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america has become a divided society
but the true divisions are not the ones we're being sold and recognizing the real issue is the first step to solving it.
i’ve spoken a fair bit about informational manipulation and the power of hobgoblins and perceived conflict.
those who would control a society are well served by polarizing the populace against one another to create strife and alienation rather than commonality. once you are convinced that “the other half” of the country is “out to get you” you can be easily corralled into a gang “for protection.”
this is the classic tactic for extreme wings of parties and positions to prevent the emergence of a coherent middle that repudiates such control and intrusion.
you must have your control or someone you like even less will take power!
it’s a dictum as old as demagoguery.
and the best way to do it is to hide the real fight and draw all eyes to a contrived one.
this practice has been alive in well in america.
based on a large self-reporting survey, we now rank near the top on both belief that out society is divided and hopelessness that such a state may be remedied.
but what if the oft highlighted divisions are outright illusory and serve not as a framing of any real problem but as the mesmerist’s device to shift attention away from it?
because while i think it’s true that we have become deeply divided, i do not think that division is the one being so avidly sold.
to frame this properly, let’s first look at the nature of divided societies.
i have, of late, been recalling a political science class i took as an undergrad on “the politics of divided societies” and the frameworks for identifying and thinking about such situations that it provided. chief among these was the idea of the “cross cutting cleavage.” (CCC) this is a way to measure the homo or heterogeneity of opinions, allegiances, and political preferences across a society as a sort of topological network graph.
a society with strongly heterogeneous opinions that are largely independent of one another is deemed “integrated.” a society with opinions that are highly homogeneous by group and that are near entirely predicted by tribal membership are “divided.” in such a state, the cleavages do not cross cut, they stratify.
as a simple example, imagine a world in which only 3 issues A, B, and C matter. let us assume that these issues have nothing whatsoever to do with one another on any intrinsic basis. one might then expect them to be pretty randomly distributed in a populace and to lack cross-correlation. being pro A adds no predictive power on guessing whether one will also be pro B or C.
this results in the sort of cross cutting cleavages referenced above. you get a topological map like this: (simplified for graphical sanity)
what this is really laying out is that cross cutting cleavage is really another way of saying “cross linking affinities.” nearly everyone has something in common with everyone and therefore despite differences can also find common cause, common ground, and common referent. even the real antipathy outliers like triple positive vs triple negative are going to have a bunch of common friends/allies. nobody is extremely topologically/ideologically isolated.
while it may have plenty off differences, this network graph is a mesh. it creates a community that possesses a unity and an internal cohesiveness. societies like this tend to have lively but measured debates as opposed to stridency rarifying echo chambers. they tend to come together rather than tear themselves apart.
but what happens when CCC’s disappear and being pro A becomes a strong predictor of being pro B and C?
you get division. large groups of the society have nothing in common with other large groups. the network topology closes. those who actually comprise a sort of “center” or who are making judgements based on some other heuristic than the primary tribal division (using the liberty/coercion axis instead of the left/right dichotomy for example) wind up isolated instead of being a glue and worse, often wind up antipathic toward one another as well. perhaps the two main groups view them as “half friends” but it can become increasingly easy to view them as “half enemy” as well…
this is a society set up for trouble you have two groups with vastly differing aims contesting for power to impose “their way” upon everyone and, assuming they are roughly equal in size, the margin for grasping it will be narrow and thus the fight vicious, the vitriol against “defectors” instant and savage, and the middle treated like a chew toy being fought over by a couple of hyenas.
is this starting to remind you of anything?
this process is greatly enhanced and inflamed by the struggle for power and the divergence of opinion keeps widening as the nature of modern media segmentation into specific audiences to which it panders prevents any common referent whatsoever.
we shift way past “own opinions” and into “own facts” because each team and tribe has its own set of news streams and to keep fickle audience share the primary product of modern media is and must be confirmation bias. anger and division are just an emergent property of interactive personalized media.
the shift to focus on differences and divergence instead of seeking commonality is societal rabies. all are endlessly angry, despise one another, and demand redress which only inflames the divisions. taken too far you are not a society at all. you’re a war.
