Joe Biden’s recent attacks on Donald Trump and “MAGA Republicans” have caused outrage on the US right. What should surprise us is not the strength of the attack — against what are, after all, blatantly antidemocratic forces — but the departure it represents from the approach mainstream political actors have generally taken: that is, one which has tended to euphemize the far-right threat and draw a false equivalence with the forces resisting it.
The concept of “polarization” is increasingly used in mainstream circles to lament the current state of politics. It is a liberal parallel to right-wing moral panics about cancel culture, “wokeness” — or what used to be called “political correctness gone mad.” Such moral panics are generally based on ridiculous nonevents that nonetheless seep into public discourse, often with the help of mainstream media. As Nathan Oseroff-Spicer has documented, the “woke” panic has spread to strip clubs, the military, corporations, medical education, and the British monarchy, among others. While the liberal center may see the right-wing “war on woke” as overblown, they insist on casting it as one side of a duopoly of extremism from both Left and Right. The Right may have indulged extremist and authoritarian tendencies, it argues, but so has the Left. Trumpists and Brexiteers are the flipside of antifa and overzealous woke students.
The solution, we are patronizingly told, lies in a more reasonable middle ground based on tolerance toward diverging viewpoints. Think, for example, of the proliferation of pieces about left-wing people refusing to kiss reactionaries or the need to “build bridges” or “dine across the divide.” Is this not what has allowed our societies to progress to this advanced state of democracy? Who was the great philosopher who once said “there are very fine people on both sides”?
This is nothing new, of course. It has long been central to abstract liberalism and has served well to protect against too radical a democratic change that would have challenged interests bound to the status quo. It is thus not altogether surprising to see its recent resurgence under such trite phrases as “the marketplace of ideas.” We are told that we should not be scared of ideas we may disagree with: if they are bad but confronted in a public setting, they will be defeated, and reason will prevail. That seems sensible — unless you have paid any attention to political developments in the past few decades and what is really at stake in modern politics.
It is easy to see how this positioning is appealing and reassuring to those in a comfortable position. As they see it, our freedom is currently under threat by those who argue certain ideas are out of bounds, whether on the Left or on the Right. This soft, grown-up, sensible middle-ground approach to politics could not appear more reasonable. If this status quo happens to benefit those who defend this position — well, that’s just an added bonus.
This is, however, reasonable only if we abstract from what politics is about. This means ignoring how deeply unequal and unjust our societies are and how the situation is in fact worsening. It means being oblivious to the crises now upon us, the urgency of radical solutions, and how uncompromising the forces of reaction really are. It appears increasingly clear that fascism is rising as an answer to the inability of the current system to resolve crises of its own making. In such a context, it is simply criminal for the liberal mainstream to indulge reactionaries and normalize their talking points.
Polarization has been used by academics and commentators to talk about the hollowing out the political center with eyes to Continental Europe, where support for social democratic and center-right parties has collapsed. But in the Anglosphere, the term has been also used to describe a radicalization of both the Left and Right.
However, this often means portraying a parallel radicalization on both sides, equating the dangerous authoritarian tendencies of the Right with the alleged radical “wokeness” of the Left. The result is to create a false equivalence between a far-right position and the pushback against it no matter how mild in form (for instance, not wanting to date MAGA Republicans).
As such, the polarizers include the openly and violently racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, climate-change skeptic — but also those standing squarely on the side of anti-racism, anti-sexism, for LGBTQ rights, and against poverty and inequality as well as for radical change to address the climate crisis.
This false equivalence has two equally disturbing consequences. First, while it paints both sides in a negative light, equating reactionary politics with their opposition automatically normalizes reactionary politics as if they were a legitimate part of the discussion — we must hear both sides! Think for example of the way the BBC in the UK covered climate change for years, giving almost equal space to deniers as it did scientists, or of the disproportionate coverage far-right politicians and actors and their pet issues receive.
It is not just ethically and politically wrong to give so much public space to such dangerous ideas but also naive: it presupposes that these actors are actually genuinely interested in discussion rather than simply pushing their ideas into the mainstream. As Nesrine Malik wrote about shows like the BBC’s Newsnight:
Views previously consigned to the political fringes made their way into the mainstream via social and traditional media organisations that previously would never have contemplated their airing. The expansion of media outlets meant that it was not only marginalised voices that secured access to the public, but also those with more extreme views.
Second, it reinforces the current hegemony by pitting it as the only alternative to reactionary politics — while also standing against any real resistance to these latter, let alone demands for radical change in favor of equality and emancipation.
Heal and Grow?
The way forward. we are told, is through discussion, compassion, and reconciliation. Yet it seems such gestures must always come from the Left or victims of reactionary politics and extend to the Right and perpetrators of such politics, who give nothing in return. It was telling that “reconciliation” was central to Joe Biden’s first speech as president-elect: “We are not enemies. We are Americans. . . . This is the time to heal in America.”
Imagine being one of the many people at the sharp end of Trumpian politics (and the Republicans in general, historically) being told that, even though the side that is supposed to be yours has won, you will have to strive for reconciliation with people who have become increasingly emboldened in denying your very humanity. Imagine being asked to spend time, energy, and empathy on the perpetrators of incredible harm and the supporters of everything that is so awful in our societies, while you see very little done to address the many crises that impact all of us (albeit unequally). Those who have been made most vulnerable are told, once more, to be patient.
Even though we can trace such strategies back decades, the mainstreaming of radical positions has accelerated in recent times. It only took a few years after the Unite the Right rally and the murder of anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer for Trump’s shocking claim that “there were very fine people on both sides” to be lapped up by his liberal opposition. This should not surprise us, as the rise of Trump and the far right more globally was often entirely misread by the mainstream. Remember how Trump’s election (but also Brexit) was blamed on the “white working class.” This has played nicely into middle-class arrogance and liberal fantasy, even if it did not withstand basic scrutiny as both clearly found their base in wealthier sections of society. Instead, it has legitimized politics which had limited, albeit extremely concerning, appeal, making them look not only far more “popular” than they really are but also as somehow the voice of the “left behind” despite their deeply elitist bent.
Where does that leave us? Liberal elites still cling to the fantasy that liberalism is innately a bulwark against the far right and fascism. Yet this belief surely rests on a poor knowledge of the history of liberalism. Indeed, on many occasions, the liberal elite has found it possible and even preferable to side with oppression in defense of its own interests, and many of the rights the liberal elite use to convince the Left to support them were won despite rather than thanks to this tradition. Voting rights, for example, were always limited and precarious and have been further curtailed recently in both the United States and the UK.
The hegemony liberalism has achieved has fed the belief that only slow progress is possible, and anything beyond this would lead us down an authoritarian path. From this derives the current strength of “polarization” discourse. Yet the many crises upon us demand more than incrementalism. With our very survival under threat in the short to medium term, it is becoming clear that radical change is upon us, whether we like it or not. The Right is ready for it and has clear ideas what this could look like: whether it is the technocratic rule of corporations or full-fledged fascism. In this context, sitting on the fence between oppression and resistance is not reasonable but complicity with oppression.