Wicked Polarization

How Prosperity, Democracy, and Experts Divided America

There was very little about the 1950s that suggested what was in store for America in the decade to come. Economic inequality was at historic lows and political partisanship virtually nonexistent. A Republican president oversaw the largest public works program in United States history, the Interstate Highway System. Big business had reached an accommodation with unions that married labor peace with rapidly rising wages and made the American working class richer than anyone had thought possible just two decades earlier. So great was the comity and consensus in political life that in 1960 Daniel Bell could declare the “end of ideology.”

But already new ideological fault lines were emerging. In 1961, Jane Jacobs initiated a movement to defend the livability of dense cities against modernist monstrosities and centralized planning. Rachel Carson’s 1962 exposé of pesticides contained a larger indictment of modern agriculture. Ralph Nader challenged the faith that what was good for corporate America was good for the country. From the Right came Phyllis Schlafly’s 1964 A Choice, Not an Echo, an inspiration to supporters of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that defended his extremism against milquetoast Rockefeller Republicans. That same year, student radicals condemned the University of California as an odious corporate machine, alienating the voting public and helping to give rise to Ronald Reagan.

By 1969, with the country deeply divided over issues ranging from crime and racial inequality at home to the war in Vietnam abroad, two UC Berkeley urban planning professors tried to make sense of America’s increasingly contentious political culture. The revolt against elites, argued Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, reflected a larger disenchantment with the ability of establishment experts to solve new social and environmental problems. The postwar consensus had unraveled, thanks to its success:

The streets have been paved, and roads now connect all places; houses shelter virtually everyone; the dread diseases are virtually gone; clean water is piped into nearly every building; sanitary sewers carry wastes from them; schools and hospitals serve virtually every district; and so on .... But now that these relatively easy problems have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn.

Where the mortal problems of old helped to clarify the public mind, the new problems fragmented it. Rittel and Webber gave the example of urban redevelopment. Unlike material problems such as providing basic security, indoor plumbing, electricity, and other foundational features of modern life, urban redevelopment is not a life or death issue but a quality of life one. Both more and less are at stake. On the one hand, more Americans have more wealth, more to lose, and more resources to defend their interests. On the other hand, the stakes are far lower. If Robert Moses had built a freeway through Greenwich Village, it would not have been the end of the world, just the end of a great neighborhood.

The result, Rittel and Webber suggested, was neither the end of ideology nor the end of expertise but rather the continuation of ideological battles on new, more expert terrain. Criminologists might agree that the crime rate had gone up or down but would disagree over whether crime is caused by poverty, racism, the prohibition of drugs, the weakening of traditional moral values, or too few police officers. Any and all of those arguments can be supported empirically. With crime, as with so many other issues, myriad overlapping influences confound simplistic efforts to define causality.

Rittel and Webber called these new social and environmental problems “wicked” because experts could only define them in relationship to background solutions, which are themselves shaped by underlying values and a vision of the good society. Since we hold different values, we have different views of wicked problems. “What comprises problem-solution for one,” Rittel and Webber noted, “is problem-generation for another.” As a result, disagreements over social and environmental policy cannot be resolved by experts, who in many ways make them more intractable. “The expert is also the player in a political game, seeking to promote his private vision of goodness over others’.”

Over the next 40 years, wicked problems would proliferate along with experts in think tanks, universities, and government agencies who set out to define them. Issues like school busing, women’s rights, affirmative action, abortion rights, gay rights, obesity, global warming, and even economic growth would all be constructed in oppositional terms that pit one set of problem-solutions against another. Except for moments of genuine national crisis — the period immediately after 9/11, the near-collapse of the financial system in 2008 — the two rival discourses that emerged, constructed and reinforced by massive, polarized expert establishments, would come to frame virtually every national problem as a consequence of the irrationality, ignorance, and immorality of the political Other.

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 neither Bell nor Rittel and Webber would 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.

Consider public health efforts to frame obesity as the result of agribusinesses and fast food franchises, on the one hand, and material deprivation in the inner city on the other. Starting in the 1990s, sociologist Helen Lee notes, activist public health scholars and journalists unleashed a flurry of articles and books blaming industrial agriculture and a predatory food industry for our growing waistlines. Advocates produced studies purporting to show a link between obesity and inner-city food environments, even as better studies showed otherwise. Rather than seeing rising fatness as the unintended consequence of cheap food — a historic achievement and an extraordinary benefit to the poor — it was viewed by a coalition of public health and social justice advocates as a kind of injustice: the denial of healthy food to oppressed groups. The result has been a distracting governmental and philanthropic focus on symbolic solutions, like bringing more grocery stores into the inner city, and too little on proven strategies, like better medical treatment for obesity-related diseases, or better access to higher education, which is strongly correlated with better health outcomes, including lower levels of obesity.

