Search Results for polarization

The Dangerous Trend Toward Polarization and Ideological Purity

The problem of polarization continues and is likely to be the defining political characteristic of contemporary United States. The US populace has been polarized before but it is typically over a single issue. Slavery, for example, in the 19th century. Below is some data from the Pew Foundation on the increasing tendency toward rigid opinions and polarized values.

As the Pew report concluded, the fault is structural; it is not the sort of problem that can be solved by an individual or piece of legislation. Political parties are more ideologically coherent than they’ve been probably at any time since the Civil War. As citizens spend more time talking to those who are like them – which is intensified in the current social media environment – they become more easily reinforced for their particular perspective. The literature by Sunstein and others conclude that this mediated world of interaction with others who hold the same opinion as you do causes those opinions to become rigid and increasingly unmovable. And the dynamic of polarization is increasing. But with the realignment of ideologies that started over the issue of civil rights in the 20th century, ideological purity became a bigger factor in American elections.

Ideological purity is a dangerous form of essentialism. One’s beliefs become so strong, and the sense of ingroup and outgroup become so clarified, that perceptions of the outgroup are assumed to be biologically natural.

 

The Table above shows that from 1994 to 2014 a larger percent of Republicans became consistently conservative. And a larger percent of Democrats were consistently liberal. The two groups – liberals and conservatives – consistently drifted toward more rigid ideological opinions that do not vary and are less subject to moderation and persuasive influences.

 

The data reflected in the bar graph above shows that the two parties have increasingly unfavorable attitudes about the other. From 1994 to 2014 the unfavorable attitudes about the other party has more than doubled. I don’t need to reiterate the danger of these data. They make working together and solving problems in any sort of bipartisan way almost impossible.

Civility is More Than Good Manners

We must continue to underscore the concept of “civility” for democratic deliberation and political problem solving. It remains the case that too often civility is thought of as a simple nicety that makes things more pleasant and is the result of little more than good manners.

It is no accident that as civility declines in our polarized political culture argumentative complexity and sophistication suffers. So how do we attenuate this marked drop in civility and break the cycle of mutual incivility? How do we get both policymakers and ordinary citizens to at least approach the deliberative ideal? Alas, it is possible to make progress in this area.

Deteriorating civility causes citizens to be less trusting of democratic institutions. Institutions lose credibility and appear to be failing when they are characterized by diminished civility. Moreover, the spectacle of incivility draws attention away from the core content of the conflict. Citizens pay more heed to the displays of incivility than they do to the content of the messages exchanged between the conflicting parties. And, when participants in the democratic process are not paying attention to the core issues, they are more influenced by stereotypes and partisan cues which serve as reptilian responses that are not comprised of the thoughtfulness we desire during deliberation.

Three Tips on How To Be More Civil

Start with even a modicum of respect. Liberals often think conservatives are unevolved and less educated. And they waste no time communicating this. And conservatives believe liberals to be out of touch and naïve. Any conversation is going to be improved if I feel the warmth of your affection and respect. Everyone develops a political consciousness over time that is the result of multiple influences including family, education, social environment, and ethnopolitical identification. Take the time to understand, to quote the vernacular, “where someone is coming from”. Personally, I’m interested in why people believe what they do and how they came to those beliefs. Consequently, I find it useful, more respectful, and less likely to drift into extreme polarization if I ask questions and make contributions in a more engaged and circumscribed manner.

Listen fully, and don’t stop listening just when you hear something you disagree with. You have to treat yourself as a filter sifting through ideas but ultimately letting it all filter through before responding. Otherwise, you run the risk of quickly categorizing the other person and then never getting beyond those category boundaries. Civility will be emergent if the other person(s) in the conversation is convinced that they have your attention. Maintaining this attention, and the attendant civility, requires cognitive effort.

Ask a lot of open-ended questions. I am often surprised at the willingness of some people to blurt out an opinion that is clearly harsh and rigid with no consideration given to the context or presence of others. Just go to your neighborhood bar that has the news on television – a rarity these days for just the reason I’m talking about – and see how long it takes for somebody to curse at the screen and yell at Hillary Clinton, or Obama, or Trump. If I ask a question such as “What do you mean by that…” or “Tell me how you came to that conclusion…” or “What do you think about some issue” then these questions are going to open up the other person and require them to expand on challenging assertions and charges. Making confrontational accusatory statements or directly challenging the other result in two troublesome possibilities, namely, the categorization of the other which narrows the relationship between the two, or the perception of interpersonal threat which exaggerates differences and creates even wider gaps differentiating the two parties.

