The most interesting and useful parts of Ezra Klein’s new book, Why We’re Polarized—and those who are familiar with Klein mainly from his journalism may be surprised to learn that there are interesting and useful parts—are the most despair-inducing ones. And this is a despair-inducing book. If Klein is correct in his fundamental argument, then there is very little reason to believe that the stupidity and ugliness of our current Kulturkampf politics are likely to abate, because they are less a defect of our politics and more a defect of ourselves, or an aspect of ourselves, if you prefer less judgmental language.
(I prefer more judgmental language.)
Klein deforms what might have been a very interesting and valuable book by shoehorning a preexisting, self-serving progressive master-narrative into his larger account. You know the one, or can guess: This is all really, at heart, about Republican racism.
In the book’s best and most thought-provoking chapters, Klein deftly runs through the findings and commonalities of a number of academic studies, mostly psychological, of group dynamics and group polarization. Some of this stuff is, as Klein writes, terrifying and insane-seeming. In one experiment, a group of boys is shown a cluster of dots projected on a screen and asked to estimate the number of dots. They are then divided into two groups, the over-estimators and the under-estimators—or so they are told. In reality, they are divided up randomly. But even with so thin a purported commonality (entirely fictitious in reality), the boys quickly develop classic in-group/out-group behavior when asked to allocate money among members of both groups: “A large majority of the subjects in all groups . . . gave more money to members of their own group than to members of the other group,” the authors of the study report. What is even more remarkable is that the boys were always giving money to others, never to themselves, so their bias against the out-group was not the result of immediate self-interest.
Other very narrow slivers of common identity proved very effective at provoking the same kind of group dynamics: Another group was divided up by whether the boys preferred a painting by Paul Klee or one by Wassily Kandinsky (again, a ruse, in reality a random division). The results were not encouraging:
This time, the setup was designed to test whether making money for their group or screwing over the outsiders was more important for the assembled kids. In some scenarios, the boys would have to choose between maximizing the amount of money everybody received and maximizing how much more their group got even it if meant their group got less in total. The latter proved the more popular option. Reflect on that for a second: they preferred to give their group less so long as it meant the gap between what they got and what the out-group got was bigger.
Those of us who have followed the “inequality” debate are perhaps a little less surprised by that than are such entrepreneurial instigators of the “inequality” debate as Ezra Klein. And those of us who are on the right may be a little less sanguine than Klein is when thinking about how this plays out in academic life or in the media—which, Klein preposterously insists, are not actually all that left-leaning.
Still, Klein writes these chapters with a real sense of the human folly—and human tragedy—he is describing. His pessimistic premise is both interesting and persuasive, and though he avoids both the most straightforward kind of language and its most worrisome implications, it amounts to a soft form of biological determinism. In short: Human beings have immutable psychological characteristics that are observable in childhood and generally stable in adulthood; these psychological characteristics exercise profound influence on political affiliation; consequently, political affiliation in our time is more a statement about what kind of person you understand yourself to be than about what you think about taxes or entitlement reform. Hence:
As the political coalitions split by psychology, membership in one or the other becomes a clearer signal, both to ourselves and to the world, about who we are and what we value. When we participate in politics to solve a problem, we’re participating transactionally. But when we participate in politics to express who we are, that’s a signal that politics has become an identity. And that’s when our relationship to politics, and to each other, changes.
But does it change? Or, more to the point, has it changed? Is our current political moment polarized in a way more dramatic than the polarization of the 1960s? In 1967, 26 people died in riots in Newark, New Jersey; 43 people were killed in riots in Detroit; similar riots took place in more than 100 U.S. cities from Omaha and Tampa to Minneapolis and Milwaukee, many bad enough that the National Guard had to be deployed. Thousands were injured. Things grew worse the next year. Are things worse today?
