The Education of a Wonk

Ezra Klein’s ‘Why We’re Polarized’
From left to right: Lawrence Mishel, Ezra Klein, Stuart Butler (New America Foundation / Wikimedia Commons)

During the George W. Bush administration, a group of precocious bloggers stormed the progressive-media world. Dubbed the “Juicebox Mafia” for their youth, the gang included Matthew Yglesias, Dylan Matthews, and Brian Beutler, but had a clear ringleader: an affable, nerdy writer from California named Ezra Klein. Against the bumbling malevolence of the Bush administration and the perceived incompetence of the Democratic mainstream, the Juicebox Mafia was defined by a committed empiricism and faith in policy experts. Klein was scooped up by the Washington Post in 2009, where he founded its policy vertical, Wonkblog, which reveled in data and charts, economics and expertise. For one popular feature, the Wonkblog staff invited prominent politicians and public intellectuals, from Joe Biden to Thomas Piketty, to choose their “Graph of the Year.” By this point, Klein and his cohort were writing while a kindred spirit sat in the White House. Barack Obama was a frequent reader of Klein’s, and his early governing philosophy shared a certain affinity with the Juicebox Mafia: gather lots of evidence, make good arguments, and put the smart people in charge. Let technocracy reign.

Of course, things didn’t go according to plan. Congressional Democrats, who enjoyed majorities in both chambers, passed the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic policy accomplishment, by the narrowest of margins. Then came the backlash, a Tea Party wave that essentially foreclosed the possibility of major legislative action for the rest of Obama’s tenure. Whether or not Obama and sympathetic journalists had the right arguments didn't matter: Republicans in Congress adopted an explicitly obstructionist strategy, and it worked. Today, the GOP controls the lion’s share of the American state, and much of Obama’s legacy—the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement on climate change—is in tatters.

And so, for the past several years, Klein has been trying to answer a question: What happened? How did the heady days of the early Obama administration give way to Trumpism? Why did coolheaded technocracy appear so incapable of lasting policy accomplishments? Why did earnest attempts at persuasion so often fall flat?

In pursuit of answers, Klein mostly traded economics and policy analysis for the insights of academic political science. The result is his useful but ultimately disappointing new book, Why We’​re Polarized. It’s an ambitious project that tries to explain the “master story” of what’s awry in American politics, summarizing research that interrogates the growing political polarization in the United States. Klein is a lively and conversational writer; he mostly succeeds in explaining specialized journal articles and academic-press books, even if his narrative occasionally resembles a stitched-together quilt of research abstracts. But as an effort to locate the fundamental defect in American politics, Why We’​re Polarized fails to live up to its stated, rather grand ambitions. The inability of our institutions to accommodate polarization is a serious obstacle to addressing the most pressing challenges we face—namely, a fossil capitalism that is swiftly ravaging the natural basis for its own existence, and the political forces arrayed in its defense—but it is not the master problem itself.

 

Financial interests, by funding think tanks, research institutes, and university programs, have enormous say over what ideas are considered reasonable or mainstream in American politics.

Klein’s argument is made up of two parts. First, he describes how the two parties became significantly more distinct, both ideologically and demographically, over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, and how that shift has changed the way people think and behave politically. The historical narrative he spins is a familiar one. By the middle of the last century, the two major American political parties were largely incoherent. The Democratic Party was an alliance between northern liberals, racial and ethnic minorities, and southern, conservative whites. In the 1950s, a Democratic voter casting a ballot for a pro-union, pro-civil rights Senate candidate was also casting a ballot for a Senate majority that included arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. For political scientists at the time, this was a problem: political parties, in order to provide a meaningful cue to voters, should stand for something clear. The two parties would better serve the public by offering distinct platforms to which they could be held accountable.

Political scientists got what they were asking for. The New Deal coalition slowly broke apart, a split driven by the shifting partisan loyalties of conservative white voters, especially southerners, in response to the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. “Democrat” for the most part came to mean “liberal,” and “Republican” came to mean “conservative.” What’s more, Klein argues, drawing on research by University of Maryland political scientist Lilliana Mason, our political identities have in the past several decades become mega-identities. That is, racial, religious, and regional identities increasingly “line up” with our political identities. The GOP is mostly white, mostly Christian, and disproportionately rural; the Democratic party is far more diverse, far more secular, and far more urban. It’s increasingly rare for Americans to have identities that cut across, and thus moderate, their political identities—for example, a Republican who is also an atheist and a union member.

