Wicked Polarization

How Prosperity, Democracy, and Experts Divided America

Thirteen years after he authored The End of Ideology, Daniel Bell would argue in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism that rising affluence and changing values would result in greater social fragmentation and create a crisis for democratic governance. What Bell did not foresee was that all that heterogeneity would ossify into a new polarization: the enforcement of orthodoxy by powerful ideological institutions, the narrowing of partisan platforms, and gridlock on many of the most serious issues facing the country. This issue of Breakthrough Journal is dedicated to understanding the forces behind wicked problems, including ideological polarization itself, and what can be done to overcome them.

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The Polarization Paradox

Why Hyperpartisanship Strengthens Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism

Whoever wins November’s presidential election is almost certain to face a Congress more ideologically divided than at any time in the past century. Though movement conservatives have accounted for much of the rise in hyperpartisanship, liberals have tried to match fire with fire in recent years. But highly partisan tactics, far from being politically neutral, actually strengthen conservatism and undermine liberalism. Instead of achieving their goals of advancing a progressive agenda, outfits like Media Matters and the Center for American Progress are self-defeating for liberals in the long run.

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On Justice Movements

Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor

The theory of climate justice tells us that the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment. But demands for climate justice too often ignore basic practicalities of energy, poverty, and climate change, directing our gaze away from the issues that really matter to the future prospects of both the global poor and the planet and toward issues that don’t.

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The Affluent Economy

Our Misleading Obsession with Growth Rates

Nostalgia for the boom economic growth years of the 1950s and 1960s is misplaced. Americans of all classes have grown materially richer every decade since. The lower growth rates today are a function of the slower metabolism of large economies, not a sign that American capitalism is fundamentally broken. Higher rates of economic growth might be desirable, but whether or not they materialize, the stagnation discourse misrepresents the country's economic health. We will be better at solving unemployment and poverty by starting from the recognition that rising prosperity remains the norm of American economic life.

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Self-Righteous Minds

Why Political Polarization Is Not In Your Head

As a young man growing up in Canada, it seemed to me that Americans were always tackling the most important projects and having the most fun. Although I loved my own country, I was attracted to the dynamism of our neighbor to the south: its popular culture, its stirring postwar social upheavals, and its charismatic young president. Baby boomer nostalgia aside, my point is about how palpable American exceptionalism — the country’s distinctly manic and individualist culture in contrast to that of Europe and Canada — has been for the past half-century, even to a teenager living in a country frequently assumed to be America’s sibling, footnote, and, most recently, oil patch.

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The Making of the Obesity Epidemic

How Food Activism Led Public Health Astray

In the 1990s, many public health advocates homed in on food availability as a significant influence on obesity. Major anti-obesity campaigns now center on radically remaking school and neighborhood food environments by reducing access to unhealthy foods and improving access to healthy ones. With this approach advocates have fostered a reductive story about obesity that appeals to liberal audiences but doesn’t comport particularly well with the evidence. Against the popular discourse, those most at risk for obesity would be far better served by strategies demonstrated to improve overall health than calls for more grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

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Post-Truth Pluralism

The Unlikely Political Wisdom of Nietzsche

The last decade has seen heightened progressive concern with alleged conservative mendacity. Last year, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman criticized the rhetoric of the recent presidential election campaigns as reflecting our “post-truth politics.” Satirist Stephen Colbert has lampooned political spin as “truthiness,” which is as much an indictment of contemporary American political culture as it was of bloviating conservative TV hosts. After he lost his bid for higher office, Al Gore wrote The Assault on ReasonIn the early George W. Bush years, then-comedian and now Minnesota Senator Al Franken wrote a best-selling book called Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them)Chris Mooney’s 2005 book The Republican War on Science was a best-seller among liberal audiences. In his 2010 novel, Freedom, Jonathan Franzen portrayed a Bill Kristol–type character as hypocritically denouncing Islamist lies about 9/11 as Zionist plot while defending the Platonic idea of the “noble lie” to justify the invasion of Iraq. 

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Don’t Blame the Internet for Political Polarization

New Media a Force for Democratization, Not Subjugation

Leading intellectuals blame the Internet as cause of our increasingly isolated, polarized, and fragmented society. Evgeny Morozov (above right), author of Net Dellusion and To Save Everything, Click Here argues that the web distracts youth from political engagement. The critique isn’t new: thinkers and writers from Socrates to Theodor Adorno (above left), have feared that new media, whether books, newspapers, radio, or TV, would undermine democratic rule. With the benefit of hindsight, these concerns seem grossly misplaced. Each new form of mass media started as a tool of elites but over time has a massively democratizing effect. Furthermore, political polarization was driven by forces that long predate the Internet, including the rise of libertarian conservatism, the disappearance of Southern Democrats and Northeastern Republicans, and democratization itself. In the end, the “filter bubble” that most increases polarization and threatens democracy is the ideological one in your head.

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