but where this gets really interesting is this:
i think we’re being badly misled about the true nature of division in america and that this is WHY we cannot fix this issue and keep making it worse when we try.
let’s look at some data:
there are many simple gross markers that can be used to determine the level of dividedness in a society and one of the easiest is intermarriage rates. do people from group X marry group Y? it’s a straightforward and surprisingly good metric for division. marriage rates between blacks and whites in apartheid south africa were very low. they were lower still between protestants and catholics in northern ireland.
so how do they look in america?
the good news is that, contrary to what many would have you believe, we have become MUCH less divided by race and this is especially true between blacks and whites. this holds across a wide range of age groups. (data from PEW survey)
these are actually quite healthy looking figures in terms of “melting pot” style outcomes and seem to stand in opposition to the idea of accelerating racial animosity and perhaps even raise some interesting questions about whether the grievance gang is getting so shrill on this issue precisely because it is going away and they do not want it to.
perhaps as MLK once wished, we are more so than ever judging one another not by the color of our skins but by the content of our character.
there will always be some racism and i do not mean to imply that there is no such thing, but based on this data, it really does not appear that america has some vast racial problem and that rather, our races are increasingly coming together.
our division is not black and white.
it’s donkey and elephant.
by 2020, only 21% of US marriages crossed political lines, but nearly all of this is a donkey or an elephant marrying an independent. (and few independents are fail to “lean” hard one way or the other.)
only 1 in 28 marriages is red + blue.
“it is possible to make a direct comparison between 2020 and 2017, the earliest year when the spouse’s party affiliation was available in the American Family Survey. My analysis suggests that in just three years, the share of politically-mixed marriages in the U.S. has declined from 23% to 21%, and the share of marriages between a Democrat and a Republican dropped from 4.5% to 3.6%. So, both sources suggest that the share of politically-mixed marriages has been trending down, at least in recent years.”
the marriage rate for pachyderms and burros is 3.6%. ouch.
and it dropped from 4.5% in 2017. that’s a full 20% reduction in cross marriage frequency in just 3 years.
these are really quite startling numbers.
this would seem to indicate that we are pulling apart rapidly along party lines. americans are nearly 5X as likely to intermarry by race than by donkey/elephant dichotomy the the trends look to be widening.
that’s worth keeping in mind as people try to tell you what is dividing the US these days. you're being sold a bill of goods:
DEI is not the issue.
savage political balkanization is.
and it’s getting NASTY.
racism may be on the wane, but partyism is intensifying. the two political tribes have ~90% unfavorable views rates about one another but the real story is the huge rise in “very unfavorable” which is exploding and has risen from ~20% each in the late 90’s to 50-60% now. this is getting into “somebody is about to get shanked in the shower” levels of division and dislike.
the separation is near total and the possibility of cross cutting affinity is disappearing and increasingly vilified. not only do your views on nuclear power probably predict your views on abortion and on infrastructure policy and school choice, but they also mean that you and those like you probably hate those who disagree and view with suspicion those who have not picked a side.
per pew only 7% of americans are independents who do not “lean” strongly to one party or another. not wanting to pick coke or pepsi seems to be going seriously out of vogue and the endless flashpoints of cancel culture and gotchaball are leaving everyone seeking societal subgroup speakeasies where they can can actually express their genuine opinions without fear of attack or reprisal.
the middle has eroded badly, fails to share anything resembling a consensus reality, and increasingly engages only with exaggerated strawman pastiches of the the other side as opposed to any actual people.
commonality is impossible among strangers. those not in “the tribe” are not to be trusted and even one signal of mis-allegiance can cast you out.
i get caught in crossfire all the time for adhering to the liberty side of the liberty coercion axis which is orthogonal to the “left/right” division that seems to be america’s primary diving line.
this makes me favor free markets, free speech, small government, legalized drugs, open (but organized) immigration, and “worship, hire, and marry whomsoever you jolly well please it’s nobody’s business but yours…”
it used to be easier. the two sides would seek to find commonality with you. now they seek to pick fights for lack of ideological purity. this evaporation of the possibility of a middle is the last stage before the kickoff of gang violence. and we should be SERIOUSLY worried about it. this is how civil wars happen and the outlandish provocations being whipped up and fabulized into being by the erection of histrionic and mutually incompatible jingo narratives in search of some reichstag fire to set us all off poses a grave danger.
