Newspapers are filled with discussions of our political divisions and whether we can ever return to unity and shared national values. Many of those discussions are quite philosophical. This one is not.
The first thing to note is that divisiveness is hardly surprising when the two strongest political forces in the country are actively inciting it:
– The mainstream Republican Party is at this point inseparably intertwined with the Koch organization for both money and organization. There is no secret about the Koch organization’s objective. They want to return to a world where their ultra-rich members run the country, pay minimal taxes, and do anything they want. Consequently they want minimal government with defense and very little else—no regulation, only basic education, no social services. Since those are not necessarily popular positions, the Kochs have been systematic about divide and conquer, using the Tea Party and later Trump as front men to stoke culture wars. Pence, Pompeo, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh are examples of Koch people. These are the people behind the scenes in the famous NYTimes op-ed piece.
– Trump is a populist front for the Kochs, but with his own objectives as well. For Trump divisiveness is the name of the game. It’s his people against the enemy with a siege mentality to build loyalty among the followers.
The conclusion from this is that the polarization of attitudes is not entirely—or even primarily—a matter of differing philosophies. What you have on one side are the self-serving programs of the Koch organization, together with justifications their think tanks have concocted to sell them. On the other side is a set of attitudes—starting with democracy and including even an immigration proposal—many of which were shared by both parties until the Koch people bought the Republicans.
As noted, Trump and the Tea Party are populist fronts. Contrary to what you read every day, the Tea Party was not a spontaneous movement; it was created and funded by the Koch organization. Its prominence, and the prominence of its message were only possible because of the level of funding. The Tea Party presaged Trump in the “true-believer” attitudes of the members. The Kochs had studied techniques of the communist party (of all things) to understand how to sell the message of secular paradise.
Trump is a step beyond. For one thing he has brought the cult of personality to the cult of secular paradise. For another he has added his own program to the program of the Kochs. In so doing, he has become a complete mask for what is going on. His tariff program—no matter how ill-conceived—really sounds populist, and his culture war persona is impeccable. He’s always in the news. The Kochs were undoubtedly delighted to see their tax program go through as his achievement.
If Trump really does make himself a dictator the Kochs may get more than they bargained for (and we get to live with it), but for now—despite tariffs, racism, and scapegoating—he’s their guy.
So going back to the question of divisiveness, where exactly do we stand? Support for the Koch-Trump program is of two sorts: there are those who really do benefit (some level of rich), and there are Trump’s true believers. Many articles have remarked on the strength of the reciprocal love that binds the latter group with Trump. Not an easy thing to address.
Why did these people buy in from the beginning? Lots of reasons have been presented: economic factors, racism, cultural conflicts, or simple non-homogeneity of the population. While there is plenty of evidence for the non-economic reasons, it makes sense to focus on the economic ones to start with, because those create an environment where the other evils can flourish. People fighting over scraps are unlikely to play nice. It’s true that polarization is self-sustaining once it starts, but addressing people’s concrete problems always has to be a first step.
One thing going for change is that the ideology of private sector salvation has now had a chance to show its true colors. The tax cuts did not get turned into bonanzas for employees; instead they got turned into this dramatic and revealing chart:
Furthermore healthcare was a fiasco, and even climate change is emerging as a threat. The tariffs only sound good—more people buy and build cars than make steel.
The only way any of that matters is if the Democrats do take the House. If that happens, the Democrats have a chance to show that they can produce solid programs for real problems. Healthcare was well-chosen if we can get our act together and really do it. The opioid crisis is still untouched. It would be nice to produce a jobs program that can get people out of Walmart. The Republicans have tried to poison opportunities with the tax cuts, but we’ll have to figure a way out. The ACA tax might be a model.
So the message is that the way back from divisiveness may be more ordinary than it seems. Stop calling people names and figure out ways to make visible progress. That may even lead to forced cooperation between parties. Even if nothing gets implemented, it will be clear what could be.
And someday there may even be justice for the Republican Party’s prolonging the pain of the 2008 crash, so they could deliver the Koch tax cuts!