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Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at [email protected].


A Critique of the ICE Analysis of American Polarization

by McIntosh and Phipps

Joe Corbett

What America needs today more than ever is a revival of the progressive left, not its obliteration by moderation and incorporation.

In a paper titled “Depolarizing the American Mind”, Steve McIntosh and Carter Phipps of the Institute for Cultural Evolution (ICE) say that political gridlock in Washington comes from a political culture rooted in the people who elect their political leaders, so that political gridlock quite literally 'represents' the polarization within culture itself as a causal factor. So there we have it in a nutshell, according to ICE: Got division and crisis in governance? Blame the people!

But the reactionary hilarity doesn't end there. They go on to explain that because the progressive reforms of the 60s were so challenging to the status quo, the burden of reconciliation and compromise lies primarily with the postmodern left, or what in the popular parlance of integral-speak simply means 'the mean green meme' (MGM). From there they go on to articulate a proposal for a kind of collective cognitive therapy for the masses in order to transform American political culture into a synthesis of the left-right polarity. However since it's primarily the responsibility of the left to make the reconciliation, what their proposal actually amounts to is a re-education program for the left so that they'll become more open and susceptible to right-wing thinking. How convenient and promising for the integral reactionaries.

Blame the people

For an analysis that assumes the Democrats have remained in the same center-left position since Clinton, one wonders if the ICE analysts of McIntosh and Phipps have any clue to the fact that Democrats since Clinton have in fact essentially been Eisenhower Republicans (center-right), and that even old tricky-dick Nixon was more liberal than most Democrats today. With false assumptions about where the Democrats actually are on the political spectrum today, biases in ones analysis are bound to follow. Hey Steve and Carter, is that the same 'center-left' Clinton position that formed the neoliberal Washington consensus that passed free trade treaties to offshore jobs, and cut welfare to women and children before they deregulated banking that lined the pockets of Wall Street and sent the world into economic crisis? If that's your idea of the center-left then I'm more than a little concerned what you think is a reasonable center-right position.

An alternative set of assumptions to the ones they give might begin by acknowledging the far-right swing in American politics by both parties since Reagan and Jerry Falwell's anti-intellectual Moral Majority movement of fundamentalist Christianity in the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis and the rise of an anti-colonialist Islam, and that the burden of reconciliation through collective cognitive therapy is therefore on the far-right Republicans and the center-right Democrats in positions of leadership (not the voters), with a growing populace that recognizes the institutionalized corruption of the political, economic, and corporate media system of a dying empire in it's final days.

The so-called 'polarity' of the two political parties that comes up in their paper is an illusion, for in fact there has never been a more solid agreement between political elites to serve their 1 percent masters. In reality, the only polarization in American politics today is between the center-right Democrats and the far-right Republicans in alliance through the corporate-military-police state against the citizens. Consequently, the gridlock isn't even about preserving the social safety net but mostly about lessening the impact of what a small group of radicals want to do by throwing the baby of government out with the bathwater of waste, which in actuality is greatest in those things the far-right seeks to protect, like tax breaks and subsidies for the wealthy and the bloated military-prison-surveillance complex.

The authors proposal of cognitive therapy primarily for what remains of the progressive left today in order to effect a reconciliation between the polarities would only remove any pressure on the Democrats to come back to their senses and start representing the values and interests of the real people (not the legal corporate entities and wealthy elites) who voted for them. Convenient therapy, I suppose, if you're on the spectrum of mainstream American politics today, or a bourgeois integralist, or a conscious capitalist. Indeed, I can even see how Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey, if not the Koch brothers, the FBI, and the CIA, might well be interested in making a donation to the ICE project and collaborating with them in how to tame the American left through their brand of cognitive therapy.

However, a more viable alternative prescription wouldn't involve less polarization, but far more, by a far more radicalized left based in class analysis rather than the politically correct postmodern politics of identity that is limited to justice for race, gender, and sexual orientation, which has alienated the working-class white majority, and has gotten us no further than the corporate-militarist leaders in the likes of Obama and Hillary. What America needs today more than ever is a revival of the progressive left, not its obliteration by moderation and incorporation into the corporate system of a winner-take-all consumer popularity contest through the cleverly placed removal of corporate glass ceilings.

According to the authors, postmodern progressives threaten the identity of modernists and traditionalists by being anti-American and anti-capitalist, causing them to harden in their positions where dialogue and compromise become impossible. It is therefore the responsibility of these progressives to become more mature by being more positive and optimistic regarding capitalism and America's future and influence on the world. No mention was made by them of polarization coming from the conservative's 100 year long anti-socialist rhetoric and violence (the mean blue meme, MBM), or modern capitalism's even longer on-going war against living-wage jobs and the working poor (the mean orange meme, MOM). I guess these are trivial and small by comparison to the MGM, according to the authors.