Similarly, political scientist Christopher Foreman observes that global warming has been framed by climate justice advocates not as an unintended consequence of poor people becoming rich in developed economies but rather as a kind of racist neoimperialism that required global wealth redistribution. Where progressives blamed industrial agriculture for victimizing children and the poor with cheap, high-calorie foods, they blamed the fossil fuel industry in the West for victimizing poor nations in Africa with cheap, high-carbon energy. From Kofi Annan to Wangari Maathai to Greenpeace, climate justice advocates attributed myriad long-standing problems of underdevelopment — from vulnerability to weather extremes to malaria — to the West’s imperialist pollution emissions. The movement’s “bottomless advocacy agenda ... serves polarizing constituency-building politics, not a pragmatic agenda for shared global growth and prosperity,” Foreman suggests. “By its use of blame, redistributive claims-making, and suspicion of all establishments, the climate justice movement ironically undermines agreement on the very public investments that are essential to forging a new environmental and economic future.”

As Americans have become wealthier over the past four decades, progressives have deftly shifted the focus of their class warfare advocacy from the working class to the middle class. In so doing, notes Scott Winship, they have engaged in a statistical sleight of hand, suggesting that slowing growth rates have left Americans materially worse off. In reality, living standards for virtually all Americans have continued to rise. Over the past 40 years, Americans have become absolutely richer at close to the same rate as they did in the postwar era, even though growth rates are lower. “In 1900,” notes Winship, “a 2.5 percent increase in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita would have translated into about $150 in today’s dollars for every man, woman, and child in the United States; in 2010, it would have been roughly $1,200.”

Conversely, the richer we become, the larger increases in wealth must be in order to sustain the same rate of growth. Progressives have invoked declining growth rates since 1980 to argue that America ought to return to the Keynesian economic policies of the postwar era. But comparing growth rates rather than income growth between time periods does no good for their cause. Such a discourse inspires anxiety and, argues Winship, “is as likely to inspire selfishness as generosity.”

In all three cases, partisan experts constructed highly polarizing political discourses that undermine policy actions to help the poor. The food justice movement has focused on unrealistic efforts to remake whole neighborhood food environments to the neglect of better medical care, school reform, and higher education, which have benefits that include but go far beyond addressing obesity. The climate justice movement has focused more on advancing a political discourse of apocalypse, reparation, and redistribution than an agenda of electrification and urbanization, which help the poor to become more resilient to the climate and climb out of poverty. And in focusing on growth rates rather than absolute wealth, progressive economists and experts have constructed a picture of the American mixed economy as fundamentally broken, undermining confidence in a common national future.

Rather than examining their own role in polarization, progressives have of late sought to blame Internet corporations like Google and Facebook for undermining democracy. Such fears of new media, notes Lindsay Meisel, go back to sociologists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who viewed the one-way nature of radio as authoritarian, subverting human reason in order to advance corporate profits. Meisel points to Evgeny Morozov, who dismissed the “intense Western longing for a world where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor, a world where technology could be harvested to spread democracy around the globe rather than entrench existing autocracies.” Similarly, MoveOn board president Eli Pariser complained that the giant Internet companies are effectively denying us access to information that we should be exposed to, thereby dividing us along ideological lines — an audacious view by a leader of one of the most polarizing political organizations of the American Left.

To be sure, polarization has risen alongside the proliferation of new media, from cable television to talk radio to the Internet. Political communication scholars Matthew Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele describe a polarized media culture that is self-reinforcing, serving up red meat for partisans that increases ratings and intensifies partisan outrage. The basis for this culture, however, is not more oligopoly but less. CBS News and the New York Times now must compete not only with Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, but also with Comedy Central and the Huffington Post. These institutions are not being imposed for lack of choice but are freely chosen. As such, we might consider a more troubling conclusion than the one arrived at by critics who blame cathode ray tubes and fiber optic cables: it is more media democracy and consumer choice, not less, that is driving us apart.

But if Google and Facebook can’t explain our gridlocked politics, perhaps our declining faith in public institutions can. Contentious and polarizing framings of issues such as climate change and obesity, argues social values researcher Michael Adams in his discussion of Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind, have contributed to a kind of moral dumbfounding. “The forces by which people are buffeted today — notably wild economic swings, radical technological change, and sci-fi-like ecological scenarios,” Adams observes, “are well beyond the full understanding, let alone the firm control, of most politicians and experts.”

