In more than 15 years as a political journalist, Ezra Klein has worn many hats. Klein got his start in the liberal blogosphere of the early 2000s before co-founding Vox, spiritual homeland of the journalist-as-wonk, where he is now editor-at-large. In between he’s supported the Iraq War, then opposed it; lionized Paul Ryan as a serious and “daring” policy thinker, then, eight years too late, thought better of it; made fun of the DC media establishment, then joined it. During this time Klein has been “a blogger, a newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, a long-form editor, an opinion columnist, a cable news host, a social media personality, a viral video star, a podcaster, and a media entrepreneur,” he tells us in his new book, Why We’re Polarized. Today, he writes at another point, he’s “a journalist, a pundit, and a cofounder of Vox, the explanatory news site.”
To inhabit multiple identities like this is, of course, a feature common to all our lives — indeed, it’s a central theme of Why We’re Polarized. Yet despite the tensions this tangle of personal brands necessarily produces — one minute a savvy entrepreneur, the next a likes-hungry poster — Klein manages to stay the same unflappable, fundamentally decent guy you’ll encounter on his podcast or in the pages of this, his first book. While everyone else is off voting for Trump or frying their brains in the flame wars of the Democratic primary, Klein just keeps Kleining along, surfing the controversies, laughing off the insults: the hair just so, the spectacles tasteful, the voice, like the politics it bears, modulated and unthreatening.
How does he do it? Right near the end of Why We’re Polarized, once he’s cleared his throat of the necessary caveats about there being “no solutions, only corrections” to America’s polarized reality, he tells us: “Like a muscle or a neural pathway, the identities we use most grow strongest, the ones that lie fallow weaken. We can wield that to our advantage. Doing so starts with mindfulness.” And this, it turns out, is the strongest suggestion he puts forward to cure America of its partisan malaise: the answer lies in the heart of every voter, in exercising awareness and not letting things get to us. Just log off Twitter and walk away, guys. And who, you might ask, exemplifies these qualities of equanimity and understanding best? We do not have to look far for the answer, unvoiced though it remains. At some level every first book is a memoir, so it makes sense that the most practical recommendation to emerge from these 260 pages of functional, missionary-position prose is to be more like Ezra Klein.
Like a good journalist, Klein begins Why We’re Polarized by attempting to answer the “So what?” and “Why now?” questions that hang over any new story. Polarization — which Klein defines as hatred across partisan lines, specifically between Democrats and Republicans — exerts an “enormous weight” on our politics, he tells us. Our political identities have come to engulf all our other identities — racial, religious, geographic, cultural — and we are now “so locked into” them that “there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition, that can force us to change our minds.” We are, he continues, “living through something genuinely new,” and he adduces a battery of statistical data to illustrate how rapidly each political side’s hatred of the other has intensified over the past few decades.
Klein’s thesis is that there is nothing fundamentally “broken” about American politics, even though, as he says, “it is, at this point, cliche to call it broken.” Instead, “we are a collection of functional parts whose efforts combine into a dysfunctional whole.” Partisan paralysis is a systemic problem, in other words, not the work of discrete parties or institutions or individuals acting in bad faith. A few pages later, Klein tells us that our “merged identities have attained a weight that is breaking our institutions.” American politics is not broken, but its institutions are. Things do not get much clearer from there.
The overall effect is, not surprisingly, a little like reading a policy explainer on Vox: everything seems at once comprehensive and reasonable and consequential, but on closer inspection there are major omissions and unresolved contradictions.
Framing his book as an exploration of why we’re polarized rather than angry — the broader, antecedent, and more interesting question — allows Klein to set out his stall on the technical terrain of political science, a hitherto-obscure discipline that he discovered in 2014 and brought to the attention of a grateful public. Polarization has preoccupied US political scientists in recent years. Klein presents Why We’re Polarized as a glorified literature review, summarizing academic paper after academic paper with the enthusiasm of a Beltway Malcolm Gladwell gifted his first institutional login to JSTOR: One indicative passage ferries us from a “striking analysis” to an “important paper” to a “telling experiment” within the space of a few paragraphs.
