Why We're Polarized

by Ezra Klein

Hardcover, 2020


Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster (2020), 336 pages


History. Politics. Nonfiction. HTML:ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2022 One of Bill Gates's "5 books to read this summer," this New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller shows us that America's political system isn't broken. The truth is scarier: it's working exactly as designed. In this "superbly researched" (The Washington Post) and timely book, journalist Ezra Klein reveals how that system is polarizing usâ??and how we are polarizing itâ??with disastrous results. "The American political systemâ??which includes everyone from voters to journalists to the presidentâ??is full of rational actors making rational decisions given the incentives they face," writes political analyst Ezra Klein. "We are a collection of functional parts whose efforts combine into a dysfunctional whole." "A thoughtful, clear and persuasive analysis" (The New York Times Book Review), Why We're Polarized reveals the structural and psychological forces behind America's descent into division and dysfunction. Neither a polemic nor a lament, this book offers a clear framework for understanding everything from Trump's rise to the Democratic Party's leftward shift to the politicization of everyday culture. America is polarized, first and foremost, by identity. Everyone engaged in American politics is engaged, at some level, in identity politics. Over the past fifty years in America, our partisan identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. These merged identities have attained a weight that is breaking much in our politics and tearing at the bonds that hold this country together. Klein shows how and why American politics polarized around identity in the 20th century, and what that polarization did to the way we see the world and one another. And he traces the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that are driving our system toward crisis. "Well worth reading" (New York magazine), this is an "eye-opening" (O, The Oprah Magazine) book that will change how you look at politicsâ??and perha… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member DavidWineberg
Politics uses us for its own ends

There are endless shelves of books on what has happened to politics in the USA, culminating in the rule of Trump. Most of them hit on polarization sooner or later. Ezra Klein’s book totally focuses on it, but in ways that are more engaging, relatable and relevant
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than many others I have read. It is thorough, fair, reflective, cautious and accurate. And therefore depressing.

Why We’re Polarized has an overall umbrella theory: Politics uses us for its own ends. We are captives, not participants. The two party system herds voters into corrals from which they cannot choose to leave, for fear the other party might win. It has come to the point where families discourage marrying someone who supports the other party, and people move to new neighborhoods to be with their own party supporters. I doubt this is what Jefferson and Madison imagined when they set it up.

Klein uses sports to illustrate how people devolve into mad animals in support of their favorite team. Fights break out, hooligans roam the streets. Everything must be done to keep the team on top, be it firing the coach, buying the best talent from a competitor, or rioting if that will help. Rallies and tailgate parties to rouse the emotions. The other team winning? That just cannot happen. Change teams? Never.

So with political parties.

Klein likes to think voters are intelligent, that they seek data and make rational decisions. But he also acknowledges that “an expert is a credentialed person who agrees with me.” And that most Americans cannot name the governor of their state. But they know with total certainty how they will vote. Because it’s no longer about government. It’s all about ideology.

As careful as he is in presenting his research, he continually acknowledges that he can still be called biased. He is aware that everyone is unfair at some level. He discovers he can’t be totally fair, even when he wants to be. Someone will find something to criticize, labeling him as representing the Other. Because that’s the frame today.

He knows firsthand that most election efforts are wasted. Both parties focus on “motivated reasoning:” knocking on doors and presenting unimpeachable facts. But you can’t change people’s minds “by utterly refuting their arguments.” It fails every time. As in sports, people have group loyalties that cannot be shaken. Attack their beliefs and they hunker down. Far better to spend those resources getting people to show up at the polls than thinking you can flip them to from Red to Blue with logic. Can’t be done.

Klein spends a lot of time examining the evolution of the two-party morass. Right up to the 1960s, there was co-operation. Elected officials worked for the country more than the party. State mattered more than federal. Local was most important of all. Voters chose actual people they wanted to represent them, not which ideology should prevail. As early as age 15 I noticed and proclaimed that both political parties were two sides of the same coin. I didn’t know what the fuss was about. Didn’t matter which party you voted for – they’d work it out together anyway.