Learning civility helps people become explicable to each other and makes for deeper conversations. Ideally, the parties to the confrontation would engage in reciprocal conversation such that they would express themselves in a such a manner that they find out more about what they believe themselves. The interactional self finds its own image and the other in the network of interactions that he or she occupies. Civility is foundational. So, next Thanksgiving confront your right-wing uncle or your left-wing cousin in a manner consistent with the civility necessary for reflective conversation.

How Did We Allow Trump to Happen?

Yes, Trump lost the election. But he got 74 million votes: That means there is still work to do. There has been much analysis of Trump –his style, inelegance, crudity, and manipulation. But there has been considerably less analysis of the audience side of the relationship. What is it about our culture that allowed Trump to thrive and be elected in the first place?

I’m concerned about and threatened by the general intellectual (rather anti-intellectual) nature of our citizenry. Trump was a historical mistake, an anomaly, a monster from another planet, the trickster capable of fooling the creatures that grow in democracies.

Our democracy, and the Constitution that warrants it, is designed to manage and control differences. That’s what systems of control do. Political cultures are composed of differences and those differences can be exaggerated and out-of-control with asymmetrical power relations, or they can mollify differences. And the history of our democracy is one of expanding inclusion; that is, demagogues like Trump are held in check while the legitimate political class tries to understand the makeup of the electorate.

The citizenry of a democracy is supposed to hold primary agency and need to be prepared given effective educational and socializing systems. In a word, too many Americans (shall we say 74 million of them) were easily duped or at a minimum failing the cognitive requirements of sound political decision-making. I typically ask someone who voted for Trump what it was they were imagining. Given his history of corruption, fabrications, narcissism, and moral turpitude what justified a vote for Trump. Usually, and this is the case with the Christian right also, they recognize Trump’s character but do not care. How did we develop into a political culture that does not care about respect for others and generally moral behavior? There are three areas that must change in order to avoid future “Trumps.”

First, our polarization stretches us to opposite poles of opinion. The guardrails protecting us from extreme language and exaggerated points along with poor evidence-based reasoning have come tumbling down. People express themselves more extremely and make it impossible to find common intersections of agreement. Polarization is not the same as disagreement. The participants in our political culture must learn to disagree and maintain respect for an opponent that is an adversary and not an enemy.

Secondly, we have damaged one of our founding creeds which is pluralism. Our anxieties over cultural differences continue to deepen even in the face of calls for diversity in a society replete with messages about respect for differences. Structural discrimination is a continuing problem and will be dependent on civic practices of persuasion over coercion and toleration rather than resistance.

Finally, I have a gut feeling that our educational system is failing many students in the basic practices of democracy especially argumentation and decision-making. There should be a redoubled effort to return to teaching strategies of rhetorical practices and the benefits of evidence-based reasoning.

Teaching public life and the opportunities for an increased unity of public goals is a direct response to the threats of Donald Trump and will guarantee a citizenry prepared to resist the demagogic aspirations of some future Trump.

New Ways to Argue in America

America has always benefited from the tradition of rational discourse. It is part of our political DNA. And more than many other political cultures, we have at least approached the Habermasian ideal of moral communication conditions and the value of the best argument. The bases of American political history – that is, the foundational ideas upon which the nation is based did not fundamentally begin with religious precepts, the divine right of kings, or an oligarch’s economic theories. This is not to say, however, that we are not a religious country. We are. But a country in which Jeffersonian pragmatics and democracy were more important to our founding ideals then kings or religions.

There is no arguing with kings and religions. They have an immovable set of principles and everything is measured against those principles. The epistemology of ignorance begins with moral absolutes and the desire to consistently reproduce their truth value. It is what Jacob Siegel writing in Tablet calls the arguer-commander or that person who believes himself to be the deliverer of justice. It used to be the case that the American tradition of rational empiricism in the political realm sought truth and logically justified inferential conclusions. In the true scientific sense, it was possible to change your mind, be wrong, or accumulate new information that intellectually forced one to change or consider new options.

But the argument-commander, who rejects science for example, emerges more from a tradition of religiosity than deliberation. This new form of argument is populated by people who do not represent the tradition of reasoning from empirical premise to conclusion but consider themselves rhetorically untouchable. For example, a racist who holds a set of distorted beliefs about racial characteristics that he or she considers inviolate, thereby concludes that certain issues are beyond dispute. The person will consider a right to be beyond argumentation.

