Why are we so polarized?
Updated: Mar 28, 2020
Why We're Polarized
by Ezra Klein, 2020
4 of 5 stars ****
Have you ever wondered how we got to this point as a nation? Where two conflicting viewpoints dominate every level of society in constant battle with each other? Why are we not only voting for more extreme positions but organizing our personal, work, and social lives around people who agree with us? Is there no room in the middle for compromise anymore?
As a professed moderate, I've always believed in balance and listening to all sides as the way to get the best answers. I believe that our world is ruled by Yin and Yang forces that conflict each other, but that represent two opposites that must always be acknowledged and incorporated.
Why We're Polarized, by Vox media founder Ezra Klein is a noble attempt to try and figure out what happened and how we get back to reasonable discourse. Klein takes us back in history to see how things have changed, shows what's going on now, and tries to come up with solutions in his final chapter.
Back in the post-World War 2 days of the 50's and 60's, both the Republican and Democratic parties were much more diverse than they are now. Liberal Republicans helped push through policies like Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, while conservative Democrats ruled the South and kept their party from veering too far to the left. This all changed in the 1960's and the main culprit was racial politics. Lyndon Johnson passed voting rights protections in that period that threatened the monolithic hold that Southern Democrats had in that area.
In reaction, white Democrats in the South quickly started leaving the party and becoming Republicans, making them the de-facto "white" party, a notion that was encouraged by later politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. This process took an entire generation, but it lead to the more polarized parties we see today, where minorities flock to the Democrats and whites rely on the Republicans.
Political parties, Klein explains, are like shortcuts, meant to make life simpler. Few of us have the time to figure out what we believe about energy, crime, or economic policy, so we rely on our parties and tribes to tell us what to think. These tribes have become more cohesive with the rise of media bubbles and constant demonization of the "others" who don't follow our beliefs.
Klein uses psychological studies to show how groups, even meaningless temporary groups, can quickly start to discriminate against those they perceive as outsiders. He explains group dynamics as a survival mechanism. Once we choose our group, losing the approval of that group is akin to ostracism and death, and that keeps people constantly looking for reasons to approve of their group through motivated reasoning. In today's political world, much of what we vote on is negative partisanship- we look at the people who are outside of our group that are demonized the most and vote against them. Donald Trump won in 2016 more because people voted against Hillary Clinton, who was painted as "Crooked Hillary" by the media, internet, and political advertising.
Because polarization has divided us by racial groups, the coming demographic changes are threatening white voters even more. Immigration and reproduction rates point to the US become a majority minority country by mid-21st century. For a country where whites have been in power for 250 years, that's become an existential threat. Even worse, the Christian religion, the backbone of white Republican culture is in decline as well. Faced with that kind of change, it's not surprising that the stakes seem so high for elections, so much so that it's now okay for parties to cheat by changing voting rules, gerrymandering, increasing money in politics, and closing polling places. 2016 was dubbed the "Flight 93" election by Trump voters who were "saving" their country from threats they perceived. There's no doubt the next few election cycles will encourage more high-stakes fear-mongering. And at the core of all this will be race.
This book is full of fascinating discussions about why public discourse has become so nasty. Internet algorithms and cable news shows encourage outrageous statements and behaviors. When Joe Wilson broke decorum and yelled out "You lie!" during President Obama's state of the union, not only were there no repercussions, Mr. Wilson enjoyed tons of donations for his outburst. Cable hosts like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, writers like Anne Coulter, and talk radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh get customers with outrage, not compromise. Platforms like You Tube and Facebook reward the more controversial content with better placements, and radicalization spreads like a virus.
When I was growing up, we had gatekeepers who we believed tried to tell us the truth. People like Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Ted Koppel came on television and told us about the war in Vietnam, the space race, and the economy. There are no gatekeepers anymore, and the most extreme stories, like Pizzagate, can get enormous distribution not because they are true or helpful, but because they confirm biases and beliefs we treasure.
Klein goes into some of the most famous failures of polarization- the crazy battle over the Affordable Care Act (once a favorite of Republicans until Democrats started supporting it), the Supreme Court (once a non-partisan institution, now anything but one), and the ridiculous and dangerous debt ceiling debate, where one party threatened to crash the economy to get their way.
One of the most disturbing points Klein makes is that the bloodsport we see today is partly because the parties are so close to winning elections. Back in the 20th century, one party pretty much dominated politics at a time, and the other party tended to cooperate and go along just to feel relevant. Now because the lines are split so evenly between Democrats and Republicans, there is much less cooperation and more outright subterfuge. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 at the height of an economic crisis, the Republican party saw an opening to get back in power, so they resolved to not cooperate with any of his programs including the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus. They calculated that helping a Democrat succeed would ruin their chances of re-taking power, so they sat back and hoped he would fail. We now have two parties (with Republicans setting the tone) that not only don't talk to each other, but who will place their own survival above that of their country. Yikes!
What can be done about all this? Klein tries to give some answers, many of which we've heard before. Get rid of the electoral college. Get rid of the filibuster. Use something called bombproofing to keep essential functions out of the hands of partisans.
His best solutions include focusing more on local elections and issues, which are less ideologically charged, and focus on identity politics. Politicians now have tons of data about our identities and preferences. They will use that information to try to trigger us into fear, resentment and anger to suit their own purposes. Only if we realize we have dozens of identities beyond just race and political party can we make ourselves immune to their cynical manipulation.
I am not my race, gender, or party. I'm a father, son, accountant, writer, movie buff, bike rider, ice cream lover, book critic, and hundreds of other identities. Polarization leads to all of us jumping up and down on one leg, cursing the other one, while laughing at those who are jumping on the wrong leg. We will all be better off if we learn to live with each other and our environment, and this book is a welcome discussion of how we can do better.
I also recommend Vox media, a website that tries to explain things in a non-partisan and reasonable way. www.vox.com.