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We’re Not Polarized Enough

Ezra Klein’s flawed diagnosis of the divisions in American politics

Many of our political forebears pined for more polarization. For much of the last century, America’s two parties were so ideologically diverse that social scientists, politicians, and pundits fretted about the incoherence of their identities and the murky stakes of any given election. There were liberal Republicans—figures like New York’s Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller—as supportive of civil rights and large government programs as some of their colleagues on the left wing of the Democratic Party. And there were famously dogged opponents of civil rights and big government in the Democratic Party—the likes of Strom Thurmond and James Eastland—who were much more right-wing than most Republicans. As late as 1976, not long after Richard Nixon, a Republican, proposed a universal health care program and created the Environmental Protection Agency, about one-third of Americans believed there were no ideological differences between the parties, and only a slim majority labeled the GOP the more conservative of the two.

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $28.00

In 1950, the American Political Science Association published an influential paper on all the confusion, titled “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” which argued that more ideologically distinct parties would bring much-needed clarity to American politics. “Unless the parties identify themselves with programs,” the authors cautioned, “the public is unable to make an intelligent choice between them.”

The process of tighter ideological identification began in earnest just about a decade later, with the passage of civil rights legislation in the late 1950s and 1960s. Backed by a majority of Democrats, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act marked the collapse of the party’s relations with the segregationist South. Reactionary whites left for the GOP, while African Americans began voting for Democrats in greater numbers. That demographic shift brought a broad ideological shift with it—racist voters became less willing to back social programs advanced by a party that had become deeply invested in the well-being of minorities. Meanwhile, facets of identity—gender, sexuality, religion, locality—came to bear on more political issues and thus came to influence partisan identification more heavily.

We’re now living in the world the political scientists and commentators of the 1950s believed they wanted, and we contend with consequences they couldn’t have foreseen. Today, American voters and politicians are grouped fairly neatly into two clear camps at the left and right ends of the political spectrum—Democrats have become more thoroughly liberal, and Republicans have become more thoroughly conservative. Fear and mutual antipathy ensure that almost any major party nominee can expect to win roughly half the electorate, which cannot abide the idea of being governed by the other half. “We are so locked into our political identities,” Ezra Klein writes in his new book, Why We’re Polarized, “that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition that can force us to change our minds.” The result is a politics “devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability.”

The last few extraordinary months in American life have illustrated the severity of this divide. In late February and early March, as the number of coronavirus cases in the United States climbed, Democrats worried about the situation more than Republicans. A collection of six polls at the time found that over 60 percent of Democrats worried that they, members of their families, or members of their communities would contract the coronavirus, while, amid the Trump administration’s efforts to downplay the crisis, only 37 percent of Republicans, on average, said the same. In another collection of polls, FiveThirtyEight found that Republican support for the administration’s handling of the virus consistently reached about 80 percent or more, while Democratic support consistently sat in the mid-teens. These differences shaped not only the responses of policymakers—red states acted less drastically and less quickly on the whole than blue states—but the behavior of Americans on the ground, potentially influencing the virus’s spread. Democrats across multiple polls were substantially more likely than Republicans to report washing their hands more frequently, avoiding crowds, and cutting down on nonessential travel.

It’s not a mere instrument of rhetoric to say that the country cannot go on like this. Why We’re Polarized weaves together recent political history and reams of research to explain how we arrived here and how we might make our way forward. It does not fully succeed: The sources of our divide appear more complicated than Klein suggests, and the path beyond polarization will be more fraught than he lets on. But he’s chosen a crucial subject. If polarization inhibits our ability, even in the face of an immediate existential threat, to act commonsensically to save those closest to us, the United States as a collective entity is truly not long for this world—it will fracture into something new, unrecognizable, and unstable.

Polarization is more than a simple divide—it’s also a dynamic between two sides. Once a public divide emerges on an issue, politicians and politicized institutions can exploit it in ways that widen the initial separation. “To appeal to a yet more polarized public,” Klein writes, “institutions must polarize further; when faced with yet more polarized institutions, the public polarizes further, and so on.”