And holding these moral commandments that are so true they are beyond justification is not the sole province only of the left or the right – although it is more characteristic of the right – because both positions can hold commanding precepts that the arguers are more interested in perpetrating than in some type of genuine deliberation.

Holding a moral-political position that one considers so fundamentally true that it releases him or her from the normal requirements of reason and reflection is related to the polarization in American society.

The basic component of the epistemology of ignorance is that ignorance underscores distortions in thinking such as racism, sexism, or ethnic stereotypes and establishes arguments based on different assumptions; it has the potential to reveal the role of power in the construction of what is known and provide a lens for the political values at work in knowledge practices. Rather, they play a role in promoting racism and white privilege. But ignorance is not simply a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful. It can also be a strategy for survival, an important tool to wield against white privilege and white supremacy.

There are distinct and deep-rooted traditions of rational empiricism and religious sermonizing in American history. But these two modes seem to have become fused together in a new American mode of argumentation that is validated by elite institutions like the universities, The New York Times,  and especially on the new technology platforms where battles over discourse are now waged. Intermingling the technical vocabulary of reasoning with endless moral generalities about rights and truths, held passionately by individuals, results in the corruption of defensible discourse. The arguer-commander is animated by rhetorical purgatory—unremitting racial oppression that never improves despite myths about progress and society as a ceaseless subjection to identity assault. “In possession of justice, the arguer-commander is free at any moment to throw off the cloak of reason and proclaim you a bigot—racist, sexist, transphobe—who must be fired from your job and socially shunned.”(See Siegel reference above)

Practitioners of the new argument bolster their rationalist veneer with constant appeals to forms of authority that come in equal parts from biology and elite credentialing. Again, as Siegel points out “Have you noticed how many people, especially online, start their statements by telling you their profession or their identity group: As a privileged white woman; as a doctoral student in applied linguistics; as a progressive Jewish BIPOC paleontologist —and so on?”

 In the end, the execution of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Treyvon Martin and others is a white supremacy lethal public health issue that should be treated as such. I will continue to make the case but increasingly “I don’t know how to argue in America anymore.”

New Ways to Argue in America

America has always benefited from the tradition of rational discourse. It is part of our political DNA. And more than many other political cultures, we have at least approached the Habermasian ideal of moral communication conditions and the value of the best argument. The bases of American political history – that is, the foundational ideas upon which the nation is based did not fundamentally begin with religious precepts, the divine right of kings, or an oligarch’s economic theories. This is not to say, however, that we are not a religious country. We are. But a country in which Jeffersonian pragmatics and democracy were more important to our founding ideals then kings or religions.

There is no arguing with kings and religions. They have an immovable set of principles and everything is measured against those principles. The epistemology of ignorance begins with moral absolutes and the desire to consistently reproduce their truth value. It is what Jacob Siegel writing in Tablet calls the arguer-commander or that person who believes himself to be the deliverer of justice. It used to be the case that the American tradition of rational empiricism in the political realm sought truth and logically justified inferential conclusions. In the true scientific sense, it was possible to change your mind, be wrong, or accumulate new information that intellectually forced one to change or consider new options.

But the argument-commander, who rejects science for example, emerges more from a tradition of religiosity than deliberation. This new form of argument is populated by people who do not represent the tradition of reasoning from empirical premise to conclusion but consider themselves rhetorically untouchable. For example, a racist who holds a set of distorted beliefs about racial characteristics that he or she considers inviolate, thereby concludes that certain issues are beyond dispute. The person will consider a right to be beyond argumentation.

And holding these moral commandments that are so true they are beyond justification is not the sole province only of the left or the right – although it is more characteristic of the right – because both positions can hold commanding precepts that the arguers are more interested in perpetrating than in some type of genuine deliberation.

Holding a moral-political position that one considers so fundamentally true that it releases him or her from the normal requirements of reason and reflection is related to the polarization in American society.

The basic component of the epistemology of ignorance is that ignorance underscores distortions in thinking such as racism, sexism, or ethnic stereotypes and establishes arguments based on different assumptions; it has the potential to reveal the role of power in the construction of what is known and provide a lens for the political values at work in knowledge practices. Rather, they play a role in promoting racism and white privilege. But ignorance is not simply a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful. It can also be a strategy for survival, an important tool to wield against white privilege and white supremacy.

