Saturday, June 11, 2016

Polaritics and Trickle-Down Racism

The extremes represented by Donald Trump make the upcoming election a stark choice between evil and sort of good.  In a binary choice, the politics of polarization--polaritics--becomes inevitable.  Both sides will promote their visions of the Good while mostly bombarding us with the alleged Evil of the other one.  Of course, one of them is Evil, which complicates any argument against polaritics.

But what is usually and somewhat bloodlessly called the polarization of politics and of the American electorate is perhaps the greatest threat to democracy.  And it only takes one example to suggest why: In South Carolina last month, a tow truck driver refused to tow the car of a disabled woman because her car carried a Bernie Sanders sticker.  He left her stranded on the side of the road.

Polls show up to 90% unanimity on many issues according to party.  That's a bit troubling but more important is the lack of tolerance for divergent views.  Internet trolls may be leading the extreme abuse heaped upon people of another opinion, moving quickly to personal threats and violence, but it's becoming widespread.

When it begins to affect the basic social contract, more than symbolized by a tow truck driver whose job it is to render aid to fellow citizens, then society is in danger of falling apart.  Our society might agree that the owner-operator in this instance might be justified in refusing service because of inability to pay him, and in times and places (like South Carolina), such services would routinely be refused because of race.  But this is saying that the political candidate a person chooses to support in a major party primary marks that person as evil, as outside society.

This is just one case, but it is worthy of attention not because of its novelty but by its possible prophecy.  It sounds like the next step, and we do get the feeling that this is happening more than this once.  And once it does happen, it becomes an example for others.

It has its origins in theocratic politics most recently promulgated by the religious right, and in the behavior of Washington politicians, particularly Republicans, who oppose and condemn every idea supported by Democrats--especially by President Obama--even if it is an idea that Republicans recently supported or even originated.  And the easy vocabulary of hate, of hating Obama, of hating Hillary, that has gone mainstream.  There was plenty of Roosevelt hating in the 1940s, but by and large it was fringe.  Now the rabid right fringe is the establishment.

Donald Trump has wakened some Republicans to the danger, basically by being Donald Trump.  In today's news there are remarkable stories about a confab in Utah where party luminaries mixed with big donors, and some of those luminaries were outspoken in their dire warnings about Trump.  Meg Whitman reportedly compared him to Hitler and Mussolini.  An informal poll of big donors showed that only 20% were ready to back Trump with bucks, with others choosing "country over party."

 And Mitt Romney, of all people, contributed to the dialogue by highlighting an effect of Trump's candidacy that others have written about, but Romney gave it a name:

"I don't want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation, and trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny, all these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America."

At the moment Hillary is making this a teachable moment with her "Stronger Together" theme.  But it's about more than diversity as usually defined.  Political diversity, a diversity of ideas, are also at stake.  Our American society has been through this before (as has western civilization, many times, and eastern civilizations as well), for example the enforced conformity of the 1950s, patrolled by HUAC, the Blacklist, J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthyism, with the power to end careers, livelihoods, lives.

But political polarization that affects relationships at the root of society is particularly threatening given the likely future. This climate crisis-dominated near future will provide many tests and challenges (among others not directly related to climate that we can intuit may well present themselves.)  There will be many people who need help from strangers who are also neighbors.  There will be times when trust in each other, and in government and other institutions, will be matters of life and death.

In The Absolute At Large, one of the enormously skillful science fiction novels by the early 20th century Czech writer Karel Capek, a series of catastrophes rends civilization to tatters.  But some of the same people of a small town met at the beginning of the book manage to survive to the end.  They are discussing the reasons for the apocalypse they lived through.  One of them says: "Everyone has the best of feelings towards mankind in general, but not towards the individual man.  We'll kill men, but we want to save mankind.  And that isn't right, your Reverence.  The world will be an evil place as long as people don't believe in other people."

That's part of it.  But one doesn't have to be very optimistic about other people to realize that there's a principle worth putting into action.  Some people call it decency.  It doesn't sound like much, but if you read accounts of people in Europe who sheltered Jews and helped them escape the Nazis, it seems to be the difference.  It is the very powerful ethic of "you'd do the same for me."

That principle, that assurance is a necessity, which can be a trickle-up or trickle-across phenomenon as well as a trickle-down example by leaders.  In most basic societal ways, "We're all in this together" is a statement of fact as well as a rallying cry of principle.  It's how we act on it that's important, and social norms that support common decency are the social bedrock.  Trickle-down racism etc. starts breaking that down, but polaritics is already eroding it.    

Update: Divided response to the mass killings in Orlando Saturday night might be a tragic illustration of where this polaritics leads.  Both to the murderous violence itself, and in certain responses.

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