Pursuant to the conversation w/ John A about my post "Left, right, and wrong," I was giving thought to the question of how I see political polarization. This is tricky. On the one hand, I share Ronald Dworkin’s concern, articulated in his popular book Is Democracy Possible Here?, that political polemic has become so divisive and partisan that each side has come to perceive the other as not just an opponent but an enemy. On the other hand, one needs only tilt the kaleidoscope ever so slightly to see Democrats and Republicans as sharing (and, importantly, excluding) a remarkable amount in common, and not in some just-folks, we’re-all-Americans way. (A frequent charge, from critics from Ralph Nader to Ron Paul, is that the problem with both major parties is precisely what they have in common.)
On Dworkin’s account, debate is starting to be impossible because the parties do not recognize each other as legitimate opponents; thus no serious engagement about issues happens, because the encounter never moves past throwing hostility back and forth. Of course, Dworkin contends that the two major parties do share a tremendous amount in common, and if they could remind themselves of this, civility might be restored and public discourse elevated. On George Farah's view, on the other hand, debate never happens because the two apparently opposing views are really too close. Farah is the founder of Open Debates, an organization seeking to broaden the available spectrum of living options and in particular to reform the political debate system. According to Farah, in a debate between candidates (we're speaking now about an actual event, not just a disagreement), what we see is a canned rehearsal of anticipated moves, like Tweedledee and Tweedledum in a WWF match, but no hard questions (from the audience or even from each other). Huge swathes of political tradition -- and public opinion -- are excluded by ideological fiat. A Naderian critique would have it that the ostensible animosity between the left and right wings of the ruling class masks their mutual complicity, and the distraction provided by their foofaraw suits them well. They don't want the elevated discourse Dworkin imagines; they want targeted ads. Farah traces at least some of this shameful dumbshow to the 1988 coup d'etat in which the League of Women Voters was replaced by the newfangled Commission on Presidential Debates.
How seriously, then, ought we to take ostensible differences?
Recently I read a remark by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, decrying feminism that allows itself to be distracted over whether men or women do the dishes or the laundry, while women in Somalia or Pakistan or elsewhere are having their genitals mutilated or being stoned or strangled in honor killings. Against such a background, debates over housework might be characterized as (to put it mildly) confused regarding priorities; one could justifiably argue that whatever the differences between the parties, these are dwarfed by what they have in common, and in this case, they are being distracted from that common ground -- mutual concern for women’s lives -- to concentrate instead on minutiae.
There is a danger of scoring cheap points here, points all the cheaper considering the real suffering they exploit. The point is not to belittle feminism, nor to wave away the stresses of our lives, which are real, however trivial they seem by comparison with a gun in the face. But the case remains that a pressing concern up close does not always loom so large from a distance. In my comment to John A., I compared the question to the differences between Marxist factions in the late 19th and early 20th century. The most obvious of these might be Lenin’s polemic with Kautsky (the specific instance I mentioned), but the period was rife with these disputes, some on fine points of theory, some more substantive, and the parties went at it hammer and tongs. Some of them -- quite a number -- wound up dead, which is certainly a difference that makes a difference, at least to them. From a century’s distance, what do we see? Simply that every one of the parties was on the wrong side? Or is there something more?
And can I really mean that Glenn Beck and Harry Reid are as close and as far apart as Lenin and Kautsky? Is there a danger of the comparison being not false but just meaningless?