Hyper Partisanship: How to understand American politics today

republican vs. democrat cage match boxing ring

Buckle up, we’re in for a wild ride. Many of the serious scholars of political history and authoritarian regimes are sounding the alarm bells that, although it is a very very good thing that we got the Trump crime family out of the Oval Office, it is still a very very bad thing for America to have so rapidly tilted towards authoritarianism. How did we get here?! How has hyper partisanship escalated to the point of an attempted coup by 126 sitting Republican House Representatives? How has political polarization gotten this bad?

These are some of the resources that have helped me continue grappling with that question, and with the rapidly shifting landscape of information warfare. How can we understand this era of polarization, this age of tribalism? This outline is a work in progress, and I’m planning to keep adding to this list as the tape keeps rolling.

Right-Wing Authoritarianism

Authoritarianism is both a personality type and a form of government — it operates at both the interpersonal and the societal level. The words authoritarian and fascist are often used interchangeably, but fascism is a more specific type of authoritarianism, and far more historically recent.

America has had flavors of authoritarianism since its founding, and when fascism came along the right-wing authoritarians ate it up — and deeply wanted the United States to be a part of it. Only after they became social pariahs did they change position to support American involvement in World War II — and some persisted even after the attack of Pearl Harbor.

Scholars of authoritarianism

  • Hannah Arendt — The Origins of Totalitarianism
  • Bob Altemeyer — The Authoritarians
  • Derrida — the logic of the unconscious; performativity in the act of lying
  • ketman — Ketman is the psychological concept of concealing one’s true aims, akin to doublethink in Orwell’s 1984, that served as a central theme to Polish dissident CzesΕ‚aw MiΕ‚osz‘s book The Captive Mind about intellectual life under totalitarianism during the Communist post-WWII occupation.
  • Erich Fromm — coined the term “malignant narcissism” to describe the psychological character of the Nazis. He also wrote extensively about the mindset of the authoritarian follower in his seminal work, Escape from Freedom.
  • Eric Hoffer — his book The True Believers explores the mind of the authoritarian follower, and the appeal of losing oneself in a totalist movement
  • Fascism — elevation of the id as the source of truth; enthusiasm for political violence
  • Tyrants and dictators
  • John Dean — 3 types of authoritarian personality:
    • social dominators
    • authoritarian followers
    • double highs — social dominators who can “switch” to become followers in certain circumstances
  • Loyalty; hero worship
    • Freud = deeply distrustful of hero worship and worried that it indulged people’s needs for vertical authority. He found the archetype of the authoritarian primal father very troubling.
  • Ayn Rand
    • The Fountainhead (1943)
    • Atlas Shrugged (1957)
    • Objectivism ideology
  • Greatness Thinking; heroic individualism
  • Nietszche — will to power; the Uberman
  • Richard Hofstadter — The Paranoid Style
  • George Lakoff — moral framing; strict father morality
  • Neil Postman — Entertaining Ourselves to Death
  • Anti-Intellectualism
  • Can be disguised as hyper-rationalism (Communism)
  • More authoritarianism books

Cognitive and psychological data

The concepts and research in this section reflect learnings in political psychology, and how our brains are wired to react and behave in a complex, ever-shifting political landscape.

Submission to authority

Psychological research has shown that we have a strong tendency to defer to and obey authority figures — even in cases where it conflicts with our personal ethics. This is driven by evolutionary advantages of obeying leaders, societal conditioning from a young age, and psychological aspects like the diffusion of responsibility, among other factors.

Three key studies established that we are likely to obey the commands of perceived authority figures to an astonishing degree — even when the evidence before our eyes indicates we are causing great harm to others.

  1. The Asch Experiment (1951) — more than 60% of the time, people bow to social pressure
  2. Stanley Milgram (1974) — we will submit to the demands of authority to a far greater extent than we might expect
    • it absolves us of responsibility
    • a “loophole” to quickly route around our conscience, making “normal” persons susceptible to the appeals of psychopaths
  3. Stanford Prison Experiment — Dr. Philip Zimbardo (1971)

Narcissism in politics

Research indicates that as many as 5-10% of the general population are significantly narcissistic, to the point of pathology. That means somewhere between 1 in 20 and 1 in 10 of the people you have met in your life are extremely devoid of empathy — a scary thought, that has dramatic implications for both our personal and social lives as well as our political lives on the grand stage. This lack of empathy makes narcissism a sort of evil hiding in plain sight.

