Wednesday, September 29, 2021

History of Polarization

Politics today are patty-cake compared to the past!

I hear many folks say they are sick and tired of polarized politics, partisan politics and how divided we are as a country.  What they really mean by this, of course, is they wish "their side" would obliterate the other, so there would no longer be any disagreements!  Of course, we know how that works out in practice - new disagreements are formed for starters, and everyone ends up worse off than before.

Others claim that in the past, everyone was Kum-by-ya and held hands and taught the world to sing. Republicans and Democrats held friendly meetings where their disagreements were minor and afterwards they all went out to lunch together.

Such was not the case.  The human condition is one of violence and confrontation, of competing for scarce resources, and the resulting conflict and controversy.  It has always been this way and always will be - we are not very nice people, we humans.  We are just like the other animals on the planet.  There is no such thing as a "nice" shark.  That doesn't mean sharks are evil - they are just doing what they need to do, to survive.

You can go back throughout recorded history and see this - conflict was the norm, and in fact, it was wars and violence that were recorded as "events" in history. Long periods of peace - if they existed at all - don't get written down.  And yes, back then, people fought and killed and slaughtered in the name of religion.  That hasn't changed at all.

But just considering the history of this country, you can see that "polarization" is the norm, not the exception.  Our very revolution was a bloody affair and forced everyone to choose sides.  It isn't talked about much in schoolbooks, but "loyalists" to the crown were not some tiny minority. The revolutionaries did not treat them well, and the favor was returned.

In researching my own family history, I came across a document in the Yale archives, where one of my ancestors was forced to sign a "loyalty oath" as they fled Long Island for Connecticut.  It seems the loyalists and rebels were fighting back and forth on Long Island, and as each took power, they seized the property of the other, burned farms and caused general mayhem.  When the revolution was over, the rebels setup a little "Gitmo" camp in New York City and tried to figure out what to do with the loyalists.  Today we call them Canadians.  They were shipped out to Canada, but lost all their properties in the process.  Talk about polarization!

Not much changed thereafter. It took several years and a false start to come up with our current Constitution - which had a hand-grenade built right into it.  The institution of slavery would eventually have to go - but not without a fight - the bloodiest fight in US history - killing more people than every other war we've fought in, since.

We talk about the fights in the Senate, but at least they are a war of words.  Prior to the Civil War, senators got into fisticuffs on the Senate floor!  The polarization over the issue of slavery isn't hard to fathom.  People in the North, who had little economic interest in owning slaves, were against the practice on moral grounds.  People in the South, well, those who had slaves liked the idea pretty well, and others who didn't, well, they didn't want Northerners telling them what to do!  Sort of sounds like the same situation today - no one wants to give up a position of advantage or have someone else tell them what to do.

People like to cast slavery as a racial thing, although throughout history, slaves have come in all sorts of colors, as have slave-owners.   Slavery in ancient times was usually based on who was a conquered enemy.  In ancient Rome, it was captured Germans who were often enslaved.  In Egypt, it was "Nubians" (Africans) who were enslaved.  In more recent times, it was Africans enslaved by fellow Africans and then sold to American and European "slavers" who then shipped them to America.  This is not to say racism was absent, only that it wasn't the only factor.  In terms of managing slavery, race made a quick and convenient way for people to tell who was and who wasn't a slave - and an easy way to detect and catch runaway slaves.

I have a friend who inherited a huge fortune (millions of dollars) from her Grandmother.  Not surprisingly, she's a Republican.   When you have that much money, you get a little tired of being a whipping-boy for the Democrats and being taxed.  From her perspective, it's her money, and why should she pay it to the government?   I mean, I don't agree with that, but I get that.  And maybe I would agree with it, if I won the powerball or something.

It happens.  I mentioned before how so many rock stars and other celebrities, once they make their millions, veer off to the right, at least in terms of tax policies.  And many of them end up in trouble with the IRS, as they try to evade taxes through sketchy tax shelters or tax-denial schemes.  They burned through millions during their prime earning years, and now want to avoid paying their tax bill, so they can maintain a certain lifestyle.  It is a story repeated more often than you'd think - and many more do this on a smaller scale as well!

But I digress.  Maybe not by much, though.  The point is, people have diametrically opposed positions on issues, and this shouldn't come as a shock to us.  What's more, this is nothing new and not some recent phenomenon.   Maybe the first time they forced a "government shutdown" it was shocking, but that was decades ago, and today, well, it is just a matter of course - a game played as part of the political landscape.  Of course, those who force a shutdown often end up losing the game - at least in the court of public opinion.

But such gamesmanship isn't new.  Democrats walk out on a legislative session in Texas to prevent a quorum, and Republicans act shocked.  But such tactics are nothing new - we just fein outrage over it all.  Decades earlier - when Democrats were Republicans (i.e., racists) and Republicans were Democrats (i.e., big government), George Wallace "stood in the schoolhouse door" to prevent integration of schools in Alabama.  Talk about polarization!  And lest you think this is some "Southern" thing, it was the "Southies" of South Boston, who pelted school buses with rocks when "busing" was an issue there in the 1970's.   Racism is a game everyone can play.

Polarization is nothing new...

But was it only about racism?  Again, you can understand why a parent wants their kids to go to "good schools" which is a code-word for white schools.  They want their kids to absorb cultural values from their own social class.  They don't want their kids learning cultural values from the ghetto - or from the white-trash rural trailer park, either (or the Hispanic barrio).  You could say that is racist or elitist, or just a survival mode.  Parents don't want their kid joining a gang.  Funny thing, that.