Klein marshals this research to argue that polarization—especially so-called “negative polarization,” which is driven by antipathy toward the other party—is far from incoherent. It makes sense for a Democrat to fear and loathe the GOP, as the GOP is authentically opposed to what the average Democrat believes in. More importantly for Klein, that average Democrat also disdains the GOP because it represents a set of social groups that rarely overlap with the Democratic coalition. Given the tendency of human beings to quickly form group bonds and distrust outsiders, a tendency Klein documents in exhaustive detail, it makes sense that engaged Americans aren’t really responsive to arguments that challenge their political identities. For Klein, much of what we like to think of as “rational” political thinking based on evidence and persuasion is just an elaborate attempt at in-group protection.

In the book’s second half, U.S. political institutions take center stage. Klein’s contention is that they are simply incapable of functioning under the polarized conditions he describes; indeed, these institutions have built-in incentives to further polarize the public in an endless feedback loop. For example, political campaigns have come to realize that, despite rising numbers of people describing themselves as “independents,” fewer and fewer people are actually persuadable. That means campaigns aim to activate their strongest, most polarized supporters. They do so by adopting increasingly dogmatic issue positions and rhetoric, which, of course, further polarizes the public.

In the book’s strongest chapter, Klein notes that the past forty years or so have seen remarkable partisan parity in Congress. Unlike previous eras, control of one or both of its chambers is now up for grabs nearly every election, making large-scale bipartisan cooperation irrational. If a minority party doubts it has any real chance of taking the majority, its best hope of influencing public policy is to closely cooperate with the majority. But if a minority party has a shot at taking control in the near future, it will do everything it can to sabotage the majority with the hope of being returned to power. The American political system, with its abundance of veto points, makes such sabotage easy to do, essentially guaranteeing protracted periods of gridlock. Because they serve hyperpolarized bases of voters, who of course do not want anything in the way of bipartisan cooperation, neither of the two parties are ever really punished for sabotaging the other. There’s no end to this pattern in sight.

 

There’s much to commend in Klein’s approach. He is largely right, I think, to embrace a “social group theory” of voter behavior, in which voters make decisions based less on ideology than on which candidates or parties seem most congenial with the social groups they belong to. He is also wise to home in on negative partisanship, a key fact about contemporary political life that helps explain why the two major parties have been relatively stable in their support, despite widespread dissatisfaction with both. Likewise, by treating partisan identities as mega-identities—combining the power of racial, regional, and religious loyalties—he does a lot to explain why, for example, the percentage of Americans who are comfortable with their child marrying someone of the opposite political party is at an all-time low. And Klein admirably avoids the trap, common to much writing on this topic, of treating both major parties as being polarized in equivalent ways. In fact, he correctly observes that Trump, in his gleeful stoking of white racial grievance, is far from a radical break with the contemporary Republican Party; rather, he writes, Trump is “the most authentic expression of its modern psychology.”

But Why We’re Polarized is also, at times, surprisingly sloppy. Take Klein’s discussion of money in politics. He argues that there are two main kinds of campaign donors: super-rich “transactional” donors, who corrupt the American political system, and highly ideological small donors, who polarize it. For Klein, big-dollar transactional donors dominate the small stuff; they secure tweaks to the tax code or regulatory apparatus to benefit their bottom line. The “polarizers,” however, propel the high drama of American politics—the big legislative fights, the grueling presidential campaigns.

This is almost laughably simplistic. For one thing, financial interests, by funding think tanks, research institutes, and university programs, have enormous say over what ideas are considered reasonable or mainstream in American politics. What’s more, they are often implicated in the very polarization Klein decries. The ultra-wealthy will frequently attempt to exacerbate existing social divisions, especially along racial lines. For example, the primary beneficiary of the bipartisan war on “big government” was big business—and central to that campaign was a well-funded effort to trick millions of non-wealthy whites into believing they had fallen victim to a class of poor, non-white moochers taking advantage of government benefits. The so-called “transactionalists” had to polarize the public in order to protect and expand their privileges.

In the face of coordinated corporate power, how do regular folks have a shot at having their voices heard? Through organizational and fundraising tactics which Klein would describe as “polarizing.” Pushing policies that take on the ultra-wealthy into the mainstream is essentially impossible without organized networks of highly ideological donors, voters, and activists. That is, a country without these countervailing “polarizers” is a country that has abandoned its governance to an economic and political elite—those who have the time, resources, and organizational capacity to effectively influence policy making.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much room in Klein’s model for new ideas to enter the political arena, win converts, and affect public policy. And it’s when Klein discusses the futility of such attempts at persuasion that we most acutely feel his disappointment over the Obama years. In reference to his prior journalistic approach—marshaling evidence in an attempt to persuade rational, open-minded readers on policy issues—he laments that “once our political identities and interests push themselves in front of our cognition, that model of reasoning falls to pieces.” But does it? It’s certainly quite difficult to persuade extreme partisans to switch from an issue position strongly associated with one political identity to an issue position associated with an opposing political identity. But what it means to be a part of a certain identity group is constantly in flux; that is, there’s plenty of room for writers, politicians, and activists to adjust the bounds of what a social group stands for, and therefore shift the broader, prevailing sense of what’s politically possible.