Today they are night and day, and it’s not better. Today, it is not how will this legislation affect my district, it is how does this legislation sit with my party, he says. It’s the wrong question, but it has become the only question. That’s why government doesn’t work any more.

He shows that Donald Trump is not an extreme anything. He is the logical next step in a party built on fear of losing not just an election but control of life. Nothing he says or does is too outrageous for Republicans, because they have a single narrow focus: self-preservation. Democrats are at a disadvantage because they are more open and inclusive – classes and colors and nationalist groups. As Will Rogers put it in the 1930s – “I am not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”

Polarization has been creeping into American lives at an ever-accelerating pace, and there is no end in sight. It is making the country dysfunctional, and the more dysfunctional it becomes they more polarized it becomes. Because the other ideology is a lie.

Klein ends by saying he doesn’t like Conclusions. He demonstrates it by having trouble with his. It’s a kludge of patches that will not be implemented, precisely because they count on the entrenched to make them happen.

Mostly, he trots out the tired arguments for proportional representations, which would encourage more parties to form. He does not say that this would turn the US into an Israel or a Belgium, where no one can govern at all. Belgium went for two years without a government because no one could assemble enough parties to form one. Israel is about to have three elections in a year for the same reason. Italy has not had a cohesive government since Mussolini. Multi-party is no solution. It is both surprising and disappointing that Klein, as fair and thorough as he is, never mentions the truly ugly downside of the multiparty system he recommends.

For all his work here, the problem is he does not follow through; he does not go nearly far enough.

At one point earlier on, he says the US is not a democracy, but he says it for the wrong reasons. He points to rural voters having far more clout than urban voters, and Republicans preventing minorities of all stripes from voting. But the real reason the US is not a democracy is because the US is not a democracy:
-Representation was never supposed to be a lifetime occupation.
-Elected representatives were not supposed to get rich from it.
-Representation was supposed to be a civic duty, not a career. It is an obligation, a burden and a sacrifice, not simply a process to create a ruling class of white men.
-Political parties, feared by George Washington and many other founders, should not have been allowed to arise in the first place. They watched them rise anyway, and stood by as all their fears came true. Party uber alles. Country be damned.

So imagine if the 500 thousand elected officials in the US could only serve one term. And if there weren’t enough candidates, they would be chosen as in jury duty (as they did in Ancient Greece). There would be no campaign financing, no PACs, no primaries, no lobbyists or bribery, because no one could establish a base or be around long enough to be compromised. Instead of constant fundraising, work could get done.

Imagine if people were elected to serve on committees instead of chambers. They would have to decide real issues, not ideological policies. They would only have one job to do. The committees would decide on roads or schools, foreign aid or civil rights, tariffs or taxes. Teachers would be on education committees instead of billionaires with no background. Scientists would be on science committees instead of lobbyists. Ideology would lose every time it was inserted into the deliberations, because ideology is not relevant to the work of government. And after four or five years, the committees would disband and members would be replaced by others who reflected the newer times better. That’s how they did it 2500 years ago.

That’s called democracy. Preventing the nomination hearings of a supreme court justice for the (entirely bogus) reason that it would take place in an election year should never be allowed to happen. Holding up government funding and shutting it all down, threatening the sanctity of the world financial system (over a wall) should never be allowed to happen. The two-party system itself should never be allowed. It is clearly poisonous. It forces people to label themselves and stick with them. Out of fear.

Real democracy is at least as impossible as proportional representation in the USA, but it is a viable solution to the polarization that cripples the nation.

David Wineberg
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LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
This is one depressing book. The first part of the book shows that the election of trump is not that different from any other election, which kind of startled me since it seems that trump's election could be the beginning of the end of democracy. Klein's information about our proclivity towards
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partisanship amazed me. I'm always confused at the need to depict some people as the other, and I appreciated the studies he highlighted. He at last shows the extreme partisanship that makes our breaking government different from governments in the past, and at last he gives recommendations. Alas, all the hope he shows through his recommendations is negated by the fact that I can see no way to achieve them in this age of extreme partisanship. One thing we can do is pay more attention to local politics. That's the only small bit of hope I could garner from his ideas.
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LibraryThing member breic
I find most political theory books to be fairly forgettable, full of just-so stories. It seems too easy to explain the past, picking and choosing from polls and statistics to make your points. Still, the first few chapters of this book were surprisingly good. But by chapter 5 or 6, about halfway
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through, the story loses momentum. Klein is a little bit too eager to explain things with unconvincing and probably irreproducible social science experiments, and the shtick gets old. The conclusion chapter, on "fixes," is just awful and poorly thought out, as Klein himself admits.