I suppose, again, that there would be less anti-American and anti-capitalism rhetoric among progressives if America didn't assassinate its enemies and orchestrate coups and invasions, or if there were higher tax rates on the wealthy and less inequality existed in America, for starters. But such are not American realities, and until they are perhaps being more positive and optimistic about America would be unjustified and inappropriate, and therefore precisely the more immature position to take on America.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson,
3rd President of the United States

When it comes to their own vision of America's future political landscape the authors see promise in the Millennial generation, who seem to hold the simultaneous values of individual liberty and free-market principles along with social justice and environmental sustainability, apparently unaware (in their own generational blind-spot?) of the inherent contradictions between the accumulation of private power and industrial growth with equity and limits. In any case, this is a synthesis that they term “progressive libertarianism”, or optimistic postmodernism, embodying the best of the generic polarities of individual competition and collective cooperation.

They single-out for special attention the value of limited government in their vision of the future, enough to make any conservative neoliberal drool, reminding us that Thomas Jefferson said,

“The government that governs least governs best”.

Indeed, this is nothing the most progressive anarchist would disagree with, and I might also remind them that Jefferson also said,

“What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Again, there is nothing here that the most conservative libertarian would disagree with, but somehow I just can't see an 'optimistic postmodernist' agreeing to revolutionary and subversive sentiments, much less be willing to take the lead in a fight for freedom from oppressive tyrants, unlike the Millennials of the Occupy movement, for whom McIntosh and Phipps hold a deep scorn.

On this note, I would suggest an alternative future for America to their progressive libertarian solution that also synthesizes the existential polarities of being regarding individual freedom on the one hand, and common interests on the other, namely, libertarian socialism. Organized around decentralized local communities of self-sufficiency with local and regional trade and culture, as well as a common identity with humanity, nature, and the cosmos as a major nexus for binding people together rather than the nation-state or corporate brands, no government would become too big to tyrannize the people or collude with capitalist monopolies. The people would be responsible for making and enforcing laws themselves (short of burning coal and witches at the stake), while adhering to the common interests and participating in the larger projects and goals of national and global governing councils. Only under these conditions (not ideals) of greater equity, autonomy, and local sustainability that comes from people being directly responsible for governing themselves in self-sufficient cooperation can the polarizations of incommensurable differences be reconciled in a higher synthesis. This possibility, however, is outside the scope of the ICE vision of a (reformed and awakened) global capitalism as the only alternative to itself, because, after all, as Thatcher herself said, there is no alternative (TINA), so there must not be.

The point here is that the crisis of governance and the polarized American mind isn't so much cultural and psychological as it is historical and structural.

All in all, it seems to me that the American left has already recognized the truth in the right-wing perspective ever since Bill Clinton, and they have been profiting handsomely from it at the peoples expense. Hillary Clinton recently spoke to a corporate group for 430k, telling them that it was foolish of people to blame Wall Street for the economic crisis, and this is the person the so-called 'center-left' is touting as their next president in waiting! Perhaps with that kind of increase in her freedom she can now cooperate more fully in bringing easy dirty money to the rest of us in a synthesis of leadership and corruption, right Steve and Carter?

And by extension, shouldn't the American right, then, be charged with the responsibility of recognizing the truth of the left-wing perspective, and bring us self-sacrifice and service to the interests of the people who voted for them rather than the people who elected them into office with donations? That seems reasonable to me, how about you, Steve and Carter?

Depolarizing the American Mind
Depolarizing the American Mind
Download as PDF

The point here, and one that the ICE paper misses entirely, is that the crisis of governance and the polarized American mind isn't so much cultural and psychological as it is historical and structural, and therefore no amount of psycho-cultural tinkering is likely to turn the tide until these other factors are accounted for and addressed as well if not first and foremost. Instead of essentializing the progressive left as inherently polarizing and divisive it would be wiser and more correct (not to mention more mature) to historicize the failure of the left to win over the popular imagination in the face of a resurgent right-wing appeal to racial prejudice (with the Voting Rights Act which lost the South to the Republicans) and nationalist pride (with the loss in Vietnam and the Iranian hostage crisis), combined with the changing economic landscape toward the globalization and financialization of capital and the weakening of labor as a political force. Among other historical and structural circumstances have been the increasing consolidation of a corporate media in-conducive to objective and critical analysis, increasing financialization and big-money lobbying of political offices, the rise and influence of conservative think-tanks on policy-making, 9/11 and the war on terrorism, the list goes on.

The bottom line, once one reads between the lines of the ICE project for depolarizing the American mind, is that they want to convince their potential wealthy donors, corporate clients, and right-wing government agencies (including the Democratic Party as it is currently constituted) that the progressive left can be neutralized and defeated in the name of a happy capitalist future with a minimal state. In one fell swoop they envision eliminating that pesky arch-rival and nemesis of all things integral ('the mean green meme'), while solving America's intractable problem of how to make the world safe for corporate capitalism and their political servants. Even if we give them the benefit of a doubt and say this is not the conscious intention of the ICE project to depolarize the American mind, it certainly would be the unintended effect of what is clearly an unconscious wish-fulfillment.

My prescription for them is to do a lot less shadow work on the MGM, and a whole lot more on the MOM.

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