The weirding of political parties calls up visions of inclusiveness

 I collected up some articles that make fascinating sense of what is happening in political parties – and in ourselves as we align ourselves with or against them – especially in the US, but also around the world.  I find these analyses make it even clearer that we need the kind of informed, empowered, inclusive conversation that characterizes wise democracy.  It is time for a revolutionary version of populism that is truly inclusive, for a change. – Tom

Below are three essays offering cogent insights into current dynamics unfolding in political parties, notably in the US Democratic and Republican parties.  They bring to mind thoughts about needed changes to our political culture.

First we consider the trend within the Democratic Party moving from “a coalition of social groups with particular policy concerns” towards a more collectively (and controversially) liberal ideology focused on equality.  We compare that to the Republican Party’s traditional conservative ideological foundation being replaced (most rapidly by Trump) with a collection of groups who feel their identities are under attack.  There’s an odd kind of bipartisan mirror image unfolding.

In that regard, they have something tragically in common.  Each party increasingly sees the other as a threat requiring warlike solidarity against a determined foe, even as they become internally incoherent about who they really are and what they represent.  As they increasingly identify themselves through their opposition to their common enemy (the other side), they become increasingly subject to manipulations based on their increasing mutual reactivity: While Trump advocates policies designed to elicit intense reactions from Democrats, Democrats increasingly advocate “anybody but Trump”.  Diversity, creativity, perspective, nuance and positive possibilities get shoved to the sidelines or buried.  For each side, the situation is just too dangerous and urgent to ease up on the battle.

Yet even as the parties are being shaken to their foundations, more citizens feel moved (often by fear) to join them for the sake of solidarity on this or that issue.  This generates a shrinking “independent” segment of the electorate and reduced willingness to compromise, generating both an increasingly “tribalized”* population and less effective governance.  The articles below point up the geographical, informational, and media feedback loops that increasingly alienate and isolate political camps from each other (although they don’t mention the manipulations by Russians and others seeking to use and exacerbate those dynamics for their divisive power).

The Wikipedia article about Populism explores movements and demagogues who claim to speak as a “voice of the people” – from both “left” and “right”.  They often intensify a highly charged distinction between “the elites” and “the people” – a dangerous but compelling oversimplification of social complexity.  The appeal of populism is thus understandably fed by the factual isolation, greed and corruption of so many wealthy and powerful people and groups at the expense of more ordinary people and marginalized groups.  For that reason, populism can be held at bay by constraints on the abuse of concentrated power and constraints on gross inequality.

I see a relationship between the dynamics described in all these pieces – and a key missing piece.  Polarization, populism and demagoguery are all fed by neglected needs, frustrated aspirations, dismissiveness and gross injustice that distort society’s power dynamics and capacity to make shared sense of shared challenges and changing circumstances.

I see the missing piece as institutionalized inclusive discourse that surfaces understandings and policies that make sense to all – or at least the vast majority – of people involved.  Such generative dialogue can produce a truly legitimately – that is, inclusive and informed – “voice of We the People” and a deeper and wiser shared “common sense”.  As part of our political and governance institutions, such generative discourse would “digest” people’s various ideologies, fears, and passions into understandings and policies that served the whole society, perhaps even the whole world.

The mess that our political and governance systems currently manifest is a direct result of the isolation and adversarial energy built into those systems, starting with majoritarian winner-take-all competition which makes bipolar partisan camps virtually inevitable.  Giving priority and power to wisdom-generating collective dialogue that takes seriously the full spectrum of needs, perspectives, and sources of understanding transforms the diversity underlying those degrading political dynamics into a vital resource for collective wellbeing.

There are many ways to reorganize our political affairs and governance to provide the missing piece described above.  This approach includes and transcends the “get folks together” solutions advocated by the articles below and uplifts our diversity and participation into the generation of wisdom and power needed to assure “the General Welfare” enshrined in the US Constitution and many other democracy-inspired founding documents.

I personally like the idea of wise democracy, but the basic idea is that we can better pursue our collective destiny thinking, feeling, learning, and working together than we can seeking to undermine and defeat each other.  It is certainly about time and we all have gifts to offer in that mission.


