Non-fiction shelves in our larger bookstores, and the many ways in which algorithms now point us to online choices, mirror and expand the increasing partisanship that’s racking our nation. Part of this is the result of what’s being published and pushed into the public eye. Think in terms of the many ways in which news figures sell tell-alls in media echo chambers, dominating genres once ruled by academic post-mortems on elections and major happenings. Or those even earlier days when “highbrow” novelists, artists, composers, and academics—all “real” writers—were as well-known as movie stars, sports figures, pop musicians, and criminals.
Of course, not all big names are created equal. A friend’s been peddling a memoir by New York’s first African-American governor, David Paterson, who also happened to be blind. No takers. Instead, everyone wants another Bill O’Reilly book, even though he’s been off most televisions for a while now. Or memoirs by former Trump staffers. Or rising progressives.
Which all begs the question: if we’re to split up our non-fiction shelves on a partisan basis, how would you do so? What is right or left, now, conservative or liberal, progressive or reactionary, or radical, moderate or fringe? And how will these terms shift before we realize they’ve budged, as happened when a once-progressive Teddy Roosevelt ended up a key Republican antecedent, and Jefferson a staunch ruralist championed for his elite anti-elitism?
Consider, would you, the array of elements on Wikipedia’s current political spectrum, from the Far Left and Center Left, to a Radical Center (more elsewhere than in our country), a Moderate Center, a Center Right and a Far Right; extremists, radicals, progressives, reformists, liberals, moderates, conservatives, traditionalists, reactionaries; the big tents of Republicans and Democrats, and smaller worlds of Trumpists and Social Democrats (not to mention the panoplies which exist in parliamentary systems); plus newer “syncretics”, “third position sorts,” non-partisans, and those ineffable and hard-to-describe “independents”.
Much of the confusion is quite modern, it turns out. A 1952 study, Angus Campbell’s The American Voter, redefined partisanship in our elections around the same time that we elected our first truly non-partisan president, Dwight Eisenhower, while his Republican vice president, Richard Nixon, filled his time with increased partisanship. Campbell’s book found that most voters cast their ballots primarily on the basis of partisan identification (which is often simply inherited from their parents), and that independent voters are actually the least involved in and attentive to politics.
This being postmodern times now, The American Voter has since seen various revisions and counter-arguments, including the 1996 book and study, The New American Voter, which argued that new voters were not aligning with a party, while older voters tended to abandon previous allegiances as they aged.
Which makes where we are now, with new alignments occurring less on positive identifications than a slurry of negatives—as was demonstrated in many of our most recent elections—sort of a post-postmodernism. And a need, again, for refocusing the public’s attention back to less celebrity-oriented works about our partisanship.
In other words (and as we’ve said before), the only way to reinforce ageless truths is by thinking them through from observations. And not letting the headline-grabbers grab us. Happy New Year!