[FoRK] Is Balkanization really a problem?

J. Andrew Rogers <andrew at ceruleansystems.com> on Mon May 28 23:35:11 PDT 2007

On May 28, 2007, at 1:05 PM, Jeff Bone wrote:
> The surprising bit today isn't the polarization, the partisan  
> rancor, etc. --- in fact we're well below the historical peaks on  
> those dimensions.  The surprising bit --- the relevant, worrying  
> bit --- is the degree to which reason plays little or no role in  
> the positions adopted, in the marked decline in public  
> participation and interest in the so-called "public" discourse.   
> These twin declines are both significant relative to historical  
> norms and in both cases are accelerating.

On this point, I somewhat agree with you upon reflection.  But at the  
same time, I feel that my lack of disagreement is based on pretty  
thin grounds that is not obviously defensible.  Our perspective of US  
history is practically dictated by those in our past that *did* have  
the capacity for both eloquence and reason; no one remembers the  
idiots, though eloquent idiots like the aforementioned William  
Jennings Bryan still get the occasional honorable mention.  I  
remember my great-grandfather talking about such things, being an  
entrepreneurial man and polymath born in the 19th century (we live  
anomalously long on average) who accreted science and engineering  
degrees like barnacles, and to him is was a pretty smooth continuum  
-- the technology changed but the people and politics never did.

My take, and it is not well thought out, is that you are conflating  
the consequences of complex dynamics with people becoming more  
ignorant/stupid on average.  Frankly, in many ways people are more  
informed than at any time in history past as an unavoidable  
consequence of technology.  Yes, there is a lot more spam and noise  
that comes along with that, but I view it as an unambiguous net  
positive.  In fact, I would make a somewhat orthogonal assertion:   
people are more aware of the details of what the Federal government  
actually does now than any time since the Federal government was  
actually small (circa 1920s), but at the same time they have become  
increasingly clueless about local politics in recent times, something  
encouraged by a broad range of structural power shifts in the US  
government dating back to the early part of the 20th century.  If the  
government was well constituted and properly functioning, one should  
*expect* people to be more knowledgeable about local than federal  
politics, but as a practical matter this is not the case today.  The  
fact remains that neither left-wing nor right-wing factions have a  
bloody clue about the construction and proper function of the Federal  
government, and most of our problems can be traced to a willingness  
to abuse that.

> The problem I'm discussing *is a new problem.*  You can't dismiss  
> that novel problem by simply and inaccurately equating it with an  
> old problem (whose existence, btw, I agree with you on.)  Failing  
> to recognize the novelty of the situation is perhaps one of the  
> most dangerous mistakes we can make, IMHO.  Let's not whistle past  
> the graveyard...

I guess we need to define "new problem".  I view the problems we have  
today as old problems exaggerated by changes in the environment.  The  
environment may be novel, and almost certainly is novel, but the  
problem is not.

If you follow the internal politics of the major political parties,  
it is far less obvious the affect you are suggesting is making a  
wholesale difference that matters.  In practice, both in the left-  
and right-wing factions, my observation has been the ability to  
discriminate in a meaningful way on a fine-grained level in politics  
has gone a long way toward destroying a lot of aggregated power bases  
within the parties, which may arguably be a good thing.  I have not  
been alone in observing the increasing fractionalization of party  
bases, it has been written up in a number of places.  For the first  
time in a very long time, the libertarians in the Republican party  
want nothing to do with the socially conservative populists, and  
people are willing to get ugly about it.  The Democrat party has had  
similar "problems".  A re-alignment has been a longtime coming, and  
the acquisition of the Southern Democrats by Nixon Republicans a few  
decades ago is significantly responsible for the current mess.

We are in a very uncomfortable place right now politically, and every  
time I go overseas (frequently) I learn that people elsewhere are far  
more confused about the reality than even the people at home, who are  
plenty confused as it is.  In my estimation you are observing the  
inevitable de-lamination of the coalitions that make up both parties  
in the US.  When I stated a few years back (something like four years  
back, before Bush was elected again -- and I called that election  
pretty closely) that there would be a strong libertarian shift  
predicated on the de-lamination of old alliances, I was talking about  
what we are seeing now.  At that time, I stated that I expected 2012  
presidential election to be the first libertarian-ish election in  
ages in the US, and that was predicated on everything getting shrill  
and falling to pieces, which is happening.

The extremes of both parties are currently left holding the media  
access, but I do not expect it to last.  The media increasingly  
exposes us to the fringes, but I do not see evidence that people are  
actually becoming more fringe.  In fact, most of the anecdotal  
evidence I see is that most people are increasingly ignoring  
conventional media, which is not necessarily a bad thing regardless.


J. Andrew Rogers

More information about the FoRK mailing list