The overall effect is, not surprisingly, a little like reading a policy explainer on Vox: everything seems at once comprehensive and reasonable and consequential, but on closer inspection there are major omissions and unresolved contradictions. Klein says that in conceiving his book as a “map to the machine that shapes political decisions,” he was inspired by systems thinking, the idea that “complex systems often fail the public even as they’re succeeding by their own logic.” Unwittingly this also serves as a description of Why We’re Polarized, which succeeds by its own logic but is beset by poor framing.
That’s not to say that the papers he cites are not, indeed, interesting or that they do not explain some of polarization’s causes; they are and they do. Klein takes us through the social psychology of in-group identification, the Civil Rights-era breakdown of the power-cementing compact between northern liberals and Dixiecrats, and the roles played by demographic change (aka racism), modern base-mobilizing campaign tactics, and partisan digital media segmentation in driving polarization. Race is fundamental in this account: Partisan civility began to disintegrate in the Civil Rights era, southern conservatives split from the Democratic Party and became Republicans, and things deteriorated from there. Klein churns through a good deal of ahistorical nonsense to bring his argument to the desired consistency: Many pages are spent presenting the 1950s, the age of McCarthyism and post-Brown vs. Board of Education direct action, as a golden age of depolarization. Congress may have been a happier place at that time, but did the millions of Americans suffering systemic disenfranchisement and persecution share in the joy?
What’s missing is any real attempt to reckon with the role played by economics. Surely it’s no accident that inter-party polarization really got going around the time the Carter and Reagan administrations went full neoliberal, and that it’s only worsened as income inequality and industrial decline have cut deeper. Klein gives these considerations short shrift. “Economic anxiety,” he says, surveying the literature, “did not predict which candidate people voted for” in 2016. “Demography and culture, not economic and political developments, hold the key to understanding the populist moment.” Three pages and we’re done: It’s not the economy, stupid.
It may be true that demography explains today’s populist moment or the 2016 election result, but that’s not the same as explaining polarization. To duck out of the discussion with a mischaracterization of this order represents a textbook Kleinian dodge. In a fascinating, important, and telling recent paper, Noam Gidron, James Adams, and Will Horne analyze historical data across 20 different countries, including the US, and conclude that “polarization is more intense where unemployment and income inequality are high.” They show that polarization intensifies as unemployment increases, and while they can’t model a similar temporal effect for income inequality (since it tends to change slowly over time), there’s enough evidence in this one paper — not to mention the scores of others on the same topic — to make the idea that economics doesn’t matter to polarization, because it doesn’t explain “the populist moment,” seem a little glib. (Interestingly, the authors also conclude that polarization in the US is “not unduly high in comparative perspective,” which rather undercuts Klein’s strain of melodramatic exceptionalism.) Exploring the economic dimension of the rage coursing through the US electorate might have forced Klein to venture into territory he’s uncomfortable with. It might have pushed him to confront the very order (financialized, market-friendly liberalism) that provides the bedrock to much of his own writing. But the son cannot betray the father.
The book’s title is Why We’re Polarized but Klein’s real subject is why they’re polarized: the uncivil hoodlums clumped at both ends of the political spectrum unable to calm themselves into rational dialogue on the unemotional center ground. Open party primaries, he writes at one point, have “eroded the power of party elites and amplified the power of primary voters.” To some that may sound democratic, but in the Kleinian worldview this is A Very Bad Thing, and ordinary voters are all naifs who must be saved from themselves for obscure reasons to do with institutional design. The fear that stalks these pages is a fear of politics, which is as old as the American republic itself — not “something genuinely new,” as Klein would have it. Washington first warned of the “baneful effects of the spirit of party” in his Farewell Address, and some form of this complaint has become a rite of passage for the aspiring tutelaries of American public life ever since. From the 1925 screed of jurist James Waldron Remick against partisan politics to the regular mewlings of serial self-plagiarist Cass Sunstein on the subject of “partyism,” versions of Klein’s book are always being written, and the arc is always the same: Things are getting really bad! Things can’t change very much, except at the margins. Let’s just be nice to each other and let the experts figure it out. I am available to consult for a small fee.