The cycle of polarization has been exacerbated by the growing demographic divide between the parties. In our politics, the perceived stakes are not only the victory of one ideology or set of policies over another, but the victory of certain social groups over others. And so political conflict bleeds into social life. In 1960, Klein writes, only 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats in a survey said they would have been concerned if their child married a member of the opposite party. By 2010, that number had jumped to 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats. In an experiment by Stanford’s Shanto Iyengar and Dartmouth’s Sean Westwood, respondents asked to evaluate two high school résumés for a scholarship tended to recommend the student who belonged to their own party, even if the other student was more qualified. “When the Republican student was more qualified, Democrats chose him only 30 percent of the time,” Klein writes, “and when the Democrat was more qualified, Republicans chose him only 15 percent of the time.”

Now more than ever, political differences yield personal hostility—partially because politics now links up our multiple identities in dramatic ways. “Today the parties are sharply split across racial, religious, geographic, cultural, and psychological lines,” Klein writes. “There are many, many powerful identities lurking in that list, and they are fusing together, stacking atop one another, so a conflict or threat that activates one activates all.” This feeds the kind of zero-sum, anything goes politics that characterized not only the conservative movement’s willingness to overlook Donald Trump’s personal and political indiscretions in 2016 but also the Republican opposition to the Obama administration—from the hysterical rhetoric about the Affordable Care Act to the blocking of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Why have voters taken to polarization so easily? Of all the forces thought to drive political attitudes and action, Klein focuses almost exclusively on the behavioral dynamics theorized by evolutionary psychologists. “Human beings evolved to exist in groups,” he writes. “To be part of a group, and to see that group thrive, meant survival. To be exiled from a group or to see our group crushed by its enemies, could mean death. Is it really so strange that we evolved to feel the life and death stakes of group belonging and status?” He cites a ream of research to ensure the reader agrees: On one page, he gives us a study on schoolchildren asked to allocate money after being separated by invented test scores; on another page, we get a paragraph about “micro-awakenings” during isolated human sleep, evidently a self-defense mechanism that ensures our bodies are on guard when there’s no one around to protect us. All the evidence suggests “it takes almost nothing for us to form a group identity,” Klein writes, and once those identities take shape, intense competition between groups naturally follows. As this theory would have it, the conflicts that characterize contemporary American politics are, to a large extent, outgrowths of the primitive brain.

If an intense tendency toward group formation and identification is an inescapable fact of human nature, shouldn’t it loom large not only over politics in the United States, but over politics everywhere? Yet the state of American politics appears altogether different from partisan arrangements across the world. Elsewhere, the ideological divides between major parties are less deep, sociocultural identification with parties is less strong, and functional relationships between multiple parties are common. If the human brain truly craves tight partisan affiliations and intractable partisan conflict, how have political systems at odds with those impulses—multiparty systems that often rely on coalition governments, for instance—endured for so long in other countries? Is the American brain different? There seems to be more to the story here, and a more thorough accounting of why polarization occurs would probably acknowledge that politics also takes place beyond our borders.

Crucially, though, the psychological perspective also leaves one with a muddled view of the American sociopolitical scene. Take, for instance, Klein’s characterization of the finding that over 60 percent of Republicans tend to prefer large houses and open space, while nearly the same proportion of Democrats tends to prefer smaller houses and walkable communities. “Thus, a preference that seems nonpolitical on its face,” he writes, “becomes yet another force pulling partisans away from each other.” This is meant to mean that partisan divides “don’t merely track differences in our politics. They track differences in our psychologies.” But do they? How many Americans declare a preference for large houses and yards over diverse cities largely because rural or suburban areas are where they’ve spent most of their time, perhaps through no particular choice of their own? How sure can we be, in general, that our preferences are innate rather than artifacts of the communities we happen to find ourselves in?

The last question is important, since the mutability or immutability of preferences and attitudes could tell us something about how long we can expect deep polarization to persist. But it’s left unexamined. Instead, Klein insists on an inherent link between openness and political attitudes:

Openness to experience—and the basic optimism that drives it—is associated with liberalism, while conscientiousness, a preference for order and tradition that breeds a skepticism toward disruptive change, connects to conservatism. People high in openness are more likely to enjoy trying new foods, traveling to new places, living in diverse cities, keeping a messy desk.

The limitations of this area of inquiry are revealed in a paragraph almost immediately afterward:

The kinds of people most attracted to liberalism are the kinds of people who are excited by change, by difference, by diversity. Their politics are just one expression of that basic temperament—a temperament that might push them to live in polyglot cities, to hitchhike across Europe, to watch foreign-language films. But contrast, the job of the conservative, wrote National Review founder William F. Buckley, is to “[stand] athwart history, yelling Stop.” You can see how that might appeal to a person who mistrusts change, appreciates tradition, and seeks order. That kind of person might also prefer living in a small town nearer to family, going to a church deeply rooted in ritual, celebrating at restaurants they already know and love.

