Intra-Group Fights More Common Than Inter-Group Fights

Fredrik deBoerScott Alexander wrote a piece in the middle of last year that I think is as essential as anything I’ve read in ages about how we argue now. His point is pretty simple: as political segregation increases, with people from dramatically different political camps less and less likely to interact, the really bitter political arguments are intra-group, not inter-group. That is, the battles that are most personal and toxic stop being Democrat-Republican but left-liberal, alt-trad, insurgents-establishment…

Here’s an extension to Alexander I want to make, which I’ll relate to my own experience. As internecine warfare against the neargroup intensifies, the regulation of who is in and who is out becomes more and more important. That is, the more that politics becomes about battling the neargroup instead of the fargroup, the more essential self-identification with a given faction becomes. As the really bitter fights become those between people who are close on the spectrum, the regulation of one’s space on the spectrum becomes even more essential.

So look at my experience. For a long while I was just kind of a fringey voice; perceived by many people as kind of annoying but not in any sense someone to be careful not to be associated with. Now, to the minor degree that I am discussed by progressives (being a low-traffic and low-attention figure generally), it is almost always accompanied by this laborious process of distancing themselves from me even while agreeing with me. Most endorsements of my work, by liberals and some leftists, involve endorsing what I’ve said while performing a dance to show everybody they know I’m Bad. It is the perpetual “I know Freddie’s problematic, but he’s right here” phenomenon. At some point or another I was given the mark of Cain, and I’ve never been clear on when or why…

The attitude that grownups should constantly be in the business of saying “This person is good/bad” instead of discussing specific arguments and ideas is contrary to how democracy is supposed to work. But it’s all people care about…

–Fredrik deBoer
I Know My Own Group by Defining Who’s Not in It

8 thoughts on “Intra-Group Fights More Common Than Inter-Group Fights

  1. Lord, that rings too close to home. All my life, I’ve known people who were staunch liberals, good folks all, yet defined themselves by “cooler life than yours, James. Me success. You failure.” With friends like that…

    I say we bring back duels. 1: It makes people think twice before insulting each other. 2: If we’re gonna have all these goddamn guns in this country, let’s use ’em for something besides shooting schoolchildren. 3: Planet’s overpopulated anyhoo. 4: Trump would either be dead or a fast-food restaurant manager. 5: I’d either be dead, which wouldn’t bother me none, or have dispatched a mean motherfucker or two in my day.

    Hell, we got all these idiots claiming their version of conservatism comes from what the Founders intended. So why not roll with it? Bring back duels. Bite my ass, Farewd Zakaria, I read your fucking book, and graduate students wrote it. Don’t like me saying that? Pistols at dawn. Plus I pretty much guarantee Sam Harris & Dick Dawkins would be long dead. Dr. Noam would still be with us. He’d get challenged to duel after duel and say “no.” His opponents would accuse him of cowardice for not appearing on the field of honor. He’d say, “call me a coward if you like, I don’t care.” And then they’d move on to picking a fight with someone else, and one-half of those two assholes agreeing to that stupid fight would get shot.

      • My wife is not a fan of sci-fi geek classics, and she STILL got where that line came from.

        May all your enemies be dispatched via rapier. Or brain-eating ear slug stuffed in their space helmet by Ricardo Montalban. Either fate is acceptably gruesome.

  2. The only actual problem with this is…well, it’s Freddie. DeBoer is pretty much a three step dance:

    1. (Freddie): “Why, oh why, don’t liberals engage with me, one of the nation’s bigly public intellectuals? All I want is some substantive engagement that takes my ideas seriously!
    2. Someone engages his argument – which is usually extremely superficial and/or shallow – in a substantive albeit hardassed and contrarian way, and.
    3. (Freddie): “Ouch! Hey! Why do you hate me, why are you being so mean to me, a poor little humble nobody!”

    His primary interest in these “debates”, so far as I can tell, is to do just what he’s complaining about here: branding Other People as Not Left Enough.

    Anyone who can watch John Lewis vs Donald Trump or Paul Ryan versus commonsense fiscal policies and claim that the “real debates” are between intra-Left and intra-Right hasn’t been paying attention.

    • Oh, the fights are real. In my experience, they are. I’m not familiar with Mr. DeBoer’s work, so I can’t speak to its overall quality, but while I like some of the points he makes in this clipping, I sharply disagree with one; I don’t think political infighting is remotely new. It’s been around at least as long as America has been. And I’d hazard a guess that America didn’t invent it.

      Maybe it feels rougher than usual to Mr. DeBoer because we had about seven straight years of liberal agreement. After furious arguments about what the ACA should entail, we settled into a comfortable rhythm. They hate our Black president and will do anything they can to destroy him. We rather liked the guy, and wanted some pretty basic things like budgets passed.

      Now those years are over. We’re united in resistance to the crimes against nation and humanity this Orange Abominable will commit, but we’re divided as to how we can win elections again — especially at the state level. Do we emphasize our shared belief in multiculturalism? Or maybe unionize service jobs, which are the new factory jobs? How about saving humanity from making the damn planet unsuitable for human life? All of the above, naturally, and many more besides. Each of us will have strong opinions on the order of priorities.

