Review: Ezra Klein’s “Why We’re Polarized”

by Miles Raymer


Ezra Klein is one of the best political analysts of my generation, and is quickly becoming one of our most important public intellectuals. The Ezra Klein Show produces top-quality audio content several times a week, and Klein’s keen interviewing skills, nuanced articulations of complex problems, and commitment to structural analysis are second to none. I’ve been anticipating the release of Why We’re Polarized for many months, and I’m pleased to report that it constitutes a vital contribution to contemporary American thought.

Klein begins with two core concepts that fashion his framing of American politics. The first is his claim that we are committing a collective form of the fundamental attribution error, blaming individuals for political dysfunction rather than the broken systems in which they operate:

I have studied American politics for the better part of twenty years. I have tried to understand it from the perspective of politicians, activists, political scientists, donors, voters, nonvoters, staffers, pundits––anyone who is affected by it or who is affecting it. In the course of that reporting, I have come across political actors who strike me as cynics, fools, and villains. They are the broken parts of American politics, and it is tempting to blame our problems on their low morals or poor judgment. Indeed, we do exactly that in election years, when our dissatisfaction with the way the system is working leads us to fire some of the people and hire other people, and then a few years later, we find the system still broken, and we do it again, and again, and again.

As I have watched one election’s heroes turn into the next election’s scoundrels, as I have listened to rational people give me thoughtful reasons for doing ridiculous things, I have lost faith in these stories. We collapse systemic problems into personalized narratives, and when we do, we cloud our understanding of American politics and confuse our theories of repair. We try to fix the system by changing the people who run it, only to find that they become part of the system, too. (xvi)

Klein’s turn away from people-based explanations and toward system-based ones leads us to his second core concept: polarization feedback loops. These are the structural forces that produce the unreasonable behavior and internecine clashes that dominate modern American politics:

The master story––the one that drives almost all divides and most fundamentally shapes the behavior of participants––is the logic of polarization. That logic, simply put, is this: to appeal to a more polarized public, political institutions and political actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public. This sets off a feedback cycle: to appeal to a yet more polarized public, institutions must polarize further; when faced with yet more polarized institutions, the public polarizes further, and so on. (xix)

The majority of Klein’s text is spent describing various types of polarization feedback loops, which interact in subtle and interesting ways. The key takeaways are as follows:

  • Negative partisanship––”partisan behavior driven not by positive feelings toward the party you support but negative feelings toward the party you oppose”––has significantly increased in recent decades. (8-10)
  • Humans are inescapably wired for group thinking, which means our political cognition happens collectively rather than individually. (Chapter 3, 135)
  • Americans have sorted ourselves (geographically, digitally, and intellectually) into political parties whose goals and values align more closely with our social identities than ever before, producing “political mega-identities” that raise the “visceral, emotional stakes” of political contests and increase “our willingness to do anything to make sure our side wins.” (70, 74)
  • People who actively participate in the political process and/or consume large amounts of political media are much more polarized than people who are less politically engaged. (13, 62, 163)
  • The national media is caught in a unprecedented, hyper-competitive environment in which targeting polarized consumers with polarizing content is the surest path to financial success. (Chapter 6)
  • Major political parties have given up trying to persuade “moderate/independent” voters (a vanishing breed), and have pivoted toward campaign strategies that cater almost exclusively to their respective bases. (Chapter 7)

With all of these feedback loops simultaneously humming away in the American mind, we are left with an often-agitated public and a government paralyzed by perverse incentives. Klein brings it home with this relatable hypothetical:

Imagine you work in an office where your boss, who you think is a jerk, needs your help to finish his projects. If you help him, he keeps his job and maybe even gets a promotion. If you refuse to help him, you become his boss, and he may get fired. Now add in a deep dose of disagreement––you hate his projects, believe them to be bad for the company and even the world––and a bunch of colleagues who also hate your boss and will be mad at you if you help him.

