Book Review: Why We’re Polarized

My copy of the book.

When I was a neophyte forming my habit that would become my political junkiness, I was regularly reading current political books. However, as I got older, in a mentality that extended beyond politics, I wasn’t as interested in reading or consuming books about the current issues (I still stayed abreast through the news media, of course, I mean with books and documentaries). I preferred historical books and documentaries. The exception was last year’s read of Maggie Haberman’s indispensable book on Donald Trump, Confidence Man. In what feels like a good continuation of that book, and also, oddly, the previous nonfiction book I read, Blind Injustice, is Ezra Klein’s 2020 book, Why We’re Polarized. Those also of my political junkie persuasion will know of Klein as the wonky protégé who co-founded Vox, the explainer website, and moved up the ranks to interview current and past presidents.

Klein’s book, written in the midst of the Trump administration, is interested in delving deep into the question of America’s polarization through studies elucidating human psychology and sociology, aka group dynamics, similar in vein to Blind Injustice I reviewed. What makes the criminal justice system both susceptible to injustice and impervious to correction is what also makes the American political system susceptible to polarization and impervious to correction (and in point-of-fact, what makes it more polarized in a continual feedback loop, as Klein demonstrates) is our sense of identity within a larger tribe, whether that’s a prosecutor’s office, as in Blind Injustice, or the Republican Party, as in Klein’s book. Once we attach our identity to these external tribes, it becomes difficult to be persuaded by truth, correction, and loftier ideals, such as cooperation and compromise. And with polarization, the stakes continue to get raised wherein it isn’t just that you are most animated by defeating your “enemies,” the other tribe, but that you view anything other than defeat (as in, that other tribe winning power) as an existential threat to your very existence and way of life.

However, while the American political system has gotten more polarized and more tribal in the last four decades, Klein rightly throws cold water on the idea of looking to the past as the gold standard. Rather, the reason the past was less polarized, and it seemed like the two major parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, were able to work together and co-exist, was because the parties were less sorted, thus not enabling group identity to stringently form. That’s why the Democratic Party could have Dixiecrats and liberal Democrats, or the Republicans who would seem more liberal to us and conservative Republicans. But the 20th century, particularly the post-WWII status quo, was more an aberration than something sustainable because that “status quo” was built on inequities along race, gender, sexual orientation, and religious lines. It wasn’t going to last. Once the parties better sorted themselves (and Klein later makes an interesting case that the Democratic Party’s sorting still means a bigger coalition they have to appeal to, including moderate Republicans, to win races, whereas Republican’s sorting still falls to largely white Christians, enabling them to be extreme and still win elections) and drew stronger distinctions between each other, Klein argues, then it became easier to attach your identity to one of the two parties, deepening polarization.

What’s more, the issue of polarization goes beyond politics and then comes back to politics in a boomerang effect: Your political identity begins to trickle down to wear you shop, what sport you watch, where you eat, what language you use, where you live, and so much more, to where this becomes a “mega-identity,” Klein says. At that point, you become even more entrenched in protecting your identity. That issue isn’t helped by the internet and mass media age making all politics, down to even the most local, obscure races, or every culture issue, down to the most local, obscure issues, nationalized, further entrenching polarization and differences. And these mega-identities are emergent within the backdrop of major, rapidly-moving demographic changes, where those once in power (white, Christian men) is eroding, and will continue to erode, and that change and diversifying is scaring a certain section of the electorate with predictable results.

The reason I also say that this book feels like a continuation of Maggie’s book on Donald Trump is that Klein, like others before him, argues that Trump wasn’t some bomb thrown into the political status quo of 2016, but rather its logical next step. The question he starts the book with isn’t why Trump won in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, but why someone like Trump was in spitting distance of winning against Hillary Clinton in the first place. The deepening polarization of the American political system and radicalizing of the Republican Party in response is the answer.