There are distinct and deep-rooted traditions of rational empiricism and religious sermonizing in American history. But these two modes seem to have become fused together in a new American mode of argumentation that is validated by elite institutions like the universities, The New York Times,  and especially on the new technology platforms where battles over discourse are now waged. Intermingling the technical vocabulary of reasoning with endless moral generalities about rights and truths, held passionately by individuals, results in the corruption of defensible discourse. The arguer-commander is animated by rhetorical purgatory—unremitting racial oppression that never improves despite myths about progress and society as a ceaseless subjection to identity assault. “In possession of justice, the arguer-commander is free at any moment to throw off the cloak of reason and proclaim you a bigot—racist, sexist, transphobe—who must be fired from your job and socially shunned.”(See Siegel reference above)

Practitioners of the new argument bolster their rationalist veneer with constant appeals to forms of authority that come in equal parts from biology and elite credentialing. Again, as Siegel points out “Have you noticed how many people, especially online, start their statements by telling you their profession or their identity group: As a privileged white woman; as a doctoral student in applied linguistics; as a progressive Jewish BIPOC paleontologist —and so on?”

 In the end, the execution of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Treyvon Martin and others is a white supremacy lethal public health issue that should be treated as such. I will continue to make the case but increasingly “I don’t know how to argue in America anymore.”

We Probably Need to Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine

 

The problem of polarization continues and is likely to be the defining political characteristic of contemporary United States. The US populace has been polarized before but it is typically over a single issue. Slavery, for example, in the 19th century. Below is some data from the Pew Foundation on the increasing tendency toward rigid opinions and polarized values.

As the Pew report concluded, the fault is structural; it is not the sort of problem that can be solved by an individual or piece of legislation. Political parties are more ideologically coherent than they’ve been probably at any time since the Civil War. As citizens spend more time talking to those who are like them – which is intensified in the current social media environment – they become more easily reinforced for their particular perspective. The literature by Sunstein and others conclude that this mediated world of interaction with others who hold the same opinion as you do causes those opinions to become rigid and increasingly unmovable. And the dynamic of polarization is increasing. But with the realignment of ideologies that started over the issue of civil rights in the 20th century, ideological purity became a bigger factor in American elections.

Ideological purity is a dangerous form of essentialism. One’s beliefs become so strong, and the sense of ingroup and outgroup become so clarified, that perceptions of the outgroup are assumed to be biologically natural.

Some data suggest that the problem of bias is characteristic of both liberals and conservatives (Baum and Groeling, 2008, Political Communication) are responsible for polarization because both parties have media outlets that are biased in one direction or the other, and attract large audiences. It might be time to reinstate the “Fairness Doctrine”, which legally guarantees equal time and presentation of both sides of an issue. And although such a political policy would be difficult if not impossible to institute, it is a step in the right direction with respect to the benefits of hearing both sides and suppressing the power of money in campaigns.

 

The Table above shows that from 1994 to 2014 a larger percent of Republicans became consistently conservative. And a larger percent of Democrats were consistently liberal. The two groups – liberals and conservatives – consistently drifted toward more rigid ideological opinions that do not vary and are less subject to moderation and persuasive influences.

 

The data reflected in the bar graph above shows that the two parties have increasingly unfavorable attitudes about the other. From 1994 to 2014 the unfavorable attitudes about the other party has more than doubled. I don’t need to reiterate the danger of these data. They make working together and solving problems in any sort of bipartisan way almost impossible.

Note: An earlier version of this posting was October 30, 2019.

 

Intellectual Tolerance

The desire to be civil, in its most robust form, is a desire to be moral, to treat others humanely, with respect, toleration and consideration. But if one wants to be moral, one must also know that in order to be good, sometimes one cannot be nice. This dilemma holds for making democratic based arguments as well.

The imperative to treat others civilly is never total because sometimes a moral good is won in rudeness. To display disrespect or enmity, to mock or shun, to insult or shame – these can be moral gestures. For even as we need to respect humanity, valuing human beings can sometimes require disrespecting some of them, precisely the ones who deny or damage our shared humanity. To show such people respect and consideration might let them have their way a bit, let them continue in their destructive ways.

I believe that righteous incivility is sometimes better than civility and that it can indicate a pattern of reasoning we morally need. Civility typically requires conformity to social conventions that symbolically signal prosocial values; we follow customs of courtesy to display respect, consideration and toleration for each other.

