Review and Reflection on “Why We’re Polarized” by Ezra Klein

Let’s state the obvious – the title of this book was all I needed to draw me in. Add in the that you have an incredible columnist and political mind, and that’s just bonus. I’m especially interested in the topic given my own personal and complicated history with politics.

To say that the nation is polarized comes as a shock to probably no one. But the better question is why? And that’s what Klein dives into. The book is well worth the investment of time for such an important question. And Klein does not disappoint in his analysis and thoughts on the subject. Some of those thoughts might come as a surprise. But there’s reasons for what he says. The key is that polarization, in and of itself, is not wholly a bad thing. And likewise, a non-polarized environment isn’t wholly a good thing on its own. It depends on what happens with those things. 

Klein’s introduction captured attention right away by looking at what didn’t happen in the 2016 election – the thing that most people expected would happen: a Hillary Clinton win. “What’s surprising about the 2016 election results isn’t what happened. It’s what didn’t happen. Trump didn’t lose by 30 points or win by 20 points. Most people who voted chose the same party in 2016 that they’d chosen in 2012. That isn’t to say there was nothing at all distinct or worthy of study. Crucially, white voters without college education swung sharply toward Trump, and their overrepresentation in electorally key states won him the election. But the campaign, by the numbers, was mostly a typical contest between a Republican and a Democrat.” (Pg. xiv). Which leads to deeper questions that Klein looks at.

“We are so locked into our political identities that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition, that can force us to change our minds. We will justify almost anything or anyone so long as it helps our side, and the result is a politics devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability.” (pg. xiv). My comment on this is that given what Klein is saying, then we sure are wasting a whole lot of time, money, and energy on campaigns. 

For Klein, this isn’t an individual issue. Rather it’s a systemic issue. And it requires us to think systemically about it. “We collapse systemic problems into personalized narratives, and when we do, we cloud our understanding of American politics and confuse our theories of repair. We try to fix the system by changing the people who run it, only to find that they become part of the system, too.” (Pg. xvi). No truer statement about political systems has ever been written as far as I am concerned. And it applies to other systems as well. We could just as easily be talking about the church, financial systems, health care systems, and more. 

When it comes to the church, we have congregations who think if we just change who is in charge (either the pastor or those in leadership positions regardless of whether they actually have power), that will result in a stopping of the decline of the church. They continue to think that what worked in the past will still work – programs, or special services, or the right preacher, or a youth program, or more pastoral visitation, etc. But changing the people doesn’t yield the results they claim to want. And there is no examination on the systems of the church that are the engine that makes it all run. 

Back to our political system, Klein says this about the whole situation – “That the worst actors are often draped in success doesn’t prove the system is broken; it proves that they understand the ways in which it truly works. That is knowledge that the rest of us need, if we are to change it.” (Pg. xviii)

And what is the system of polarization? Klein offers this: “…the logic of polarization. That logic, put simply, is this: to appeal to a more polarized public, political institutions and political actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public.” (Pg. xix). And round and round it goes into a black hole. Is there an escape for us? That’s what Klein asks and never really answers because he doesn’t have the answer – no one does. But he does offer ways to deal with it. 

Chapter 1 explores ideology and political parties. How did the Democrats end up as the party of liberals and the Republicans the party of conservatives? There’s a long history. Klein explains that if you looked at the political parties in the middle of the last century you would find calls from political scientists for the parties to better differentiate each other – in other words to become more partisan. According to one political scientist of the times, “Unless the parties identify themselves with programs, the public is unable to make an intelligent choice between them.” (Pg. 2). And if you further examine the parties, you would have seen that the public didn’t trust ideologues – people who we would consider as very partisan in their outlook. Goldwater is a prime example. He was extremely conservative, and he lost in a huge landslide to Johnson in the 1960s. People weren’t looking for purity of thought and correctness of belief. Which relates to identity. People’s political party membership did not shape their identity. Klein doesn’t talk about what did. But I would venture to say that this was also the time when church membership was at an all time high.  Religious belief had more to do with a person’s identity than their politics.  

In Chapter 2, Klein looks at some history – specially looking at what he labels “the Dixiecrat Dilemma.” It’s an examination of history of the South, the Democrat party, race, and more. There’s a lot in this chapter and a lot that could be talked about. Klein identifies a key point – “Demythologizing our past is necessary if we are to clearly understand our present.” (Pg. 23). Indeed. And given our current state of affairs, it also seems highly unlikely to happen any time soon. 