Now, like with Blind Injustice, I’m on board with all of the psychological and sociological studies Klein marshals as evidence of our tribal instincts as humans — and there are a lot of studies; remember, he’s wonky — but also like with Blind Injustice, I go back to the elephant in the room (and not the Republican Party’s mascot): us! I don’t think Klein is evading that question. After all, he’s talking about what animates human instinct and how that gets pushed to the edge even more when we’re in group dynamics, but I do think he doesn’t exactly confront the logical conclusion. Not only are we the problem in some ways because we are the ones who pushed the system to where it is today — to use the oft-used H.L. Mencken quote, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” — , but also, I firmly believe that politics would be less do-or-die, less tribal, and less polarizing if there wasn’t so much power to joust with, to trade election cycle after election cycle, to stack the Supreme Court with, and so on. I don’t think reducing the power government wields would be a panacea by any means — after all, as I mentioned and as Klein does, too, mega-identities are encompassing much more than just our political tribes, areas that have that have nothing to do with political power; it’s why the Republicans felt perpetually victimized even when they had a majority of governor’s mansions, both houses of Congress, and the White House for two years during Donald Trump’s administration — but I do think it would help lessen the existentialism on display if the government simply wasn’t doing so much. I know I just blamed people with that Mencken quote, but to give the people a break, it is absurd for both them and their representatives to be well-suited to knowing everything the federal government is tasked with doing in 2023, much less a singular person in the president of the United States.

But I digress. (Not really, as that was my whole countervailing thesis for how to address polarization.)

My other issue with conventional wisdom, which I think Klein does a good job of showing is wrong with his studies and analysis, is that we have a deleterious disinformation problem. I particularly love the study Klein mentioned (look-up the Solomon Asch dot study) about how participants will go with the answer they know to be wrong so as not to contradict the group. Especially during the run-up to the 2016 election, many people thought the problem was one of misinformation and disinformation. If only we could get the right information to the right people, then someone like Donald Trump wouldn’t have been politically ascendant. That sort of thinking is still pervasive. If only we can gatekeep better via Twitter and Facebook, the news media, and so on, then we can ensure people aren’t being “radicalized” by misinformation. Before social media, the bigger concern (and it hasn’t gone away, either) is that corporations and rich people wield too much power to persuade via ad-buys and such. But that goes back to the same issue of wanting to control the flower of information (or disinformation, as it were). Disinformation, it goes, is simply the scourge undergirding the entire American political system in the modern digital age. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As Klein shows, more information and more knowledge doesn’t make someone make better choices at the ballot box. Rather, it deepens their polarization and entrenches their tribalism to defend their side by either finding “facts” that support their side, or ignoring the ones that don’t. In fact, Klein says the worst offenders are those most politically-engaged for this very reason.

Two other points that run contrary to conventional wisdom worth highlighting that Klein also throws cold water on are: a.) People deride so-called smoke-filled rooms of the past, but, at least if you care about stronger parties gatekeeping the fringe from gaining power, those smoke-filled rooms were a better operating system than the primary system we’ve had since the 1970s. In other words, someone like Donald Trump, or a Bernie Sanders, wouldn’t have risen in the party ranks, if they decided to run at all, back in 1954 because of those “smoke-filled rooms”; and b.) People deride earmarks, or “pork-barrel spending,” but earmarks were good! Again, at least if you care about the two parties actually working together to accomplish some semblance of governance and cater to their constituents in a real way rather than the current system (at the time Klein wrote the book; earmarks are back!) where earmarks are banned and obstruction and the government at a standstill are the norms.

At the end of his book, Klein offers some “solutions,” although he’s reluctant to use that word, some of which I do like, such as moving to the ranked choice voting model, granting statehood to Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, and others I’m more skeptical of but curry popular favor among Democrats, such as ending the filibuster and the electoral college and reforming the Supreme Court in some fashion (Klein likes the proposal of a 15-Justice Court). Nonetheless, I always appreciate thoughtful solutions and ideas rather than a book being a doomsday book. I also appreciate that Klein uses his last few words in the book to push back against the past being a gold standard to return to — that by any measure, despite the issues of deep polarization and even Trump’s ascendancy, the America of today is preferable to the America of before when the two parties worked better together.

Klein also offers prescriptions for us, mainly, that we need to depolarize ourselves with “identity mindfulness” and “rediscovering a politics of place.” Which is to say, we need to take on the onus of not nationalizing our politics and our identities. But I go back to, the government doing so much necessarily makes it difficult to achieve that.

Overall, if you’re a political junkie, this book is a fascinating insight into why the American political system is the way it is and how it got that way. But even if you’re not a junkie, I think you’ll find some worthwhile takeaways about how the human mind works and how tribalism takes hold.

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