Moderate is Best (in moderation)

I’m very intrigued by this recent article from the NYT’s Sociology category; the reason I’m a social scientist is because I’m fascinated by separatist movements, the design of federal governments, and what constitutes an appropriately-sized nation-state.

The authors of the book reviewed argue that, for the past 30 years, a “Big Sort” has been balkanizing Americans into increasingly homogeneous territories. They also argue that this is a bad thing. Specifically,

“Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”

Polarization is a Bad Thing in the US. Bipartisanship is good. We need a new ‘cross-cutting common purpose’, the authors argue.

I really don’t get that, for a number of reasons:

1: There are political parties in other parts of the world that have more internal polarization than our entire political system. Most of the mainstream Democrats and Republicans are mostly only distinguishable by their choice of which corporate ass to kiss and to which demographic bloc they pander. Conversely, the EU has the full range from capital-c Commies to honest-to-god Fascists (e.g. the new mayor of Rome). That is polarization.

2: The heterogeneity for which our government was designed is really, really different from the heterogeneity our country faces today.

“The founding fathers didn’t need social psychology experiments to understand that homogeneity could be dangerous. In their wisdom, they created a system of government that called for constant conversation and compromise among competing interests — what Alexander Hamilton called the “jarring of parties.” This system has proved durable and effective, but it breaks down when people of different parties or points of view no longer intermingle at all.”

Riiight. I’m so totally impressed by our founders’ abilities to deal with the incomprehensible diversity of white, male land-owners. In the Federalist Papers, the competing interests referenced above are described as basically being small farmers, big farmers, industrialists and merchants. Well, courtesy of industrialization, 200 years of immigration, the extension of the franchise to women, non-whites, non-landowners and the young, things are a wee bit more complicated now.

Oh, and did I mention that there are an extra 297 million of us now? Because that’s important.

3: The right answer isn’t always the most moderate one. Sometimes “group excesses” are Good Things. Like all those crazy zealots who clung on to democratic ideals, or those zany abolitionists – so persistant!

Sometimes the extremists are right. In fact, everything we’ve ever considered to be progress was spearheaded by extremist zealots. Moderation can and does cause much worse things than nasty arguments. Remember that whole slavery thing? And how it went on for 70 years beyond the writing of our constitution because we were afraid of upsetting the Southerners? Or how Jim Crow persisted for another hundred years beyond that? I was born in 1983, yet I still know a couple of people who had to demonstrate for their right to pee in the same toilets I use. That is incredibly fucked up – and it’s a direct product of moderation and compromise. If Lincoln had just let the South go, slavery would have ended eventually anyway – it has everywhere else – and we Yankees could have advanced our policies, harbored runaway slaves without being legally obligated to ship them back, sanctioned the economically feeble South for its policies. Instead, we lent them legitimacy by tolerating them.

We put a lot of emphasis on the unum in our national motto. We’ve fought a brutal war over it, we argue a lot about what it means to be American, and by gosh, Obama is going to make us one country once again. But federalism depends on the decentralization of power, on a multiplicity of competing groups. Social progress – no matter how you define it – depends on the ability of societies to change.

Forced moderation slows that progress to a creep. That can be good in the right amounts; I don’t especially want the entire basis of my society changing every time the administration does. But the idea of trying to run the United States – 300 million people on 3.79 million square miles – as a unitary government is totally insane. We could use a little decentralization.*

*I participated in a conference session awhile back that veered wildly into an out-of-hand political discussion. When I mentioned this, someone in the audience (according to the Golden Child who was sitting in the crowd) accused me of wanting to bring back apartheid. Wow.

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