Why We’re Polarized
by Ezra Klein
Simon and Schuster, 2020, 336 pp.
It was late on July 27, 2004, after the second night of the Democratic National Convention. Twenty or so bloggers, newly credentialed to cover the proceedings, had gathered at a bar outside Harvard Square. Everyone was gobsmacked by Barack Obama’s keynote. “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.” The bloggers, almost all young, mostly male, knew one another online but most had never met in person. A friend invited me to tag along as an interloper.
The crowd basked in the Obama glow and channeled its energy. We could fight as Democrats, harder and smarter than the party elders. Good arguments, like the ones the bloggers honed on the internet, would prevail, reason would triumph, and the republic could rest easy. The group seemed particularly taken with a college student named Ezra Klein. Though he was too young to order a drink, he had a preternatural ability to synthesize arguments. (For the record, Klein and I have only met two other times, at large group gatherings in 2010 and in 2014.)
As I staggered home, I felt unsettled, like I had seen the future. I was right—and wrong. The Obama presidency came and went; Klein made his journalistic name in its shadow. At the American Prospect, Washington Post, Vox, and on MSNBC, he rendered legible the minutiae of policymaking and made the case for careful incrementalism. Now, back in his native California after a long sojourn in Washington, Klein wants to explain how the dreams of that summer night in 2004 all went so sour.
In Why We’re Polarized, his first book, policy, Klein’s stock-in-trade, recedes, and group psychology takes center stage. That wonk volte-face gives the book its charge. He presents polarization not as the creation of particular individuals but of interlocking systems. In fact, it is a book about two sets of systems. Concatenated personal and partisan identities confront a Madisonian constitution ill-suited to prolonged combat between two evenly matched, deeply divided parties. The results leave politically active individuals—“us”—enraged, and institutions teetering toward crisis. Klein takes up the same metaphor that journalists disillusioned with the party system adopted in the Gilded Age: a machine. But where they crusaded for reform, he concludes with caution.
As a well-read amateur’s tour of what scholars have to say about group psychology and political behavior, Why We’re Polarized is a worthy entry. It captures the sense from inside the maw that our politics is all screaming. But Klein is after more than that. “The book I ended up writing is very different than the book I intended to write,” he told an interviewer. “It is me pulling the deep model and rebuilding the deep model I have of how American politics works and functions.”
Why We’re Polarized, however, ultimately fails to account for our deepest divides. It offers a narrative about identity—but not about power. The distinction is crucial. Klein has lamented the “Doom Loop of Oligarchy” in the past, but he loses that thread here. As he shifts focus to the dynamics of disagreement, he largely ignores the central conflict in contemporary politics: a particular form of racialized political economy, whose motor is the poisonous entente between racism and the one percent. Start there, and one gets a different picture of the problem, and of potential solutions.
Looking eastward to the stormy capitol from sunny California, Klein has written a kind of wonk’s “Goodbye to All That.” His mournful diagnosis of a political system where tribal resentments crowd out evidence serves also as a requiem for the Obama years, and for his own bygone faith in policymaking by data alone. Yet Klein ultimately stops short. He builds a persuasive account of polarization’s rise, but the master explainer can offer no explanation for where we go from here.
Klein’s story of polarization begins in the postwar years. As Jim Crow teetered, both parties faced internal divisions. A key moment came in 1948, when the Democratic National Convention approved a minority plank on civil rights. Liberal activists, buttressed by the unions of the CIO, had pushed the plank; Northern city bosses, looking for votes from arrivals in the Great Migration, got it over the top. In response, Southern delegates walked out. That November the “Dixiecrat” ticket, led by Strom Thurmond, won four states. In 1964 Thurmond would become a Republican.
As civil rights beckoned, anti–New Deal Republicans built bridges to conservative white Southerners by emphasizing their shared opposition to an intrusive federal government. Two-party competition reemerged in the Solid South, and the Southern Democrats who had long held the balance of power in national politics, not least through their chokehold over committees in Congress, began to recede. Liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller of New York and George Romney of Michigan found their balancing act harder to maintain. Since then, we’ve been off to the races.
The historical contingency, in Klein’s telling, more or less ended once the self-reinforcing dynamics of polarization began to roll. Those steady oaks in the next generation of political history—neoliberalism, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, the War on Terror, the Great Recession—barely appear. Since the 1970s, the parties have grown more distant. Among elites and ordinary citizens alike, partisan conflict has grown nastier.
So far, Klein’s account tracks a broad consensus among the scholars who study polarization. Their debates are over how we got here. Is the key story sorting, where preferences stay the same and now align with party identification and vote choice, or polarization, where preferences diverge? Do issues matter more, or are emotional responses the real driver? How much is polarization just about elites, or do we ascribe a meaningful role to the mass public?
Here Klein makes his most important move. Instead of highlighting one specific factor, he argues that they all feed on each other at once. Hairsplitting misses the point, which is interconnection across the polarization machine. In the words of the political scientist Lilliana Mason, “Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity, with all the psychological and behavioral magnifications that implies.” Klein takes that insight and runs with it, telling a mega-story about mega-polarization. “The more sorted we are in our differences, the more different we grow in our preferences.” Elite and mass polarization reinforce one another. Above all, as partisanship becomes central to the identities of ever more Americans, leaping beyond policy preferences to feed on our sense of self, its corrosive, zero-sum psychological dynamics accelerate. Personal decisions—where to live, whom to marry—roll up inside these mega-identities: “polarization begets polarization; it’s a flywheel, not a switch.”
