Guest writer Thomas Simpson offers a review of journalist Ezra Klein’s new book, Why We’re Polarized. Thomas holds a master's degree in History from Georgetown University and is a core member of Facing History's Marketing and Communications team.
The 2020 election has been conspicuously different from past presidential campaigns. Digital party conventions, canceled swing state rallies, and the ongoing fight over mail-in ballots are just some of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up the usual quadrennial rituals of American politicking. Yet, Biden voters and Trump voters alike would agree with the sentiment that one trend in American politics has only grown stronger this year: the polarization of the two parties. More to the point, there’s an assumption that such polarization is unambiguously bad - something that poses a grave threat to the fabric of American society. Admittedly, as an avid consumer of political news myself, these are things that I’ve also thought about increasingly over the past decade.
However, Vox Media co-founder Ezra Klein’s new book Why We’re Polarized seeks to add some nuance to our understanding of this strange place in history where seemingly everything in the United States has become a polarizing issue (including, say, the practice of wearing masks during a pandemic). While Klein is quick to point out some of the unfortunate excesses of polarization, he’s not interested in blaming one particular politician or another for escalating the rancor of our national discourse. Rather, Klein wants to demystify this phenomenon by drawing our attention to studies from the fields of political science and psychology.
Above all, Klein wants us to think in terms of systems and feedback loops rather than focusing solely on headline-grabbing personalities like Donald Trump or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Polarization is a process, not an endpoint. More than that, it’s a cycle that everyone engaged in the political process is affected by, including the average voter. Partisan elites are more polarized than the general voting public to begin with, but as that public tunes more and more into political news, they themselves take up the polarized positions of the elites. This, in turn, incentivizes politicians to double down on these positions, because they see that they are popular with their constituents.
The reason we’re all susceptible to this feedback loop, in Klein’s estimation, is because “identity politics” have triumphed over more transactional, material issues. In this book, Klein attempts to complicate our understanding of “identity politics” amid its often narrow use as a pejorative against positions expressed by individuals in marginalized communities. In the contemporary United States, almost all political questions are questions of identity, he asserts. If this seems new to the American experience, that’s because it’s a departure from the political alignment of the mid-20th Century, when both the Democratic and Republican parties were “big tents” with conservative and liberal factions. In this previous era, being a “Democrat” or a “Republican” didn’t signify much in terms of a person’s identity. That all changed in the decades since the 1970s, as Democrats became the party of liberals, Republicans that of conservatives. And Klein rightly highlights the centrality of issues of race as he narrates this realignment process.
Modern research into the science of personality also reveals that there are certain psychological traits that predispose individuals toward being more liberal or conservative (i.e. those who score higher in the dimension of “openness” are more liberal, those who score higher in the dimension of “conscientiousness” are more conservative). In the days when conservatives and liberals alike could proudly call themselves “Democrats,” this meant the psychology of who we are as individuals—our personal identities—didn’t factor as much into political discourse. Now that political coalitions are increasingly sorting psychologically, membership in a party takes on new meaning about who we are and what we value.
When we go to the ballot box, we’re expressing who we are—thus the terms of all political debate suddenly become highly existential. Political identities have even transcended mere partisan concerns to include other cultural signifiers, from what food we eat or stores we shop at to what TV shows and movies we consume. Our political identities have transmogrified into “mega-identities,” heightening still the stakes of political debate. From Klein’s perspective, the vitriol of political discourse cannot be understood from the degree of difference in each respective side’s ideal tax policy or healthcare plan. We’ve grown increasingly intolerant of the other side because their existence is a threat to our identity and our relationship to the communities we cherish. Klein pithily sums it all up as such:
“When you vote for a candidate you’re not just voting for him or her. You are voting for, well, everything...You’re voting for your side to beat the other side. You’re voting to express your identity….You’re voting so those smug jerks you fight with in comment sections don’t win, so that aunt or uncle you argue with at Thanksgiving can’t lord it over you. You’re voting to say your group is right and worthy and the other group is wrong and unworthy. That’s bigger than any one candidate for president.”
While that’s not a ringing endorsement of the place we’ve landed politically, Klein’s book is instructive in reminding us that just because the past seemed more “calm,” that didn’t actually mean the country was living up to its highest ideals. Klein reminds us of the bitter irony of the much lauded “golden years” of bipartisanship in the 20th century - that the country was politically placid because such bipartisanship accommodated injustices faced by Black people, women and other marginalized groups. Our country is, undoubtedly, a very different place politically than it was in the 1950s and 60s. However, just because our politicians have much deeper disagreements than they did in the past does not mean the system is objectively worse. Klein wants us to be sober-minded about the pitfalls of polarization, but reflect on how far we’ve come since that so-called “golden age” that was “far less democratic, far less liberal, far less decent, than today.”
IMAGE: Ezra Klein, author of Why We're Polarized (credit: Simon & Schuster)