Democracies demand engagement, especially intellectual and argumentative engagement. Argument and disagreement are the “stuff” of democracy and the playing field in which battles take place. It’s just shy of impossible to live in and value democracy as just described without offending someone. It is perilously easy to make an argumentative point – one that is presented honestly and clearly and without undue passion – and still appear intolerant, uncivil, or just plain mean.

Stanley Fish has written eloquently about the consequences of students who are blind to anything but offenses when they are exposed to arguments alien to their own perspectives. Some students are so concerned with micro-aggressions and “safe spaces” (that would be spaces where there is no vigorous discussion or intellectual challenges) that they demand simple differences of opinion to be sufficient reason for sanctioning the speech of the other. The students claim that they have a right not to be exposed to unpleasant opinions, or perspectives that make them uncomfortable.

Well, democracy is advanced citizenship. You need experience, training, and practice. And a cultural recognition of these qualities is less clear and intense as it used to be. Subject matter in high schools and colleges used to include more rhetoric and argumentation along with clear demonstrations of the value of debate. Such instruction fostered mental strength and resilience.

There will never be simple categories composed of definitions beyond reproach when it comes to defining hate speech, acceptable free speech, or the limits of tolerance and instability. And controversies, boundaries, and responsibilities will always be a little fuzzy when it comes to expectations about their definitions. But none of this makes for a slippery post truth world that has no meaning. On the contrary, sharper sense of meaning will emerge as a result of engaged and tolerant interaction. The solution, then, is equivalent to the problem; what is called for is more speech and passionate engagement.

Trump’s Four Strategies of Information Manipulation

We all know that Trump  Lies. But he is actually more sophisticated than the simple bold faced fabricator. Check out some of his strategies for manipulating information. I am sure he is not consciously aware of  these strategies but they are characteristic of his discourse nonetheless. The below is from Foreign Affairs.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is Unprepared

Reproduced from Corey Robin blog located here:

The below is an interview with the newest media darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She describes herself as a socialist, which is unfortunate because it just about  guarantees  an election loss, and seems to have little more than random vocabulary to describe her socialism and international relations. She is not sufficiently prepared and in many places was confused or stuck with a jumble of generalities that she could not untangle. Although I resonate with much of her politics, I will not support someone so “unprepared.”  Hit the books Alexandria!

See the interview here.

MH: You, in the campaign, made one tweet, or made one statement, that referred to a killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians in Gaza and called it a “massacre,” which became a little bit controversial. But I haven’t seen anywhere — what is your position on Israel?

AOC: Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution. And for me, it’s not — this is not a referendum, I think, on the state of Israel. For me, the lens through which I saw this incident, as an activist, as an organizer, if sixty people were killed in Ferguson, Missouri, if sixty people were killed in the South Bronx — unarmed — if sixty people were killed in Puerto Rico — I just looked at that incident more through . . . through just, as an incident, and to me, it would just be completely unacceptable if that happened on our shores. But I am —

MH: Of course the dynamic there in terms of geopolitics —

AOC: Of course.

MH: And the war in the Middle East is very different than people expressing their First Amendment right to protest.

AOC: Well, yes. But I also think that what people are starting to see at least in the occupation of Palestine is just an increasing crisis of humanitarian condition, and that to me is just where I tend to come from on this issue.

MH: You use the term “the occupation of Palestine”? What did you mean by that?

AOC: Oh, um [pause] I think it, what I meant is the settlements that are increasing in some of these areas and places where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes.

MH: Do you think you can expand on that?

AOC: Yeah, I mean, I think I’d also just [waves hands and laughs] I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue. You know, for me, I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these. For me, I just look at things through a human rights lens, and I may not use the right words [laughs] I know this is a very intense issue.

MH: That’s very honest, that’s very honest. It’s very honest, and when, you, you know, get to Washington and you’re an elected member of Congress you’ll have the opportunity to talk to people on all sides and visit Israel and visit the West Bank and —

AOC: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that that’s one of those things that’s important too is that, you know, especially with the district that I represent — I come from the South Bronx, I come from a Puerto Rican background, and Middle Eastern politics was not exactly at my kitchen table every night. But, I also recognize that this is an intensely important issue for people in my district, for Americans across the country, and I think what’s at least important to communicate is that I’m willing to listen and that I’m willing to learn and evolve on this issue like I think many Americans are.