Klein mistakes the emergence of political parties that are more homogeneous—more polarized, as Klein would have it—with a polity that is more polarized or, more precisely, that is more uniformly polarized. The parties are more ideologically homogeneous today than they were in 1960, but that homogeneity is far from consistent. Views about abortion and gun control break down along pretty neat partisan lines, but views about trade and immigration do not (although the old union-hall hostility toward low-wage immigrants, voiced by Bernie Sanders as recently as the 2016 primary, seems to be attenuated among Democrats today). In 2016, Republicans nominated Donald Trump, the least ideologically conservative of the primary candidates by far, one who had at times identified as a Democrat and had voiced typically Democratic positions on abortion, gun control, homosexual marriage, and the like.
And while it is easy to exaggerate the polarization of the parties, the political space itself—by which I mean the range of acceptable mainstream political opinion—has narrowed, at least on the very issue at the heart of Klein’s analysis: race. In 1955, you could hold office as an enthusiastic segregationist and white supremacist or as an enthusiastic desegregationist and committed anti-racist. In 2020, you cannot: Where there were two poles, there is now a single consensus. Even if you believe that Donald Trump is an Orval Faubus at heart, the fact that he might be obliged to pretend to be an admirer of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a fundamental shift in our racial politics. The issue of race—or at least the kind of vulgar, open, unapologetic bigotry that we used to mean by the word racism—is one of the few fronts on which we have managed to push forward a few inches toward a more humane consensus.
As Klein’s Vox colleague Julia Azari put it, we find ourselves in a perverse situation of weak parties and strong partisanship. The parties are labels, not organizations, with the organizing activities of politics having been delegated to other groups. In that sense, it is natural that they would become more polarized, and it was easier to polarize them once their operational character had been diminished. But while the parties have grown more distinct as identities—more polarized, in the sense Klein uses the term here—at least one very important part of our politics has grown less polarized in the same sense, in a way that undercuts Klein’s efforts to put racism at the center of his story.
Klein’s answer is that the politics of racial resentment exhibits a kind of ubiquitous predominance in 2020 that it did not have in 1967 because the population is changing, because there is what he calls a “browning of America.” He implicitly says that white Americans believed they could afford to be more liberal about race and power when it looked as if their race would effectively have all the power. They were accommodating because they believed that other races would share power at their sufferance, and they would share power only on terms that were amenable to the white majority—an attitude that has been turned on its head with the diminution of the white political monopoly. For that reason, Klein’s argument is that race drives the polarization of American politics today in an especially powerful way—even as such memorable events as Dwight Eisenhower’s calling out the 101st Airborne to protect black students in Little Rock seem as distant as General Ross’s burning of Washington in 1814.
There is certainly some truth to the hypothesis that right-wing populism is related to white demographic decline. But Klein leans rather too heavily on race to the exclusion of other considerations. For example, he notes that there are right-wing populist movements rising up around the world, and that they do not share any common attitude on things like taxes or welfare policies. (Which makes one wonder what “right-wing” and “populist” mean in that context.) All they have in common, Klein writes, is that they oppose immigration, especially when the immigrants are brown and Muslim. Now, perhaps the attitude of the American right and the European right toward Islam is sometimes hysterical, and increasingly hysterical as one approaches the populist fringes. But Klein might have considered that hesitation about the “brown and Muslim” is a fixation of the brown bits of the populist right, too, for instance the government of Narendra Modi’s BJP. In August 2001, almost no one in the United States was giving a second’s thought to immigration from Muslim countries; in September 2001, they were, and being “brown” had very little, if anything, to do with it.
But for the left, “Muslim” and “brown” are near-synonyms. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, David Sirota, last seen advising Bernie Sanders’s campaign, offered a daft little prayer that the bombers would turn out to be white terrorists rather than Muslim jihadists, and they ended up being a double dip: Islamic radicals and literal Caucasians. The more things you lump together, the less useful your lump becomes.
