We are a polarized nation, and have fallen into two warring camps: urban vs. rural. In “Why We’re Polarized,” author Ezra Klein provides his view on how America got so polarized and what the future will likely bring. Klein’s core argument is that everyone engaged in American politics is engaged in identity politics; identity politics have taken over. We are locked into our identities, and there is virtually nothing that can happen to change our minds. Identity shapes how we understand the world.
Klein describes how human evolution strengthens our propensity toward polarization; it’s embedded within our brains. As we evolved, being exiled from one’s group caused enormous stress and could mean death. Our brain is finely tuned to group dynamics. Once we classify a group as “other,” we discriminate against them. It’s wild, but many studies have shown we have a biological propensity to prefer outcomes that are worse for everyone so long as they maximize our own group’s advantage.
Klein states that our feelings matter far more than what we think, and with high emotion, we all will do whatever it takes to ensure our side wins. It’s a mistake to think economic issues are people’s biggest driver; winning is the biggest driver! People would rather win an argument than solve a problem and will often twist things to get the answer they want. Given facts to show they’re wrong, people will only dig in. People’s definition of an “expert” is a credentialed person who agrees with them.
Not long ago, American politics wasn’t this way. Politicians crossed the aisle all the time. Differences were slim, and party identity was fairly weak. But in the 1960s, this all changed. The reason? As usual in America, it comes down to race. The civil rights movement destroyed the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic party, turning them into Republicans. Racism drove anger and fear, and fear drives political preference. People with a fixed worldview are more fearful of potential dangers and lean Republican. If one is more open, they lean Democrat.
Klein describes how technology and media have increased polarization. The digital revolution offers once unimaginable choices of news and information. Algorithms drive more extremism, as they keep you engaged by referring you to things validating your views or your indignation, i.e., ever-extreme positions. Facebook and Twitter feed us the “news we like.” Increased exposure to extreme media tends to make one feel more identified with a group, and this deeper group identity leads to greater resistance to change. In political reporting, if it outrages, it leads, and outrage is connected deeply to identity.
Klein describes how America is diversifying. The first year that a majority of infants in the U.S. were non-white was 2013. In 2030, immigration will overtake births as the key driver of U.S. growth. America will become a “majority-minority” country around 2043. The group “religiously unaffiliated” will be larger than Protestants in 2051. A large swath of U.S. inhabitants no longer view these demographic changes as positive but as the cause of the unsolved problems. These reactions propel polarization.
Klein reminds us that Donald Trump met the Republican party where it was; he didn’t try to change it. Trump is a master marketer who astutely read the market. White identity feels under threat. Whites have been able to take their race for granted. When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. As long as many feel threatened by perceived changes, there will be a growing market for candidates like Trump. Trump weaponized outrageousness, offensiveness and identity cues to capture media share, proving you can dominate media by lobbing grenades into our deepest social divides. Klein worries that a new, cleverer and more disciplined demagogue could truly cause extensive harm.
Klein writes that America is not a democracy. Democrats lose even with the majority of votes. Our system is built around geographic units, all of which privilege sparse rural areas over dense urban ones. Instead of winning power by winning the most votes, Republicans win power by winning the votes in the most places. Conservatives have chosen, again and again, the path of maximal confrontation and disruption. Republicans are dependent on white voters with an identity of conservatism. Trump understood this, and that as long as he promised them protection and victories, they would go to war for him. Christian conservatives believe that Trump is the enemy that the left deserves. Democrats, meanwhile, remained tethered to traditional institutions and behaviors, due to an immune system of diversity and democracy. Democrats must appeal to a broad set of beliefs and force them all into democracy.
Klein concludes by saying that, for now, polarization is here to stay. Thus, Klein suggests we need to reform our political system so it can function amid polarization. He doesn’t know how to “solve” social media’s tilt toward outrage, the human brain’s sensitivity to identity or the escalation of political conflict, but he offers some ideas for helping. One is what he calls “bombproofing” government operations against political disaster. Examples include removing the debt ceiling, changing our budgetary process to avoid costly shutdowns and revising the process of how we handle emergencies.
Klein also suggests changes to our political system, but none are easy. They include dumping the electoral college through the National Interstate Popular Vote Compact, implementing ranked-choice voting, ending the filibuster, making Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico states, instituting automatic voter registration and 100% vote by mail. We could revise the Supreme Court to add 15 justices, with five appointed by each party and the remaining five unanimously appointed by the current 10 partisan judges. For us personally, Klein suggests we practice mindfulness to be better aware of what drives our own emotions, and to get more involved in local politics.
Finally, Klein points out that our democracy today is actually far better than it was. When Trump says he will “make America great again” and take us back to our golden age, he means an age and time when American democracy was far less democratic, far less liberal and far less decent than today. Thus, “if we can do a bit better tomorrow, we will be doing much, much better than we have ever done before.”
“Why We’re Polarized” is fairly easy to read and provides a good, general summary of a key American problem.
Klein’s pole-balancing plan
On a grand scale
- “Bombproof” government against political disaster:
- Remove debt ceiling.
- Change budget process to avoid costly shutdowns.
- Revise how we handle emergencies.
- Overhaul our political system:
- Dump the Electoral College through the National Interstate Popular Vote Compact.
- Implement ranked-choice voting.
- End the filibuster.
- Make Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico states.
- Institute automatic voter registration and 100% vote by mail.
- Enlarge Supreme Court by 15 justices, with five appointed by each party and five unanimously appointed by the current 10 partisan judges.
On a individual level
- Practice mindfulness to be better aware of what drives our emotions.
- Get more involved in local politics.
Read more in the Jan. 6-12, 2021 issue.