Politics is usually framed as a conflict where two opposing sides meet and try to work out their differences either compromising and appeasing no one or remaining at war and appeasing only one side, but to disastrous consequence. This framing is clearly harmful in that there exists no possibility for peaceful resolution, but it’s also both artificial and false.
The framing here does fit the standard two Party political system which more or less evinces itself in a Congressional or Parliamentary setting, but it requires that views be either opposed or orthogonal and therefore results in simplification of positions to the point of meaninglessness.
I’ve explained before that political ideology cannot be sufficiently described on a spectrum. Political ideology is multifactorial which means it is statistically multidimensional. Even if we allow for orthogonal representation to create a visual diagram of ideology we have to collapse it or reduce it to at most three dimensions. This is like putting all cake on a spectrum from chocolate to vanilla. It does not make any sense. Where do checked cakes fall? Where does pineapple upside-down cake fall? Why are we talking about cakes anyway?
But, the advantage of collapsing all political ideology into a spectrum makes othering — or the anthropological concept of defining yourself and your in-group against a reductively defined outsider — considerably easier. And stepping back from the ethical awfulness of that it is funny that taking a reductive view of political ideology allows for a reductive view of people who hold a different political ideology.
Conceptually there’s a possibility for ideological extremism, but it should largely be theoretical rather than actual. Clearly it’s not, but the reason it’s not is actually due to the artificial fabrication of an antagonist extremism.
Consider it this way, geometry allows for some really absurd shapes. So conceptually speaking when considering a set of a given sort of shape there will still be so much variation that if you’re trying to examine the shapes from a non-Euclidean perspective you’re going to have to correct for the distortion in curved space. But — and this is why any real mathematician is probably rolling their eyes at me — if you’re looking at a biological shapes they’re going to be much more similar such that you … basically don’t have to worry about non-Euclidean space. Well, I always worry about non-Euclidean space, but it’s for reasons entirely unrelated to geometry.
We’re human. There’s actual limits to and similarities in our perception. Generally speaking, we do not form ideologically extreme positions … except where it is performative and meant to create an identification with an in-group. Much of extremism is therefore constructed not because anyone really believes it, but because it helps delineate them from “the Other.”
Let’s examine this. Imagine for yourself an extremist position. If you’re “liberal,” an extremist position might be having an anti-civil rights position. For “conservatives,” an extremist position would be socialism. And these are both kind of corrupt interpretations of “the Other.”
Now, with that said, anti-civil and human rights positions do exist — there’s domestic terror organizations dedicated to doing violence in the name of white supremacy, and regardless of your position on socialism, a public safety net which may involve higher taxes is not damaging or as damaging as murder. I am comparing apples to oranges here and I don’t want anyone to think that the perception of a thing justifies an extreme position on the other side. I’m arguing the exact opposite of that.
But as pervasive as white supremacy is in the United States most people who are racist are not intentionally engaging in racism and the entire concept of racism was constructed out of status threat and fear of “the Other.” If you want a full history of this I refer you to Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War. People fear the unknown and they won’t trust those who aren’t like them straight away, but the kind of hate intentionally cultivated in white supremacy is a reaction to status threat.
White supremacy is an out of control raging epidemic among conservatives and not a few liberals, but it is also not a thing we as humans would naturally consider. It is constructed rather than spontaneous.
Socialism is arguably less constructed and certainly considerably less dangerous, but it’s also not actually a liberal position. This will bring us a bit back to the earlier discussion on ideology as multifactorial. When conservatives talk about what they consider most important it will be self-determination and the economy. So if you take these two together that kind of equals capitalism. And obviously the opposite of that would be socialism or communism. So if you’re conservative and that’s your take on ideology of course you would say that socialism and/or communism are extreme liberal positions, because your point of reference is self-determination and money.
But, liberalism per liberals is far more about civil and human rights and the health of the society. This is not communism but communalism. It is possible for liberals to be socialist and from an economic standpoint you could make the argument that a lot of liberal policies embrace aspects of socialism, but the economy is not centrally relevant for liberals. Liberals are less likely to have issues with economic policies except where they impose poverty, and more likely to take issue with social policies which restrict human and civil rights and liberties.
So, basically conservatives are mad about a thing that doesn’t really exist in actual liberalism and where it does is not at all a problem and liberals are mad about a rise in domestic terror.
Enter the October 22, 2020 Presidential debate version of Donald Trump.
I am proud to have called this way before Biden himself pointed it out, but aside from mismatching his concealer yet again, Trump’s big issue in the debate was that something, something, sOcIalISm!!1!1!!! I apologize for my flippancy but his complaints were not delivered in anything approaching a professorial or even factual manner. He also said Kamala Harris is further left than Bernie Sanders which, is actually arguably true, but only if you use the argument I’ve laid out above. And of course all this is immaterial because one’s position on a spectrum of political ideology is devoid of value and arguably even meaning.
Trump was sort of trying to argue against what he considered an extreme position with the expectations that a.) his perceptions were correct, b.) Biden actually espouses those views and c.) that a political ideological spectrum both exists and has depreciating value dependent upon position. It’s not really an earth-shattering statement to say that all of Trump’s perceptions and expectations are at best simple and at worst false simply because he is stupid. But, were Trump a smarter person or Biden weaker or Americans more tied to this idea of ideological rigidity and relative value then this sort of attack might have landed.
I wasn’t really dedicated to counting it but Trump brought up either Bernie Sanders or Bernie Sanders’ plans at minimum three times not even counting the mentions of the Green New Deal. And this is not a new phenomenon. Trump was actually less articulate in the 2016 “debates,” probably because he was apoplectic about having to share a stage with a woman, but he did have a similar strategy of trying to strawman the entirety of American politics. (And he also did try to circumvent Hillary Clinton and debate Bernie Sanders instead.)
The thing is Trump LOVES Bernie Sanders because Bernie Sanders is the bogeyman. It would actually be much easier for Trump to debate Sanders because Sanders’ positions don’t really overlap with most American liberals and they’re diametrically opposed to the views of American conservatives. And this is not to say that Americans aren’t super liberal and growing moreso every day — it just means that American liberalism and conservatism do not exist on the same axis, but American conservatism and Bernie Sanders do.
With a simplistic world view like Trump’s it is far easier to take aim at Sanders than it is Biden and the majority of liberal lawmakers. Trump bases his entire world view on fear. He fears loss of control and humiliation and has become so wrapped up in it that reality doesn’t really intrude into the narrative with which he’s cocooned himself. The issue for him and in part the reason he got as far as he did but is likely to fail even more than he did in 2016 is that his politics of fear don’t match that of the rest of the country or the United States.
I do think that the Republican Party is in need of reform and was in need of reform before Trump became it’s leader. But conservative ideology outside of the fear that white supremacy stokes actually isn’t terrible. I don’t agree with it basically all of the time, but as long as there are reasonable regulations, protections, oversight, human and civil rights, and a dedication to democracy I — a raging leftie — do not have a real problem with actual conservatism. Again, where conservatism does not include white supremacy it’s actually fine. And I suspect that if conservative voters could move past the fear mongering they would have a similar opinion of liberal Americans.
This narrative of diametrically opposed political ideologies is constructed, false, and ultimately damaging to our nation.