Why We’re Polarized

Ezra Klein says polarization is the “master story” that explains why US politics is so toxic and dysfunctional these days. His book Why We’re Polarized aims to help us make sense of it all.

I don’t know how I missed this book when it first came out in January 2020, but I’m glad I read the paperback version instead. Published in March 2021, it includes an afterword covering the 2020 election, the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol, and the first few months of the Biden Administration.

Ezra Klein is a columnist at the New York Times and host of The Ezra Klein Show podcast. He was previously a cofounder and editor-in-chief at Vox.

Cover of Why We're Polarized

Why We’re Polarized
By Ezra Klein
Avid Reader Press, New York, 2020

What Is Polarization?

I think it’s always good to start off with definitions so everyone knows what we’re talking about even if we don’t agree. Klein says political polarization happens when our opinions about an issue cluster around two separate poles with very few people in the middle. He uses marijuana legalization as an example. Most people are either for it or against it and there isn’t much middle ground.

When polar opinions become aligned with political parties, that’s called sorting. If the people who favor marijuana legalization are almost all Democrats, say, and the people who oppose it are mostly Republicans, then we’re sorted on this issue. Think of sorting as an extra layer of polarization.

Here’s the problem: American society has become polarized (and sorted) not just on political issues but on our identities.  

We all have multiple identities. I’m white, I’m male, I’m an atheist, I’m an American. I grew up in Canada, so I still identify as Canadian. And that means I also identify as an immigrant, albeit a very privileged one. I’m a reader, a blogger and an inline skater. You’ve got a bunch of identities too.

What has happened in America over the past fifty years, Klein says, is that we’ve become polarized and sorted by our most important identities: race, religion, gender, geography, class, and education.

As Klein puts it, our various identities have all been “stacked” on top of our political identity. As a result almost every issue gets re-cast in terms of identity, including, of all things, life-saving vaccines.

How we became so polarized

Klein traces the origins of polarization, like many issues in America, to race. After the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, it was the Democratic Party that controlled the South. It was southern Democrats, or Dixiecrats as they were known, who were the white supremacist party, who ran one-party authoritarian State governments, and who passed laws that disenfranchised Black voters. This changed after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. White voters, especially white men in the South, switched to the GOP and our great sorting began.

Klein also examines contemporary drivers of polarization, like our increasingly fragmented media, both traditional and social. But to my mind the most important factor today is demographics.

By the early 2040’s whites will no longer be a majority in America, and America will be a majority-minority country. (For a deeper look at US demographics, I recommend William H. Frey’s book Diversity Explosion.) This change is well underway. Klein cites statistics that already white Christians are no longer a majority in America.

This demographic fact poses an existential threat to the Republican Party which relies on white, evangelical Christians for the bulk of its support. More on this in a moment.

Today, polarization is a vicious circle. Because we’re so polarized, Klein notes, the number of truly independent voters in the US has shrunk to about 7%. This means that election campaigns are no longer about persuasion, they’re about motivating the base to turn out and vote, usually by appealing to identity-based fears and anger. Trump understood this better than anyone else in 2016.

Of course, this style of politics just drives more polarization, and reduces the incentives for bipartisan cooperation. We’re seeing this right now where Republican lawmakers who voted in favor of President Biden’s infrastructure package are being criticized and even threatened by members of their own party.

The differences between Republicans and Democrats

Klein doesn’t hide his liberal and Democratic leanings, but for most of the book he tries to walk a balanced line. However, in the last two chapters and in the afterword, he lays out a devastating critique of the Republican Party.

The crux of his argument is that the Republican Party has deliberately chosen to appeal to a narrow, ethnonationalist – that is, white supremacist – segment of the electorate, one that lives mainly in rural areas and heartland states.  With a homogeneous base, Republican are free to adopt more ideological and more extreme policy positions. Indeed, they’re expected to do so.

As a result,

“Trump wasn’t a break from this Republican Party. He was the most authentic expression of its modern psychology.” [p. 228]

So why haven’t Republicans been relegated to the electoral wilderness?  Klein argues this is largely a function of the over-representation of smaller states in the Senate and the Electoral College.

