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Who Polarized Us?

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.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on April 10, 2020 at 08:15:17 am

This is an excellent piece, but I think misses an important point at the end. The author writes: "this isn’t a fight to retain economic and political privileges, but rather a desire for cultural and demographic stability". This sentence ought to read, ""this isn’t a fight to retain economic and political privileges, but rather a desire TO RETAIN cultural and demographic HEGEMONY" (changes in caps). I don't see how this fight happens without polarization. Both sides have legitimate concerns, to which classical liberal pluralism, in the style of Isaiah Berlin, or James Madison, offers little in the way of remedy.

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Alan Kahan
on April 10, 2020 at 09:25:15 am

A very balanced and fair review - however, the reviewer's "honestly reckoning with the grievances that Trump's election...brings to fore" phrase could have been unpacked (as he does in Whiteshift with the fight, repress, flight, and join descriptions).

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Anthony
on April 10, 2020 at 10:50:58 am

A surprisingly (because Birbeck College has been historically a left=wing bastion) perceptive review. The only thing I would add is that what allows the sacralization of blacks and hispanics by comfortably-off white college graduates (especially female suburbanites) is that they have little or no direct personal contact with the objects of their idolization.

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John Braeman
on April 10, 2020 at 13:20:03 pm

We often see significant differences between race categories when doing econometrics. If one combines that with the notion from psychology that race is irrelevant for mental development ceteris paribus, we get an empirical version of "white privilege," and this approach is fairly common among decision researchers interested in race. I have never seen a data-driven comparison of large aggregates, such as countries, that invokes race as an explanatory factor. In that context there is data on the explanatory cultural and historical events that have been associated with race.

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xkz
on April 10, 2020 at 21:11:00 pm

The Republicans aren't fact based on guns??? How so(specifically)? Quite to the contrary, actually. Also, Klein is a stereotypical leftist-no self awareness that he's leftist, not liberal. Also, the fact that his hero(FDR) set this polarization in motion when he(w/ some help from SCOTUS) created a national gov't over a federal one. Putting all that power in the central head now has a very diverse country spending all their time trying to wield that power against one another. Klein sees the symptom, not the root cause-abrogating the 10th amendment and enumerated powers. If the federal(now national) gov't hadn't accumulated all that power to begin with, there'd be less to fear regarding the "other guys", because they wouldn't have the power to do much to you in the first place. Typical progressive blind spot...

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anony
on April 13, 2020 at 08:19:44 am

Well said, Anony. Facts do not matter to the left in the gun control debate, nor in much of their thinking. Ezra Klein and Prof. Kaufmann both miss the sharp turn that “progressives” have taken to the left. Progressives used to believe in private property rights, markets (with regulation), free speech... now they propose confiscation, socialism, and silencing of everything that disagrees with them. And Klein and Kaufmann wring their hands, wondering how we became polarized.

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Charles N. Steele
on April 11, 2020 at 08:39:17 am

"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."

Is that where we are? Minorities are merely "uncomfortable" in a largely white male environment? Sandra Bland died because of discomfort? Trayvon Martin's discomfort in the white man's world caused his death?

There remain significant institutional barriers to our ideal of "equality" in America.

I have not read Klein's book. I feel that the last half of the 20th century was a wresting of power away from often lawless white rulers (where lynching was an acceptable action and 'separate but equal' was the law of the south - and redlining was a way to achieve similar goals in the north.)

I have grown up in America with a Republican Party devoted to inciting racism in order to win. They called it "The Southern Strategy" and it has been extremely effective at "othering" non-whites and people with different sexual orientations.

In this century, we've seen two (Republican) presidents emerge as victors without a popular vote. The first - Bush - won narrowly after Scalia decided to stop the vote count in a state ruled by Bush's brother. The second is this vicious, venal and utterly bankrupt man who resides in the White House today. We're not arguing over manners or "slights" or anything like that. The fate of our democracy is threatened in ways I've never witnessed before.

Trump's overt racism is appalling - and the push-back against him isn't just the actions of those"being trained by an ideology to be hypersensitive to non-slights."

Living on Main Street as I do - far away from the centers of power - I feel I live in a completely different world than the intelligentsia.

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Anna
on April 12, 2020 at 16:10:19 pm

Dream on. dearie.
Try getting your facts straight on Trayvon. I always wondered how a "hispanic white man" could be the racist villain in this charade BUT our leftie friends managed (at least for a while) to pull it off.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on April 11, 2020 at 08:41:18 am

"The Republicans could certainly be more accommodating in Congress, and Trump should better respect the norms of office..."

Oh come on. Let's be real. Remembering Merrick Garland. And the gerrymandered in red states that enabled morally bankrupt men like Mark Meadows to head to Congress. GOP is a threat to Democracy.

