Whenever I hear someone bemoaning the dangerous polarization of our politics, I unerringly point out that the polarization is asymmetric. The term “political polarization” suggests two political parties and their respective supporting networks moving away from the center in roughly equal manner. That’s not what has happened in the US over the past few decades. Instead, just one of the two parties has moved far, far away from the central pole, while the other has moved only slightly in the opposite direction. The Republican Party has veered way off to the right, becoming a genuinely radical reactionary party. The Democrats’ move to the left is largely a function of their having shed their Southern Dixiecrat wing, which transmogrified over time into the core of today’s GOP. The average Northern Democratic politician isn’t starkly more liberal than she was 40 years ago.* (It’s possible, but yet to be demonstrated, that a further Democratic shift to the left is now underway.)
Events of recent weeks have presented new evidence of our asymmetric politics. Two terror attacks and a caravan of desperate Central Americans have been the subject of widespread conspiracy theorizing on the right. Prominent right-wing icons such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs have promoted the hypothesis that the mail bombing attempt was a “false flag” hoax perpetrated by Democrats and leftists to make the right look bad. Further over on the fringes of the right, similar thinking can be found even about the anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh. And the caravan? Obviously a Democrat plot, financed by billionaire George Soros. Trump, who has given only very allusive credence to the false flag theory of the bomb mailings, has explicitly encouraged the lie that the Democrats are behind the caravan. That belief, along with the false flag explanation of the mail bombs, is now pretty much an article of faith among his base.
The caravan? Wait a second: who benefits politically from the caravan? Clearly, it’s the Republicans, who have been fanning all sorts of hysteria over the caravan’s threat to our national security, if not to our very civilization. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone on the right that Soros, in his zeal to help the Dems, has chosen a remarkably bad time, just before the mid-term elections, to finance an invasion of our southern border. How stupid could he be! But Soros, sinister figure that he may be for the right, is never seen as stupid.
Actually, wouldn’t it be more logical to suggest that the caravan is being financed by assorted Republican billionaires, given its obvious utility to their party’s cause? But the plain fact is: nobody on the left is pushing this theory. (If you don’t believe me, just Google “Who is financing the migrant caravan” and see if you can find any leftists promoting their “logical” conspiracy hypothesis.) Why not? It goes back to the asymmetry of our politics. There is a large and potent lunatic right in this country, with its influence stretching all the way up to the White House. There is nothing—nothing—comparable on the left. Yes, if you look hard enough, you can find some fairly way-out sects and assorted wacky individuals on the left. (I have one Facebook “friend” who apparently has never seen a left-wing conspiracy theory that he didn’t like.) But they’re a tiny fringe, not anywhere near positions of influence. On the right, the fringe is mainstream.
So, don’t let anyone tell you that there is rancor and hatred and craziness “on both sides.” That’s what’s called false equivalence. “Both sides-ism” just doesn’t describe the reality of American politics today.
*These aren’t mere partisan claims, but demonstrable findings of political science research. If you’re interested, you can check out the chart on page 106 of the article by Bonica, McCarty, Poole, and Rosental, “Why Hasn’t Democracy Slowed Rising Inequality?” in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Summer 2013. (Unfortunately, the link doesn’t seem to be working any more.)