and increasingly, we know it.
americans now identify as severely polarized and deeply unhopeful that it can be fixed.
but i think they can, because i think these divisions are more illusory and cynically manipulative than real.
unfortunately, the folks like edelman (whose survey is cited in the graphic at the top of this piece) are on the wrong side of this and are advocating the very policies that will turn this division even more rancorous. they want to fix all this anger with what can realistically only be described as “fascism” in the classic mussolini sense.
this is not the way past red/blue it’s feeding warm wet air into a hurricane.
it’s pure antagonism and a redoubling of the basic false distinction that’s doing all the damage.
“the solution to strife is for our team to win,” is not exactly a promising cease-fire plan to calm everyone down…
so what do we do now?
the classic textbook solutions for such divided societies (apart from war) tend to group into two broad buckets:
embedded power sharing and mutual veto rights requiring cross tribal consent/supermajority approval for the exercise of power
partition and devolution of authority
both are somewhat problematic as currently instantiated in the US, but each provides some potential in terms of a means to de-escalate as well.
perhaps the greatest issue with the current US political system is the power of the increasingly imperial presidency and the vast technocratic/bureaucratic/regulatory state it commands. such a singular spoil as the oval office creates a strong game theory incentive for a two party system with intense party loyalty because if your faction splits, the other guys will keep winning the white house and dominate politics.
obedience to tribe = safety.
you can see it in congress where parties go wild against any who fail to vote the party line.
you can see it in the electorate where “you have to vote X even if it sucks because Y sucks more.”
in such a system, the idea of cross party sharing looks fraught. it has certainly not stopped places like the FCC from being political footballs and the basic issues like “whoever controls the EPA gets to force or prevent everyone from doing X or Y or Z” or “the SEC and banking regulators can push DEI or subsidize oil co lending or whatever the cronies ask for” are not going to go away.
the obvious answer seems to be “much smaller and less intrusive government that lets each and all pursue their own happiness” in order to prevent it being weaponized into the endless jump ball for the weapon of mass domination that the donkeys and elephants attempt to wield against one another.
the problem with this is, of course, that “big government” is built into most of the policies team blue prefers and if we’re being honest, one can make the same argument about team red much of the time regardless of what they claim on the campaign trail.
so finding widespread agreement on pruning leviathan gets REALLY hard as you’re basically asking two crony corporatist enterprises to give up being gold givers and grifting grabbers of personal fortune and power.
this is never going to come from the parties.
they are the problem both ideologically and structurally.
we need to start thinking in terms of different affiliations.
i have advocated a one-two punch of “become more ungovernable” and “becoming a one issue voter on “remove the whole of the bureaucracy”” in hopes that we can get an american middle to emerge. i’m not sure that either can work alone, but perhaps the two together create both the leverage and the loosening of control that allows a middle to arise and assert itself.
we need to find this commonality and use it to reject the extreme wings of the donkeyphant dictators who keep us at one another’s throats.
i suspect it remains our last, best hope.
i really do believe that the real america looks more like the the horseshoe on the R than the one on the L. and the red and blue bossypants’s HATE one another. so we can be a clear majority if we just wake up.
the great mass of the real america does not want to live as statist satraps and has far more in common with one another than they do with the elites from either political gang.
we’re just being prevented from realizing it by inapt ideological fixation on an arbitrary and damaging distinction that has very little basis in actual fact and baited into mostly false frictions that would heal themselves if government and ideolouges stopped picking at them
the primary purpose of our two parties is to “protect us from the other guys who are ever so much worse than we are!”
it’s a stupid game with stupid prizes and it’s time we wised up and stopped falling for it.
this great sensible center that would like to lead lives free from these extortionists and protection racketeers constitutes the true marrow of america. the small groups of entrenched authoritarians and the captured corporatism of their public/private self-enrichment collaboration are just that: small.
we are not.
we’re being divided that we may be ruled.
and it is long past time it stopped.