  • Narcissism and Sadism | The Dark Triad β€” personality characteristics of difficult personalities
    • narcissism = seeing oneself β€œabove”
    • Christopher Lasch β€” Culture of Narcissism (1979). Idea that narcissism is a defense mechanism against social change and instability in the modern world. It’s a method of psychological self-preservation in a hostile, threatening world; a cynical ethic.
    • Tom Wolfe β€” The Me Decade
    • Jerrold Post β€” authoritarian parenting
    • The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump
    • Mary Trump β€” Too Much and Not Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man
    • narcissistic injury
    • narcissistic rage
    • aggrieved entitlement β€” elevated expectations combined with resentment at society for not meeting them (Michael Kimmel, 2013)
    • emotional abuse and emotional predation
    • Dehumanization of The Others
    • splitting; black and white thinking
    • lack of object permanence
    • magical thinking β€” relation to Norman Vincent Peale and prosperity gospel
    • Political ponerology β€” the nature of evil; interaction of difficult personalities with power and politics
      • pathocracy β€” Andrew Łobaczewski (2007)
      • sadopopulism β€” Tim Snyder
    • Narcissistic collusion β€” the interplay of the grandiose expectations of the tyrant and his followers. It gives him power as a meshing of mutually compatible needs.
    • Narcissism of small differences β€” Freud 1991
    • Scapegoating
    • Psychological decompensation
    • Psychopath World
      • The Upside Down β€” up is down, black is white
      • No conscience
      • No empathy
      • The ultimate narcissist
      • Obsession with power, dominance, and hierarchy
      • Primitive goals, relentlessly pursued
      • Rigidity; inflexibility
      • No access to higher human ideals
      • Performative; mask-wearing
      • See people as objects for their use
      • Control issues
      • Cruel and sadistic
      • Empty and thrill-seeking
      • Enjoy breaking rules
      • Inauthentic; insincere
      • Projectivity
      • Destructiveness; recklessness
      • Conspiracy-minded
      • Cold and inaccessible
      • Reptilian
    • Terminology: ASPD, psychopathy, and the shifting umbrella of personality disorder and Cluster B
    • Malignant narcissism as a historical conception of this group of personality traits
  • Paranoia
  • Abuse culture
    • Bullies
    • Emotional abuse
    • psychological abuse
    • physical abuse
    • financial abuse
    • legal abuse
    • abuse of power
    • Alice Miller — Her work identified the psychological impact of childhood neglect and abuse, not just at the individual level but at the societal level — where it has a tendency to produce a hierarchical worldview characterized by the need to control the environment.
    • DARVO
    • fundamentalism
    • influence techniques — used by cults, high-demand groups, and even political operations to unethically induce followers to behave in ways contrary to their true belief systems that benefit the cult or group leader(s)
    • One-sided development — DΔ…browski (1996)
  • Cults
  • “Big Cults” — rise to the level of nation-state and even beyond
  • Psychological warfare
    • Propaganda
      • Ed Bernays –> Joseph Goebbels
      • Michiko Kakutani — The Death of Truth
    • Emotional abuse
    • Interrogation techniques
    • Disinformation
      • Conspiracy theories
      • Fake news
        • “Flood the channel” strategy
        • Overwhelm and drown out the truth
        • Deep fakes
      • Lying with statistics
    • Bot networks and cyborg botnets
      • agents
        • distraction
        • confusion
        • probing
        • persuasion
        • conversion
        • neutralization
      • AI
      • flying monkeys
      • automated response
      • timed response
    • Extortion
    • Doxxing
  • Religious extremism
  • Living on Fantasy Island
    • Norman Vincent Peale — the power of positive thinking (1952)
    • Ernest Becker — The Denial of Death & the basis for fundamental self-deception
    • Buddhist / Shambhala conceptions of “The Cocoon” — a mental place of safety we construct for ourselves to remain shielded from Real Reality
    • Republican Denial Bubbles: climate change, trickle-down economics, “no one is racist,” birtherism, covid is a hoax, everything is hunky dory, you are getting very sleepy…
    • It Was All a Lie — Stuart Stevens, former GOP strategist and co-founding member of the Lincoln Project, spills the beans on the Republican capture of civic discourse with a set of false narratives all spinning out from the white supremacist backlash to the civil rights movement of the 60s.
    • Platonicity — excessive devotion to impossible ideals that do not reflect the messy reality of the actual world and its pragmatic requirements


Rise of Dark Money

The explosion of Super PACs and other seemingly endless vehicles for anonymous money lending to political campaigns exploded after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. The hyper partisanship fomented by the advent of dark money tilted even further when the GOP quietly began accepting far more foreign contributions than many people realized.

  • Clarence Thomas — journalists have exposed numerous ethically dubious and potentially downright illegal activities the justice has engaged in, most commonly the failure to report the receipt of payments from conservative billionaire Harlan Crow in financial disclosures
  • Citizens United — allowed virtually unlimited amounts of anonymous money to begin pouring into American elections
  • Koch Brothers / Kochtopus — the secret shadow government created by the multibillionaire brothers created a sort of “populist Libertarianism” in the U.S. that resembles a fascist movement, because the majority of its supposed adherents are kept in the dark about what actual policies and policy effects they are being induced to support
  • offshore tax havens
  • unregistered FARA agents (Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort, Elliott Broidy, etc)
    • FARA came into being during World War II as a statute to address the proliferation of secret Nazi propaganda agents in the U.S.
    • numerous foreign governments are not-so-secretly pouring money into U.S. elections as well as domestic influencers
  • Jane Mayer — journalist for the New Yorker who has uncovered numerous dirty and shady secrets of the Koch’s and other dark money oligarchs in U.S. history since the 1980s
  • Panama Papers — biggest offshore data leak in history
  • FinCEN files