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Anna
on April 11, 2020 at 12:23:40 pm

Need I remind you that "gerrymandering" is an invention of the Democrat Party! Gee, do you remember the "Solid South? and how districts were apportioned such that only racist Democrats could ever hope to gain election?

Garland? Remember Cavanaugh, or Clarence Thomas and the debauchery of a hearing afforded these fine jurists?

Gee, do you know the party affiliation of the Governors who have threatened to arrst Easter Sunday church goers? or the Mayor who has threatened to both fine, then suspend and ultimately seize Church property for violating the "social distancing" policies which he himself has violated.
Why Bless My soul, it is none other than the DEMOCRAT Mayor, Comrade BIll deBalsio of NY City?

Or again, showing their love of *democratic* regimes. the Democrat Party has denied aid to Small Businesses in the US affected by this current viral hysteria and instead is pushing to free up BILLIONS of dollars in aid to, you guessed it, that well known democracy known as the Islamic Republic of Iran, in which you would be required to wear the hajib, in which your testimony is theologically considered to be less than that of a male assailant, etc etc etc.
We only ask you to cover your mouth and stop the spread of such morally confused and historically false utterances such as "GOP is a threat to Democracy."

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on April 12, 2020 at 16:06:19 pm

"GOP is a threat to Democracy."

Absolutely!
After all, the measures take to protect us from this chiComm virus are not appropriate and are an infringement on our personal liberties. such things as churches being threatened with fines, suspension or seizure (NY City), churchgoers being denied even the right to attend drive-in worship services, arrests for paddleboarding alone, playing frisbee with your daughter among others.

Oh shoot, I forgot, all of these *protective* measures were implemented by DEMOCRATS.

Here is another one from the Democrat Mayor of Beverly, Mass.

https://pjmedia.com/trending/insanity-boston-suburb-to-fine-pedestrians-for-walking-the-wrong-way-on-sidewalks/

I suppose that means that if you walk on the *right* side of the sidewalk you will be fined. Democrats do not, nor will they tolerate anyone drfiting from the prescribed "leftist" orientation.

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gabe
on April 11, 2020 at 10:01:32 am

“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.”

Regardless of our ancestry, we are all members of the human race. Although we do not choose all our relationships, we choose how we are going to behave in those relationships. In all cases, among all people, regardless of one’s beliefs, desires, inclinations, orientation, or whether one is existing in relationship as husband and wife, acts of depravity are always a perversion of authentic Love, for authentic Love, is always rightly ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of Love and thus devoid of every form of Lust. Respecting the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the human person, from the the moment of creation at conception, when all human persons are brought into being as a beloved son or daughter, has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin, but everything to do with the character of one’s heart. It is precisely because authentic Love is ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of authentic Life-affirming and Life-sustaining Love, that a man is not called to Love his wife, in the same manner as he is called to Love his daughter, or his son, or his mother, or his father, or a friend.

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Nancy
on April 11, 2020 at 13:14:10 pm

"...not fact-based when it comes to issues such as the environment or guns." What? This is a ludicrous statement - and an obvious attempt by the author to make himself appear fair and balanced in the hopes that he will earn credibility points with his political opponents. (Ugh. Faux virtue-signalling is superficial and petty)
Furthermore, the suggestion that Tucker Carlson laments ethnic change is patently false; I routinely watch his show and have never once heard such utterances. As for Laura Ingraham, I don't watch her show so I can't say.
Other than that, good article.

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Mark. M
on April 12, 2020 at 09:16:43 am

I knew that reading this book review and the book reviewed would be a waste of precious time as soon as I read this silly sentence:
"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."

After taking precious time to read the entire book review, I see that I was right. It is, indeed, a waste of time.
Don't waste time reading the book.

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Paladin
on April 12, 2020 at 09:47:03 am

“But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed.”

“Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted.”

“Hail The Cross, our Only Hope!”

“He Is Risen!”

Godspeed!

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Nancy
on April 13, 2020 at 08:36:36 am

Kaufmann barely notes in passing the rise of cultural Marxism from Marcuse, Foucault, et al. He and Klein both adopt the cultural Marxist conceptual framework; current trends must be something about dominant groups oppressing others. They won’t make any sense out of current events with this thinking.

It’s telling that Kaufmann appears to support the leftist position on gun control, which is totalitarian and fact-free, and the left’s suicidal environmental positions (Green New Deal and IPCC SR 15 both call for rapid abolition of all fossil fuels and replacement with dysfunctional “green” energy, plus top-down restructuring of all human culture.

That, plus “Trump and Republicans are bad” ... both Klein and Kaufmann seem unable to understand arguments from those who oppose the left.

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Charles N. Steele

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.