Times are riddled with polarities, sometimes to the point of extremism. Be it the Capitol Riots, the killing of innocent Black citizens by the police, or the cleaning up of hedge fund billions by a bunch of Redditors… We are repeatedly seeing awkward, uncomfortable friction, clashes, and acting out by different segments of society against each other.
One timely exercise is to analyze these rifts by tracing the social and economic forces underlying them.
Anyone would point first to the biggest, most obvious rift of all: the political divide between Republicans and Democrats. These dominant parties in the USA identify with Conservatism and Liberalism as their respective philosophies.
Merriam-Webster defines Conservatism as:
We see contrasting positions on governance and economics here. Labeling these two major themes as ‘economic freedom’ and ‘personal freedom,’ political theorist David Nolan drew up a chart depicting a spectrum of political beliefs.
The leftists are more liberal, prefer individual freedom while choosing greater social regulation of business. Rightists believe in a free market and prefer tighter, traditionalist prescriptions for individual lives. Political beliefs that favor both personal and economic freedoms are labeled libertarian while favoring tight controls of either kind is authoritarian.
In the chart below, author Scott M. Stolz expands the original Nolan chart to show more variations between the poles along the two axes:
When the Democrats lean towards greater economic freedom without completely giving up regulation of various kinds, they represent classic liberalism which is not as modern or progressive as many of today’s liberal thinkers are. On the other hand, when Democrats demand greater social or economic control in a bid to eliminate inequality, they are labeled socialists. By contrast, many conservatives are more open to personal freedoms today and Stolz positions them between traditionalist conservatives and libertarians. Those on the Far Right are leaning towards much greater control than Republicans traditionally preferred. Squarely in the middle lie the Centrists who like to hold on to either moderate versions of economic and personal control or cherry-pick causes and ideologies from each side.
The truly authoritarian position is not represented, as yet, in US politics, but it has seen many examples in the rest of the world. Instances include Stalin’s communism (coming from the left side, proposing rigid control of labor and produce) or in Talibanism or Nazism (both seeking to eliminate personal freedoms of certain categories of people).
The chart below shows the positions of the major political figures of today along Stolz’s expanded chart:
As we can see, Democrats in power have tended to be either Centrists or Classic Liberals. While Biden and Pelosi have been considered as Centrists before, they have shown greater willingness to incorporate more socialist or progressive causes with some of their recent actions. For instance, Biden – President for one month now – has already reversed a great number of the anti-progressive regulations of the Trump era. Former President Obama, Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, and Current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have embraced capitalist values matching their Republican colleagues in line with their self-avowed Centrism. While the major Republican voices espouse traditional conservative party lines, a lot of them have joined the Far-Right extremes of the Trumpist era, a form of Conservatism that clearly leans authoritarian in the individual realm. Mitt Romney, and before him, late John McCain, however, opposed and protested Trump’s extremism. They also lately seemed to focus less on traditional conservative party lines and more on the danger and wrongness of Trumpism.
The graphic below uses Stolz’s chart to plot the major policies, projects, and causes we see leaders from each side speaking or working for.
Thus minimum wage and bipartisan approach in legislation have always been classically liberalist choices for the Democrats, whereas causes such as Black Lives Matter, gay marriage, and calls for wage equality are rightly considered progressive. Centrist Democratic leaders have allowed huge tax subsidies to major corporations for decades or bailed them out in emergencies. The Green New Deal, Defund the Police, and Medicare for All, represent causes that will require a major set of regulations on individuals and/or pertinent corporations for the greater good of the masses, thus embracing socialism.
Going to the other side, Republicans restart with their anti-‘human rights’ laws and regulations of various kinds as soon as they come into power. The Far Right has invested in xenophobia that has taken manifestations that are direct ‘offsprings’ of the confederacy era. These attitudes haven’t yet found a way to transmogrify into an authoritarian regime, although, one shudders, they could well have if Capitol Rioters had had their way. Before its very recent implosion due to sexual harassment charges on its founder, The Lincoln Project had provided a platform for all Republicans against the Far Right extremism of Trumpers, showing a clear departure from the placidly enabling, traditionally conservative Republicans.
Positioning capitalism, free market, gun rights, and deregulation as libertarianism may merit more explanation as these policies have had rather common support from both sides of the political divide in US history and, at first blush, may not be considered Libertarian.
Deregulation of major social institutes – the kind that recently resulted in the Texas-wide power failures in the midst of their most extreme winter in history – is libertarian for obvious reasons: it literally means ‘no control.’ ‘Gun rights’ also reflect individual freedom of a reckless, self-indulgent kind where supporters remain oblivious to how easy access to guns is linked to mass shootings.