One of the interesting aspects that Klein looks at is the sorting that happens in polarization. He talks about Georgetown University political scientist Hans Noel’s ideas about polarization and that there are two types – “issue-based polarization and identity-based polarization.” (Pg. 32). Klein provides a plethora of data showing the sorting that has taken place in this nation based on many factors – religion, race, issues, geography, and more. Here’s a sample of a fascinating fact in this sorting: “…the dividing line is at about nine hundred people per square mile: above that, areas trend Democratic; below that, they turn Republican. Decades ago, when the parties were less sorted, the density of the place we lived did less to predict our partisanship. Today…the density of the place we live has become a powerful predictor of partisanship.” (Pg. 39). 

The chapter also looks at psychological roots in our politics. Klein explores the “Big Five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion-introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.” (Pg. 43) These five apparently help shape our ideological outlook. All of this leads to “psychological sorting, in other words, is a powerful driver of identity politics.” (Pg. 48). The question that I asked in the midst of all of this is – what about people who change their ideological outlook? Where do they fit in? 

Chapter three is about our brains on groups. The core of this chapter is about the role of group identity and anger. It’s about basic humanity. It’s about being part of a group. “Elections accentuate the team mentality of party identifiers, pushing them repeatedly to make ‘us-them’ comparisons between Democrats and Republicans that draw attention to what will be lost – status – if the election is not won…This results in both rivalry and anger.” (Pg. 61). In other words, while we might claim concern over policies, those are just excuses to solidify our partisan identity. “…identity is more powerful than issue positions in driving polarization.” (Pg. 74). 

Chapter four has to do with reasoning. “We understand reasoning to be an individual act. This is, in many cases, wrong…It is not possible to be rational all by yourself; rationality is inherently a collective project…Put more simply: reasoning is something we often do in groups, in order to serve group ends.” (Pg. 85). Think about that for a bit. And then let this line sink in – “One of the roles that political parties play is helping us navigate these decisions…They’re organized groups looking to increase their power. Or, as the psychologists would put it, their reasoning may be motivated by something other than accuracy.” (Pg. 88-9). And this point is a key to understanding political parties and what they are about and concerned with. I have often said that political parties exist to win elections and so they will quickly shift policy positions when necessary in order to win – even completely switching their “beliefs” about a topic if that’s what it takes. There are plenty of examples of this in our recent history. 

In an aptly titled subsection of the chapter – “How politics makes smart people stupid” (Pg. 90), Klein writes about a hypotheses from Yale which asked the following: “Perhaps there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument. Perhaps humans’ reason for purposes other than finding the truth – purposes like increasing their standing in their community or ensuring they don’t find themselves exiled by leaders of their tribe.” (Pg. 91). This seems to explain a great deal about debates. Too often it’s not about the pursuit of truth, but of being right, of retaining one’s identity, of securing one’s place in their community or tribe. All of this relates to what Yale Law professor Dan Kahan “calls this theory ‘identity-protective cognition’; As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” (Pg. 96). Wow. 

Chapter five is titled “Demographic Threat.” It’s about the changing demographic trends in America and what they will mean. Like the rest of the book, there is a ton of great information. I want to point to two specific statements that help us understand the point of the book. “A useful rule of thumb is that political power runs a decade behind demographics, with older, whiter, more Christian voters turning out at higher rates. ‘The ballot box acts like a time machine,’ Robert Jones told me, ‘taking us back 10 years in race and religion. We reached the tipping point of white Christians being a minority of the population during Obama, but our calculations are it’ll be 2024 before we see that at the ballot box.'”(pg. 111). This book was published in 2020. Next year is 2024, so we shall if this is accurate or not. 

The second point is similarly instructive – “But cultural power runs a decade or more ahead of demography, with brands and television networks chasing younger, more urban, more diverse communities. That’s why it’s become a veritable Super Bowl tradition to wade through controversy over some venerable brand’s surprisingly woke ads.” (Pg. 112). The chapter goes one to talk about white identity, economic anxiety, and political correctness. 

Klein now turns from a focus on the underlying reasons for why we are polarized to what the impact of it all means. His first area of focus in the second half of the book is the media. He makes a statement which sets the frame for the chapter – “…almost no one is forced to follow politics.” (Pg. 140). Which means we are willingly choosing to for a variety of reasons. Klein’s point is that this isn’t about access to information but rather about interest in information. This sets another sorting into motion – the politically invested and the political unengaged. “If the strategy of the monopolistic business model was to be enough things to all people, the strategy of the digital business model is to be the most appealing thing to some people.” (Pg. 146). Just think how that relates to everything Klein has been talking about up to this point. “The more political media you consume, the more warped your perspective of the other side becomes.” (Pg. 149). Group identity takes over as the primary concern and focus. Or as Klein says, “polarized media doesn’t emphasize commonalities, it weaponizes differences; it doesn’t focus on the best of the other side, it threatens you with the worst.” (Pg. 149). 