Who's right?  Who's wrong?  That's not the point of this posting. The point is, over the history of this country - and the history of the world - polarization in politics has been the norm, not the exception.  Maybe you think the 1960's was an era of peace and love - and maybe 1967 was.  But by 1968 it was assassinations, riots, bombings, and protests.  Not much has changed, has it?

But we all want to think that our generation has it worse than the last - that our experiences are somehow unique or different.  That things "today" are going to hell in a handbasket and that the end times are surely near.   We thought that yesterday as well - and the day before, the year before, the decade before, the century before.

When I was a kid, it was the bomb - going to drop on us and obliterate mankind.  It could still happen, of course, but we seem to be used to the concept by now.   My parents were convinced that Nazism was going to be the end of freedom on the planet, and they saw their friends fight - and die - to preserve Democracy.  World War II - talk about polarization!

I guess the point is, not to get riled up by political window-dressing.  In order to get people to vote - or to donate money - you have to get them upset.  Fear is not an emotion to be trusted.  But both sides use fear to generate money and votes.  They'll take away your guns!  They'll make abortion illegal!  They'll turn us into a Socialist State!  They'll tax us to death!  They'll turn us into a fascist State!  They'll overthrow the government!

Well, OK, that last one is a bit concerning - when you have politicians decide that the Constitution is something you should invoke to do what you want to do, but something to trample upon when things don't go your way.  I think people don't realize how close we came to losing our Democracy on January 6th - if it wasn't for the actions of a few noble elected officials - many of them Republicans - we would be under a dictatorship today.  A few people did the right thing.  But it only takes a few people to do the wrong thing for very bad things to happen.  If you look at the history of revolutions in Latin American countries (often financed by one of the superpowers) it is often a small band of people who end up taking over governments.   It doesn't take much.

Yet, people are quite blasé about that, and yet riled up about some political posturing by some politician.   You have to choose your battles wisely.

The world is changing, and change is scary to some people, and downright impossible for others.  The guy who owns the coal mine in West Virginia isn't happy about cheap fracking gas powering the local power plant - a power plant that ran on coal for decades.  But he's fighting economic forces, not just social justice or environmental concerns.  Republicans cry out against electric cars, and then quietly offer Ford Motor Company a half a billion dollars to build an electric pickup truck and battery plant in their State.  It seems the industry that the GOP is trying to "protect" from "unnecessary regulation" is quietly going its own way - they see the writing on the wall, just as the power companies do.  Politics are a fine thing and all, but economics trump politics every time.

So Trump can claim he "digs coal" but if it costs more to burn it than it does to burn natural gas - or build a windmill or solar farm or whatever, no one gives a rat's ass about it.

And maybe that is what is going on right now.  Economics would have made slavery obsolete, eventually.  Farms today are automated - harvesting equipment was starting to replace slave labor by the time the Civil War came about.  But the guy who invested thousands (today, millions) in slaves, saw his "investment" disappearing entirely.  People invested in fossil fuels today are in the same situation - although there will always  be a demand for oil for other uses, such as plastics, lubricants, and so on.  Coal?  Not so much.

So maybe this latest iteration of polarization is just another example of economic change taking place - with the old guard pointlessly fighting against the future.  In 1865 it was the Democrats fighting social and economic change.  Today, it is the Republicans - blinding themselves to the fact that it was their party who created the EPA.

But their allies in this latest fight are the same folks as back in 1865.  I noted before that the typical "rebel" soldier in the Civil War owned no slaves and had no real dog in the fight, but was goaded on into fighting by things like patriotism and peer pressureToday, the same is true - the GOP gets the poor and destitute to do their dirty work for them, by claiming that electric cars are a threat to their freedom.  Our Miss Margie does a campaign ad, where she shoots at a Prius with a high-powered rifle, and it explodes.  The symbolism isn't lost on the low-information voters.

If history is any guide, however, the side pining for the "good old days" and fighting social or economic change, rarely, if ever, wins out, over time.  Sure, maybe some dictator comes into power and can prevent change from happening - but only for so long.  And the longer they deny reality, the stronger the ultimate reaction, when the rubber-band snaps back.

During the Civil War, more than one Confederate "rebel" soldier started to question what the heck they were doing there - particularly as they saw their friends being wounded or killed for no purpose whatsoever.   They realized they had no dog in the fight, and the war would be lost.  As in most armies, they had to execute a few soldiers to keep the desertion rate down.  Such is the nature of war.

In our current economic war, I don't think anything so dramatic will occur - or let's hope not, anyway.  I think what will happen, however, is that the folks who are "against" change will come around, once they see the advantages of it.  Many a person on Obamacare has changed their mind, once they realize they have health insurance - for the first time in their lives, in some instances.  People against vaccines are learning hard lessons as they see loved ones die.  Others will realize that a hybrid or electric vehicle - such as my neighbor's hybrid F150 - are better than the alternative.  But these things take time, but eventually, even the most died-in-the-wool redneck embraces technology.  I recall back in the 1970's, many an "old school" hot-rodder railing against electronic ignition, until they started losing races without it.  Ignorance isn't always bliss.

We'll have to wait and see how this pans out.  But in terms of polarization, I don't see our country more or less polarized than in the past.  And somehow I doubt people are willing to start another Civil War over social programs or solar powered wind-farms.

Well, let's hope not, anyway.