Now let’s consider capitalism and the free market in more detail because these two alone represent one of the two axes of political spectrums: ‘economic freedom.’
Dr. Paul M. Johnson, in his Glossary of Political Economy Terms, defines capitalism as:
“a form of economic order characterized by private ownership of the means of production and the freedom of private owners to use, buy and sell their property or services on the market at voluntarily agreed prices and terms, with only minimal interference with such transactions by the state or other authoritative third parties.”
Free Market is defined as an economic system in which the distribution of resources is linked to the forces of demand, supply, and inter-corporate pricing. Government control in the form of tariffs, taxes, quality controls, and quotas, etc. is to a minimum. Most economies are considered mixed as all governments place some regulations, allowing them to benefit, and in part, to keep in check, capitalist corporations from controlling the market.
Unbridled capitalism has consequences for the free market. For one, the market is no longer free for consumers and small businesses. Secondly, it has led to huge collapses of the economy in the past. The most recent example was the 2008 global economic crash which critics largely blamed on free-market libertarianism. The antecedent was the free and loose lending activity, especially in the housing market. It was a result of the political philosophy of big financiers such as Greenspan and their enabling Congressmen such as Phil Gramm, the former Secretary of Senate’s banking committee. This philosophy holds that “markets are always right and governments always wrong to interfere.”
Since huge government bailouts of the crashing financial corporations back then ‘saved’ capitalism, corporations of all kinds have grown even bigger and emboldened. Many large tech corporations are given huge tax subsidies to expand in other parts of America. Some of the biggest corporations in the US are no longer paying their tax dues with no consequences. The behavior of several huge companies has monopolized markets in their favor, the starkest example being the Disney takeover of a third of the film industry. This picture speaks of free-market libertarianism in which entities with the biggest pockets have the greatest room to play and fatten up their capital.
This also means the second ‘rift,’ the one along the economic continuum, is less a rift and more a bias toward libertarianism. In fact, compared with the rest of the world, America on the whole leans towards greater freedom of both individuals and markets, a behavior reflected in policies from both sides historically. But what about those pockets of America where authoritarian attitudes rear their ugly heads? As we all know, those scenarios involve control over people without power and resources. Think the immigrant detention centers, the prison system, and the stark difference in law enforcement on the eve of a #BLM protest versus the #CapitolRiots.
This question leads us to the third rift in US society – a rift which, in the opinion of this writer, is not only the biggest but also the key to all other rifts.
We are all familiar with this rift. We refer to it using various words such as the underprivileged, marginalized, the havenots, the commoners, the masses on one side and the privileged, the elite, the havealls, the rich and the powerful, the one-percenters, on the other side.
The axis of the political spectrum that should correspond to this rift is “elitism versus populism,” but that hasn’t figured much in American politics or has been misappropriated and misunderstood. Elitism is the domination or inclination of a system or society towards its elite. Populism refers to political beliefs, attitudes, and policies that appeal to the underprivileged masses of a nation. Although used in election campaigns, populism is rarely followed by matching action when the leader in question is elected. Indeed one reason why populism has recently gotten a bad name (see link above) is its successful use as a campaign strategy by Donald Trump in heightening the xenophobia of the right-leaning masses.
In short, Elitism and Populism are old concepts with pre-existing connotations that muddle the discussion and take the argument away from the great rift back to other axes. It is useless and beside the point then to get stuck in labels for labels’ sake when discussing the major rift.
Truth is that there are two major, uneven categories of people in America today: those in power (economic or political) and the ‘rest of the country.’ This ‘rest’ encompasses all those who elect those in power or purchase from them, but are themselves kept outside of the power circle. Today these commoners lack any social or fiscal means to take advantage of the otherwise libertarian economy and improve their own standing. In fact, they are kept tied up in systematic controls at various levels of functioning.
Not only does a huge income inequality exist between the haves and the havenots, but the systematic discrimination of all minority peoples in the country also strongly correlates with income equality and poverty. Add to this the social ills that follow elitism: bias, prejudice, discrimination; and the pyschological hold is complete for many of us. Most of the masses remain trapped in a self-minimizing cycle that is a living vestige of old, abolished systems: slavery, colonialism, monarchy…
The rift that we are seeing was not just exploited by Trumpers. It explains the reason why Hillary Clinton failed to inspire people enough for a clear victory in 2016. It is the same rift that would determine if Democrats can retain power in the White House or Congress in the years to come. It centers around exclusionism of both economic and discriminatory kind and it can only be worked through – and hopefully breached one day – through a politics of inclusivity, again both economically and anthropologically.
Without addressing this ‘great divide’ in the nation, there may well be no end to the right-left swinging wrecking ball of politics that changes faces in the first buildings of the nation while the masses swing from one calamity to another in their ‘real lives’.