As a progressive activist I find myself in a curious position. On one hand, as a progressive I am deeply committed to the values and programs of equality and inclusion that are at the heart of the progressive message. If we could just implement our program the result would be a huge improvement in the living conditions of nearly everyone in the United States. Our opponents in the conservative movement are hypocrites, motivated by either ignorance, superstition, or self-interest. I would earnestly like to see the modern conservative movement (it occurs that modern conservative is an oxymoron) destroyed root and branch.
At the same time, as a citizen, it is clear to me that the current levels of political polarization are not good for the long-term health of our society. What I want to explore in this diary is how we became so intensely polarized. If this is of interest follow me below the fold!
In the beginning was the Southern Strategy. Prior to the civil rights movement ideological conflict was less pronounced because both major parties had conservative wings. Thus party loyalty implied a certain tolerance of more conservative (liberal/progressive) tendencies within each party.
After the Democratic Party embraced civil rights in the 1960s, the complexion of conservatism changed in some highly significant ways. Southern Conservatives were Democrats because the Republican party was the Party of Lincoln and therefore impossible to embrace. Their chief concern was maintaining the structure of racial oppression. However, they were open to the use of government as a mechanism for social advancement and populist themes were often expressed. The other distinctive feature of southern conservatism was an aggressive and militaristic nationalism. This can be traced as far back as the era of Andrew Jackson where Democrats of the period saw the expansion of the "white race" at the expense of "lesser breeds" as America's historical imperative.
In contrast, conservative Republican's in the Middle West were largely conservatives in the truest sense of the word. That is to say, interested in conserving institutions for the sake of conserving institutions. They were intensely skeptical of any role for government. This included government as an agent in International/Military Affairs. The home of Isolationism was the Middle West.
Conservatives in the Far West were aggressively pro-development, interested chiefly in converting the public domain into private profit. Of the pre-civil rights conservatives, these were the closest to modern libertarians.
Finally, the Eastern establishment conservatives usually controlled the machinery of the Republican party as a consequence of their wealth. They were internationalist in outlook, anti-Communist, and averse to government interference with their affairs.
Once the Civil Rights revolution took hold under Democratic sponsorship, the Democratic party in the South became suspect. Richard Nixon's embrace of the Southern Strategy of implicitly (sometimes not so implicitly) encouraging racists to join the Republican party had the effect of gathering all the different strands of conservatism into a single place. This encouraged the development of a revised standard version of conservatism.
The racism and aggressive and militaristic nationalism of the South, was added to the libertarian disdain for government from the West. The Eastern Establishment conservatives retained control of the party machinery for a while because of their control over the purse strings.
This set the stage for the next step in polarization. The villain is small dollar fund-raising. Those with long memories will recall this technique was invented by Richard Vigurie and was a source of conservative advantage throughout the 1980s.
The thing about such fundraising is that it HAS TO encourage extremism. When you are writing a letter to encourage people to send you some of their hard earned money which appeal is more likely to motivate you to donate. 1) Please send us money so that we can elect representatives who will bargain with liberals to achieve a sensible, bipartisan consensus solution or 2) Send us money because otherwise liberals will eat your babies and force all women to have compulsory abortions.
All of us, I would imagine have received similar appeals from progressive groups. (I average about six such appeals per day.) This tactic generates a feedback loop. Because more extreme appeals are more likely to be successful, the appeals get more extreme. At the same time, all of the appeals that a person receives highlighting the knavery or outright evil of the opposition, makes it increasingly difficult to discern actual humans from the images of the ENEMY!
In justice to progressives and progressivism, I think members of the left are more likely to rationally analyze fundraising appeals than swallow the Koolaid. Certainly, there aren't many members here at DKos who are kneejerk supporters of every aspect of the Obama administration's policies.
I could go on, but I'm really interested to see what y'all have to say, so I'm going to post and take my lumps.