> Over the past fifty years, our partisan identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. Those merged identities have attained a weight that is breaking our institutions and tearing at the bonds that hold this country together.

> political scientist and statistician Andrew Gelman and business and strategy professor Pierre-Antoine Kremp find that "per voter, whites have 16 percent more power than blacks once the Electoral College is taken into consideration, 28 percent more power than Latinos

> The state parties were organizing politics around lines the national parties were erasing. "The national and state party organizations are largely independent of one another, each operating within its own sphere, without appreciable common approach to problems of party policy and strategy," complained the authors. The US Congress included Democrats more conservative than many Republicans and Republicans as liberal as the most left-leaning Democrats. They were robbing voters of their most valuable opportunity to influence the course of public affairs.

> Dewey thought this a great strength, since "no single religion or color or race or economic interest is confined to one or the other of our parties. Each party is to some extent a reflection of the other.… This is perhaps part of the secret of our enormous power, that a change from one party to the other has usually involved a continuity of action and policy of the nation as a whole on most fundamentals."

> "With both parties including liberals and conservatives within their ranks," he said, "those differences which would otherwise be the main campaign issues are settled by compromise within each party." He warned that "our national unity would be weakened if the theoretical differences were sharpened."

> Goldwater's electoral destruction entrenched the conventional wisdom of the age: ideologues lost elections

> when Gerald Ford ran against Jimmy Carter, only 54 percent of the electorate believed the Republican Party was more conservative than the Democratic Party. Almost 30 percent said there was no ideological difference at all between the two parties

> Looking at districts with contested House races, they found that between 1972 and 1980, the correlation between the Democratic share of the House vote and the Democratic share of the presidential vote was .54. Between 1982 and 1990, that rose to .65. By 2018, it had reached .97!

> between 2000 and 2004, self-proclaimed independents were more stable in which party they supported than self-proclaimed strong partisans were from 1972 to 1976. 13 I want to say that again: today's independents vote more predictably for one party over the other than yesteryear's partisans.

> the southern Democratic Party was an authoritarian institution that ruled autocratically in the South and that protected its autonomy by entering into a governing coalition with the national Democratic Party. The Dixiecrats gave the national Democrats the votes they needed to control Congress, and the national Democrats let the Dixiecrats enforce segregation and one-party rule at home. The Dixiecrat-Democrat pact is a powerful reminder that there are worse things than polarization, that what's now remembered as a golden age in American politics was purchased at a terrible cost.

> They chose to snap their alliance with the Dixiecrats to pursue justice. Bill Moyers, who served as special assistant to Johnson, recalls finding the president brooding in his bedroom the night he signed the Civil Rights Act. "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,"

> why didn't Republicans become the party of civil rights? Largely, Kabaservice argues, because of Goldwater: "The credit—even the glory—that the Republican Party should have enjoyed for its support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was effectively negated when its presumptive presidential nominee voted against the measure." And sure enough, Goldwater's stance against civil rights paid dividends. His disastrous presidential campaign succeeded in only one region of the country: the old Confederacy, which realized that the language of small government conservatism could be weaponized against the federal government's efforts to right America's racial wrongs.

> It is not that American politics was not riven by sharp, even violent disagreement in this era; it's simply that these fights did not map cleanly onto party. It couldn't last, and it didn't. The Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights, and the Republican Party's decision to unite behind a standard-bearer who opposed the bill, cleared the way for southern conservatives to join the Republican Party.

