Making sense of what happens when vast swathes of the electorates of liberal democracies feel ill-served by their political parties and institutions.
Ezra Klein is an enigma. He runs Vox, a partisan left-wing news website. He lobs softball questions to the many progressive scholars appearing on his podcast who draw sweeping conclusions about racism and sexism based on unfalsifiable critical theory, personal anecdote, and cherry-picked historical episodes.
And yet, when it comes to his own analysis and writing in his new book Why We’re Polarized, he is open-minded, rational, and rigorous, sticks to representative data and quantitative studies, and is mindful of partisan bias. He doesn’t fully escape the trap he dubs “identity-protective cognition taking precedence over truth-based reasoning,” but only succumbs to it toward the end of the book. This is not serious enough to mar his valuable account of why American politics has grown so polarized and paralyzed. However, his inability to honestly grapple with the sacralization of race, gender, and sexuality on the Left and with the legitimacy of borders and cultural conservatism prevents him from honestly reckoning with the grievances that Trump’s election—and that of national populists in Europe—brings to the fore.
The Origins of Polarization
He takes us back to the period from World War II to the 1980s, when ideology and party had little to do with each other. The Democrats brought northern white ethnics, liberal reformers, and conservative Southern Dixiecrats together. The Republicans united both liberal and conservative white Protestants from outside the South with the small pre-Civil Rights African-American vote. Issues were hashed out within, rather than between, parties. Politics was often local, centred on personalities, with party and ideology a secondary consideration. In Congress, representatives voted with their narrow bloc or for local interests, often crossing the aisle to unite with factions in the opposing party. The atmosphere on Capitol Hill was chummy, with friendship across party lines and broad-based support for congressional norms and customs.
Yet, as Klein notes, this consensus was premised on exclusion. The cultural practices and bipartisan understandings that bound the American polity together were those of white men, limiting opportunities for women and African-Americans. Highly pressing imperatives such as anti-lynching laws or civil rights fell prey to Dixiecrat veto players in the Democratic Party. This explains why, under Johnson’s Democratic presidency, more Republicans than Democrats voted for his landmark Civil Rights Act while Johnson sighed that he had just “lost the South for a generation” as he signed the Act. Klein also reminds us that bitter and violent social conflicts over race, McCarthyism, and Vietnam coexisted with bipartisan moderation.
The descent into polarization stems, ironically, from America addressing its blind spots on race, gender, and sexuality. These undermined the white male Christian consensus, ushering in an age of identity politics. Like twisting a Rubik’s cube, things become messier as we try to solve a problem. The question is whether we can put the consensus back together on a more equal footing. At present, Klein concludes, this seems doubtful.
Klein does a good job of synthesizing the latest findings in political science to show that polarization is a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, politicians became a bit more polarized in the 1980s. This clarified choices for voters, helping ideology and politics line up better. This in turn prompted politicians to craft increasingly partisan messages. As Alan Abramowitz notes, there was no relationship between a state’s ideology and its party preference in the 1974-82 period, but by 2012 there was a tight .8 correlation, with Utah and Wyoming at one end and DC at the other. Another reason for the change is rising education, which helped more voters correctly identify which ideologies are associated with which party. As Abramowitz shows, well-educated whites who scored high in racial resentment were already Republican prior to Obama, but Obama’s election drove the connection home to less-educated whites.
As parties coalesced around increasingly fixed ideological packages, voters whose views on different issues deviated from the ideological script began taking cues from their party as to how to position themselves on questions like abortion, tax cuts, or police racism. The electorate was sorting, which in turn created stronger incentives for moderate politicians to tack to the extremes, especially during primary season, when die-hard activists matter most. Even at election time, it became more important to fire up turnout among the base than appeal to floating voters in the middle.
This favors firebrand candidates who eschew moderation and break bipartisan traditions. Klein cites the example of Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who supported Obamacare in return for more money for his state but was punished by Nebraskans for backing an unpopular ideology. In the past, he would have been rewarded, but now, local and state politics are oriented around national fights. The collapse of localism and rise of national media, parties, and issues makes compromise difficult and incentivizes ideological purity: when Howard Dean openly questioned the Iraq War, he broke bipartisan protocol but won plaudits from his leftist base.
Changes in the media landscape added fuel to the fire. First cable and talk radio, and later the internet, revolutionized the press. The decline of the Big Three television networks and loss of advertising monopolies in major newspaper markets forced the media to chase clicks, something Klein admits even he has engaged in! The surest way to do so, says Klein, is to play to people’s identities. With social media metrics and algorithms, the media has become adept at tapping into our tribal loyalties. This might not matter if our attachments cross-cut each other, but they are becoming more “stacked,” with, for instance, party lining up with race, religion, locale, and even consumer choices, as political scientists Marc Hetherington and Joseph Weiler point out in their book Prius or Pickup?
Polarization and Identity
We are psychologically wired to be tribal, and our media environment is becoming finely tuned to group reflexes, drowning out more nuanced, holistic worldviews. Klein usefully reminds us that this is not entirely new: a century ago, newspapers were also nakedly tribal, a legacy carried forth in newspapers like the Arizona Republican, named during the partisan 1890s.
Behind it all, says Klein, is demographic change. The country’s rising diversity, both social and ethnic, is oxygen for the partisan machine. In 1952, 95 percent of party supporters on both sides were white, so neither Republicans nor Democrats thought of their adversaries as anything but. Today, around half of Democratic voters are minorities, compared to just 10 percent of Republicans. 90 percent of African-Americans vote Democratic, as do 70 percent of Latinos and Asians.
