Monday, November 12, 2007

Polarization isn't the Real Issue

I cannot agree with Robin Hanson's dismal take on the information presented in this recent book to the effect that the USA is more politically polarized than any other first world nation. Apparently what the stats show is that only 34% of the people in America regularly talk to someone who disagrees with them politically. Oh - and "only 23 percent of Americans could recall having a political conversation with someone who disagreed with them." (Just Don't Ask how those numbers manage to coexist. I guess the idea is that we're expected to believe that the first number means people of different political stripes don't travel in the same circles and that when they happen to, roughly 1/3 of them avoid political conversation altogether?)

This is contrasted with such places as Japan and Hong Kong, who enjoy lively political discourse.

Wait, wha...???

Well, yeah - apparently the lynchpin stat in the book is some question about whether you perceive the two people you most regularly talk to as "politically partisan" and then whether or not you agree with them. It seems US citizens are most likely to both perceive their two conversational best-mates as "partisan" and also to agree with them. And it is on this that they base the allegation that the US is "more polarized." Japan and Hong Kong, by contrast, neither perceive their friends as "partisan" nor agree with them politically. And this, one presumes, is meant to be politically healthy.

Actually, I would submit that things are more complex than that. I lived in Japan for three years, and it's true that politics never comes up - and that on the rare occasions it does it's almost always international politics, and everyone agrees with everyone else about that (the general consensus is that Japan is Japan and Japan Japan Japan). But I would be a Clinton if I tried to sell you on the idea that there is healthy political discourse in Japan because it Just Ain't So. The reason no one is "partisan" there and the reason no one forms cliques based on politics there is because there's nothing to talk about. Japan is a Democracy in Name Only - in reality it's run by a giant fraternity that calls itself the Liberal Democratic Party, which is staffed entirely by people who made their connections by regularly drinking too much at one of Japan's top state schools (the so-called "Imperial Universities," which in practice for getting a government job is really just Tokyo University and sometimes maybe on an off day Kyoto University) and have their government jobs only because they're friends with the people who held the position before them. There is no meaningful political debate in Japan because this party always wins, and it has been setting policy for so long that it would probably be unwise to elect anyone else at this point. Japan is a post-political society. So it's true that Japan is "less polarized" than the US - but it's not at all clear that this is translates into "healthy discourse." If you think general apathy passing itself off as consensus is politically healthy, then sure, but somehow I don't think that's what the book in question has in mind.

I think to a lesser degree the same is true in Europe as well. Fine - most European countries have, in practice, some kind of two-party-ish system in place (with, on average, three or so others forming a peanut gallery on the backbenches), and I suppose that there is some measure of "partisanship" involved in deciding which of these parties you generally vote for. But in fact there tends to be little difference between them - and they simply trade power back and forth with one of the two increasing welfare spending a bit and the other one bringing it down a bit, and so on and on and on. Europeans are, as far as I can tell, about 90% Socialist. They're all roughly American Democrats. When they're students, they flirt with more radical Socialism, but I never had the impression that anyone I met was really all that serious about it. It's just sort of a way of talking - an "in-group" test, really. Inside, they're all fairly sensible Social Democrats, and I don't see much evidence that people's opinions in Europe change much as they get older.

To the extent that America is "polarized," it's because there's still a real political debate going on here. In the years after WWII, the world shifted sharply to the Left (a process that had arguably begun in the early 1930s - and was certainly being agitated for since the end of WWI). I'm not merely talking about the now-defunct experimental nations like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Cambodia. I mean in general the world headed left. A tide of Social Democracy swept Europe - and that seems to be the model of choice for the nations that have joined the first world more recently.

The US is one of the few countries left where Capitalism is still on the table as an option. Even here, very few people are talking about full-on free market Capitalism - but in spirit it's a part of the debate in the sense that there is a real commitment to the rights of individuals over and above the perrogatives of the state here. In the US, for example, "free speech" still, to a lot of people (not everyone, of course), means the right to say whatever you want, regardless of whom it offends. This is the case virtually nowhere else in the world, where there are broadly agreed-upon prohibitions against "socially harmful" speech. In the US, for example, there are still large swathes of the nation that resist zoning laws on the principle that owned property is owned property. Such a thing would be unthinkable pretty much anywhere else. The US is the only country I know of where general gun-ownership is defended on self-defense grounds, not just against intruders but against the government. There are other countries that allow handgun possession, but nowhere else considers gun ownership an "inalienable right;" no other country allows them for these ideological reasons.

