From National Review, George Will writes Weak Political Parties Smooth the Way for Demagogues:

Rauch’s thesis is that increased polarization has little to do with ideas and much to do with hostile feelings — “negative partisanship” — about others. “It’s not so much that we like our own party,” Rauch surmises, “as that we detest the other.” The Left, like the Right, has no plausible, meaning implementable, plan for solving pressing problems, from immigration to $1 trillion deficits at full employment. So, despising President Trump, who makes this easy, is a substitute for a politics of substance.

Group solidarity based on shared detestations is fun, and because fun can trigger dopamine bursts in the brain, it can be addictive. Rauch:

“One of the most interesting characteristics of this ‘new’ form of polarization is that there is nothing new about it. Tribalism has been the prevalent mode of social organization for all but approximately the most recent 2% of years that humans have lived on the planet.” The decline of civic organizations has people searching for connectedness. “The declining hold of organized religion . . . [has] displaced apocalyptic and redemptive impulses into politics, where they don’t belong.” Economic stagnation among the less educated provides opportunities for demagogues on the left (despising a never-popular minority: the wealthy) as well as the right.

Rauch says “humans were designed for life in small, homogenous groups where change was slow and choices were few.” If he is correct, both left and right, like scorpions in a bottle, are in diametrically opposed but symbiotic reactions against modernity — against an open society “founded on compromise, toleration, and impersonal rules and institutions.” Hence, “in education, elite universities frequently encourage students to burrow into their tribal identities rather than transcend them. In media, new technologies enable and monetize outrage and extremism.”

All this began before Trump slouched onto the political stage, and because of his electoral success he already has emulators among his despisers. Consider Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren’s grotesque — and classically demagogic — ascription of blame to unpopular others for everyone else’s personal complaints — which she says government can remedy: “You’ve got things that are broken in your life? I’ll tell you exactly why. It’s because giant corporations, billionaires have seized our government.”All demagogues begin by rejecting Samuel Johnson’s wisdom: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Warren is a millimeter away from Trump’s “I alone can fix it,” where the antecedent of the pronoun “it” is: everything.

Rauch believes that although political parties are instruments of partisan mobilization, it is their weakness that feeds today’s polarization by smoothing the way for demagogues. Time was, the parties vetted candidates, “screening out incompetents, sociopaths, and those with no interest in governing.” Now, “the more parties weaken as institutions whose members are united by loyalty to their organization, the more they strengthen as tribes whose members are united by hostility to their enemy.” As loyalty to parties’ organizations and doctrines is supplanted by parties as hostility-based tribes, polarization supplies solidarity in an era of empty politics.


A political party is a coalition of interests designed to convince a majority to trust it enough to let it govern. The Progressive Era in its aim to neuter the constitutional speed bumps to majoritarian democracy pushed for democratic primaries. Initially the parties retained some ideological commitment, but in the age of instant outrage media, they have descended into tribal warfare where emotions rule over ideas. The two sides do not share common information or common narratives that define us as a nation.  There is no mere disagreement on how we arrive at common goals; we no longer agree on who we are.

The result is that Republicans have abandoned the tenets of conservatism and the Democrats have abandoned civil discourse and surrendered respect for once common rights to the mob. Those who rejected principled objections as ideologues and preached the abandonment of ideology to the whims of pragmatism now face the outcome.