Let me offer an example of how this can work. While on his book tour, Klein did an event with the author and former Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates, with his titanic essay “The Case for Reparations,” dramatically changed what it means to identify as a racial progressive, making support for reparations something of a litmus test on the left—and that’s in no small part because he made an argument that people found persuasive. Further, because racial progressives comprise a significant portion of the Democratic primary electorate, numerous Democratic presidential candidates came out in favor of Coates’s primary policy recommendation: H.R. 40, which would create a commission to explore how reparations might be paid. Klein, I think, is too quick to liken research on identity-protective cognition to “staring into an abyss.” Persuasion isn’t dead yet; it’s just that it most often takes place within the confines of an identity group, or through making certain traits—such as economic class—more central to how people perceive their own social roles and behave in the political sphere.

 

Responding justly and humanely to the immense challenges ahead will likely require some kind of political realignment.

It’s easy to view Klein’s intellectual shift over recent years as a wonkish optimism being bludgeoned by the difficulty of political change and succumbing to a decided pessimism. That’s certainly part of the story. But Klein remains, despite all the Obama-era trauma, fundamentally an optimist about American politics. He basically admits as much in his final chapter on managing polarization, in which he proposes tweaks to make American politics just “a bit” better—after all, Klein is quick to note, American politics has been far more oppressive, cruel, and racist in the past. He suggests reforms to democratize American politics (eliminating the electoral college and granting Washington, D.C. statehood), protections to prevent partisan conflict from resulting in calamity (scrapping the debt ceiling), and measures to balance the power of the parties (guaranteeing both parties five seats on the Supreme Court, with a remaining five justices appointed, through consensus, by the partisan justices).

After implementing Klein’s recommendations, we certainly would have a political system that is somewhat more functional. But is it markedly more just? Would the central problem really have been dealt with? We’d still have a horrific climate crisis bearing down on us; we’d still have a rapacious economic system that kills people every day; we’d still have a Republican Party that is, by Klein’s own admission, a vehicle for white resentment, and a Democratic Party complicit in most of the major American crimes of the past several decades (the Iraq War, mass incarceration, a wholesale policy attack on the poor). Indeed, if we take Klein’s suggestion to find areas where we can “lower the stakes” by guaranteeing the parties “equal power,” we will have further entrenched two parties which are, as currently constituted, entirely incapable of achieving the dramatic social and economic transformation that justice requires. Certainly, taking on the forces of nativism and oligarchy is easier with functional democratic institutions. But there are numerous countries—the United Kingdom, for example—whose political institutions I’d far prefer to our own, but which remain fully susceptible to the right-wing nationalist movement currently dominating global politics.

There’s a funny moment in the book where Klein describes how the two parties used to cooperate more closely. He gives two examples: Republican legislative support for Medicare in 1965, and Bill Clinton working with Republicans to cut welfare benefits in the mid-1990s. The political system “functioned” in both of these instances, in that it produced outcomes, but what about the ideological (and moral) content of those outcomes? How did it come to be that, in 1965, a single-payer health-insurance system for elderly people was mainstream, but thirty years later, welfare rollbacks garnered bipartisan support? Explaining that dramatic shift involves explaining the end of the broad post-war truce between labor and management, and the economic and racial bases for the neoliberal turn. It requires telling a story about the political consequences of a transition in American capitalism, one which a polarization model of recent political history is largely incapable of explaining. Deeper than the rising polarization of the past several decades is a more profound fact: capitalists managed to escape the confines of social-democratic compromise and transform the priorities and ideologies of both major parties. Capitalism, as it currently exists, threatens the natural order that supports human civilization—and taking it on will require something more radical than getting rid of the filibuster.

Despite seemingly constant tumult, American politics these days is in many ways stuck. The parties in Congress are locked in a stalemate. Results in presidential elections are remarkably stable from year to year, with only the slightest of shifts deciding who prevails. But this is a historical aberration. It hasn’t always been this way. There are, in fact, alternatives. Responding justly and humanely to the immense challenges ahead will likely require some kind of political realignment. It’ll require politicians and activists—and, yes, writers and journalists and public intellectuals—working to activate new or dormant identities, and thus building coalitions broad enough to achieve reforms previously thought impossible. Political science and history can be quite useful in explaining the public as it currently exists, but avoiding calamity will mean calling forth a public that has yet to be born. Maybe Klein could be a part of that.

Why We’re Polarized
Ezra Klein
Avid Reader Press, $28, 336 pp.

Published in the April 2020 issue: 

Max Foley-Keene is a student, writer and former Commonweal intern. He lives in Maryland.

Also by this author
The Nordic Welfare Model

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Books
Collections