Polarization and the Point of Politics
A few weeks ago, Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman warned in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that “polarization raises the stakes of political conflict” and that democracy suffers when “politics becomes a battle of ‘us versus them.’” But if politics isn’t supposed to be a “battle of ‘us versus them,’” what is it supposed to be?
The implicit model of political debate underlying most polemics against polarization goes something like this: Politics is about problems. Political differences arise when different factions coalesce around different proposed solutions to those problems. This only “works well,” however, when everyone remembers that they’re fundamentally on the same team. As the USA Today piece puts it, partisan disagreement is “the normal, useful tension that drives democracy,” but it’s “toxic” that things have reached a point where “destroying the other side becomes the goal.”
There are at least two problems with this picture. The first is about ideology, and the second is about interests. We can call them the Humean Objection and the Marxist Objection.
The Humean Objection is that not everyone has the same ideological goals. The problem-solving model of politics assumes that we’re all trying to solve the same problems, so the only reason we come to different conclusions about what should happen is that we’re making different predictions about how various policy proposals will work out. But as the philosopher David Hume argued, there’s a gap between facts and values. Judgments about what’s right or wrong, good or bad, or what anyone should or shouldn’t do, never rest on exclusively factual assumptions. There are underlying “should” premises.
To see how this works, think about the movement for a $15 minimum wage. Some of the disagreements between supporters and opponents of Fight for $15 really are about the empirical facts. Do minimum wage increases necessarily lead to increases in unemployment? A growing body of empirical research casts doubt on this premise, but many opponents of minimum wage hikes insist that it’s true. The argument usually stalls out in wrangling about this point.
But even if it could be conclusively proven that a federally mandated $15 minimum wage would trigger, say, a 3 percent spike in unemployment, mostly because of smaller firms with lower profit margins shutting their doors, this wouldn’t end the debate. Leftists like me would continue to advocate a $15 minimum wage. We’d just make sure to mention in the same breath the long-standing left-wing demand for a federal jobs guarantee.
The pairing of these two demands would hardly be enough to bring around right-wingers (or even liberal centrists). The growth of the public sector at the expense of the private sector would be ideologically congenial to us and ideologically abhorrent to them. They would care more about the right of small-business owners to stay in business, while we’d care more about the right of workers to make a living wage. The conflict would continue, in other words, not because of different judgments about the empirical facts, but because of different goals.
This brings us to the Marxist Objection. Not only are we not all on the same team in terms of our normative preferences, we aren’t on the same team in terms of our material interests. Mainstream political debates often include references to how “the economy” is doing, which suggests that everyone whose fortunes are bound up in “the economy” is being taken into account. But this is measured by indicators like the stock market that tell us far more about the profits of business owners and investors than about workers’ wages — never mind the public benefits paid out to those who can’t work.
Increases in corporate profit tend to coincide with greater employment, but those can come dramatically apart, as we’ve seen during the COVID crisis. And even in the best of times, the interests of people who have to work for others for a living are opposed (along multiple dimensions) to the interests of the people who employ them. Every extra cent added to a worker’s paycheck by militant labor organizing is a cent that doesn’t go into owners’ profits. High unemployment strengthens the hand of owners by dampening workers’ bargaining power.
So, if heightened polarization means that the working-class majority is increasingly committed to goals like a $15 minimum wage and a federal jobs guarantee, and increasingly angry at the business interests that stand in the way of these goals, then that’s a good thing — at least from the perspective of anyone who cares about workers’ interests. Seeing the Chamber of Commerce as “the enemy” for standing in the way is just clarity.