Hyper Partisanship in Congress: The Gingrich Years (1990s)

The South rises again: White militia movements in the 70s, 80s, and 90s

Rise of conservative media (1980s-90s)

The rise of conservative media in the United States can be traced back to the mid-20th century, but it experienced significant growth and influence starting in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s and beyond. This growth can be attributed to a combination of political, technological, and cultural factors as follows:

  1. Political factors: The conservative movement gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. This political shift created a market for conservative ideas and commentary, as people sought out media sources that aligned with their values and perspectives.
  2. Technological factors: The 1980s saw a deregulation of the broadcasting industry under Ronald REagan, most notably the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Fairness Doctrine had required broadcasters to present contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues, which some believed stifled conservative voices. With its repeal, talk radio stations were free to air conservative programming without the obligation to present alternative viewpoints. This opened the door for conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who became immensely popular in the late 1980s and 1990s.
  3. Cable television: The growth of cable television in the 1980s and 1990s provided new platforms for conservative media. In 1996, Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corporation launched Fox News Channel, which aimed to provide a conservative alternative to mainstream news outlets. The network quickly gained a following and became influential in shaping conservative discourse in the United States.
  4. The internet: As the internet became more widely accessible in the 1990s, conservative media outlets were able to reach an even larger audience. Websites like the Drudge Report, Free Republic, and WorldNetDaily emerged as key sources of conservative news and commentary. Additionally, the rise of social media platforms in the 2000s allowed conservative voices to further expand their reach and influence.
  5. Cultural factors: The rise of conservative media was also fueled by a growing sense among conservatives that the mainstream media was biased against them. This perception led many to seek out alternative sources of news and commentary that affirmed their beliefs and values — and a growing sense of grievance, anger, and cult of victimhood on the right.

Role of media in general

  • social media algorithms and the absolute value of attention
  • perverse incentives inherent in media business models
  • repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the death knell of belief in media as a public service
  • yellow journalism

See also: the role of big tech, below

Post-Soviet Capital Flight and the Rise of Russian Organized Crime (1990s to present)

The long geopolitical history arc since the fall of Communism has led us, inexplicably, to a war of aggression in which acting dictator Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine is pitting the militarily embarassed former world power against its comparatively miniscule neighbor — and it’s not going too well for Russia. The nation’s heft is fading along with the command — and health — of its leader.

Rise of Russian Hybrid Warfare

  • Russo-Ukrainian Conflict
  • Gerasimov Doctrine
  • Vladislav Surkhov’s surrealistic war theater
  • Cheka –> KGB –> FSB / GRU
  • Psychological warfare
  • Cyber warfare
    • energy grid
    • US Treasury
    • election infrastructure
    • nuclear weaponry
  • Information warfare
  • Financial warfare
    • Magnitsky Act
      • Bill Browder
      • Natalia Veselnitskaya
      • Trump Tower meeting June 9, 2016
    • Campaign funding
      • Marie Le Pen (France)
      • Viktor Orban (Hungary)
      • Brexit (UK)
      • Trump / GOP (US)
      • Law and Justice (Poland)
    • Corruption — organized crime, money laundering, bribery, human trafficking, drugs, arms, fraud, racketeering, etc.
  • Proxy warfare
    • Private security forces and arms’ length deniability
    • Ukraine
    • Belarus
    • Syria
  • Alexander Dugin
    • Putin’s Rasputin
    • Eurasianism
    • Eurasianist vs. Atlanticist
    • Illiberalism; fascism; nationalism

Role of Facebook, Google, and Big Tech

Silicon Valley played its part in enabling — and profiteering from — hyper partisanship not just in the U.S., but around the world. Facebook in particular has a reputation for being callously cheap about moderating content from hate speech to live mass shooting video, including arguably playing a significant role in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.

  • Facebook as a rogue nation state with almost 3 billion non-voting citizen-serfs
    • Reluctant moderators require regulating
    • Questionable ethics
      • Moral hazard in political leanings
      • Paid propaganda machine for dictators and authoritarian regimes around the world
      • Allow disinformation to “skirt around” the rules too often, or fail to police bad actors at all
      • Fail to live up to their own moderating standards repeatedly
      • Refuse responsibility for arguably essential roles in geopolitical disasters including the Rohingya massacre in Myanmar and
      • A business model that fundamentally benefits from human conflict
      • Cambridge Analytica
      • Traumatic conditions of the Facebook moderation team, in the US and abroad
  • Google‘s capture of the web
  • Twitter’s Russian bots
  • Bozo Bezos & the Billionaire Space Race
  • Surveillance capitalism
  • Data as the new oil
  • Crypto & DeFi

Economic insecurity and staggering inequality

Republican Myths and Big Lies

GOP Big Lies, as further enabled by the rise of the PR-state:

America First and the anti-New Deal isolationists of the 1930s

Historian Heather Cox Richardson argues that modern conservativism was forged during the era of opposition to FDR’s New Deal policies, primarily driven by the businessmen who ran the economy into the ground during the 1920s who wanted to “go back to the way things were” when they were on top.

Americana and Hyper Partisanship through the ages

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