Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

It’s entirely possible to imagine that, this time next year, one of the many Democrats now vying to evict Donald Trump from the White House will be raising his or her right hand and reciting the oath of office. More than half the country disapproves of Trump, and the top Democrats tend to outpace him in head-to-head polls.

What’s impossible to imagine after reading Why We’re Polarized, the new book by Ezra Klein, is that the next Democratic president will actually be able to govern.

Klein, 35, first emerged during the Bush the Second years as a blogger for The American Prospect. He went mainstream at The Washington Post; at one point, his branded vertical, Wonkblog, employed eight underlings and tallied more than four million page views a month. In 2014, Klein left the Post to launch Vox, a self-anointed “explanatory journalism” site. The Internet is pummeling poor readers with more news than they can possibly hope to understand, the pitch went. What better way to help them understand than by explaining it to them in the calm, clear voice of Washington’s most popular policy nerd? Since then, Klein has partnered with Netflix for a series called (what else?) Explained, and hosted nearly 300 episodes of his podcast, The Ezra Klein Show.

Yet only now has Klein done his duty as a Prominent Media Figure and written a proper book. In one sense, Why We’re Polarized reads like the world’s longest Vox explainer. Its title follows the Vox formula: Big Problem, Explained. So does the subject matter: the problem of polarization, it turns out, was the focus of Klein’s very first Vox piece, a six-year-old essay called “How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” which resurfaces here.

In one sense, Why We’re Polarized reads like the world’s longest Vox explainer.

Voxiest of all, perhaps, is Klein’s style. The signposting is incessant: “It is worth pausing here to emphasize”; “Reflect on that for a second”; “So let me say this clearly”; “All of this points toward an important principle”; “Here, then, is what we know”; “Just so we’re all on the same page.” Such hand-holding saves Klein’s readers the trouble of having to think too much, but it also starts to feel performative and even patronizing after a thousand words or so.

Why We’re Polarized is part Vox adaptation, part horror story. Here, a neo-Nazi group burns a swastika after a rally in Draketown, Georgia.

Evidently Klein is concerned that we might get lost, and also eager to show us how concerned he is. In fact, he is so concerned that he has inserted a helpful “Interlude” halfway through, summarizing his argument so far. “Let’s take a moment to put it all together,” Klein proposes. “Polarization isn’t something that happened to American politics. It’s something that’s happening to American politics.” This is the tone of TED Talks, of Gladwellian airport best-sellers and Pete Buttigieg’s animatronic debate performances. “Wonksplaining,” you might call it.

Substance over Style

Fortunately, the substance of Why We’re Polarized means it’s more than just a feature-length Vox adaptation. It’s also a horror story. Stylistic tics aside, Klein is skilled at synthesizing various strands of social and political science into a lucid whole. The result is that his account of what plagues America steadily accrues the inexorable logic of a nightmare. Our systems and psychologies are chasing our politics off a cliff. And we probably can’t wake up.

Once upon a time, both parties were ideologically and demographically diverse; there were conservative Dixiecrats in the South and liberal Republicans in the North. But the civil-rights movement “broke that equilibrium” and “triggered an era of party sorting.” Democrats became almost exclusively liberal; Republicans became uniformly conservative. Hatred and fear of the other side intensified accordingly. At the same time, our partisan identities began to merge with our racial, religious, geographic, cultural, and psychological identities, and the parties sorted themselves along those lines as well. Politics, in turn, became a “mega-identity”: a way to express who we are (and, just as importantly, who we aren’t).

Our systems and psychologies are chasing our politics off a cliff. And we probably can’t wake up.

In an era of “profound, powerful social change,” America has split itself into two rival teams: “Groups that are rising in power” and “want their needs reflected in politics and culture” (Democrats) and “groups that feel themselves losing power” and “want to protect the status and privileges they’ve had” (Republicans). Reams of psychological research have shown how easily we form group attachments, how strongly we perceive group difference, and how ferociously we prioritize group advantage. Any conflict that “activates” one of our identities now activates them all, driving us further apart. Meanwhile, our political institutions—our identity-driven media, our play-to-the-base elections, our partisan Supreme Court, our gerrymandered House, our unrepresentative Senate—have the same aggravating effect.

Barack Obama addresses a crowd for the first time after winning the presidential election. In his book, Ezra Klein offers an explanation for how we got from there to here.

This isn’t surprising stuff, no matter how often Klein urges us to “pause” and “reflect” on what he writes. Still, there’s real force in seeing it all stitched together. Perplexed by the people who voted for a black man named Barack Hussein Obama and the borderline white-nationalist Trump? Confused by all the Evangelicals who seem to worship our lying, cheating, thrice-married Pussy-Grabber in Chief? Perturbed that a president with a record-low approval rating could still win re-election simply because so many Americans assume the other party’s nominee would be even worse—no matter who that nominee is? Internalize Klein’s unified theory of 21st-century identity politics and suddenly all the near-psychedelic political paradoxes of the last four years make sense. Big problem, explained.

It’s Complicated

In this case, however, understanding the problem won’t help us solve it. Rather, it only helps us understand how unsolvable the problem really is. To his credit, Klein doesn’t claim otherwise. “I should level with you,” he writes in his concluding chapter. “I don’t like concluding chapters. Authors write whole books about devilishly complex social problems and then pretend they can be solved in a few bullet points. I have more confidence in my diagnosis than my prescription.”

And with good reason. House Republicans could gain ground in 2020, and Senate Democrats may never again secure the 60 seats required to overcome the filibuster and pass legislation. Even if the Democrats do win a slim majority, Mitch McConnell will probably still be calling the G.O.P.’s shots—the same Mitch McConnell who led a decade-long war against Obama’s Republican-designed health-care reforms and refused to acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Court nominee his own lieutenant once described as a “consensus” pick. No part of President Bernie Sanders’s $51 trillion, 10-year agenda—or President Elizabeth Warren’s $30 trillion agenda, President Buttigieg’s $5.5 trillion agenda, or President Joe Biden’s $4.1 trillion agenda—is getting through Congress. Klein’s suggestion that we depolarize and denationalize ourselves through mindfulness—“Be mindful of which of our identities are being activated,” he writes, while “rooting more of our political identities in the places we live”—won’t change that. It also won’t change social media’s bias toward outrage, or the ideological and demographic sorting of America, or the institutional feedback loops that make all of this worse.

“I have more confidence in my diagnosis than my prescription.”

To be fair, some of Klein’s other tips could help: abandon the Electoral College, kill the filibuster, make voting easier, depoliticize the Supreme Court, grant statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. The problem is that most of these proposals also need bipartisan support to pass. At first, Buttigieg was campaigning on a similar set of fixes; he’s since pivoted to more crowd-pleasing, Biden-esque pabulum about bringing America together. Warren still recognizes reality; many of her plans are designed to circumvent congressional barriers through executive action or budget reconciliation. Then again, she’s been dropping in the polls since October.

Fighting talk: Klein points out the very real possibility of another Trump victory simply because so many Americans assume the other party’s nominee would be even worse.

And so we’re back where we began. For the next 10 months, America will participate in a national charade of sorts. Democrats will promise big things: universal health care, free college, the demise of structural racism. Such promises have always been hard to keep; now they seem laughable. If Trump secures a second term, his chaotic interregnum will continue. But at least that will eventually end. If a Democrat displaces him, a new, less Twitteresque era will begin: the age of government as existential farce, in which nothing gets done that the other party’s next president can’t, and won’t, undo.

Excuse me while I work on my mindfulness practice.

Andrew Romano is a national correspondent for Yahoo News, where he writes a daily column about the 2020 election