It seems relevant here that National Review is both based in New York City and staffed by the kind of elite conservatives who enjoy foreign films and trips to Europe from time to time. Buckley was a cosmopolitan New Yorker who spoke three languages. None of these traits precluded the magazine’s defenses of cultural traditionalism or conservative views on racial politics. And even if they are mere exceptions to some broader psychological rule, the very possibility of exceptions is important to recognize. Our sense of political reality is incomplete if we believe that a conservative is a specific kind of person whose politics are stable, and betrayed by a set of simple signifiers that, it should be said, pertain almost exclusively to affluent white people.

America’s racial minorities scramble the picture considerably. African Americans and Latinos are intensely religious and fairly socially conservative on a variety of issues, but they are also much more Democratic than the population at large. That’s a consequence not only of rhetorical antagonism from the right but also of public policy—their material interest in generous social programs, a fairer criminal justice system, a more humane immigration policy, and so on.

Oddly for a book by the co-founder of Vox—maybe America’s top publisher of policy journalism—Why We’re Polarized leaves little room for material politics. Of all the identities Klein examines, economic class is mentioned the least. Even if one doubts that class is the primary driver of our political conflicts, it can’t be denied that class intersects with the other identities Klein discusses at greater length, including race, in complex and powerful ways. In any case, a more complete tally of our available identities wouldn’t have answered the basic question Klein’s account of political dispositions raises: Are those dispositions hardwired, or do they emerge from our circumstances?

For many years now, pundits and academics have been fascinated by a phenomenon highly relevant to all this, but barely discussed in Klein’s book. One of the largest political constituencies in the United States today comprises voters who refuse to identify with a party. Gallup’s party affiliation polls have shown for about a decade that more Americans identify as independents than as Democrats or Republicans. In 2019, independents made up about 41 percent of the electorate, while 30 percent called themselves Democrats and 28 percent called themselves Republicans. 2011 marked the first time in Gallup’s record that the number of independents had ever reached 40 percent, and the number continued to climb before stabilizing after the 2016 election. If, as Klein argues, more and more Americans are being drawn to partisan identity by political psychology, why have so many Americans over the past several years rejected partisan labels?

Importantly, the independent label isn’t a true ideological signifier—independents are simply Americans who refuse to align themselves with either party, even if they consistently vote for one or the other. There are liberal independents who always vote for Democrats and conservative independents who always vote for Republicans. The critical thing for this growing plurality is not belonging—they distance themselves from an available community of political peers to assert their independence as political individuals, even if their actual voting behavior is as predictable as the behavior of open partisans. Klein skates around the phenomenon when he explains that our negativity about the parties is now stronger than our positive feelings about them—as though groups united by hatred and groups united by mutual affinity are functionally the same. Independents are referenced most directly early in the book, within a section where Klein describes a study that found Americans are more likely to call themselves independent when they want to make a good impression, and another study in which subjects rated independents as more attractive than partisans after considering political debates. “Being independent isn’t about whom you vote for,” he writes. “It’s about your personal brand.”

Independence burnishes our brands partially because the American electorate, despite growing partisanship as measured in actual voting behavior, remains strongly committed to the concept of bipartisanship as an ideal. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 80 percent of Americans in each party believe it’s important for the country for Republicans and Democrats to work together on issues. They found too that nearly half the country prefers politicians who make compromises with people they disagree with, although that number is down from 58 percent the year before—Democrats have unsurprisingly become less willing to compromise with the Trump administration. But even so, according to a Pew survey in January on the Democratic primary, 58 percent of Democrats said they would prefer a nominee willing to “find common ground with Republicans on policies, even if it means giving up some things Democrats want,” an attitude that may partially explain Joe Biden’s success.

The most popular avatar of the bipartisan sensibility in the Democratic Party is, of course, Barack Obama, who came onto the national political scene with a speech arguing that many of our political divisions are essentially artificial, and who insisted, during his presidency, that the Democratic Party could work with the right to develop policy solutions to the country’s largest problems. He engaged in identity politics hesitantly and cautiously, and self-consciously worked not to heighten partisan tensions, but to address the anxieties of Americans troubled by polarization.

