The Hopeful Thing About Our Ugly, Painful Polarization
An artist’s drawing of the American body politic in 2016 might picture furrowed brow, hand-wringing, hunched shoulders. Anxiety abounds, when not overridden by anger. Our extreme polarization is political, economic, social—but individuals feel it on a personal level. Small wonder if we seek relief in the hope that the social fracturing might be healed by one candidate or another.
Certainly, polarization in the U.S. pre-dates the Donald Trump candidacy. Our gridlocked federal government has for years struggled to guarantee that it will stay open for business and pay its bills, much less address the urgent climate crisis. An increasing number of state governments are going into dysfunction as well.
Before we reach for a better place we need to how we got into such a tough spot.
Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal researched polarization in the U.S. In Polarized America (MIT Press, 2006) we learn that, in the decades following World War II, Democrats and Republicans governed with a bipartisan spirit, and politics was known as the art of compromise. The scholars checked other measures in that era and found that economic inequality was also relatively low.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the income gap grew rapidly, and so did political polarization. In fact, the scholars found no other correlation matched so closely: political polarization seemed to be intimately linked to income inequality. So no surprise then that since the economic crash of 2007, inequality has accelerated right along with political polarization.
Especially with a Trump presidency and Republican controlled Congress, I see no policies in place or any likely to be passed that will substantially check inequality’s growth. So polarization is likely to get worse, and uglier. To stay clear-headed in the years ahead, we need to accept the reality of our present situation.
Gandhi used to remind his people that the British Empire would not go away through denying its existence. To end the suffering brought by the Empire, he thought it necessary first to acknowledge its presence. The next step: a creative response.
Political polarization seemed to be intimately linked to income inequality.
And what does a creative response to polarization look like?
In researching my book Viking Economics, I dug into the history of Sweden’s and Norway’s intense polarization in the 1920s and ’30s. I was interested because of the enormous achievements those countries had following their time of fracturing.
The Nordics managed an immense turnaround from the days when they experienced so much misery and oppression that they hemorrhaged population to the U.S. and Canada. Many Americans today trace their lineage to Scandinavian immigrants fleeing the hunger and lack of opportunity of their homelands. Now Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark are at the top of the international charts for economic well-being: high employment, debt-free grads of universities, paid parental leave, high wages, “best place to be an elder,” lack of poverty. They are even setting records for rapid response to the climate crisis.
It wasn’t the oil. Only Norway found oil, and that country had its breakthrough before the oil flowed. Nor can we say it’s easy to experience shared abundance if you’re a small and homogeneous country: A century ago, the Scandinavians were small and homogeneous —and had massive poverty and inequality.
To my surprise, I found that the decisive moment of breakthrough for the Swedes and Norwegians happened when their societies were at their most polarized.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Nazis openly paraded and spewed their anti-Semitism, embrace of violence, and hatred of democracy. At the same time, the Left had extreme opinions. Cities and towns were split. To live in that period was stressful and frightening.
Fortunately, a critical mass of people in Sweden and Norway chose a creative response. And that decision gave rise to the world’s most progressive nations.
That response had many dimensions, but four stand out: cooperative ownership models, wide agreement among the Left on a vision, inclusivity, and commitment to a nonviolent strategy.
Swedes and Danes first, with Norwegians following, built a large infrastructure of cooperatives: Farmers organized dairies, loggers built mills, fishers banded together to build larger boats and canneries. Together, families hired contractors and built apartment buildings. Consumers erected their own stores and banks.
Co-ops delivered tangible benefits, like retaining more wealth for workers and consumers. They promoted organizing skills and innovation, in that way increasing productivity. They developed a sense of power at the grassroots – a “can-do” spirit that was also once the hallmark of Americans’ self-image. Co-ops showed that capitalism was not the most effective way to make an economy work. Most important, perhaps, was the knitting together of networks of confidence when it seemed that the larger society was pulling apart.
The decisive moment of breakthrough for the Swedes and Norwegians happened when their societies were at their most polarized.
Swedes and Norwegians achieved majority support for a vision of an alternative economy to the one that that was failing them. That meant people could take action beyond angry protests; they could be for something as well as against something. Harnessing the positive energy that goes with an affirmative vision adds to the power of the movement.
Just as important, the broad unity of a positive vision makes it easier to mend the inevitable splits that come up in the life of a social movement. Feuding allies can be reminded that they need to mend their fences in order to achieve the vision that they hold in common.
At a difficult time when some Swedes and Norwegians were sharpening ideological differences, the creative responders valued inclusivity. An old fracture between town and country (industrial workers vs. farmers) was partially mended through coalition for shared goals. The Norwegian Labor Party, formerly restricted to union members, opened its membership to middle class people. When the Great Depression increased joblessness, unions decided members could retain membership even after they lost their jobs.
And importantly, Swedes and Norwegians strongly preferred nonviolent struggle for their confrontations and campaigns. When they were attacked by Nazis at their demonstrations, for example, they didn’t use those occasions to fight it out in the streets. When striking workers were repressed by government troops, they didn’t assassinate soldiers or blow up barracks.
Instead, the usual pattern of response to repressive violence was to escalate the nonviolent tactics. In 1931, Swedish soldiers shot into a march of striking workers, killing five and injuring five more. The workers’ response was to declare a general strike in the region, which then spread to the national level. That, in turn, led to a power shift from the governing economic elite to the workers and farmers who represented the democratic majority of the people.