The US is polarized because Social Democracy hasn't quite taken hold here. Don't get me wrong - the US is a socialist country just like every other major first world country - but the culture is not yet completely socialized. And so sure, we're more "polarized," but I think that's because a substantive debate is still going on here. In most of the rest of the world, the debate is over, and the socialists won. Political parties in these countries are historical artefacts, functional mechanisms in the system but little more. (Note, I think the same is true of the Republicans and the Democrats - they are not substantially different - but it so happens that most true Capitalists vote Republican, and so that party becomes a useful vehicle for political partisanship.) Here, even if the parties aren't too terribly different, sections of the population are.

Now, of course it isn't clear that consensus is a bad thing. In fact, I would think that broad consensus is the goal of any political system. We're trying, as it were, to evolve a system that is more or less acceptable to everyone; it is, or should be, the dream of every political partisan to set up the system in such a way that politics is a minor concern in people's lives. This is why I have always been skeptical of the criticism of low voter turnouts, for example. The low turnout in and of itself tells us nothing - it's the reason for it that matters. If the reason in a particular instance is that people are broadly satisfied and all candidates are promising various flavors of more of the same, then I call low turnout a sign of SUCCESS. And indeed, in a strange way I envy Japan its apathy politics. I don't like the particular brand of politics they've settled on, but I must honestly admit that it's right for the Japanese as I understand them, and in any case it was nice to live somewhere where I could take a three-year break from world news and, in the words of Yuri Zhivago, "just live." (The surest sign, in fact, that Communism is a Thing to be Avoided Like the Plague is that it advocates perpetual revolution - i.e. no end to politics in our lifetime.)

My overall point is just that I think Hanson is looking at this all backward. The US is "polarized" only because there are still issues of principle being struggled over here. The rest of the world is "less polarized" because those issues have been decided. In other words, I strongly suspect that a conversation between a German CSU supporter and his SPD-voting friend isn't too different from a conversation between two American Democrats - one "moderate" and one "less moderate." Compared to the analogous situation in the US, they're on the same team. Partisanship isn't a "thing-in-itself." It's an artefact of the range of principles on the table for discussion. There is no "disease" of partisanship that is killing US discourse. Rather, it's just that there happens to be a discourse at all. If the Free State Project had picked a locality in the Netherlands, for example, I'm sure the ensuing debate would be much more "partisan" than you currently see in New Hampshire.

No study of "partisanship" can be complete without addressing the question of what sort of behavior we would expect on average from people of differing ideologies co-existing in the same political space. Although I admit I haven't read the book, I strongly suspect that what's in operation is an ellaborate example of ignoring the baseline. That is, to properly label the US "partisan" or "polarized," you'd first have to establish some expectation of what "normal" political discourse involves and then demonstrate that the US has deviated from that. To do so without reference to the range of ideologies represented and the extent to which they differ is to put oneself in danger of mistaking consensus for "healthy discourse," which is what I think has almost certainly happened here.

So that I am not misunderstood - I don't see any particular value in political debate in and of itself. I reject the idea that a politically healthy nation is one where power frequently changes hands. Quite the contrary - I think the ultimate goal is to settle on a correct system that we all broadly agree on, so that we can spend out time arguing about art. Political debate is only useful in as far as it helps us reach this system. So in that light, I suppose it would be better if people in the US talked to each other more about politics. But only, you understand, for the purpose of convincing the Social Democratic majority that Capitalism is the way to go. I am not interested in political debate if it leads to more socialism in this country, and I am not interested in political debate for the sake of political debate. My purpose in debating with people is to convince them to vote Libertarian. And of course, the rules of debate require a wager: if I expect my debate partner to approach my ideas with an open mind, then I am naturally required to approach his with an open mind as well - to defend my points with logical arguments and seriously consider any cogent arguments he gives me. No pain no gain, as it were. But that doesn't change my goal - which is to "win," whereby "winning" means convincing someone to embrace free-market Capitalism.

So this "polarized" label - it's beside the point, really.


At 10:59 AM, Blogger Noah Motion said...

There's a new-ish book from Cato that argues, as far as I can tell (I just started it), that American's aren't even all that polarized. The point seems to be that most people are something like libertarians, i.e., socially and economically (classically) liberal, and it's politicians and other unsavory types that make the red vs. blue state nonsense even seem plausible.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Noah Motion said...

Oops. The books is Age of Abundance.

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