Little surprise then that the rise of our polarized expert class has occurred alongside declining confidence in American institutions over the past 40 years. Trust in American institutions has declined in the decades since Rittel and Webber’s warning, Adams notes: “The Supreme Court (confidence down 7 points since 1973), public schools (down 24 points), religion (down 18 points), Congress (down 31 points), the press (newspapers down 11 points since 1973, TV news 19 points since 1993), and banks (down 37 points since 1979).” This crisis of confidence, Adams suggests, may be better able to explain progressive political troubles than Haidt’s notion that conservatives have an advantage because their worldview tends to have a larger set of hardwired moral values.

Faced with the 24/7 intensity of partisan rage, the eviction of moderates from the parties, and the showy displays of outrage by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, it is easy to overlook the remarkable level of bipartisan agreement that still exists on the major issues of the day. In a fundamental sense, the postwar social contract between public and private interests remains intact. We still have a mixed economy, a growing welfare state, and a developmental state that invests in technological innovation and economic competitiveness. Big government and big business are here to stay because, however flawed, the two institutions remain vital to our collective self-interest. They are even interdependent. Businesses rely on government for educating future workers, sustaining the public infrastructure, and developing future inventions for commercialization. Government depends on tax revenues from salaries and earnings from big businesses.

What partisan gridlock threatens is not so much the mixed economy or the social contract as our ability to skillfully govern the myriad, complex, and ever changing relationships between big government and big business, and to mitigate new social and environmental problems — whether obesity, global warming, or inequality — that arise from our affluence. Both Right and Left submerge the symbiotic relationship between the state and the market, between big business and big government, in the service of matched Platonic fantasies. In one version, markets are corrupted by government intervention; in the other, democracy is corrupted by corporate power.

In reality, American society has never been more democratic. Corporations are more, not less, accountable than ever before, through both formal democratic and regulatory means and informal processes within the corporation. Markets, similarly, are more resilient, dynamic, and robust than ever before, thanks to both government regulation and public sector investments in infrastructure, education, and innovation. That doesn’t mean that our democracy and our economy can’t be improved. But the exaggerated framings by Right and Left of the threat to free markets by government and to democracy by corporations impair rather than enable such efforts.

Of course, ideological reformation of the Left does not guarantee either reformation of the Right nor an end to wicked problems. But pragmatic liberals and moderates might be able to disrupt the vicious circle of polarization fed by anticorporate and antigovernment partisans by reminding both groups that the private and public sector necessarily exist symbiotically: large corporations generate wealth that is integral to the survival of the state, and business relies upon educational, infrastructural, and technological systems provided by it.

Ultimately, the authors here are after bigger prey than ideological extremism. They have their sights set on continuing Rittel and Webber’s project of dethroning the dominant mode of expert analysis with its pretenses to value-free analysis and policy making. Problem-definition always arises with presumed solutions. Describing obesity as “caused” by food environments implies changing food environments. A larger set of causes (e.g., poor health care, lack of education) reveals a larger number of potential solutions. To stimulate cooperation and action, we might proliferate the number of policy choices we see as legitimate, even if our highest policy priorities are not at the top of the list.

In creating a new pluralism for the “post-truth era,” liberals might, paradoxically, find useful counsel from that most illiberal of modern philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche. His work undermined the Platonic conceit that the world can be understood or experienced from something other than a highly particular point of view. Behind progressive complaints of conservative mendacity, writes Nietzsche scholar Kathleen Higgins, is the assumption that “if people only knew the truth, we wouldn’t have the problems of global warming, economic recession, and poverty — or at least that such challenges would be far smaller.”

There is no going back to older notions of objective expertise, for as Rittel and Webber noted, “there are no value-free, true-false answers to any of the wicked problems governments must deal with.” The problem is not that we are in a post-truth age but rather that we have not learned to adapt to it. Perhaps a good place to begin is by recognizing our own biases, perspectives, and agendas and attempting to hold them more lightly.

In the end, rising affluence, democracy, and complexity can empower partisanship, but they can also destabilize it. Wickedness creates all manner of opportunity to disrupt the fault lines of our many intensely polarized debates and to disorient partisans accustomed to knowing exactly what they are supposed to think about any issue. If wickedness is the result of framing problems in ways that lend themselves to familiar and long-desired solutions, then bringing an end to our ideological arms race will ultimately require that we force partisans out of their comfort zone by redefining those problems in ways to which partisans do not already know the answers. It is our hope that the essays assembled here will do just that.