I am a late convert to the joy of literature reviews. My breakthrough came during my dissertation, when I discovered that a lit review doesn’t have to feel obligatory; it can be purposeful. As the title of a paper that came out this week states, it can be “A review and provocation,” in this case on the topic of “polarization and platforms.”
Read the whole thing; it’s worth it. But I want to highlight some key points, including arguments by the authors—Daniel Kreiss and Shannon C McGregor of the UNC Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life—that overlap significantly with my own lit review.
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The paper challenges the utility of polarization as a measure of social or political health and raising questions about whether media platforms (social and otherwise) aggravate polarization or simply reflect it.
Much of political identity performance takes place on social media, where politicians and publics alike utilize platform affordances and the norms and genres of communication on them to co-construct partisan and social identities (Kreiss et al., 2018, 2020).
To very much oversimplify the thrust of the argument (and probably inserting myself into it a bit), the performance of political identity is not identical to the creation of political identity. Platform affordances can make polarization more visible and more quantifiable, but polarization arises from a wider social context, especially inequality.
The pernicious myth here is that society has a “room temperature”—a view-from-nowhere state of neutrality that is just and desirable, while eliding the reality that the “center” is a measure of comfort for the dominant establishment identity—which just might happen to be white, Christian, and male for many people reading and writing about polarization. Specifically in the academic literature, the authors write:
Scholars who abstract polarization away from social structures and social differentiation see the primary democratic concern in terms of the lack of social cohesion and social solidarity. Scholars who proceed from an analysis of social, political, economic, or cultural inequality, in contrast, see polarization as the outcome of struggles for justice because it arises from challenges to dominant groups.
In other words:
As a concept […] polarization does not provide a normative or even conceptual way of distinguishing between White supremacists and racial justice activists, despite their asymmetrical relationship to liberal democracy.
What of those who identify polarization as the chief problem facing society?
In this light, emphasizing solidarity over and above equality means necessarily embracing status quo inequality.
[T]here is an implicit equivalence between sectarians in this work—othering, aversion, and moralization is not only something that afflicts both sides of the partisan aisle, but it is seemingly also equally harmful to democracy regardless of the social locations of those advancing these claims.
If you’ve been following my work for long, you know that the same problems apply to scholarship on extremism. A loose plurality of scholars and policy makers set the tone for the most common academic and policy definitions of extremism—variations on the phrase “beliefs that fall far outside the mainstream of society.” Many scholars and policymakers argue that extremism is always relative to the accepted norms of a given society at a given time. In other words, “[n]either moderation nor extremism can be assessed, much less judged, as simple rhetoric, absent a suitably defined reference point” (Hochman, 2002).[i]
As I have argued extensively elsewhere, the literature framing extremism, like the literature on polarization, fails to account for the characteristics of the center. What if the “center” is, for instance, Germany in the 1930s? I risk being boring, because I bring this up all the time, but it’s as unambiguous as an example can be. As I write in my dissertation:
Under the relative frame, Nazis were certainly extremists in 1924, when they were polling support from less than 3 percent of the German electorate, but had they stopped being extremists by 1933, when they were polling at 39 percent, sufficient to locate them at or near the center of German polity? [ii]
The center-based argument about polarization is as insidious as its counterpart in extremism studies. The institution of slavery certainly polarized the United States in the 19th century, and many defenders of slavery bemoaned that polarization—precisely because the “center” was understood to be the maintenance of race-based enslavement as the status quo of American society. Their plaintive calls for national unity were explicitly predicated on a consensus to maintain slavery. In addition to the obvious problem with this view, the polarization argument entirely discounted Black people from the spectrum of debate, calculating the “center” as a position in between two White factions. The neutrality of the center was no neutrality at all.
Sadly, modern complaints about polarization suffer from that same tension and erasure. As Kreiss and McGregor write:
In the years since the [Black Lives Matter] movement started in 2013, public opinion polls show a significant and growing partisan gap between White Americans on an oft-used measure of racism—a racial resentment scale (Jardina and Ollerenshaw, 2022). This gap is largely driven by increasingly pro-Black attitudes among White Democrats. In the same analysis, Jardina and Ollerenshaw show that White Democrats support the government providing socioeconomic assistance to Black Americans at the same levels as do Black Americans. And yet, the authors note, “It is clear that white partisans have perhaps never been as polarized in their racial attitudes and policy preferences as they are today” (Jardina and Ollerenshaw, 2022: 585). We see this polarization—driven largely by White Democrats’ increasingly liberal attitudes about race—as a normative good in a democracy premised on equal rights.