In Norway workers and farmers used nonviolent tactics on such a large scale that they made their country ungovernable by the economic elite. The majority then took over, establishing democracy. They opened up the political space and invented what economists now call the Nordic model.
The U.S. has its own past experiences with major polarizations: The 1930s and the 1960s. In the ’30s Father Coughlin gave fascist rants on national radio broadcasts. The Ku Klux Klan grew in both the 1930s and 1960s, while extremist groups grew on the left as well. During the tension of the Vietnam war sons were disowned and pastors dismissed; even the Army reeled from the impact of division in the ranks.
Strikingly, those two periods also stand out in our history for progress. The former head of the American Sociological Association, Frances Fox Piven, lists gains that Americans take for granted that came out of those two eras in her book Challenging Authority: How ordinary people change America. Social Security, Medicare, limits on the length of the workweek, rights for people with different abilities, rights for Black people and others of color, rights for women and elders and children.
Those gains were the results of creative responses at heights of polarization.
Three of the creative response ingredients were present: ideas of nonviolence, inclusivity, and cooperative models. I believe even more progress would have come out of those periods had there been the fourth, a wide agreement on a vision for a just and democratic alternative to the prevailing poverty, war, and racism.
Clearly, Americans do know a thing or two about how to navigate a period of raw conflict.
So even though we are headed for more extreme polarization as President-elect Trump heads to the White House without the support of the popular vote, we know what to do. We know what the creative response needs to look like.
Build more cooperative alternative structures, with higher visibility
Americans are increasingly turning to cooperative economic alternatives, as producers, consumers, and generators of services. The heightened climate crisis stimulates more of this trend, building skills, relationships, confidence in the grassroots, and a sense of power.
As polarization deepens, co-ops and other civic groups need to proclaim themselves to be safe and reliable institutions to rally around. Such proactivity is more important now than even in the 1930s and 1960s because government and politicians are fast losing their legitimacy, heightening people’s anxiety as climate and other crises grow. Alternative sources of social solidarity need to drop old habits of modesty and brand themselves as reliable, robust nodes of the networks of goodwill that we need.
In a period of polarization, it is tempting to define oneself by a smaller and smaller circle, to retreat into a bubble, perhaps reinforced by Facebook and other social media. I suspect that during the 2016 presidential campaign there were many middle class liberals that did not have a single thoughtful conversation with a supporter of Donald Trump. That’s the opposite of smart navigation of polarization, which is to expand the circle, to broaden our acquaintance, to engage in ongoing dialogue with those our fear might lead us to dismiss.
Agree on a vision
I doubt that the Scandinavians could have designed the most successful economic model in history for delivering equality, individual freedom, and shared abundance if they had not first created broad agreement among the Left on their vision. For them, agreeing required study, research, compromise, intense dialogue, and willingness to pay attention to pragmatic results.
The good news for us in the U.S. is that we do not need to start from scratch in generating a vision. We can take the Nordics’ high-performance model and adapt it to our own needs and history.
Poll data indicate that majorities of Americans are already in agreement with many features of the Nordic model, including a narrower scale of income difference, single payer health care, free access to higher education, paid parental leave, and higher wages for workers. The overwhelming popularity of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the platform of his “Our Revolution” movement illustrates that.
Three of the creative response ingredients were present: ideas of nonviolence, inclusivity, and cooperative models.
So does the the release in August of the vision of the Movement for Black Lives, an organization that brings together some of the thinking of the grassroots phenomenon called Black Lives Matter. The economic dimension of the vision is remarkably in alignment with the Nordic model and is therefore an immediately available “rough draft” for progressives of all ethnicities to address. Many credible national groups have endorsed the vision of the Movement for Black Lives. It’s not about word-for-word agreement; the task is to create shared understanding of a model that will decisively improve equality and democracy.
Focus on an effective nonviolent strategy
Seeing through democratic pretense, which is what the Scandinavians did for themselves a century ago and we must do today, frees us to maximize power for change. Facing the truth that billionaire Warren Buffett acknowledged to the New York Times in 2006 empowers citizens for the task ahead. When asked by reporter Ben Stein about the speculation that there is class war in the U.S., Buffett said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” One implication of Buffett’s admission is that we need to shift from actions that make moral statements to nonviolent actions that exert actual power.
Social scientific research in recent decades suggests that our most powerful means, when an opponent is blocking change, is to organize a campaign. One-off protests make little if any difference. A nonviolent campaign, by contrast, makes a specific demand of a clearly identified target. It then organizes a series of escalating nonviolent actions, effectively clustered around a singular issue, until some or all of the demand is met.
Americans have extensive experience with nonviolent campaigns. Consider the civil rights victories in the 1960s, and even recently, the halting of the KXL pipeline.
Currently we see grassroots nonviolent campaigns at the Standing Rock Sioux camps. This cluster of campaigns—aimed at corporations building the pipeline along with the federal government giving them the land to do it, aimed at the banks that invest in fossil fuel infrastructure, aimed at politicians who favor oil infrastructure over indigenous rights– for example, has become a full-blown movement.
The question is whether the many Americans who are deeply concerned for change will step up their strategic skills so more nonviolent campaigns will cluster into more movements and, as a whole, create an Era of Change.
George Lakey is a retired professor at Swarthmore College and a longtime activist, sociologist, and writer. His books include How We Win: A Guide for Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning and Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right and How We Can, Too.