Donald Trump once famously said that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and he would not lose a vote, and a significant proportion of the US population still appears to support him. Trump’s ascension to the highest office has marked a symbolic apogee in our polarization.
But has such combative language been a constant of our political discourse, or is it new? Ezra Klein’s recent book, Why We’re Polarized, explores the reasons why we Americans are so at odds with each other. The answer that Klein gives is multifaceted and subtle.
Klein’s book attempts to answer two questions that are closely related but not identical: how and why Americans have become polarized. Klein answers the first question by drawing on the history of journalism and political science and examining the American governmental system and its racialized history. He addresses the second question by looking at social and evolutionary biology.
Journalism and Politics
Klein argues that a series of feedback loops of polarization are manifested in some of the institutions that shape our politics, including the media, social media, the Republican and Democratic parties and think tanks. For Klein, polarization is a technical term that describes how the two major political parties are sorted based on policy and identity issues:
Let’s start with polarization versus sorting, using cannabis policy as an example. Imagine a hundred person America, where forty people want cannabis outlawed, forty want it legalized, and twenty aren’t sure. If the Democratic and Republican Parties find themselves with an equal number of members from each group, America is totally unsorted. Now imagine that everyone who wants to legalize cannabis moves into the Democratic Party, everyone who wants to outlaw it joins the Republican Party, and the undecided voters are split evenly between the two parties. Now the parties are perfectly sorted.
Polarization, for Klein, is an extreme form of political sorting that emphasizes issue-based and policy-based divisions between the parties. The origins of this process can be traced to the mid twentieth century, when a sizable minority of Americans said that there was no substantial ideological difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Some contemporary political scientists argued that, if the Republican and Democratic parties were insufficiently differentiated, and, if the parties were the main vehicle through which the citizens exercise their political rights, then, if the parties aren’t differentiated enough, democratic rights will be weakened. If each party is roughly the same ideologically, it doesn’t really matter which party you vote for since the same policies will be implemented regardless.
In addition to the push by academics to differentiate the parties, historical factors related to race led to our polarization. Klein speculates that there were four political parties in the United States during the mid-twentieth century: liberal Republicans, conservative Republicans, northern Democrats and southern Dixiecrats. The fact that each party had an internal progressive and conservative polarity had a moderating effect, since internal party disputes tend to end in compromise, while intra-party disputes increase polarization. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by Lyndon Baines Johnson initiated the uni-polarization of each party. The Democrats would come to be defined as the party of civil rights and economic populism (LBJ also instituted the great society reforms and the war on poverty), while the Republicans, following in the footsteps of Barry Goldwater and Strom Thurman, would define themselves as the party of small government and social conservatism.
In the years following the Civil Rights Act, citizens began to sort themselves into parties based on more than just political ideology. Political identities were transfigured into mega identities. The Republican Party would not only be a party of small government, but of white America, Christian America, rural America, older America and so forth; the Democratic Party, conversely, would be the party of urbanites, secularists, racial minorities, youths, the sexually diverse, etc. This decades-long process has been amplified, in part, by changes to the media landscape. The profit motive in media organizations incentivizes conflict (which is good for business) and this lends itself to increased polarization.
Aristotle, in his Politics, writes that “The state is a creation of nature, and … man is by nature a political animal.” But the same nature that makes humans into political or—as Aquinas glosses it—civic or social animals can make us antisocial as well. Klein discusses two aspects of this: first, humans have strong in-group preferences that can be activated by the most minimal differentiating features, such as what kinds of art each group prefers. Second, we are often willing to harm our own group if it means hurting an opposing group more. The studies that Klein cites are meant to put to rest the idea that group conflict is primarily grounded in scarcity of material resources. Writing of Henri Tajfel, proponent of social identity theory, Klein summarises:
The boys in his studies often had nothing to gain—and sometimes even had something to lose—by punishing those they believed, based on flimsy and false categorizations, to be different from them. Far from their behavior showing a pure desire to maximize their group’s gains, they often gave their group less to increase the difference between them and the outgroup. Far from the money being the prime motivator, “it is the winning that seems more important to them,” wrote Tajfel.
These tendencies form the basis of negative partisanship: the most politically engaged are driven not by love of their own group, but by a powerful hatred of an opposing one. Not only does our nature bias us towards strong ingroup preferences, it also blinds us to the arguments presented by the other side. Klein documents various studies that show that the most politically engaged commit astounding reasoning errors when faced with facts that challenge their ideology. This calls into question the efficacy of deliberative approaches to politics.
At the end of Klein’s book, he offers four suggestions as to how to ameliorate some of these problems.
First, he proposes “bombproof[ing] the government’s operations against political disaster,” i.e. ensuring that government institutions are safeguarded from catastrophe by implementing checks on volatile apparatuses, e.g. by reforming the debt ceiling.
Second, Klein proposes that we eliminate the filibuster and electoral college and reform the way that we do redistricting.
Third, Klein advocates creating a balanced political setting in which the parties can compete against each other. This would entail reforms to the structures of certain institutions to dilute specific influences. For example, we must avoid packing of the Supreme Court, Klein argues.
Finally, Klein proposes that people engage in mindful meditation upon their identities and focus more on local politics.
So what are we to make of all this? First, it is interesting that, despite the fact that the theoretical substructure of Klein’s text is based on findings from social psychology, the influence of that literature is largely absent from Klein’s suggestions for ameliorating polarisation. For example, Koomen and van der Pligt have found that mixed ethnic neighborhoods help prevent political radicalization. These findings could be used to influence policies that encourage more diverse neighborhoods and reduce the urban-rural divide that dominates our politics. Klein does not take this into account.
Second, Klein’s text minimizes economic factors. Although Klein touches on economics briefly, when he analyzes the geographical divide in our politics, he does not give such factors much of a causative role. This is probably because he considers economic factors to be subsumed in our larger political mega identities. However, as Koomen and van der Pligt have shown, economic inequality between groups can lead to political radicalization. Though Klein admits that polarization is manifested in all of our major institutions, the book suggests that the media and the political parties are the main relevant actors and thus Klein underestimates economic factors.
Finally, Klein’s book is slanted towards a neoliberal, technocratic worldview. This is why its explanatory model is social psychology and not philosophy, theology or the history of ideas and why it focuses on the historical permutations of our political parties and not the general transition our culture has undergone (though Klein does touch on the latter in his discussion of demographics) and perhaps why economic factors are not addressed as much, since most of our polarization happened under a neoliberal policy regime.
However, this is not to say that Klein’s analysis is not true or useful. Why We’re Polarized is a lucid and cogent description of how some of the forces of polarization have manifested themselves over some sixty years of American life, and, though it is not objectively correct on all points, it provides a useful lens through which to view our society.