Has the United States become truly and thoroughly “polarized”? Two camps (very broadly speaking) face each other with extreme positions, implacable in their intent to defeat the other, incapable of tolerance for the opposing view, and screaming insults and shaking fists? If this isn’t polarization, what is?
Ayn Rand believed that the answer to that question was fundamental and urgent enough to justify devoting her first issue of The Ayn Rand Letter (October 11, 1971) to “Credibility and Polarization.” Almost always, a controversy that won that kind of attention from Ayn Rand involved epistemology—specifically, the nature, pivotal importance, and (often) abuses of concept formation.
“One of their methods,” she wrote, speaking of modern intellectuals, “is the destruction of language—and, therefore, of thought and, therefore, of communication—by means of anti-concepts.”
An anti-concept is a word attached to a compound of vaguely related examples, an aura of emotional disapproval, and an approximate meaning. It is destructive to clear thought because its intended meaning, what it is meant to convey without naming it, remains implicit. “Polarization” was in vogue, back then, because President Richard Nixon seemed to be challenging the liberal consensus (not very effectively, it turned out!). People no longer conducted their discussions mostly in terms of the “New Frontier,” “Great Society,” and, going back further, “New Deal” consensus. The liberals had assumed, mistakenly, that that battle had been won permanently with the landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater by Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
The word for this questioning of the consensus—not only of specific policies but of fundamental principles—was “polarization,” a term derived from physics denoting “two opposite…principles or tendencies…”
The Anti-Concept of “Polarization”
ut, as applied to politics, the term “polarization” was an anti-concept suggesting disunity, dividing the country into warring camps, questioning core political values—and the implication was that such “unbridgeable,” “extreme” disagreement might lead to violence and the breakdown of civil society. If we all agreed, then we all would be happy, and there would be no problem, right?
Ayn Rand named the real meaning, or intended message, that the anti-concept of “polarization” was to convey without becoming explicit: “It is principles—fundamental principles—that they are struggling to eliminate from public discussion. It is the clash of fundamental principles that the term ‘polarization’ is intended to hide and to avert.”
In fact, she said, honest political debate can be conducted only in terms of fundamental principles, long-term goals honestly stated, with supporting evidence and projected consequences, honestly discussed. And this kind of ‘polarization” was urgently needed. Without it, Americans would plow on through a fog of approximation and deliberate misunderstandings without knowing what was at stake toward a goal they could not identify.
In attempting to clarify what was meant by “polarization,” in an article describing it as unprecedented in the 2016 election, U.S. News explained: "Public opinion now appears to divide us up to the point that we have a couple of lumps—a liberal lump on one side and a conservative lump on the other." So, that’s what’s happening!
The Atlantic took a shot at describing what was causing “polarization”—you know, lumpiness—in American politics: “The American public is divided—over economic policy, social policy, foreign policy, race, privacy and national security, and many other things. A host of factors, from partisan gerrymandering to exclusionary party primaries, are driving them further apart.”
The Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the Pew Charitable Trust, and dozens of others wondered aloud what could be “dividing America on the issues,” but never on “the principles.”
It Feels Like ‘Polarization’…
I explain this at length (no substitute for reading the original, where Ayn Rand introduces herself as “a bromide buster”) because today’s political debate—and I use that term charitably—feels like “polarization.” If “polarization” meant turning Americans implacably against one another, with declarations that ideas one opposes are hopelessly misguided (to put it mildly), then finally we are “polarized” as Ayn Rand hoped.
But that, of course, is the anti-concept of “polarization.” During the Presidential nomination, with the seemingly unstoppable insurgency of Donald Trump, then his election, have we become divided by “…clear-cut principles, unequivocal definitions and inflexible goals…the clarifying, reassuring, confidence-and-credibility-inspiring guidance of fundamental principles…intellectual polarization…”?
Do I hear giggling?
And yet, I can name several issues with decisive consequences for America that figured into the 2016 campaign from the very start:
- Mr. Trump pledged to halt all new federal regulations, pending a thorough review of their impact on the economy. (A common figure is that the “drag” on the U.S. economy is $2 trillion a year.)
- Mr. Trump pledged that the scientific hypothesis of apocalyptic “global warming” no longer would guide U.S. energy production away from fossil fuels.
- Mr. Trump pledged to make appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court of jurists committed to “uphold the Constitution.”
