Friend Tom and I were messing around with the idea of bubbles, silos and castles to help explain the dynamics of political polarization that appear to have brought us close to a cultural cold civil war. That we live in a politically polarized society is axiomatically true. Most often it’s characterized as left vs. right, with an emphasis on the extremes. It’s a way too easy characterization leading one to believe it explains everything because that’s the way it gets played out in Congress, at the Supreme Court,and on cable news. But there are other forms of polarization at play: rural vs. urban; coastal vs. heartland; rich vs. poor; white vs. black; non-white vs. white; educated vs. uneducated; town vs. gown; heavy industry vs. knowledge industry, and you can probably add your own.
An exhaustive list of polar opposites would be interesting, but still inadequate as an explanation of political society. American politics, probably like every other nation, is more than a list of polar opposites. Another metaphor commonly used these days is bubbles. As the COVID pandemic began to ease, we were encouraged to socialize in exclusive bubbles of close friends and families who were less likely to infect each other. Bubbles made sense because it’s often said that we live in bubbles of one kind or another. Bubbles enclose like minded friends, socially cohesive neighborhoods, occupations, disciplines, and the like. We each live in several different bubbles that that establish boundaries excluding those who live in other bubbles, while hopefully creating a sense of solidarity among those inside our bubbles. Bubbles have certain characteristics. They are reasonably transparent so those inside can see other bubbles and what’s inside them. They bump into each other, in sometimes companionable ways, sometimes not. Those inside bubbles establish hierarchies among themselves, and try to manipulate their bubbles into an unstable hierarchy of bubbles. Bubbles tend to be permeable, they occasionally merge or divide, and like all bubbles, pop. They exist for a season, disappear, and are replaced by new bubbles.
Not everyone is happy with bubbles. They need something more secure, long lasting, and above all, exclusive. So in addition to bubbles there are silos. Silos have solid walls. They’re defined by the exclusivity of those inside them, stacked in an undulating hierarchy competing with each other for who is the greater or more skilled at political manipulation. Gated communities are common examples of silos. The ivory towers of academia are famous for their silos. Corporate office towers are silos. Inhabitants of silos are aware of and commune with the outside world while defending their exclusivity. Silos are not without value. The expertise that exists within them can sometimes be tapped for the good of society.
Silos can end up being controlled by people who imagine themselves as modern day equivalents of medieval barons in castles protected by moats and drawbridges. Silos become castles when the outside world appears filled with enemies thought to control other castles. Castles can close their drawbridges to establish within them a self contained, self correcting universe that denies the relevancy of the outside world except for its enmity. Like castle dwellers of old, raiding parties are often sent out to conquer a bit of territory, or at least harass enemies. Political ideologues live in castles, as do Doom Day preppers, and assorted others who dream of more people to rule.
Of course society is made of far more than polar opposites, bubbles, silos and castles existing in uneasy tension with one another, but reflecting on them may provide a few insights on opening pathways away from mutual distrust, legislative paralysis, and ideological threats to American democracy. Experience suggests assaulting castles costs much and gains little. It’s tempting to go after castle dwelling ideologues because they epitomize the worst of social polarization and trumpet the loudest threats against American democracy. Their castles are well defended and they have no interest in listening to whatever “fake news and socialist propaganda” is lobbed at them. Maybe it’s wise to keep a sharp eye on them, but move on. Silo dwellers are elitist by definition, so convincing them to help reduce political polarization probably means appealing to other elitists they respect who are among those convinced that the value of silo elitist expertise depends on the economic well being of the greater community. America’s founding fathers are a case in point: a few elite were able to convince other elites to forge a new nation whose principles heralded the common good. The weaknesses and limitations of their work are well known; nevertheless, they laid a foundation for a common good they could not imagine.
That brings us to bubbles. The bubbles I’m interested in are occupied with people who have a sense that their individual freedoms depend on the common good of society. To one degree or another, they know that government is needed to establish conditions for economic and social justice to prevail. They have influence with others who share bubbles with them. Their honest conversation about what the common good is, and how best to work together for it, can produce real progress. Bubbles bump into each other, are permeable, and can sometimes combine. Networking between bubbles can create cooperative movement toward achieving possible, if not optimum, ends. Bubbles far removed from one another by geography or the particularity of local issues can find common ground for cooperation. A reasonable degree of consensus is achievable in bubbles.
The bubble, silo and castle metaphor has historical precedence going back centuries. What complicates it today is social media. Instantaneous, unfiltered, unmediated communication used to be the province of local bars, coffee shops, and clubs. Today, instant communication spanning the globe is in the hands of anyone with a keyboard or smart phone to be used as a weapon or tool. Social media provides leaders with an effective tool to network with others in common cause. But it has its limitations. It may generate awareness and interest, but people need to see and hear from each other at a more personal level to be convinced. One-on-one, face-to-face conversation is the more probable pathway to forming strong links in any network, and is especially important when anti democratic forces have revealed their own strength.