By dismissing economic drivers of polarization, Klein implies that a more just economy will not calm our divisions. But — and hear me out here — maybe it will? Student debt, the crushing inhumanity of our healthcare system, life under the precarity of the gig economy: There’s one side of politics that’s thinking seriously about how to fix these issues, and the identity of its standard bearer may be part of the reason why Klein is so reluctant to discuss the role that economic factors play in fueling partisan division. Read between the lines of Why We’re Polarized and it’s clear that the politics Klein fears most is the politics of the Sanders left. Forget the racists; they’re lost causes. But Bernie: now there’s a real problem.
Early on, Klein confesses that he feels, as a member of the media, some responsibility for the dysfunction bedeviling American politics. This is presented as a “radicalizing realization,” which sounds pretty exciting: Who wouldn’t want to see a radicalized Ezra Klein? But his radicalization, it turns out, is purely commercial (he thinks people should stop paying so much attention to the political media) rather than anything that might cause him to pull up anchor on a lifetime of incrementalism. When Democrats took the House in 2006, Klein writes, “Nancy Pelosi resisted calls to defund the Iraq War.” It’s clear this is intended as the highest compliment, since it shows that Democrats have not become so irresponsible as to endanger the national security establishment or the blood dollars that keep the US economy afloat. True leftism, even of Sanders’s comparatively tame variety, remains something to guard against. Why We’re Polarized includes a long plea for Democrats, as the adults in the room, to maintain a big-tent party that builds moderate coalitions across the left-liberal divide and remains “tethered to traditional institutions and behaviors,” like continuing to fund hawkish military pursuits.
What Americans most need at this moment of national crisis is to take a deep breath and depolarize themselves.
Klein’s job, as he sees it, and the job of anyone concerned about America’s political paralysis, is not to attack the causes but treat the wounds, thereby rendering inhumane institutions slightly more bearable. “If we can’t reverse polarization, as I suspect, then the path forward is clear: we need to reform the political system so that it can function amid polarization,” he writes. This is classic technocrat’s work, the type you might enlist an Ezra clone to help with. Some of his suggested reforms are fair, if uncontroversial: He wants to abolish the Electoral College (who outside the GOP doesn’t), make it easier for people to vote, scrap the filibuster, etc. Some are more questionable: Klein thinks we can achieve partisan balancing on the Supreme Court by expanding the number of justices from nine to fifteen (why relegitimize an institution that’s an irremediable burden on democracy?), and he offers a half-hearted argument in favor of proportional representation, which seems to work well in famously non-polarized countries like Greece, Hungary, and Spain.
Then we come, finally, to mindfulness. On the one hand, the America that emerges from Why We’re Polarized has a racist on every street corner just waiting to be activated by self-dealing political elites. On the other, Klein suggests, American voters are fundamentally good, and the political system is toxic because it “enlists our values such that we betray each other.” On the one hand, there were lots of bigots around in the Congress of the 1950s and ’60s. On the other hand, the bigots were polite to each other and we weren’t so polarized, so maybe we should go back to that? This all gets very confusing once you start to think about it too carefully, but fortunately Ezra has a solution: We need to “become more aware of the ways that politicians and media manipulate us.” What Americans most need at this moment of national crisis is to take a deep breath and depolarize themselves.
In the neoliberal imagination the answer to a venal and dehumanizing system that pits citizens against each other is never collective and always individual: work hard, practice mindfulness, learn to code, take up SoulCycle, embrace baking, stay positive, become better, don’t be a hater. Polarization gives way to self-lobotomization. What Klein really wants is politics without conflict, a progressivism stripped of solidarity. This privatized solution to a public problem might work for the sensible, wealthy, liberal-but-not-too-liberal purchasers of Why We’re Polarized, and it’s sure to guarantee a healthy future for Klein as yet another Sunsteinian coconut rolling through the festivals of ideas. But it won’t do anything to quell the anger of America’s miserable millions. In the face of a fraying social compact, Klein wants us to rise above the fray. Better to join in and start fighting.