Polarized politics is dialectical politics. And dialectical politics is bad — a hall of mirrors in which each extreme at once defines itself by its opposition to an ideological enemy and depends on that opposition to enhance its own power and public support, transforming bad events into good news, and positive developments into setbacks.
Think of the interminable dispute in and around the state of Israel. The Palestinian extremist's greatest enemy is the maximalist Israeli settler committed to permanently annexing the West Bank for Greater Israel. Yet the would-be terrorist's aims are also advanced by the incendiary words and deeds of the maximalist settler, because they justify greater acts of armed defiance — just as the settler's cause is furthered by every act of Palestinian terrorism.
The same was true during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, when every bombing by the Irish Republican Army strengthened the hand of hardline Unionists and every Unionist crackdown served as justification for the next IRA bombing. In the end, achieving a lasting peace required short-circuiting the tilt-a-whirl of cyclical provocation.
Put another way: The best way to weaken or defeat one side (or both) in a polarized standoff can be a refusal to play the dialectical game altogether.
I think about this every time a new "woke" story breaks (which these days is several times a week). Inevitably, right-wing activists and trolls publicize it to advance the message that "the left" is out to destroy all that is great and good about America, so "we" who recognize the threat must fight back by electing Republicans to state houses and Congress. Prior to last November's election, the anti-woke message included the claim that a vote for Donald Trump was crucial to routing those attempting to impose Marxist critical theory on the country.
Now I'm a strong opponent of much of the rampant puritanical censoriousness that goes by the name of "cancel culture." But I don't at all believe that voting for Republicans will do the slightest good against it. On the contrary, empowering conservatives provides the woke left with evidence of ascendant right-wing political illiberalism that it then uses to further justify its own illiberal tactics and goals.
The trick is to stop playing the game of mutual provocation. This doesn't mean capitulating to the woke brigade. It just means fighting back in a different, more effective and morally nuanced way.
The first step in making the pivot to a more fruitful form of dissent is recognizing how counter-productive it is to support the GOP when the party is actively seeking to make it harder for people to vote, and when just a few months ago the Republican president repeatedly sought to throw out millions of ballots cast by minority voters and was aided in his efforts by numerous high-ranking members of his party. That anti-woke Republicans are also seeking to advance their cause by curtailing free speech around the country should make it clear that the right's efforts to combat the woke left are easily as ominous as anything their opponents are doing.
Many conservatives appear to think that the only way to fight back against those attempting a moral and cultural revolution in American institutions is to use political power to thwart the uprising. But there is another way to proceed — and that is to encourage and empower liberals of the center-left and center-right to take a principled stand against both extremes and in favor of a more tolerant and open-minded ideal of public debate and comportment.
Lots of Americans are concerned about the persistence of racism in both individual and structural forms and yet dislike being hectored constantly about their unavoidable complicity in racial oppression and being told that even the poorest whites should be considered privileged simply by virtue of their skin color.
Lots of Americans strongly and sincerely support transgender rights and yet consider it inappropriate to teach grade-school kids that their gender identity is fluid and in no way connected to their birth sex.
Lots of Americans understand that the country has done morally shameful things in its past and yet don't want their children to be taught that these evils belong "at the very center" of our national story.
Lots of Americans think public expressions of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry should be discouraged through forms of social sanction and yet find it absurd to fire or demand a resignation and groveling apology from someone for decade-old tweets written when the transgressor was a teenager.
A great many Americans are capable of acknowledging the need for moral improvement without succumbing to a moral panic.
Which means that the proper response to woke excesses is not to vote for Republicans and support their efforts to use government power to ban certain forms of thought and speech. The proper response is to concede that progressive activists have a point when they do — and to fight back strenuously against their demands when they don't. It is to exercise judgment and discernment, in other words, and to refuse the moral blackmail of either the left-wing activists or their enemies.
So don't try and smite the left by empowering the right — or attempt to flatten the right by joining the left. Take a stand for liberalism instead, and in the process weaken both extremes while also giving the variousness, complexity, and difficulty of the moral truth its due. There may be no surer path out of the polarizing derangements of the present.