What It Really Means to Call Hillary Clinton ‘Polarizing’

May 9, 2015 by


Credit Illustration by Javier Jaén

Late in George W. Bush’s first term, for sale the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer coined the term “Bush Derangement Syndrome, sickness ” which he defined as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, cialis the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.” In other words, there were a whole bunch of people, presumably on the left, who not only didn’t like George W. Bush, but also disliked him to an irrational and perhaps unhinged degree. By coining a “syndrome” to describe the state, Krauthammer, a formerly practicing psychiatrist with an M.D. from Harvard, was injecting a clever bit of gas-lighting into the debate. (Are you sure there’s not something else going on with you, Bush haters? Have you considered getting help?)

I remember thinking at the time that one could apply the same “derangement syndrome” diagnosis to opponents of Bill Clinton during his presidency. And you certainly could apply it to opponents of the Muslim socialist from Kenya who golfs in his mom jeans while Americans are being beheaded. All successful politicians today stir up strong feelings. We live in a time of easy applause lines, obvious devils and reflexive loyalties.

In other words, our politics are “polarized,” which, in the most basic dictionary sense, means we have “become concentrated around opposing extremes.” More and more of us do appear to be locked deep into our political mind-set: A recent Gallup poll found that in Obama’s sixth year in office, 79 percent of Democrats approved of his performance, compared with 9 percent of Republicans, while Bush’s numbers in his sixth year were the exact opposite (79 percent of Republicans approved, only 9 percent of Democrats). Looking at those figures, the pollsters at Gallup concluded that Obama and Bush — who each ran on the promise of uniting the country — could go down as the two “most polarizing” presidents to date.

But who is polarizing whom? To say that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a polarizing figure — as people do all the time — is to suggest that politics was like a big campfire singalong until this pantsuited fomenter showed up and turned us all against one another. Not true. No one person is to blame, or thousand people, or president, or talking head. The country has been divided for a long time and for a variety of reasons: the flood of money into the political system; the perverse proliferation and specialization of negative ads; partisan news channels; and the proverbial “coarsening of our culture.” Clinton is a product of that environment. She has adapted to it and at times thrived in it, but she hardly caused it.

Polarization is an idea from physics. In 1808, the French engineer Étienne-Louis Malus noticed that a calcite crystal could block or transmit various kinds of light, depending on the angle by which you viewed it. In the 1930s, the inventor Edwin Land found a way to manufacture a synthetic filter that could do the same, only more precisely and on the cheap, and The Times marveled at his “light-polarizing ‘glass’ that transforms motion pictures into a fairyland of substance and reality.” The merits of metaphorical polarization were then still undecided. During World War II, The Times cited “China’s continued fight against Japan as the polarizing influence on American policy in the Pacific.” And in 1955, the Senate minority leader, William F. Knowland, was said to come “as near as anyone to polarizing the conservative, mildly isolationist sentiment that once centered about Senator Taft,” suggesting that Knowland’s polarizing tendencies might in fact have been a good thing. It took only a slight shift in emphasis to transform an insult into an accolade. (Oxford English Dictionary: “To give unity of direction to; to focus. Now rare.”) By 1970, though, it was clear that George McGovern meant no plaudits for Richard Nixon when he accused him of engaging in “a deliberate effort to polarize the nation’s politics.”

In recent years, reporters have attached the adjective “polarizing” to pretty much anything that occasions a loud difference of opinion: climate change, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, the Senate’s Iran letter, Kanye, the third season of “House of Cards,” Bill Belichick, public breast-feeding. There is no escaping that we are polarized, no use getting deranged over it or even casting blame.

And yet the Lords of our Great Narrative are always calling out politicians for their supposedly “polarizing” ways. Last February, when I was interviewing attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the subject of Hillary Clinton came up a lot, and when it did, the term “polarizing figure” was never more than a few sentences away. Maybe this is a simple conjugation issue. Hillary Clinton is not “polarizing” so much as she is “polarized.” She has been at the center of a long brawl that has left people weary on all sides. But if Clinton was not so willing to fight (and so well equipped for battle), she could be called worse. She could be called Michael Dukakis.

Clinton has worn the polarizing badge more than any other politician since the word came into its unfortunate vogue, and she will undoubtedly continue to wear it if she runs for president in 2016. The word is so indelibly affixed to her that reporters sometimes ask her to check in on her current state of polarity, which is somewhat like asking people how popular they are, or how disliked they are, or how their hair looks without a mirror. In February, at a women’s technology conference in Silicon Valley, Re/code’s co-editor Kara Swisher asked Clinton, “Do you think you’ve become less polarizing?” Clinton answered quickly. “Yeah, I obviously think I have.”

Initially, reporters said Clinton was “polarizing” because she was a transitional figure in the culture wars as they existed a quarter-century ago. She was a working woman and full political partner with (gasp) feminist tendencies. Among would-be first ladies in the early 1990s, these were exotic qualities. Today Hillary Clinton is a cautious and exceedingly diplomatic politician, perhaps to her detriment. (She is often criticized for being “calculating” and “robotic.”) If anything, her willingness to be deliberate, speak carefully and appeal to the political center was a big part of what sank her with liberal Democrats who opted for Barack Obama in 2008. If Clinton really were polarizing, wouldn’t the left be more excited about her? Wouldn’t people be roused from their “Clinton fatigue”?

When people say Clinton is polarizing, they are largely indicting her by association. She has been a fixture of our political climate for so long that the climate defines her. But the political climate has not been made, or polarized, by mysterious outside forces. It is us. You could argue that the act of showing up at CPAC and cheering a red-meat speech from the likes of Ted Cruz is an act of self-polarization, or at least an indication that common cause with Clinton probably was not much of a possibility to begin with.

A corollary term, often used interchangeably with polarizing, is “divisive.” We often hear that Clinton is “divisive,” that she deprives us of the unity we supposedly crave (the thing George H.?W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all ran on before they became so polarizing). And yet the climate is the climate. It is like rain in Seattle or London. If Clinton (or Bush or Cruz) lived in either place, it would still be raining, and no one would blame them. Or maybe, in this age of polarization, someone would.

People often use “polarizing” as a place holder for words like “inflammatory” or “strongly disliked.” Reporters love the word because it allows them to sound noncommittal and nonjudgmental. It offers them neutrality, limp and passive though it may be. In saying that someone is polarizing, they are saying, “There is division, but we won’t tell you whether or not it matters.”

Mitt Romney was not a polarizing figure because he was caught on video writing off 47 percent of the electorate. He was a polarizing figure because he was running for president of a country in which about 40 percent of the electorate, probably more, had written him off from the get-go, same as with the other guy. That will surely be true of anyone, Democrat or Republican, dynastic or insurgent, who wins the nomination of a major party today.

Put aside the clumsy and offensive way that Romney characterized the 47 percent he said would never vote for him (people who he said were “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them”). The crux of his point was that nearly half of all voters would be against him automatically, that a tiny portion was actually persuadable and that he intended to concern himself with these people. In that narrow numeric sense, Romney was describing the polarized norm of today’s electorate. He was describing reality, in other words, and that’s when a politician can really get into trouble.

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