Polarization Leads to Ideology

The word “polarization” has been repeated in political discussions so much lately that it’s easy to get sick of hearing it. But we should be careful not to become numb to the problem. Americans (and much of the rest of the world) have become so radically polarized that it is hard to remember a time when we weren’t as divided as we are now. Everywhere we look––at football, movies, advertisements, comics, religion, Halloween costumes, and the list goes on––we see the evidence of our division. And we all lament the fighting, name-calling, and general incivility that results from our polarization. We all complain about the inability of a divided Congress to get anything done. But few of us notice perhaps the most dangerous consequence of our increasing polarization: the way in which it encourages ideological thinking.

As an English professor, I’m fascinated by the way in which we use words, and I’ve commented here before about the way in which we sometimes misuse words. We have a lot of words in English that can be easily misused and misunderstood, and “ideology” is one of them. So let me be clear about what I mean by “ideology.” When I say that polarization encourages “ideological thinking,” I don’t mean that it encourages people to be committed to a set of principles. What I mean by “ideology” is an unquestioning commitment to a theoretical view of the world. An ideologue has so deep a commitment to his theory that he conforms to it and promotes it even when the reality of the world contradicts that theory and even when it requires him to coerce others to that theory. For example, even though Leninism might work well on paper, it fails when it’s applied to real societies made up of flesh-and-blood people, and one can only maintain a Leninist system through coercion and totalitarianism.

At any rate, polarization tends to push people toward ideology. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the reactions of Americans to Donald Trump. Both the pro-Trump and anti-Trump movements are guilty of ignoring reality, distorting facts, exaggerating the truth in order to advance their beliefs about Trump––who is either a savior or a devil, depending upon your ideology. In Trump’s America, it is very difficult to find a middle ground between these two views. If you think that Trump is neither Hitler reincarnated nor the Second Coming of Christ, then you’re going to be attacked by ideologues on both sides.

(None of that is meant either to defend or to attack Trump, by the way. I have pretty strong opinions about the man, but I prefer to keep those off of this blog as much as possible.)

We see this tendency of polarization to encourage ideology in other areas of American life, as well. On social issues like immigration, sexual ethics, tolerance, racism, the economy, and others, it increasingly feels like we have to embrace either an extreme right or an extreme left view––and both can be equally guilty of dogmatic ideological thinking.

Ideology And Believing That We Can Change The World

I’m a little behind on my comics reading, so I just got around to Detective Comics 963 and 964 last night (side note: I can’t believe that we’re this close to 1000 on both Detective and Action Comics!). Detective 962 and the end of the “Intelligence” story arc left a bad taste in my mouth (I’ll write about that issue soon), so I’d had trouble making myself come back to Detective (especially when there are so many good books to read; the “War of Jokes and Riddles” story arc in Batman, for example––wow!). But last night I picked up Detective 963-964, and I am impressed with the way in which the story explores the problem of ideology. Here at the centennial of the Russian Revolution––which imposed an ideology on people that promised a perfect world but gave them a brutal dictatorship––and at a time when Americans are increasingly polarized, we could all stand to think a little more carefully about what it means to embrace an ideology.

Issue 963 begins a story arc called “Utopia,” which juxtaposes two main plot threads:

Stephanie Brown (the hero known as Spoiler) is looking for an alternative to Batman, whose team she defected from at the end of the “Victim Syndicate” story arc, and she meets with the well-meaning but villainous Anarky, hoping that he can offer a viable alternative to Batman’s method of protecting Gotham.

Meanwhile, Basil Karlo (formerly the supervillain Clayface) works with a scientist named Dr. Victoria October. She has promised to find a cure for Basil’s condition, which allows him to shape-shift and to transform into a monstrous clay-creature. Even though the former villain has been working with Batman and trying to redeem himself, he is constantly in danger of losing his mind and returning to his villainous ways. The longer he stays in his Clayface form, the more unstable his mind becomes. So he and October hope to find a permanent cure.

The issue opens with a flashback to Tim Drake and Stephanie Brown sitting on a rooftop and discussing Tim’s plan to quit his work as a vigilante and go to college. Like all idealistic superheroes, Tim wants to make the world a better place, but he thinks that he’s more likely to make a lasting and effective impact on the world with increased knowledge:


Stephanie reminds Tim that “it’s about helping one person at a time,” but Tim is impatient with that approach. It takes “forever,” he tells her. Because Stephanie says that she “always liked that,” it might be easy to miss the importance of her reply. We might take it to simply be a statement of her personal preferences, but here Stephanie makes a profound point that many people forget: None of us can save the world. The best we can do is to help the people around us. And to forget that point is to take the first step toward ideology and totalitarianism.

When Stephanie meets with Anarky to consider joining his cause, he shows her the secret community that he has built beneath Monster City. It really does seem like a perfect society––a communitarian society with an elected council that makes decisions and delegates tasks, people working for the good of the all, and professors from the city college who volunteer to teach the community’s children.

And if this utopia were to continue as it is––small and populated by people who freely choose to be a part of it––it might be an ideal society. The problem is that ideologues like Anarky are never content with small successes. They have good ideas, and if they could just make the rest of the world see how wonderful their ideology is, then they could build a perfect world. The problem with ideology, in other words, is that it requires power and enforcement. People of diverse opinions and values have to be made to buy into ideology, and sooner or later ideologues have to resort to violence and coercion in order to accomplish their goals. The followers of Lenin might have believed that they were working for a better world, but that didn’t stop them from violence and coercion. Robespierre might have preached liberté, égalité, and fráternité, but he also brought about la Terreur.

IMG_0804That Anarky is an ideologue is clear from the way in which he talks about his project in the tunnels under Monster City. He describes his goals in both vague and lofty terms, telling Stephanie that she can be part of something bigger than herself, that they’re starting a fire that will spread. It’s not that using such rhetoric automatically makes one a villain, of course. But combine that rhetoric with Anarky’s history of violence, his vague references to future plans for Gotham, and his inability to respond to disagreement with anything except condescension and we have all the makings of totalitarianism.

It’s no wonder, then, that Anarky so strongly opposes Batman’s methods. Where Anarky believes that he can build a perfect and peaceful society, Batman knows that he can’t save the world, that ultimately he will fail. But where Anarky’s ideology will  require him to coerce not only bad people but also good people who disagree with him, Batman knows that he cannot impose a city-wide solution to Gotham’s problems. He can only fight the individual battles, save individual people, protect innocents from individual villains. People like to say that it’s his “one rule” not to kill that keeps Batman from becoming a villain, but that’s not really true. What keeps Batman from becoming a villain is his refusal to embrace ideologies like Anarky’s.

Sometimes You Can’t Save Individuals, Either

As I said before, the “Utopia” story arc juxtaposes Stephanie’s story with Dr. October’s efforts to cure Basil of his Clayface condition. At the end of 964, things don’t look promising. October’s experiments require Basil to remain in his Clayface form until he begins to lose control. Basil warns her that this is a bad idea, and eventually he does lose control, nearly killing October.

Placing the story of Clayface alongside Stephanie’s makes for really effective and satisfying storytelling on multiple levels, but perhaps most especially because October’s failed effort to “save” Basil serve as a warning for people who, like Stephanie and Tim Drake, are tempted to ideological solutions for society’s problems. Even intelligent scientists like October can make mistakes and fail spectacularly. And if the best of us can come up short in our efforts to help individual people, how much greater will the effects of our mistakes be when we’re trying to save entire societies with our ideology? If October’s experiments on Basil nearly result in her death, how much more dangerous is it to experiment with societies?