We are living in parallel societies

Quillette has published my essay about polarization in Western democracies and what we can do about it.

I blame populists like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen for tapping into a toxic combination of discontent and resentment, but I argue liberals may have unwittingly contributed to the radicalization of fearful conservatives.

You don’t convince people to be more relaxed about female power or gay rights by ridiculing old-fashioned gender norms. You don’t defeat jingoists by mocking patriotism or open up people’s eyes to racial injustice by shaming their whiteness.

We need to find a way back to the center. I see two main challenges:
  1. Updating our social norms in such a way that everybody (or at least the vast majority of people) can accept change.
  2. Finding a way to give workers without a university education the chance to make a valuable contribution to society.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have a few suggestions. Click here to read more -- and please share your thoughts!


  • Some of the comments on the article are so bizarre. People accusing me of precisely the thing I'm arguing against (stereotyping people you disagree with politically).

    It's like they only read the first two paragraphs, made an assumption about what I believe and jumped to the comments to vent their frustrations.
  • Good New York Times op-ed on the same topic: When Smug Liberals Met Conservative Trolls.
    It’s hard to tell who started it.

    Was it the populist right, reared in the meme swamps of Reddit and 4chan, who emerged blinking into the daylight of politics and set about baiting anyone who disagreed with their chosen Republican king?

    Or was it liberals, cozy in their elite enclaves on the coasts, who burrowed down into self-righteousness, lecturing working-class Republicans about how they misunderstand their own interests?

    Modern American political discourse can seem disjointed to the point of absurdism. But the problem isn’t just filter bubbles, echo chambers or alternative facts. It’s tone: When the loudest voices on the left talk about people on the right as either beyond the pale or dupes of their betters, it is with an air of barely concealed smugness. Right-wingers, for their part, increasingly respond with a churlish “Oh, yeah? Hold my beer,” and then double down on whatever politically incorrect sentiment brought on the disdain in the first place.
  • I stopped listening to limousine liberals and conservative rich idiots. Our homeless shelter is doing a brisk business here in Lawton, Oklahoma. Meanwhile, my native Los Angeles looks like a refugee camp. We are in trouble here Nick.
  • It's bad enough that we have a sociopathic narcissist for a president and a Congress that only represents the First Families, we also have to put up with constant propaganda. MSNBC and FOX are bad enough. The worst offenders are the "Christian" radio stations that people listen to while they drive. Although there are many independent stations, more "Evangelical" stations than music, they all seem to be in a kind of lockstep... anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-science. And the people love it!
  • edited September 2020
    I think (social) media amplify the divide, but it seems to me the root causes are deeper:
    1. The two-party system, which conditions Americans to think there are only two sides to any given issue and that the "reasonable center ground" is whatever lies in the middle.
    2. The demise of a unifying national myth, which means the two parties are now competing on different visions of "America", which are in many ways contradictory.

    I've previously written about the need for constitutional reform. Ideas include:
    1. Creating multi-member congressional districts to get more proportional representation and encourage political moderation.
    2. Introduce French-style runoffs to allow third parties to thrive without playing spoiler.
    3. Shift power to more populous states: Ideally by changing the composition of the Senate, at the very least by expanding the Electoral College.

    That only addresses problem #1, though. #2 is really difficult one.
  • I’m a little late to the party.
    Coming from the other side of the political divide to you Nick, I nevertheless see the same, or similar, problem, broadly. Though, changing American constitutional arrangements seems unlikely owing to the difficulties of such a thing.
  • Probably -- but look at Maine. They just introduced ranked-choice voting.

    I don't believe we're at opposite sides, by the way! I've become more centrist in the last few years, but I still vote for the center-right.
  • Ahh, hmm, perhaps not so much opposite in right or left, but in cosmopolitan and traditional terms
  • That might be true!
  • edited November 2020

    I agree, but I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all type of solution to this.

    1. Social norms are not what they used to be, neither in general or in specific countries. Back in the day when Western societies were monocultural, important choices could be made from social norms alone, without having to consider legal rights, as social norms and legal rights overlapped. But when Western societies became more multicultural, with each (sub)cultural group having their own set of social norms, the whole concept of social norms has changed. So the question remains if we should rely on social norms at all when it comes to important societal changes.
    2. Recently there was an interesting article in Klassekampen (the Left's main newspaper) pointing out that in oil-rich Norway, the Left seems to have focused too much on the "poor" classes and their set of values, forgetting that the "workers" class today is in fact mostly educated middle class, and as such have nothing to gain from voting Left. The article concluded that for the Left to get their middle-class voters back, they would in practice have to downplay their "class struggle narrative" and adopt a more centrist approach.
  • I think in most other Western countries, social democratic parties have have abandoned class struggle.

    In the United States, the "woke" left would replace this with a race-based narrative.

    In Western Europe, I believe it's mostly workers who have left center-left parties -- in order to vote for either the far left or the far right -- and social democratic voters nowadays are mostly middle-income, like teachers, professors, pensioners.

  • Timely column in the FT: "America's other identity divide - class"

    While the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, won a majority of small towns and rural areas, his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, took communities that represent a whopping 70 per cent of the US economy, according to Brookings Institution data. No matter where voters were in the country, if they lived in an economic growth hub, it’s likely that they voted for Mr Biden.

    This tells us some important things about America. First, that wealth and power are concentrated in just a few places. When you look at an electoral map of the US, it is overwhelmingly red, except on the coasts and a few inland urban areas. More than two-thirds of US job growth since 2007 has been concentrated in 25 cities and regional hubs, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Meanwhile, lower growth areas and rural counties where some 77m people live have had “flat or falling employment growth”, even following the recovery from the last financial crisis. 

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