Let’s be clear. This is not good. Prompted about her use of the word “massacre,” Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t stay with the experience of the Palestinians. Instead, she goes immediately to an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist, as if Israelis were the first order of concern, and that affirming that right is the necessary ticket to saying anything about Palestine. Asked about her use of the phrase “occupation of Palestine,” Ocasio-Cortez wanders into a thicket of abstractions about access to housing and “settlements that are increasing in some of these areas.” She apologizes for not being an expert on a major geopolitical issue. She proffers liberal platitudes about a two-state solution that everyone knows are just words and clichés designed to defer any genuine reckoning with the situation at hand, with no concrete discussion of anything the US could or should do to intervene.

Even within the constraints of American electoral politics, there are better ways — better left ways — to deal with this entirely foreseeable question. Not only was this a bad moment for the Left but it was also a lost opportunity: to speak to people who are not leftists about a major issue in a way that sounds credible, moral, and politically wise.

As soon as I saw this exchange, I posted about it on Facebook. I said a shorter version of what I said above. It provoked a bitter debate on my page. There were even more bitter debates on other people’s pages.

The camps divided in two: on the one hand, there were those who took Ocasio-Cortez’s comments as confirmation that she is no real leftist, that she is turning right, that she’s been absorbed into the Democratic Party machine, that she’s a fake, a phony, and a fraud. For these folks, Ocasio-Cortez’s comments confirmed their generally dim view of electoral politics.

On the other hand, there were Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders, claiming that she is only twenty-eight, that she had been set up by a right-wing journalist, that progressives shouldn’t criticize her, that the Left always eats its own, that those of us who are criticizing her are sectarians ready to go after anyone the second they disappoint us.

What I’m about to say doesn’t address the first camp. While I know and respect many of these folks — leftists who either reject electoral politics completely or reject any involvement with the Democratic Party — theirs is not my position. Nor do I think this incident is revelatory one way or another for their position — had Ocasio-Cortez said all the right things, I doubt it would convince skeptics of electoral politics that getting involved in Democratic Party politics is the way to go — so I don’t see any point in using it to engage in that question.

My comments are directed to the latter camp: the people who, like me, believe in electoral politics, are on the Left, and think we may have an opportunity right now that we have not had in a long while.

There are some of us, many of us, who care deeply about the Israel/Palestine issue from an anti-Zionist perspective and who are also realistic about US electoral politics. We’re not naïfs who think that the politicians we support are going to come out right away, or right now, in support of a single binational democratic state, which is the position we hold with regard to Palestine. We also realize that the Left that is beginning to think about electoral politics is young (not in terms of age but political experience), and it will take us all some time to figure out how to advance our positions in a way that will win support and translate that support into policy.

And last, we know that despite the centrality of Palestine to our politics, it’s not central to the politics of everyone on the Left, that people have multiple concerns, and that it does no good simply to hector people and say this should be at the top of your list (along with a thousand other issues that should be at the top of your list).

I know all of that, we know all of that.

But we also know a few other things.

Sooner or later, every national politician in the US has to confront the issue of Palestine. You can’t duck it. Not only is the Left moving left on this issue, not only is the base of the Democratic Party moving left on this issue (it is, if you look at the polling), but it is also a major issue of international politics and US foreign policy that every member of Congress has to have a position on.

Palestine is not some obscure question that you can simply say, “Sorry, I don’t know much about that.” Any person who aspires to be a member of Congress, particularly from New York City, where this issue comes up as a local, national, and international issue all the time — when we had the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions fight at Brooklyn College in 2013, our top opponents included multiple members of the New York City congressional delegation: Jerry Nadler, Yvette Clark, Nydia Velazquez, and Hakeem Jeffries — will have to be clear about where they stand. It’s not optional: Ocasio-Cortez has to have a position.

Not only does Ocasio-Cortez have to have a position, but to be a credible leftist voice in Congress, she has to have a leftist position on this issue. Now, before everyone concludes that means she has to call for a binational state, there are many ways to talk left about Israel that are considerably better than the current liberal pabulum and that do not require an elected official to commit political suicide.

There is the human rights vernacular that Ocasio-Cortes herself alludes to (a particularly popular approach, as sociologist Ran Greenstein pointed out in the discussion on my Facebook wall). There is the language of realpolitik, which people like Nathan Thrall have pushed. And other ways still.

Ocasio-Cortez could talk about conditioning aid on human rights improvements. She could talk about cutting military funding to Israel. George H. W. Bush, after all, withheld loans to Israel because of the expansion of the settlements — not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but here in the US, in the early 1990s. All of these claims are well to the left of any current political discourse in Congress and would force the debate forward and would be productively polarizing. And maybe propel Ocasio-Cortez to even more of a leadership position on the Left.