*  The use of the term “tribal” here is ubiquitous in discourse around this issue, but is problematic.  It is based on a questionable assumption that members of a “tribe” manifest strong, irrational loyalty to the group they identify with – solidarity with an emphasis on “solid” – usually vis a vis some other opposing tribe, generating a warlike context for all interactions.  This is based on ill-conceived modernist assumptions that “primitive” societies were more narrowly ingrown and antagonistic than more mature modern societies.  However, many indigenous cultures had and have far healthier collective identities and more richly manifested relationships with each other and the world around them than industrial civilization.  And modern social systems provide ample opportunities for more complex and sophisticated versions of the “primitive” impulses ascribed to prehistoric groups, while suppressing persistent barbaric identities and impulses that regularly breakthrough the fragile veneer of civilization (as we see today).  Perhaps we need to become more tribal in the ways modeled by the Iroquois Confederacy

(There are many links within the original full articles linked below.)

A.  Perry Bacon Jr.’s “What Unites Republicans May Be Changing. Same With Democrats.”

This essay starts with political scientists Matthew Grossmann and David Hopkins’ contention that “Republicans are organized around broad symbolic principles, whereas Democrats are a coalition of social groups with particular policy concerns.”  Bacon enumerates the specifics: “Democrats have been considered the party of Asian, black, gay, Jewish and Latino people, along with atheists, teachers, union members, etc. — in short, a coalition organized around a bunch of different identity groups.  Meanwhile, Republicans have been thought of as the party of small government, low taxes, a strong national defense and “traditional” moral values — in short, a coalition based around a few core ideological principles.”  After acknowledging that this has been a useful oversimplification, he then notes how it is changing: “The GOP [Republican Party] is becoming increasingly organized around identity groups, and Democrats are becoming increasingly ideological.”

Discussing the Republican Party, Bacon lays out the identity groups which now support Trump because he defends them, despite the fact that in doing so he directly violates many of the Party’s traditional principles and policies.  Identities are grounded more in visceral values than rationalized ideologies. Many of the emotional, value-laden identities Trump speaks for (e.g., racial and class identities) have in the Party’s past been more curbed or coded in favor of ideological rationalizations for conservative policy preferences.  Bacon notes that since nearly 90% of Republican voters now support Trump, Republican politicians and elected officials just don’t have “much room to break with the president” if they want to keep their jobs. So the whole party has now unfortunately swung to that new center of gravity.

Discussing the Democratic Party, Bacon suggests that it is definitely moving in a more liberal direction – where liberal ideology is “perhaps best defined by a push for equality across a lot of realms — and particularly around ethnicity and race, gender, income, sexual orientation and wealth.”  About half of Democrats now identify as liberal, while the other half identify as “moderate” or “conservative.”  Bacon notes that the old guard Democrats are represented by Biden, who is “trying to capture the nomination by combining the support of blacks, Catholics, liberals, moderates, Latinos, union members and whites, as opposed to running as an explicitly moderate or liberal candidate” grounded in ideology, even as he is now adopting moderate versions of major liberal policy proposals to accommodate the growing liberal wing of his party.

Bacon suggests that these trends “explain why fights between the elites and activists within both parties are so intense… [and] why some seemingly-on-the rise politicians are struggling” because it is so hard to excite support when they try to straddle both sides of their party’s split.  He claims “these shifts matter because America is to some extent in a partisan civil war, and we essentially have three competing views on how to end it: A Biden/Bush/Kristol style approach that downplays divisions among America’s various identity groups and reaches for more compromises; a Sanders/Warren approach of resetting America along more equal lines; and a Trump/Barr vision that is decidedly Judeo-Christian and favors maintaining traditional norms over upsetting them to expand equality.”

B.  Jonathan Rausch’s “Rethinking Polarization”

Here we get down into the heart of that “partisan civil war” Bacon highlights, noting first that ideological differences between parties are often seen by political scientists as enhancing democracy’s effectiveness in a number of ways:
(a) they provide meaningful choices for voters,
(b) they help a society embrace a wider spectrum of values and interests and
(c) in deliberation, they counter extreme outcomes.
Of course (c) is only possible if there’s a spirt of compromise. Unfortunately, such a bipartisan spirit has been rapidly eroding over recent decades.

Nowadays, the number of voters who identify as independents has dropped to about a third (from nearly half in 1972) and only a minority of voters in both major parties actually “like elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with”.  This uncompromizing trend is accentuated by people moving into like-minded physical districts and becoming isolated into news and social media bubbles (through both their own “confirmation bias” and online algorithmic sorting).  As the polarizing atmosphere intensifies, prospective candidates who lean towards moderation see the governing environment as hostile and become reluctant to run for office, further intensifying the polarizing political atmosphere.