- Mr. Trump pledged to put the safety and interests of Americans before any humanitarian initiatives to admit refugees from countries with active terrorist groups.
By contrast, the Democratic Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, now virtually forgotten a month after the election, and Trump’s current opponents in the media, do not address principled issues.
- They did not take up and argue the nature and necessity of economic regulations. They argued instances: for example, that any alteration of the Dodd-Frank legislation would put the economy at risk of another financial crisis.
- They did not argue the principle of governments’ worldwide dictating development of the vital energy industry guided by certain scientific speculations. They ran story after story about supposed extreme impacts of changing climate.
- They did not argue the principle of adherence to the text and historical context of the U.S. Constitution. They talked only about the importance of Roe v. Wade and the unlimited right to abortion.
- They did not argue the meaning of “America first,” but focused on stories about immigrant families and, more recently, travelers inconvenienced by the executive order for review of procedures for screening refugees.
But what about Mr. Trump? Did he frame his arguments in terms of “…clear-cut principles, unequivocal definitions, and inflexible goals…”?
No, he offered slogans: “American first,” “make America great again,” drain the Washington swamp, and uphold the U.S. Constitution. But these are slogans, not principles. Sure, he sounded sort of like an opponent of ever-increasing government power; he sounded sort of like an opponent of out-of-control government spending; and he sounded sort of like an opponent of sacrificing America abroad to non-judgmental acceptance of all cultures and ideologies.
But almost in the same breath, he would speak of stimulating the economy by an epic spending spree on “infrastructure,” a kind of mercantilist and protectionist trade policy of government promoting and defending home industries, and a vague commitment to overwhelming military force to crush America’s foes, such as ISIS, abroad.
It is an understatement to say that Mr. Trump spoke in terms of dramatic initiatives and inspiring slogans, not political principles. Many listeners apparently got a sense of proposals and promises adding up, in general, to support of capitalism, American prosperity, unapologetic economic growth, and putting American national self-interest first. On the other hand, there always was some proposal suggesting that any principle could be violated in a “good cause.”
Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, in 1964, is remembered for a few statements such as “I do not wish to make government more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size” and “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice…”
I can think of no comparable articulation of principle by Mr. Trump. Only “make American great, again,” which, without defining a standard of greatness, Bernie Sanders easily could endorse.
The Sense of Life Alternative?
And yet, there remains the belief among Trump supporters that he is a decisive alternative to the liberal-left establishment. His opponents in the media, left-leaning organizations, and the Postmodernist intellectual establishment bolster that belief with their portrayal of “constant crisis” in the new Trump administration. And President Trump, of course, is fighting back against the overwhelming opposition of the media and their tactics—making the media a political issue—as has no other President. I mean, they sure sound as though they are arguing about something that makes a crucial difference!
All of it comes spiked with the confusion resulting, as Ayn Rand wrote, from “meaning (if any) buried under coils of meaningless generalities and safely popular bromides.”
Why has the liberal-left freaked out (my first-ever comfortable use of that term because the behavior is freakish—look at Hollywood) at the rise of Trump? I know of no force in our country that could fuel the momentum and fervor of the Trump phenomenon except the American sense of life. It was the final great asset to which Ayn Rand appealed again and again, but she viewed it as dangerously vulnerable because it is emotional, not conceptual and explicit. She asked almost half a century ago: “Is there enough of the American sense of life left in people—under the constant pressure of the cultural-political efforts to obliterate it?”
And she answered:
It is impossible to tell. But those of us who hold it, must fight for it. We have no alternative: we cannot surrender this country to a zero—to men whose battle cry is mindlessness.
We cannot fight against collectivism, unless we fight against its moral base: altruism. We cannot fight against altruism, unless we fight against its epistemological base: irrationalism. We cannot fight against anything, unless we fight for something—and what we must fight for is the supremacy of reason, and a view of man as a rational being.
These are philosophical issues. The philosophy we need is a conceptual equivalent of America's sense of life. To propagate it, would require the hardest intellectual battle. But isn't that a magnificent goal to fight for?
(“Don't Let It Go, Part II” The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. 1, No. 5 December 6, 1971.)