      It’s because we actually care about this shit. Republicans don’t care about a damn thing. Sexual morality — oh, my goodness, Bill Clinton jizzed on a dress! (He probably did worse things as well, but that’s the one Republicans fixated on.) Well, now sexual morality doesn’t matter to them quite so much, does it? The Constitution? Eh, overrated. Sad. Limited federal government? Well, I dunno who ever bought that one. Wait, I know, foreign policy! Surely America must be strong! Unless it seems like a Republican president in in the pocket of a Russian dictator, then, well, that’s okay. At least he’s not a Kenyan Muslim socialist!

      These people gave up seriousness in 1980. The one thing they’ve cared about since is making life groovy for the rich and miserable for the poor (all the better to make us accept shittier wages, my dear). In the primaries that year, ex-CIA honcho G.H.W. Bush called this one idea “voodoo economics.” He was right. Back then, Republicans claimed it was good for the country. Now they don’t even bother. It’s a moral necessity, meritocracy or some shit. J.P. Morgan and George Hearst are clawing furiously at their coffin lids, trying to get a serving of this ice cream. It’s far more than they ever would have dreamed.

      But liberals, we believe principles matter. So we fight about which ones we hold dearest. That’s okay. We’ve done so before. Assuming the Earth isn’t a glowing pile of radioactive sludge in four years, we will again. But don’t rule out sludge. I give sludge 1:10 odds. Which is far too scary for my liking!

      • I’ve been bombarded by enough HRC-vs-Bernie to know that there’s infighting on the Left; not saying there isn’t. It’s just that Freddie – whose work I AM familiar with and who’s well known for the very sort of facile, shallow “analysis” he shows in this piece – is full of stuff when he insists that the “real” fighting in intra-party rather than between the parties. He’s just the sort of Judean People’s Front-type splitter who revels in the intra-party feuding that he WOULD consider it more vicious and more important than the real vicious fight between the Left and Right.

        And, no. There’s nothing politically new under the sun. This sort of thing happened as early as the formation of political parties in this country, which is to say early in the 19th Century. It destroyed the Whigs before the Civil War and split the Democrats afterwards. And I’d argue that in the “big-tent” sort of partisanship made unavoidable by the first-past-the-post system there will always be intra-party fights. The difference is that the distance between the HRC Wing and the Bernie Wing are nowhere near as wide, or as vicious, as the difference between the HRC (that is, the center-center) of the D’s and whatever-the-hell constitutes the “center-leftish-side-of-hard-right” of the R’s (maybe the R-money/plutocrat “wing” of the GOP? Hard to say, given that the hard-right wingnut faction now constitutes the driving force of the entire Republican party….)

  3. I’m not going to speak for the right wing but as far as the left is concerned, I do not see this dynamic. We have the Sanders-Warren wing and the Obama -Clinton wing, broadly speaking. The SW wing and the OC wing agree on most social issues and most of us embrace and celebrate that common ground. On the economy, we have a substantial degree of separation. This isn’t some argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, these serious policy disagreements.

    One faction believes that college graduates should start their lives without debt, one side sees five and six figure debts as acceptable and normal. One side wants universal healthcare, another side wants to appease the insurance companies. One side wants to heavily regulate the the financial services industry and another side does not.

    Just because the moderates are on far left of the narrow overton window does not mean that we have to settle for their incrementalism. Just because you are to left of the GOP does not mean that you are not far to our right. I love being part of the diverse, intersectional Democratic team but just because we agree on who can use what bathrooms does not mean that we will just give up these very real economic fights. If the moderates win out, millions of Americans will be denied the ability to ever pursue meaningful lives, start families and have any sort of decent and dignified retirement. The stakes are high and too many moderate liberals fail to understand that fact.

    • It’s only human. Ours is a very competitive country with an absolutely brutal class system. Those who have done reasonably well for themselves in it don’t want to feel lucky, or like tools (although the overwhelming majority are utter corporate tools). They want to feel clever. Believing that only people who follow a certain career path deserve any quality of life makes them feel quite clever. I punch computer keys among fellow upscale professionals. We all listen to the same hot new podcasts and communicate via Slack! We are the smart ones. You postal workers, you nurses, you teachers, you are not so clever as we. (I think I just threw up a little Chait in my mouth.)

      This split in the party has been around my whole adult life. Between the ages of 18-28 I lost every liberal friend I had. They got office jobs. I scrubbed toilets. Who wants to be associated with that rabble? It doesn’t make for amusingly chic party anecdotes! “At the training seminar in Aspen, I met a liberal celebrity.” Good anecdote. “My glasses are broken because someone undergoing a traumatic psychotic episode at my job hit me in the face with a chair.” Less good anecdote.

      I think young people are starting to figure out, this is a losing game. Let the uncool workers get screwed at their jobs and, guess what, eventually the cool office workers will be screwed, too. The older liberals with cool jobs haven’t grasped this yet. But hey, being snobby makes them feel clever. So there’s that.

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