This is not just about Palestine. This is about US foreign policy as a whole. It used to be that US foreign policy was the Left’s strong suit. Back in the 1970s, when it seemed as if the Left’s confidence in its economic policies and positions was flagging, its critiques of US imperialism, military spending, and the national security state were in ascendancy. Some of these positions even made it into the left wing of the Democratic Party. Since then, the Left has gotten very weak on this stuff. Not in terms of its moralism on foreign policy, or the antiwar rallies it will show up at, but in terms of being able to advance a position that would begin to command national assent, form public opinion, and then be translated into policy.

This is a problem: it should be the easiest thing in the world right now, for example, to go after runaway military spending. Yet there’s hardly a credible or potent left voice that is pushing that agenda, much less getting a hearing within even progressive circles of the Democratic Party. Indeed, in this age of alleged partisan polarization, authorizations of massive increases in spending for the Pentagon and the CIA pass both houses of Congress with hefty Democratic majorities — with scarcely anyone noticing, much less protesting.

So, again, this isn’t about Palestine only. Or I should say, Palestine is the proverbial canary in a coal mine. From Palestine you get into the question of the Middle East as a whole, which leads to US foreign policy as a whole, and issues of budgets, spending, war, peace, and all the rest. All the more reason for Ocasio-Cortez to get up to speed on it.

Like it or not, Ocasio-Cortez has been elevated to a national position of leadership and visibility on the Left. If she wins in the general election, as everyone believes she will, every single thing she says and does will be watched and scrutinized. It simply will not do to say, oh, she’s only twenty-eight, oh, the media is so nasty, oh, let’s not have circular firing squads. The media is always nasty, the Left will always be critical of its leaders, and one day, soon, Ocasio-Cortez will no longer be twenty-eight. To complain about any of these things is like shaking your fist at the weather (weather in the old-fashioned sense; before climate change).

People have turned to Ocasio-Cortez not simply because she won but because she’s good at what she does: she’s smart, fast, funny, and principled. Because she’s shown leadership. I understand the pressures she’s under. But as her star rises, the pressures will only increase. Ocasio-Cortez needs to be not only strong but also clear on this issue. She needs to be as subtle, dexterous, and sharp as she is on other issues, virtually every night on Twitter. This isn’t a game, especially when it comes to Israel. Or, if it is a game, she needs to be a better player.

What has sustained me the most in these last several years is the on-the-ground work of the activists, in Democratic Socialists of America and other groups, who have been making victories like Ocasio-Cortez’s possible. I’m confident that those folks are talking to her now about getting a better line on this, and I’m more than confident that she has the political skills to get it.

There was a time, not so long ago, when there were left Democrats, in Congress, who had strong anti-imperialist politics and positions. There were even parts of the Left — particularly the black left — that were critical of Israel at a fundamental level. They didn’t get there from nowhere. They weren’t better people. There was simply more of a movement, in the streets and at the grassroots, articulating and developing those positions. There is no reason we can’t do the same. I’m confident we will.

 

The Status of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan: Watch out for New Escalatory Dynamics

In the wake of Trump’s declaration about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, any framework for peace has been destabilized and any sense of direction has been lost or at least seriously attenuated. And as of now, it doesn’t look like the peace process can meet the minimum standards of both sides. A peace process will proceed in one of two directions: given the volatility of the situation any “mistake” or unrealistic proposal can cause serious deterioration. On the one hand, the US and the PA can develop modest objectives that are stabilizing for the near term along with continuing to develop international coalitions. This is a stability path and is best for establishing the conditions of serious negotiations. It is a steady but slow path that can promote stability but also end up frustratingly grinding away at the same old issues.

The second path is more dangerous and can surely lead to tensions and differences. It is the path of escalating differentiations; that is, differences are exaggerated and produce progressive differentiation of the two groups. If political and cultural experiences are defined as sufficiently different or even incommensurate then the two sides can exaggerate those differences and drift increasingly into intractability.

If the announcement about moving the embassy is going to be used as a zero-sum game – in other words, each side sees itself as either gaining or losing only – then these adversarial groups will foreground the impediments to peace such as settlements, terrorism, religion, and begin the process of exaggerating differences. There was, as predicted, violence following the announcement but it was not particularly intense or drawn out violence. This is not to say that if the United States actually started to break ground on a building site then violence would be more imminent, but it was a good sign that the reaction was reasonably subdued.