Klein lays it all out for the reader in one paragraph about what this all means. “Politics is, first and foremost, driven by the people who pay the most attention and wield the most power – and those people opt into extraordinarily politicized media. They then create the political system they perceive. The rest of the country then has to choose from more polarized options, and that in turn polarizes them – remember, the larger the difference between the parties, the more compelling it becomes for even the uninterested to choose a side.” (Pg. 163). 

And Klein makes sure to point out that the media isn’t innocent in all of this. “In practice, newsworthiness is some combination of important, new, outrageous, conflict-oriented, secret, or interesting.” (Pg. 167). That’s because their business model and how they pay their bills is based on getting eyeballs to look at what they are producing so that advertisers will pay them money. 

Chapter seven moves to political parties themselves. The main point here is that political parties have become weak shells of what they once were, which in turn means that they have no power to weed out extreme and loud candidates who in the past would have never seen the light of day. “We’ve flipped from a system that selected candidates who were broadly appealing to party officials to a system that selects candidates who are adored by base voters.” (Pg. 179). And that’s not a positive. 

This leads to “Politics…is a war between pragmatists ‘concerned primarily with staying in power’ and ‘policy-demanding’ purists who care above all about getting their agenda passed. Defunding parties empowers the purists over the pragmatists.” (Pg. 185). In religious terms, this is the debate about orthopraxy versus orthodoxy. It’s a purity test put in action. And guess who loses – we all do. 

Chapter eight looks at “when Bipartisanship Becomes Irrational.” This chapter is about how politics has changed. It used to be that there was a solid one-party lock on control, which gave the minority party a lot of incentive to cooperate in order to get anything accomplished. It was an age of bipartisanship because there was no threat of the status quo being upended. But the has changed. And with it, we’ve made politics into all things national, and no longer local matters. This is a loss for us. Because that means the stakes are high on everything. Klein also talks about the realities of the bipartisan era – nothing drastic was changed. It wasn’t until the rockiness of the 1960’s that civil rights changes became law. It was impossible during the relatively calm political decade of the 1950’s. Polarization isn’t always a bad thing – sometimes it is needed in order to show that you are for something important and your opponents are standing in the way. 

Chapter nine looks at the differences between the two parties. This is about the continued sorting that has been taking place. “Sorting has made Democrats more diverse and Republicans more homogenous.” (Pg. 230). “Sorting has made the Democrats into a coalition of difference and driven Republicans further into sameness.” (Pg. 231). This ties into another key difference – a focus on policy versus identity. If you are a Democrat, you focus on the policies that bring you together. If you are Republican, it is the identity of being a conservative that brings you together. 

Chapter ten gets to the now what question. Klein’s broad answer is “We need to reform the political system so it can function amid polarization.” (Pg. 250). But how do you do that when you have a system and people in that system that don’t want to reform it? Klein suggests ideas that frankly I found go against everything else he was making an argument about. He was proposing policy fixes like getting rid of the debt ceiling. How do you do that when you would need bipartisan support to make that happen. He proposes getting rid of the filibuster. He proposes adding representation for DC and Puerto Rico. He proposes adding Supreme Court justices. To me, these seem like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They are small. They are policy and procedure changes that could easily be changed and manipulated. And I don’t see how they get to the heart of systemic change. 

The much better part of the chapter is the second half where Klein says that part of what needs to change is us. Amen! As he said before, we don’t have to pay attention to politics, but we do. The solution isn’t to ignore politics, but to be better engaged and shift the focus. He asks questions about how we identify ourselves and what those identities mean. This is an important question. He talks about the importance of local politics, rather than nationalizing everything. Bringing politics home means seeing others because you have to live with them. The challenge of nationalizing politics is that it makes every issue ambiguous, rather than having a real-life impact on you and your neighbors. The last thing that Klein says carries a lot of truth to it – “there are no solutions, there are only corrections.” (Pg. 267). Which really gets to the heart of why I didn’t like the first part of this chapter. And to give Klein credit – he’s right. This is a big, complex nation and governing system. It would be ridiculous to think we can fix the whole thing. But we can offer corrections. And I greatly appreciate that from what I can tell, it starts with each one of us. How we approach politics, ourselves and the identities we hold, and how we view others who differ from us, is within our grasp. We can’t control what others will do in response. But we can set a tone and an example. 

Overall, this is a great book that I highly recommend. 

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