Avoiding Armageddon: (1) How to circumvent the Polarization Industrial Complex

If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher.

Abraham Lincoln

In a pair of earlier posts about Rescuing the Future, we looked at the competing delusions on offer from our mainstream political camps, and how Covid has laid waste to these fantasies, leaving us floundering and exhausted. We are mired in an almost cosmic sense of “stuckness,” a foreboding that there is nothing ahead of us but more illness, uncertainty, instability, and conflict. It’s not that we’re unsure as to when things will return to normal, but rather, we suspect that ‘normal’ itself has been shattered forever, exposed as a fraud.

Exacerbating this sweeping feeling of deprhaustion (depression + exhaustion) is the lurking dread that Trumpist crypto-grievances about the ‘stolen’ election are being hard-wired into our electoral process itself, so that voter suppression on the front end and baseless accusations of phantom fraud on the back end (any time a Dem wins) will haunt our election cycles for years to come. In short, Covid has kicked our asses, and now we see vitriolic polarization stretched out in front of us as far as the weary eye can see.

How can we get around this? Is there any way to avoid this spiraling descent into endless conflict and distrust? Is another civil war truly the only thing on the horizon, because our differences are just too intractable?

Well, the first thing we need to understand is that there is no way through the polarization pattern to a better world, either by one side ideologically defeating or converting the other, or by some kind of magical meeting in the commonsense middle. This is not because there is some kind of ontological or cosmological difference between liberals and conservatives that prevents them coming together, because of their very natures. Rather, the futility of trying to fix things inside the polarization framework is due to the very function and design of that framework itself. We can call this the Polarization Industrial Complex (PIC), to follow a useful coinage.

At this point, we need to quickly recall why the PIC came about, and what it does. First, the electoral mechanics of the US preclude a multi-party system, so we’re locked into a political duopoly. Winner-take-all processes in our congressional districts and in the Electoral College simply don’t allow for more than two parties to develop. This is a pure accident of constitutional design, and other democratic countries with different mechanics have multi-party systems with much less political rancor, as compromise and cooperation are built into their structures. Second, money has unlimited access to the political process in the US. The result is an entrenched political duopoly where both sides are completely beholden to the interests of the wealthy and powerful. For more granularity on these features, check out some of my previous posts, here and here.

So when you have a political duopoly where both sides ultimately serve the needs of plutocrats, the long-term result is that things don’t get better for regular people, beyond the bare minimum of public expenditure to keep the torch-and-pitchfork mobs out of the streets and mansions. But those minimal expenditures will only work for so long, as people find themselves working harder and harder, only running in place, as the benefits of the largest economy in the history of civilization flow to the tippy-top only. In this scenario, the economic and political overlords have to come up with some scheme to preserve their power, as conditions for regular people on the ground deteriorate. One obvious solution would be to create a more equitable, sharing economy, with much larger public provisions for health care, dignified employment, education, etc. But that approach is not really in the DNA of American plutocrats, who prefer the hoary pseudo-moralities of bootstrapism and free markets. So instead, the Polarization Industrial Complex was born, spearheaded by Newt Gingrich in the mid-to-late 90s. Gingrich realized that with the rise of Bill Clinton, a pro-corporate Democrat, both major parties had now become full-fledged servants of the wealthy and powerful. No longer able to pit pro-business Republicans against labor-loving Democrats, the divide between the parties was recast as cosmic cultural battle instead. Regular, perennial differences between urban and rural, town and city, were recast as epic conflicts between good and evil, sacred and profane.

The key thing here, with this new polarization complex, is the function. Casting the other side as evil incarnate provides an excellent excuse for why things never get better for regular people, why their lives don’t get easier. It’s always the other side’s fault. Those horrible Dems are always taking your money, giving it to deadbeats, and crushing your businesses with red tape and stupid regulations. Or those wicked Republicans are always giving tax cuts to millionaires and encouraging dirty companies to pollute our air and water. If only our side could achieve lasting power, we could finally make everything great for everyone. But the other side is ruthless and horrible, so there are frequent backslides and detours, where the villains thwart the blueprints of the righteous. So we still need you to give us your money and your votes, so that we can continue the good fight against the nefarious enemy.

After political developments in 2021, I think you can see the problem with this. Since the Polarization Industrial Complex functions to preserve the power of the already-powerful, and to make excuses for perpetual stagnation by demonizing the other side, the system is ultimately unsustainable. People will only put up with this stasis for so long, before they take drastic, violent action against the other side and any parties that abet the evildoers. Frustration and escalation are baked into this system, and its ultimate destiny is civil unrest or worse. But despite this design flaw, it cannot change, because it is a hermetically-sealed rationalization for the plutocrats, who control every cultural node and outpost of our national discourse, as well as the hard power of finance and industry.

Thus, there is no way through the Polarization Industrial Complex. Stasis and eventual self-destruction are built into its operation system.

Instead, we must go around.

Next Time: Short blueprint for saving the world

(Cover Art: James Ensor, “Fall of the Rebel Angels,” 1889)

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