Donald Trump energized that sense of life with his fabled business success in the heart of New York City, his celebration of his wealth, his brashly confident gamble to seize the Republican nomination, his unapologetic lifestyle of glamor, his blunt patriotism, and his feisty “Don’t push me around” response to critics. Add to that his unshaken confidence in the face of squalid, literally unprecedented personal attacks by the media—many of them false, out of context, or dependent upon a grotesque double standard. These have made him a paladin of the American sense of life. And if, as Ayn Rand asserted, the last remaining asset of American philosophy is the American sense of life, then Mr. Trump’s victories are the re-assertion of that sense of life after the Obama years and faced with the prospect of their continuance by Hillary Clinton.
Of course, this isn’t how Trump opponents interpret it. To them, Trump partisans represent extreme and alarming “polarization.” He has roused election-winning support with his appeal on issues and with promises—never fully or consistently articulated as principles—that challenge the prevailing liberal-left consensus.
Ayn Rand characterized the state of political discourse in the absence of clearly articulated political principles. The absence of “intellectual polarization,” she wrote, makes way for “existential polarization”—pressure group warfare. “The country is splitting into dozens of blind, deaf, but screaming camps, each drawn together not by loyalty to an idea, but by the accident of race, age, sex, religious creed, or the frantic whim of a given moment…by a common hatred of some other group…not by choice, but by terror.” Could there be a better description, written as it was in 1971, of contemporary leftist identity politics?
The Job Description of the “New Intellectual”
I became a Trump supporter with many reservations, qualifications, and doubts amid some hope. I could not support Mr. Trump’s principles because I could discern no clear principles—only tendencies. In the context of that disclosure, I will assert that I believe the above description of “existential polarization” applies more to the near-hysterical anti-Trump forces than to Trump supporters. Throughout the election process the news media and left-leaning organizations and their spokesmen, taking their cue from Clinton, focused on race, ethnicity, sex, disabilities, and religious creed in an uninterrupted series of fabricated “atrocity” stories.
Trump supporters, at times shamed into reticence, retained their excitement at Trump’s appeal to the American sense of life. When the day came, they astounded the political pundits and news media by silently, effectively expressing themselves in the polling booth.
It would be a tragedy if President Trump’s appeal to the American sense of life, stirring so much resolve and hope—and courage to resist every derogation, from “white nationalist” to “the less educated,” to a “basket of deplorables”—led Americans again to the defeat and ignominy of a Watergate. And that is precisely the plan and strategy of the news media and Democratic Party.
Trump’s acute vulnerability lies in his failure to articulate and keep emphasizing clear and consistent principles. He does not seem to think in terms of principles, but we can gather that he is for more laissez faire, more limited government under the Constitution, more rule of law, celebration of unlimited economic growth, and genuinely American self-interest in dealing with other nations. If he could articulate such principles as the context for his initiatives, his opponents would be forced to argue in terms of principles—the fate they have struggled to avoid:
What they dread to discover is the fact that the intellectual status quo that they inherited is bankrupt, that they have no ideological base to stand on and no capacity to construct one.
If they were to articulate the principles behind their policies and actions, those principles would have to include:
- Collectivism that judges policies and people in terms of group identity—race, sex, “gender,” wealth, ethnicity—and communitarianism (“We’re all in this together.” “You didn’t build that.”).
- Statism that views society, through government, as responsible for all problems and for distributing all wealth to solve them.
- Altruism that views needs as a claim on wealth (e.g., welfare rights).
- Pragmatism that views all principles, including those embodied in the U.S. Constitution, as “flexible,” “evolving,” “responsive to change.”
- Anti-Americanism that views America on the world scene as the source of injustices, exploitation, and aggression for which it must atone.
When I was a teenager, working summers during college on my father’s housing development, there was an older man, an Irishman from Cork, who had worked like a mule to achieve the American dream—a house, family, schooling for his children, even a car and a small boat—who used to listen to my polemics, inspired by Atlas Shrugged, on the “looters.” He responded only briefly, but one succinct comment that I recall was: “Don’t let the fuckers get away with it.”
That depends upon us, now.
Ayn Rand, “Don't Let It Go,” The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. 1, No. 4: November 22, 1971.
David Kelley, Epistemology and Politics: Ayn Rand's Cultural Commentary (2005)
Ayn Rand, “The Missing Link,” The Ayn Rand Letter (Vol. II, No. 16: May 7, 1973): Rand’s major analysis of the anti-conceptual mentality.