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“Polarization” Is a Fact — Get Used to It

Pete Buttigieg is just the latest Democrat to denounce “polarization.” But American society is already divided — and anyone claiming we don’t need to pick a side is already siding with the status quo.

Democratic presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg addresses a crowd on September 16, 2019 in Galivants Ferry, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford / Getty Images)

“Polarization” is perhaps the ultimate dirty word in America’s political lexicon.

Dire warnings about the rising polarization of American society have long been a staple of cable news commentary and newspaper op-ed sections, and politicians in both parties regularly vow to resist or reverse it. As a consequence, the idea that “divisive behavior” of any kind is inherently bad has become about as axiomatic as anything can be in American politics.

During a weekend appearance on CNN’s State of the Union alongside Jake Tapper, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg became just the latest figure to trade in this all-too-familiar trope. Using much of the interview to contrast his strategy and policy aims with those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (the two candidates in the field running decidedly to his left) the mayor of South Bend made a banal but revealing remark:

My concern about the vision from the Sanders/Warren approach is that it can polarize Americans when we have other ways to deliver bold solutions without dividing the American people further.

Earlier this month, Buttigieg’s campaign released an ad in the same vein, declaring:

As a veteran, and as a mayor, I’ve seen what we can achieve when we have each other’s backs. But in today’s divided America, we’re at each other’s throats. Our rivers and oceans are rising, health-care costs are soaring, and our kids are learning active shooter drills before they learn to read. To meet these challenges and to defeat this president, we need real solutions, not more polarization.

Like denunciations of “partisanship,” warnings about polarization often resonate because they contain an element of truth. Few, after all, would deny that American society is deeply divided, culturally and politically, or that politicians and media figures alike often lean into these divisions for purely cynical reasons. Widespread disgust, particularly at the latter, is precisely why centrists like Buttigieg believe there’s political capital to be harvested in condemning opponents for attempting to “polarize” the electorate.

But even if we take Buttigieg’s expressed concern at face value, neither his claim nor the assumptions it’s implicitly based on really hold up to scrutiny. Polarization, whatever its more superficial incarnations may be, is ultimately rooted in real social divisions that persist whether politicians choose to draw attention to them or not. The exact character of these divisions might vary, but most if not all manifest themselves in the uneven distribution of resources, power, or both.

Buttigieg himself alluded to this only moments later when talking about America’s history of racial prejudice, something he promised to address through sweeping criminal justice reform and a “confrontation” with the legacy of discrimination. Does he believe either of these things will ever be possible without further polarization?

The same could be said about innumerable other divisions in American society, most obviously its obscene wealth gap: the direct expression of a system that allows a tiny group of oligarchs and billionaires to hoard vast resources while millions live paycheck to paycheck. No “bold solution” to these injustices is conceivable without further polarization: in this case, between the majority of Americans and the gilded minority at the top.

This applies to most, if not all, of Buttigieg’s stated policy goals, from health care to gun control. Even modest intervention in America’s health-care system, after all, will inevitably face stiff opposition from private insurance companies. Ditto for gun control, which will be bitterly resisted by the NRA whatever form it takes. The passage of necessary environmental reform is effectively impossible barring a reckoning with the fossil fuel industry.

An unequal society is, by definition, a polarized one, and by dismissing the very idea of polarization, Buttigieg is effectively telling us he has no intention of doing much to alter this state of affairs. On issue after issue, there is no middle ground — and any candidate who suggests they don’t need to pick a side is effectively siding with the status quo.