That’s basically American politics right now. Bipartisan cooperation is often necessary for governance but irrational for the minority party to offer. It’s a helluva way to run a railroad. (218)

Why We’re Polarized is a terrific book by any standard, but there are a couple areas where I think Klein’s arguments fall short of their potential impact, thereby revealing his political biases. In the introduction, he correctly points out that “everyone engaged in American politics is engaged in identity politics” and teases an intriguing take on this controversial topic:

Over the past fifty years, our partisan identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. Those merged identities have attained a weight that is breaking our institutions and tearing at the bonds that hold this country together. This is the form of identity politics most prevalent in our country, and most in need of interrogation. (xxii-xxiii)

While he does flesh this out somewhat in his discussion of “political mega-identities,” Klein fails to address the problem of particularly toxic forms of identity politics that have emerged in recent years on both the far right and far left. This sidesteps the reality that identity politics comes in better and worse forms (e.g.  “common-humanity” vs. “common-enemy” identity politics, as described in Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind). I can understand why Klein would want to avoid this sticky debate, but it would have been nice to see him call out the specific ways identity politics have misfired on both poles of the political spectrum. Given that Klein is very liberal, he missed an opportunity to gain credibility with reasonable conservatives by exposing and rejecting extreme leftist strains of identity politics.

There is a similar problem in the chapter called “The Difference between Democrats and Republicans.” Klein presents plenty of supporting evidence for his claim that Republicans deserve more of the blame for polarization and government gridlock than Democrats, but his examination of Democratic weaknesses feels flimsy and incomplete. He depicts Democrats as ineffectual only insofar as their noble goals are thwarted by Republicans, and doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that they might have major internal inadequacies unrelated to their Republican opponents. Again, Klein passes on a chance to offer an olive branch to those who don’t already agree with him, and risks pandering to his own side. I know from listening to his podcast that Klein can criticize the Democratic Party as well as anyone, and wish he had included more of that to balance out the book’s penultimate chapter.

Beyond these forgivable shortcomings, I’m also curious to know Klein’s thoughts on how polarization is or is not affected by campaign finance laws, socioeconomic inequality, technological automation, and climate change. None of these topics gets a fair shake here, which is somewhat disappointing.  But you have to draw the line somewhere, and I don’t think it was necessarily a bad call to keep this book as tight and focused as it is.

Most works of expository nonfiction dedicate at least one chapter to methods of solving or ameliorating the problems the author has worked hard to expose and understand. Why We’re Polarized is unexceptional in this regard, but is exceptional in that its concluding chapter strikes an impressive balance between aspirational hopefulness and brutal pragmatism. It would make sense for Klein to wrap up with recommendations for how we can reduce existing and prevent future polarization, but instead he makes a surprising move:

I don’t consider polarization, on its own, to be a problem…The alternative to polarization often isn’t consensus but suppression. We don’t argue over the problems we don’t discuss. But we don’t solve them, either…The polarization we see around us is the logical outcome of a complex system of incentives, technologies, identities, and political institutions…And for now, at least, it’s here to stay…If we can’t reverse polarization, as I suspect, then the path forward is clear: we need to reform the political system so it can function amid polarization. (249-50)

My immediate reaction to this position was negative, but as I read on, Klein’s solid logic prevailed. When it comes to political policy, he recommends three categories of action:

  • Bombproofing: Get rid of the debt ceiling, revamp the budget process, and do more to help the poor so they are less vulnerable when polarization stymies government action. (251-3)
  • Democratizing: Abolish the electoral college, kill the filibuster in the Senate, grant appropriate congressional representation to Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, and introduce ranked-choice voting. (253-8)
  • Balancing: Balance the powers of political parties (not just states), have 15 Supreme Court Justices (10 partisans who must unanimously elect the other 5), and rewrite/abandon certain imbalanced rules in Congress. (258-60)

Klein admits that these recommendations are politically infeasible at the moment, but we shouldn’t give up on possibilities for implementation as our political landscape shifts in the near future.

Also excellent are the prescriptions Klein makes for citizens eager to manage their personal relationship with polarization:

  • Identity mindfulness: Cultivate the ability to track how political information activates your various political and social identities, ask yourself honestly if you’re happy with the results, and begin reshaping your environment to produce better ones. (261-4)
  • Rediscovering a politics of place: Engage with local civic life, pay less attention to national politics and media, and recommit to local news sources. (264-6)

Klein’s parting message is as humble as it is inspiring:

There isn’t an end state to American politics. The search for a static answer will always be folly. There is no one best way for the system to work. There is only the best we can do right now. And, if we do a good enough job at it, we will see today’s successes ossify into tomorrow’s frustrations. What works in one era fails in the next. That’s okay. The point is to get to that next era with the most progress and the least violence…

The era that we hold up as the golden age of American democracy was far less democratic, far less liberal, far less decent, than today. Trump’s most intemperate outbursts, his most offensive musings, pale before opinions that were mainstream in recent history. And the institutions of American politics today are a vast improvement on the regimes that ruled well within living memory. If we can do a bit better tomorrow, we will be doing much, much better than we have ever done before. (267-8)

Rating: 8/10