A graduate seminar could easily pick apart the particulars. Klein can be sloppy about shifting between individual and aggregate analysis, and between explaining cross-sectional patterns and change over time. (Curiously for the erstwhile proprietor of Wonkblog, the book has too few graphs, and the ones included need better labels.) The parties have sorted on the basis of personality, but that’s a very different matter from proof that, more than in the past, “we participate in politics to express who we are.”
The problem is that this story rooted in group psychology explains less than Klein thinks it does. As a frightening battery of psychological studies show, group conflict can be about nothing. But you can’t explain a variable—polarization—with a constant—human frailty. The book is much clearer about how identity affects polarization than how those identities get forged and deployed.
In Klein’s phrasing, white identity is a “powerful primal force.” But whiteness is not a primal force ipso facto; it is a primal force because the structure of social and political relations has made it so. Identity is powerful, but what about white identity should give it, now, in the United States and in different ways across the West, such a powerful hold?
In the end, Klein lets the ruling classes off easy. Political economy itself remains offstage. His question is why partisans scream at each other, not why, amid all the screaming, the rich keep getting richer. He uses psychology to shift the gaze from the powerful and to lay the blame on our monkey brains.
Donald Trump, Klein emphasizes, responded to the market and gave Republican primary- and caucus-goers what they wanted. But markets do not emerge spontaneously. They are created and sustained. The right has spent decades pushing against procedural limits and behavioral norms, demonizing opponents, and infusing political debates with potent social resentment. Trump did not tap an untapped market; he said the quiet part out loud. Nor does the logic of identity explain the non-event in Cleveland, when Trump clinched the nomination with barely a whimper of protest. The leaders of the Republican Party decided that, in the end, they had no real qualms nominating an openly racist tantrum-thrower, so long as he would cut taxes and shred regulations. That is a political, not a psychological, story. For decades, Republicans have cultivated a poisonous alliance between resentment and capital. Feckless Democrats failed to respond to the dual assault. A story that’s all about identities closes off structural conflict and human agency, and elides the necessary reckonings.
The second, and more predictable, half of the book traces polarization through a political system that requires compromise but rewards obstruction. There’s no way around it: internally cohesive, externally divided, evenly matched parties ill fit the Madisonian order. Save for judicial nominations and tax cuts, nothing seems to get done. The fifty-fifty politics drag on and on, and the screaming gets louder and louder.
And yet the present moment feels also like an inflection point, in ways that, for good or ill, transcend the polarization machine. Here, Klein falters. The events of 2016 get told as a kind of syllogism: our politics are about identity; 2016 was an essentially ordinary election; therefore, group psychology and a brittle political system riddled with veto points are ineluctably the story. Scarred by the Tea Party and worried about brinksmanship, Klein offers reforms mainly for Congress, around the debt ceiling, the budget process, and, most importantly, the filibuster. The goal is to “bombproof” the system, and the metaphor is a revealing one. He cites the political scientist Juan Linz’s prescient warning on “The Perils of Presidentialism,” but offers no suggestions about how to tame the imperial presidency. Klein is concerned about the Republican Party, of course, and calls for its renewal via a national popular vote that would force it to compete in a diverse country. But what, we might ask, if the right just wins through welfare chauvinism, making the white nationalism and looting of the state ever more blatant?
On the left today we have the stirrings of something more than just a distaste for split-the-dollar compromise. For Klein, when the U.S. political system “has seemed to function best, it has relied on mixed parties.” He doesn’t say exactly when, but it feels, again, like a nod to the heterogenous party coalitions at midcentury. Others of us, however, look fondly on 1867 and 1935, which tell a very different story: that the best path to a multiracial, egalitarian democracy comes from powerful majorities backed by sustained popular agitation.
“If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending,” Lincoln said in the “House Divided” speech, “we could then better judge what to do and how to do it.” But after dissecting the polarization machine, Klein has no answer for what the polity should do now. Obama captivated us back in 2004, and his specter hangs over this book. The president who had thought longer and harder about identity than any other occupant of his office was fatally optimistic that “our nonpolitical identities could become our political identities.” Incrementalism and good policy made by experts have hit their limits, and it’s not clear what might follow. As Klein well understands, there is no going back to bonhomie and bipartisan compromise. Yet the notion that new coalitions and forms of solidarity, however constituted, might break through the present impasse seems too strange for him to contemplate. And so he finds himself in a cul-de-sac.
When public action fails to deliver, private life beckons. Klein writes of his frustration at “acting more like American politics than like myself.” He suggests paying more attention to local politics, “where our voices can matter much more.” Klein is not wrong to think beyond Washington, but he fails to grapple seriously enough with the collective challenge. He is a vegan—a piece of his own identity that he seems particularly eager to share—and he similarly suggests we improve our “informational diet.” Gingerly, he calls for mindfulness. A book meant to explain public life ends up as an entry in that venerable American genre of self-improvement, a prod for Poor Richard to give up his Twitter addiction. There is no vision for liberation, just a flickering hope to “engage in politics in a way that’s better for the country and better for ourselves.”
If polarized politics is a chronic condition to be carefully managed, then the opposite of screaming is talking quietly, so that nobody gets a headache—or worse. Start, instead, with power, and you might find the opposite is serious organizing that recommits from the ground up to reconfiguring who rules and in whose interests. Engage in neighborhoods, workplaces, houses of worship, schools. Recognize the enormity of the challenge, then work to forge bonds across all the divides that cleave American life. We are mindful alone, but we build democracy together.
Daniel Schlozman is Joseph and Bertha Bernstein Associate Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and the author of When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History (Princeton, 2015).
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