Escalating differences is particularly destructive because the two sides grow farther apart and retreat into their own psychology of identity and historical narratives. The more the two groups are differentiated the more distorted the communication between them. Their group narratives and perceptions of the conflict are catapulted toward polarization on the basis of assumptions rooted in differentiation, separation, and between-group differences.

Given these two competing paths, what can be done? How can the process be influenced such that the two sides do not exaggerate differences but also engage in interactions that are supportive and lead the process in the desired direction.

First, there must be diplomatic efforts that blunt the pressures toward exaggerated differences. This requires dialogue and structured interactions designed to find mutuality. Ideally, the quartet (US, United Nations, European Union, and Russia) should be reconstituted and provide a constructive environment for the parties to reengage. Adding the two Arab countries that Israel has a peace agreement with (Egypt and Jordan) would be helpful.

Second, practical everyday issues must be addressed. The first is security. The training of Palestinian security forces by the United States to manage their own population and security issues has been successful. Such programs should be reinforced and continued. Next, is the issue of Gaza which is becoming increasingly explosive. There should be an increase in humanitarian aid and other Arab countries should be brought into the process, including funding, so as to bypass Hamas. And finally the Palestinian Authority must make efforts to eliminate corruption and promote a clean and transparent government that reverses the perceptions of corruption. Such perceptions delegitimize the peace process.

 

Democracy under Siege: Modern Stresses on the Power of Political Talk

Democracies are rooted in communication and citizen talk is the most fundamental form of that communication. But I have noticed in the last couple of years that talk has become more difficult, more contentious and impatient. I spend a lot of time talking politics but I have noticed increased levels of anger and recalcitrance. I suppose this is all an easy reflection of our national discourse and polarization.

But citizen communication should be treated as a national inheritance. It is still important and too precious to let wither; democratic talk has been called by various communication scholars the “soul of democracy.” Citizen talk is associated with sharpening political opinions, motivating engagement, contributing to social integration, and improving decision making. As Mutz and others have demonstrated, the opportunity for exposure to cross-cutting perspectives is crucial to quality deliberation.

But there is growing evidence that democratic practices such as citizen talk are breaking up with an increase in animosity and retreats to highly circumscribed ideational enclaves. Again, this fractured talk is correlated with similar processes in society; that is, economic inequality has produced more divergent lifestyles and limited exposure to opinions outside a narrow range of preferences. Talk and general social interaction is supposed to transcend and overcome these differences but it is proving too difficult. Talk seems to be losing the battle to establish more integrated cohesion to the muscular forces of anger, tribalism, and general contentiousness.

In an article by Wells et al., in the Journal of Communication (vol. 67, 2017, pages 131-157), they pose the direct research question: “Can talk and its benefits tolerate fierce partisanship and contentiousness…” The authors find that talk struggles against the influence of elite rancor, and everyday communication fails because of simmering historical divisions, resentment, economic crisis, and elites pushing their partisan advantage. You might ask “why doesn’t political talk increase during times of engaged political differences?” Wells et al found that some groups did, in fact, increase their political talk and others decreased. But in either case the increased communication made it difficult to continue when disagreements increased.

Moreover, the increased political tension was responsible for politicizing identities which inserted more subjective and emotional attachment into the discussion which makes it more difficult to compromise and generally consider the side of the other. So you have the interesting conclusion that contentious issues both increase and decrease the politicization of one’s interaction environment such that politics is still pretty invasive.

Social media does not contribute much to the solution because it exacerbates political enclaves. In other words, those on social media are typically like-minded and messages are “preaching to the choir.”

Depressive effects on citizen political interaction are a reflection of social problems that must be addressed. Quality political talk is associated with cultural integration, tolerance, and civic participation. These are not pleasant generalities that simply “sound nice.” They are central to a pluralistic society composed of the politics of difference because it is just that form of communication that manages the politics of difference. Through a combination of new media and cultural cleavages American citizens are less exposed to others, and less capable of the sort of communication that serves both a personal and political culture.

Finally, it’s important to understand that the existential life-world of the individual is different than the larger divides that circulate in the media. There must be an interaction between the individual life-world and the macro social world such that one does not overwhelm the other. For now, the battles between Fox News and MSNBC are defining and damaging the organic democratic culture that emerges from citizen contact.

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