In the end, Klein proves to be a practitioner of the very adolescent us-and-them politics he would have us transcend. There is no more damning accusation in American public life than the accusation of racism, and it is therefore irresistible for progressives to characterize conservatives as racists. And, beyond that, Klein joins with his fellow progressives in defining conservatism itself as racism. For instance, he writes that the Dixiecrat senator Strom Thurmond “wasn’t just a conservative on race…he was a conservative on everything.” Oh? Barry Goldwater, “Mr. Conservative,” did not have Strom Thurmond’s views on race: He helped to fund desegregation lawsuits out of his own pocket. Neither did Senator Robert Taft have Thurmond’s views: The senator known in his day as “Mr. Republican” tried to put together a civil-rights act in 1946. The point of this is not that we should vindicate midcentury Republicans or damn Democrats. It is that Klein is building a model of the political world that is so schematic as to be of no use.
Klein suggests that if Trump voters had been genuinely motivated by economic anxiety rather than racial anxiety, then they would have rallied behind some form of left-wing populism rather than right-wing populism. This oversimplifies the relationship between economic self-interest, economic policy preferences, and cultural attitudes. For example, African-American voters generally support policies of redistribution and income support more strongly than white voters do. This leads certain conservative critics to write idiotic essays about the “welfare plantation,” the purported exchange of political support for government checks. What is more, African Americans are, on average, poorer than whites, which would seem to make that preference a matter of ordinary economic self-interest.
The more complicated truth is that affluent black voters who are unlikely ever to receive welfare benefits are significantly more supportive of such programs than are the lower-income black voters more likely to benefit from them. In fact, the best data we have show that narrow economic self-interest is not a very good predictor of policy preferences for voters of any race. Rich people who advocate higher taxes on the wealthy are celebrated for their enlightenment; poor people who worry about welfare dependency (having, perhaps, some intimate experience with it) are derided as rubes who “vote against their own interests,” as though immediate and personal economic benefits were the only kind of interest, or the only kind of interest that is legitimate.
To the extent that race is an important factor in the calculus of social affiliation, it is sure to exercise some influence on economic-policy preferences, as it does on so many aspects of American life. But Klein does not understand race as a factor—he understands it as a skeleton key.
That key does not open the lock on every political conundrum. Dwight Eisenhower, civil-rights advocate facing a Southern electorate convulsed by Brown v. Board of Education, won a slightly larger share of votes in the old Confederacy than Barry Goldwater would a few years later running as an opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. How did that happen? The story is more complicated than Klein’s just-so tale allows for.
This kind of blithe self-assurance runs through the book. E.g.: “Both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush signed legislation raising taxes, for instance. That would be unthinkable in today’s Republican Party, where almost every elected official has signed a pledge promising never to raise taxes under any circumstances.” In reality, at least one prominent Republican seeking high office—Donald Trump—has raged that Wall Street sharks do not pay enough in taxes, and in 2017 Republicans imposed a substantial tax increase on a large part of the country’s highest earners by limiting the federal deductibility of state and local taxes. If Klein thought a little bit about it, he might see that that deviation from the Republican playbook actually fits quite nicely into his psychological account. But it does not fit into his political account, and so he simply proceeds as though it did not happen.
What actually has happened is not so much a change in our politics as a change in our private lives that has left a great vacuum into which the fumes of politics have been sucked by a nation of partisan paint-huffers. The decline and delay of marriage and parenthood, changes in the nature of work (especially more frequent changes in employer), declining church attendance and civic engagement, etc., have left many people (men more intensely) without traditional sources of status, belonging, and community. At the same time, social media and related phenomena have reduced the cost of the most shallow kind of political participation, and hence the affective polarization of our time—a polarization not of political ideas but of political mood.
Ezra Klein’s affect—smug, po-faced, cocksure—surely has contributed to the agitation. But he’s mostly just along for the ride. There is much that is of genuine interest in Why We’re Polarized, but the book is also a case study in the phenomenon it would describe, an intellectual ouroboros, swallowing its own tail and its own tale.
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