Perceptions are even more skewed than reality. Republicans believe Democratic voters are 46 percent black and 38 percent lesbian, gay or bisexual. The actual figures are 24 and 6 percent. Meanwhile, Democrats believe 44 percent of Republicans earn over $250,000 a year, compared to the actual 2 percent. More recent work also shows that Democrats underestimate the share of Republicans who think “racism still exists in America” by a whopping 30 points. And highly-educated Democrats are three times more skewed in their perception of Republicans than less-educated Democrats. Survey experiments show that these perceptions, especially the racial ones, underpin partisanship. When white Democrats are told in experiments that their party is reaching out to Latinos, they grow colder towards their party and more inclined to switch.
Party identities increasingly take on a life of their own, organizing social life, community, media, and consumer taste, helping solidify feelings about the other side. Increasingly, people vote negatively against their rivals rather than positively in favor of their own. Negative partisanship increasingly extends to relationships: in 1960, no more than 5 percent of people cared if their child married someone of the opposite party. Today, nearly half do. This is especially pronounced among people who follow politics and are highly educated.
There are gaps in Klein’s account. He largely omits the growing activism of the feminist and gay rights movements and the rise of an influential urban youth culture which has injected social diversity into the electorate. Women, gays, and well-educated young people have been at the forefront of a post-1960s identity politics revolution. But even this might have taken a more narrowly group-interested form had it not been for the “cultural turn” of the Left, in which intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault built on an earlier bohemian tradition of cultural radicalism to supersede Marxism’s emphasis on class. The reputation of Marxism had been mauled by Stalin’s excesses in the 30s, and many on the Left were looking elsewhere for inspiration. No wonder they seized upon anticolonialism and the new identity movements in a way their communist forbears of the 1910s did not. These trends were arguably as important for whites in revolt against their own culture as for minorities.
Aside from a throwaway line or two, Klein misses the crucial synergy between minority movements and leftist ideology. He shies away from taking too close a look at his tribe: the largely white 8 percent of Americans the Hidden Tribes report labels Progressive Activists. Commenting on Matt Yglesias’ Great Awokening among white liberals—who are now more likely to see America as racist than black liberals—Klein hints that greater sensitivity to minority concerns is an inevitable adjustment to demographic realities. This ignores the fact that the Awokening is an ideological innovation, a fundamentalist upsurge of John McWhorter’s religion of antiracism, in which white liberals worship at the feet of high priests like Ta-Nehisi Coates, eagerly lapping up his anti-white sermons. As allies, they achieve moral purity, this-worldly absolution, and a superior status to their un-woke brethren.
The wave of woke innovations—from trans activism to microaggressions to white fragility—is treated as an overdue ‘democratization of discomfort’ caused by demographic shifts. But Klein seems to elide the distinction between feeling uncomfortable as a minority in a largely white male environment and being trained by an ideology to be hypersensitive to non-slights like someone wearing a Chinese prom dress, saying “you guys,” or writing a novel about minority characters. The rising number of Catholics and Jews in American universities at midcentury did not produce a trope of “Protestant fragility” or “Protestant privilege,” yet the rising share of nonwhites is supposed to explain the progressive obsession with “white privilege.”
Klein hasn’t imbibed the wisdom of Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s The Rise of Victimhood Culture: that feeling disrespected or offended is largely a cultural construct. Being outraged by a speaker you haven’t heard of addressing an audience somewhere on campus is not an untutored reaction, but a cultivated ideological performance. Reporting this to the campus authorities while drumming up a flash mob on twitter is an irrational “speech is violence” response that bears a resemblance, say the authors, to Aaron Burr challenging Alexander Hamilton to a duel over an insult.
Politics and Culture
Klein is correct that Republicans have played congressional hardball and that the right-wing media is partisan and often not fact-based when it comes to issues such as the environment or guns. But he fails to see that contemporary progressivism contains a fundamentalist impulse that warps judgment on its holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality. On these questions, many media outlets are unable to see that they are guided by faith rather than reason. Diversity and change are not moral absolutes, but properties of a nation which people have a greater or lesser taste for—a disposition that is half genetic.
As I argue in my book Whiteshift, these are questions we should be able to calmly discuss and compromise over. Lamenting ethnic change, as Laura Ingraham or Tucker Carlson have (perhaps clumsily), is not the sin Klein suggests it is unless their statements reflect hostility toward an outgroup rather than attachment to an in-group or to the traditional ethnic composition of America. And decades of psychological research confirms that these sentiments are not correlated. To render the least charitable interpretation of Ingraham and Carlson’s remarks in an attempt to land the “racist” jab drives an important conversation underground, where it festers, fanning polarization.
Klein usefully writes that the Right envies the Left’s cultural and demographic advantage while the Left envies the Right’s political power and money. Yet when it comes to the changes which conservative voters are responding to, he never considers that this isn’t a fight to retain economic and political privileges, but rather a desire for cultural and demographic stability. Here he might cast a sideways glance at Europe, which lacks America’s history of racial inequality but has very similar populist movements concerned with immigration and demographic change.
The Republicans could certainly be more accommodating in Congress, and Trump should better respect the norms of office, but once you enact sacred values that place topics like immigration restrictions beyond the pale, compromise becomes impossible and populist pressures build up. Radical progressivism has sought to engineer change by working within institutions like the courts, academia, media, and corporations, enshrining progressive aims and speech bans which run counter to the preferences of the median voter. This elite strategy bypasses public opinion, producing a frustration with the status quo, which Trump and his European equivalents key into.
Klein has written a first-class account of polarization. But he has failed to produce the self-examination of progressive sacred values that must occur before an accommodation with conservative America can emerge.