Today, in November 2021, the Senate is split 50/50, but since most Republican senators come from smaller states, they represent 41 million fewer Americans than Democratic senators.  Klein says of the GOP,

“Instead of winning power by winning the votes of most voters, they win power by winning the votes of most places. That’s let them appeal to an electorate considerably to the right of the median voter, to get away with decisions and candidates that would’ve torched another party. But it’s also forced them into dependence on an electorate that feels its power slipping away, and that demands a response proportionate to its fears.” [p. 247]

And it’s going to get worse. If demographic trends continue, by mid-century, 70% of the US population will live in just 15 states. Thus, 70% or the population will be represented by just 30 senators, while the other 30% of the population will be represented by 70 senators. How will this affect the legitimacy of the US Senate? Not to mention the Electoral College.

By contrast, the Democratic Party relies on a much broader, more diverse coalition of voters. It must consider a wider range of views and try to build consensus across a broader spectrum of the electorate. And to overcome the GOP’s geographic advantages, the Democrats must also attract support from the few remaining independent voters. So the Democratic Party is inherently less cohesive. It’s messier. Again, we’re seeing this right now in the Democrats’ internal debates over President Biden’s Build Back Better program.

But Klein argues the necessity for internal compromise and consensus-building gives the Democratic Party a built-in immunity to extremism. Even if some Democrats would like the party to swing sharply left, the party cannot do that and win elections.

The Republicans face no such internal debates and therefore have fewer, if any, ideological constraints.

Democracy itself has become polarized

It’s got to the point where democracy itself has become a polarized issue. Surveys show that two thirds of Republicans believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. A majority of House Republicans voted not to certify the results of the election. Republican-led state governments have rushed to enact dozens of laws making it more difficult for people to vote, especially people of color, and easier for State officials to overturn election results.  

The Republican Party, Klein says, has turned decisively against democracy.

“Not everything in American politics can be blamed on polarization. There is, in any age, a place for leadership, and danger beckons when leaders fail. Republican leaders have failed, and the Republican Party now believes the problem is not that it is losing votes but that it is a victim of an ongoing political conspiracy.” [p. 277]

Klein concludes the book with some proposals for reducing polarization though he wisely doesn’t claim they’re solutions. He favors abolishing the Electoral College, ending the filibuster, Supreme Court reform, statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. and reforms to our electoral system.  

I agree with most of these ideas. I just don’t see how we implement any of them in the current political climate, and I don’t see the climate getting better anytime soon.

Unsolicited Feedback

Why We’re Polarized is an excellent book that centers on identity-based polarization as the organizing principle for understanding US politics today,

I think Klein’s analysis of polarization and his criticism of the Republican Party are spot on, but he doesn’t really explain why Democrats haven’t won larger majorities in the House of Representatives where geographic imbalances are less important. Nor does he explain why Republicans control a majority of State governments. Clearly, Democrats have some work to do too.

I love Ezra Klein’s writing style. He’s relaxed and conversational, with just a hint of self-deprecation. He sounds on the page exactly like he does on his podcast. Here’s an example from the last chapter of the book where he suggests we should be more mindful of our various identities and how they’re being triggered:

“Yeah, I know. Of course, the politics book by the liberal Californian vegan ends with a call to mindfulness. But slowly take ten breaths, making sure your mind doesn’t wander, and hear me out.” [p. 262]

At times it seems like Klein’s arguments are a little circular; we’re becoming so polarized because we’ve become so polarized. But I think he successfully makes the case that identity-based polarization isn’t a circle, it’s a spiral.

I think it’s going to get worse. Demographics threatens Republicans, erosion of democracy threatens Democrats. January 6 could be an ugly preview of where we’re heading.

America was lucky Trump was so lazy and incompetent. Other writers like Masha Gessen and Zeynep Tufekci have pointed out that next time we may not be so fortunate.

As Klein says, “clever, disciplined demagogues” are watching.

Thanks for reading.

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2 Responses to Why We’re Polarized

  1. Lory says:

    This does sound good. I think Trump was put forward as a test by the real powers who didn’t want to put themselves on the line … yet. As you say, next time we will probably not be so fortunate.

    I would like to see some critiques of the Democratic Party and of recent administrations that are not by rabid right-wingers – nor by frustrated left-wingers either, for that matter. Who is able to be really objective about this? I feel as though on each side there is relative silence about the failings of one’s own favored party, beyond some token attempts at fairness. This can’t get us out of polarization either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Harry Katz says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Lory.

      I’m not sure about Trump being “put forward” by anyone – more than enough ego there to put himself forward – but certainly others were & are watching.

      My main critique of the Democrats is that they’ve been reactive for decades. On so many issues Republicans are playing a long game (e.g. control of the Supreme Court) and Democrats are not.

      But I admit I’m probably polarized myself. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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