lit­i­cal fab­ric be­tween the work­ing class and a pro­fes­sional-man­age­rial “over­class” pre­sid­ing over “tech­no­cratic ne­olib­er­al­ism,” a com­pound of “free mar­ket eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism… and the cul­tural lib­er­al­ism of the bo­hemian/aca­demic left.”

The rup­ture was a long time com­ing, he writes in The New Class War, rooted in the dis­so­lu­tion of power-shar­ing be­tween elites and masses. This com­pact had been en­forced by the need for the former to con­script the lat­ter in the event of “great power” con­fla­gra­tion and fore­stall their “rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion”. But as these threats re­ceded, the ac­com­mo­da­tion, with its de­motic ca­coph­ony, messy re­dun­dan­cies and pro­cliv­ity to pro­duce buf­foons as “tri­bunes” of the lower or­ders, be­gan to seem ripe for ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion.

The ef­fects were no less dra­matic for their lack of de­sign: the as­cen­dance of an or­der min­is­ter­ing to the ex­i­gen­cies of global cap­i­tal, trans­plant­ing power from leg­is­la­tures to elite con­claves in gov­ern­ment agen­cies, courts and supra-na­tional bod­ies, and draw­ing moral le­git­i­macy from pieties on race and gen­der that, as con­sti­tuted in poli­cies (“class-neu­tral” af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion), avoid un­duly sub­vert­ing its smooth op­er­a­tion (or over­class sta­tus).

The fi­nal cat­a­lyst was the es­trange­ment of left­ist par­ties – in their em­brace of ur­ban

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