Many years ago, I struggled with inchoate intuitions about the relationship between radicalism, polarization and social progress, which Kreiss and McGregor have framed, articulated and argued much more coherently. Polarization occurs when society is changing, and change is often good. If the cost of social cohesion is the preservation of injustice, inequality, and violence, that’s a price we need not—and should not—pay.
P.S. I guess I am supposed to tell you I am on Notes. So, um, I’m on Notes. Check it out, or wait until a series of catastrophes forces Substack to start moderating content.
[i] King, G., Rosen, O., Tanner, M., & Wagner, A. F. (2008). Ordinary economic voting behavior in the extraordinary election of Adolf Hitler. The Journal of Economic History, 68(4), 951-996.
[ii] Hochman, Harold M. Chapter: “Is Democracy an Antidote to Extremism?” Breton, Albert, ed. Political extremism and rationality. Cambridge University Press, 2002. p. 137.
I think you're spot on with calling out the comparison with Nazis. We've all grown up in a world where "Poe's Law" is a prevalently popular call, but the reason 'Nazis' or 'Stalin/Mao's are such good comparisons are *because* they were such extremes, we can show the path where a current trajectory can fall ON that path. It should be respected and analyzed before criticized when those names or ideas are brought up.
". . . Nazis were certainly extremists in 1924 . . . had they stopped being extremists by 1933, when they were polling at 39 percent, sufficient to locate them at or near the center of German polity?"
I think this may be mis-framed. The Nazis did not move towards the center, but they drew support away from the center towards the extreme. The mechanism by which they did this included exploiting the extremism of German communists more effectively than the communists exploited the extremism of the Nazis. This tactic is being used (less effectively so far) by rightwing extremists in the US who try to portray those identifiably on the Left as extreme anti-white, communist groomers who support riots and crime. To the degree that the progressive Left pushes against the center by associating it with racism, LBGT-phobia, etc., its moral non-equivalence will be eclipsed by its alienating self-presentation, just as communist street fighters became the proxy for Weimar liberalism.
"We see this polarization—driven largely by White Democrats’ increasingly liberal attitudes about race—as a normative good in a democracy premised on equal rights."
This seems to me to presuppose a liberal view of "equal rights." Those to the right of center tend to see "diversity" and "equity" as a constraint on the rights of the present majority because of historical factors beyond their control or responsibility. (I don't endorse that view, but it makes clear that "equal rights" is contested territory and can't be used to claim an objective perspective.)
I think the influence of social media on all this is critical but imbalanced, roughly analogous to the street confrontation stage in the Weimar Republic. Two recent examples: The Stanford Law protests against Kyle Duncan was staged by the Right for the purpose of inducing the progressive Left to perform as illiberal extremists for the benefit of social media persuasion. In response, a Wayne State U professor thought it would be a wonderful idea to post on social media by telling the progressive Left that such protests were hurtful to their cause by suggesting that murdering rightwing extremists would be better idea ("in theory"). The net result is that in both cases, careful staging by the Right pushed the center away from "the Left" by luring its clueless proxies into alienating self-presentation. For complex reasons, it is *much* easier for the Right (or the Alt-Right) to manage this type of effect.
These sorts of dynamics have to be borne in mind when writers like Kreiss and McGregor (or your presentation of them) pass judgment on the moral balance between two sides when they have a clear bias towards the ethics of one of them. It may seem obvious to someone on the Left that when a person like Nick Fuentes presents as a lethal antisemite it's because he is one, while when Steven Shaviro presents as an adocate of assassination he's making a clumsy attempt at irony, but Fuentes will claim the protection of irony and the Right will read Shaviro as sincere (despite his pro forma disclaimer) because it serves them to do so.
I don't think the argument that the Center is the locus of oppression that must be broken will be a fruitful approach, any more than DEI sessions that take as an axiom that all white participants are racists move people's commitments towards DEI. It's great that the progressive "eligible in-group" is descriptively universal, and it may make them seem ethically superior, but when in practice most of that elgible group is deemed ineligible I think the conditions for potential extremism (and for potential violent extremism) exist--they are certainly perceived to exist by the "ineligibles."