As the very existence of Klein’s book demonstrates, those anxieties persist today. Eighty-one percent of Americans, according to Pew, describe themselves as “concerned about divisions between Republicans and Democrats,” with a 46 percent plurality calling themselves “very concerned.” Are Americans lying to pollsters and themselves? Perhaps. But, if so, it’s worth asking why Americans believe the lie is worth telling.

As Klein himself acknowledges in the final chapter, those looking for strong solutions to our political divisions will likely come away disappointed. He advocates for a now-familiar slate of liberal structural reforms that could strengthen American democracy and balance the institutional political power shared by both parties, such as the elimination of the filibuster and the Electoral College. Ideas like these, he writes, could alleviate polarization by ensuring both parties, not just the Democrats, have to appeal to a broader, more representative swath of Americans than their most dedicated supporters in order to win elections. But the proposed reforms would have to be crafted, passed, and enacted within the flawed institutions they’ve been devised to fix. Understandably, Klein turns next to a less daunting set of recommendations.

Instead of focusing on national politics, Americans would be better off, Klein insists, paying more attention to state and local politics. Intense engagement with national issues and policymaking, particularly on social media, he suggests, is more often than not a performative exercise, given the intractability of our federal political system and the putative distance of the issues we debate the most from our personal lives. But “there’s a real reward from rooting more of our political identities in the places we live,” he writes. “First, we tend to live among people more like us, so the politics is less polarized. Second, the questions are more often tangible and less symbolic, so the discussion is often more constructive and less hostile.”

It’s true that state and local politics get short shrift in our political discourse, and that many subnational issues are less charged and divisive than the issues in national politics. Yet the epic and identity-inflected clashes that erupt over efforts to integrate public schools or build new affordable housing projects, for instance, show us that conflict over local issues can be similarly fraught. This is precisely because we have more personally at stake in the potential outcomes—perceived threats to established communities can produce discourses as distended by symbolism, the psychology of groups, and the dynamics of social media as any other political debate.

We also turn to national politics partly because state and local governments are far more limited in their capacity to address some of our most important problems than the federal government is. Subnational policymakers may do what they can to green cities and communities and curb carbon emissions, but winding down the American carbon economy will ultimately have to be a national effort, with federal action compensating for the fact that certain states and communities will never be willing to act on their own. In the coronavirus crisis, governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer did their best to slow the rate of infection and build up hospital capacity in their states, but they ultimately had to lean on the federal government for support, and the ineptitude and irresponsibility of the administration’s response have cost lives nationwide.

Even before the pandemic hit, Americans in tune with goings-on in their own neighborhoods found within them immigrant families at risk of separation or deportation thanks to changes in federal immigration policy. Many of those who tuned in to watch the floor debates over Obamacare repeal back in 2017 did so not merely because they hoped to wave a pennant for their own political faction at the end of the process, but because they genuinely worried about what repeal would mean for the health care of their loved ones and themselves.

Even those lucky enough to consider themselves more insulated from the consequences of national policy debates should question the idea that there is something fundamentally irrational about being deeply invested in or upset about political issues that don’t directly affect you. The divisions that would reemerge if we shrank our circles of concern and refocused on the things tangibly closest to us don’t seem like ideal substitutes for our current tensions.

If, as Klein suggests more soundly, addressing those tensions requires a drastic program of democratic reforms, then the true remedy for polarization is a bit of a catch-22. Proposals like ending the filibuster and adding new states would surely inflame partisanship before suppressing it, given the check they would place on Republican power. The obstacles to Democrats pursuing these ideas more seriously to begin with include both widespread concerns about intensifying political conflict and the preference of the party for working with political opponents.

Nevertheless, the health and stability of the American political system depends on the defeat of the Republican Party. Absent a radical shift in the right’s priorities, the only way to depolarize our institutions is to win and win big against those who want to keep them undemocratic, protecting the right from the moderating influence more competitive elections could have. Those victories will depend on reformers successfully marshaling the forces driving group identity, rather than assuming the balance of power in America has been set primarily by immutable psychologies. The way forward lies in convincing Americans not to retreat from national politics but to think even more broadly and abstractly about where this country ought to go. Why We’re Polarized does some of the job, but leaves a daunting truth unsaid: To fight polarization, we’ll have to get much more polarized. The only way out is through.