Rausch notes a growing tribal energy emerging in the midst of this modernization of political polarization.  While the Right/Left distinction between Republicans and Democrats is still real, the middle ground between them is shrinking and ideology is playing out within each party in increasingly incoherent ways.  The partisan polarization is becoming less about coherent ideology (beliefs and causes) so much as people banding together to urgently fight the good fight against the “Other”. On both sides, this involves deep, atavistic cravings to belong, to celebrate and strengthen solidarity, and to engage in shared righteous outrage, defending fundamentally good values against the depredations of a truly evil enemy.  According to surveys, about 40% of partisans on both sides have “very negative” views of the other party (up from around 15% twenty years ago), mostly because “the opposing party’s policies represent a THREAT to the nation’s well-being” and that makes “us” feel “afraid”.  Of course, fear provides a rich environment for the buildup of hate – as well as of groupthink (aka “co-stupidity) since our sense of threat from the opposite party makes us less likely to express our disagreements with or disappointment in our own party – a dynamic that supports conformity (aka “solidarity”).

Rausch says “We are wired to organize ourselves socially into in-groups (our own group) and out-groups (others’ groups), and to organize ourselves cognitively so that our reasoning processes and even our sensory perceptions support in-group solidarity…. a generalization now backed by a wide-ranging and impressive research literature based on everything from controlled experiments to brain scans…. [We] bind ourselves to our group by feeling and displaying animosity toward an out-group…. Partisans who find ways to rationalize their beliefs get a little hit of dopamine….”

“The themes Trump ran and won on in 2016, and the themes he governs on, are short on philosophical coherence. But they have a deeper psychological coherence. Trump’s appeals to ethnic and racial resentment, his portrayals of a country and culture under siege, and his populist demonization of multiple enemies offered Republicans something more appealing than any particular list of policies: They offered solidarity against a threat. On this reading, Trump… offered a vivid us-versus-them story that energized one portion of the party, and then, once his followers redefined what ‘we’ (the in-group) believe, the rest of the party preserved its identity by scrambling aboard…. His provocations and the other team’s reactions satisfy partisans’ craving for shared outrage against a common adversary. Within certain fairly broad boundaries, he was free to offer all sorts of policies successfully… as long as he provoked outrage from the other side, he would elicit protective loyalty from his own side.”

After providing this analysis, Rausch goes on to explore its causes and potential solutions.  His main recommendations are

1.  Initiatives that bring very different individuals together – “civic efforts with names like Better Angels, Bridge the Divide, BridgeUSA, Living Room Conversations, and the Listen First Project.”

2.  Institutions, because they “bring people together for joint effort on common projects, which builds community. They also socialize individuals and transmit knowledge and norms across generations. Because they are durable (or try to be), they tend to take a longer view and discourage behavior that considers only self-interest in the very short term. Because they force individuals to consult with others before making decisions and hold them accountable afterward, they filter and correct cognitive distortions. Under many conditions, they can provide stability and resources to buffer the shocks of economic and social disruption. And by organizing collective effort, they make people much more efficacious, which increases people’s sense of agency and dignity.”  He names the Scout movement, unions, civic clubs, professional associations, the military and even political parties as examples.

Wait… political parties??!  Yes, he sees current political parties now as ORGANIZATIONALLY weak.  They traditionally “road-tested and vetted political candidates, screening out incompetents, sociopaths, and those with no interest in governing. When they could, they used incentives like jobs, money, and protection from primary challenges to get legislators to work together and accept tough compromises. Perversely, the weakening of parties as organizations has led individuals to coalesce instead around parties as brands, turning organizational politics into identity politics.”

C.  The Wikipedia article on Populism

These are major excerpts from its introductory paragraphs:

A common framework for interpreting populism is known as the ideational approach: this defines populism as an ideology which presents “the people” as a morally good force and contrasts them against “the elite”, who are portrayed as corrupt and self-serving. Populists differ in how “the people” are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, depicted as a homogeneous entity and accused of placing their own interests, and often the interests of other groups—such as large corporations, foreign countries, or immigrants—above the interests of “the people”. Populist parties and social movements are often led by charismatic or dominant figures who present themselves as the “voice of the people”….

Other scholars of the social sciences have defined the term populism differently. According to the popular agency definition used by some historians of United States history, populism refers to popular engagement of the population in political decision making. An approach associated with the political scientist Ernesto Laclau presents populism as an emancipatory social force through which marginalised groups challenge dominant power structures. Some economists have used the term in reference to governments which engage in substantial public spending financed by foreign loans, resulting in hyperinflation and emergency measures. In popular discourse—where the term has often been used pejoratively—it has sometimes been used synonymously with demagogy, to describe politicians who present overly simplistic answers to complex questions in a highly emotional manner, or with opportunism, to characterize politicians who seek to please voters without rational consideration as to the best course of action.


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