> the mid-twentieth century was not an era in which the world outside Washington was either serene or moderate. This was the age of Joseph McCarthy, the Vietnam War, and the draft dodger. It was a time of political assassinations, of civil rights activists being beaten on bridges, of authoritarian rule in the South, of feminists marching in the streets and Native Americans occupying Alcatraz. The irony is that the American political system was most calm and least polarized when America itself seemed to be on the verge of cracking apart.

> When polarization is driven by allegiance to political parties, it can be moderating. Political parties want to win elections, so they try to champion ideas that won't get their candidates crushed at the ballot box. People who aren't attached to one party or the other are free to hold much more unpopular opinions.

> From 1972 to 1984, the average difference between how a state voted in one presidential election and how it voted in the next was 7.7 percentage points. From 2000 to 2012, it was only 1.9 percentage points

> People with what we call a fixed worldview are more fearful of potential dangers, and are likely to prefer clear and unwavering rules to help them navigate all the threats. This mind-set leads them to support social structures in which hierarchy and order prevail, the better to ensure people don't stray too far from the straight and narrow. By contrast, people with what we call a fluid worldview are less likely to perceive the world as dangerous. By extension, they will endorse social structures that allow individuals to find their own way in life

> psychology doesn't predict political opinions among people who don't pay much attention to politics, but it's a powerful predictor of political opinions among those who do.

> We understand reasoning to be an individual act. This is, in many cases, wrong. "The central flaw in the concept of reason that animated the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is that it is entirely individualistic," writes philosopher Joseph Heath. But decades of research has proven that "reason is both decentralized and dispersed across multiple individuals. It is not possible to be rational all by yourself; rationality is inherently a collective project."

> After being exposed to the Spanish speakers on their metro lines for just three days, attitudes on these questions moved sharply rightward: The mostly liberal Democratic passengers had come to endorse immigration policies—including deportation of children of undocumented immigrants—similar to those endorsed by Trump in his campaign.

> For two hundred years, whites in America represented an undisputed politically, economically, and culturally dominant majority. When a political tribe is so overwhelmingly dominant, it can persecute with impunity, but it can also be more generous.

> between 1997 and 2007 with those that didn't. "The increase in polarization was nearly three times as large in the 28 chambers that limited party contributions as it was in the 8 chambers that allowed for unlimited contributions,"

> conservatism isn't, for most people, an ideology. It's a group identity.
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LibraryThing member swmproblems
Unbelievable book and what a great young writer of our time of national politics.
LibraryThing member erwinkennythomas
Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized is a rather revealing book. It focused on identity in politics and how this has caused Americans to become polarized. An identity covers some notable aspects in people’s lives like religion, race, geography, and psychology. These characteristics have
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intertwined and shaped, how Democrats and Republicans voted along party lines.
The end game has resulted into what the American political system has become. Klein stated that such polarization wasn’t the case in the nation’s earlier history, He explained that there were both liberal and conservative senators in both parties. Presently, he wrote the Democratic party was predominantly liberal, while the Republican party was conservative.
This divide has only deepened with the arrival of Donald Trump. He promoted the interests of White Supremacists, and propagated falsehoods. Klein viewed his ascendancy as a backlash to the years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Although he argued, Trump’s stance was meant to shore up a predominantly White base, against the diversity that has taken hold in American society. That was why Trump was seen as antagonistic to Black interests, and made controversial remarks against peaceful demonstrations.
Klein had thoughts on many aspects of the American political system. He criticized the way Mitch McConnell maneuvered the senate to select judges that upended the nature of the Supreme Court. As a result, the court became predominantly conservative that was bad for the nation instead of being balanced. Klein would do away with the filibuster in the senate that often causes gridlock. He felt that proportional representation would be a better system to elect a president and members of Congress.
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LibraryThing member Bodagirl
An accessible and insightful look at how America's political landscape has changed in the past 70 years. It was written in 2019, so doesn't take January 6, 2020 into account, but some of the suggestions Klein gives (i.e., being invovled in and paying attention to local poltics) is still useful.
LibraryThing member steve02476
Fine book, I really like Klein’s perspective on how the US political system works.

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