Why We’re Polarized

And my adventures with Libertarians in Guatemala

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I don’t get called a socialist very often. I call myself a neoliberal, which at least on the surface should signify that I am a liberal who is sympathetic to markets. But this past weekend I traveled to Guatemala to attend a Libertarian conference, and the label neoliberal was not viewed kindly by all there. I would like to note that I had a wonderful time. But I was also in the out-group. When most around you believe in the absolute power of markets, but then there is one person (me) who believes in a role for government, then that person becomes the outsider. Which is odd, because in the United States, neoliberals and libertarians are often allied in their belief of markets as a force for good! So why was I suddenly the outsider, the socialist as two people called me, in a conference for libertarians?

I’m in good company.

What equally motivates me and terrifies me is that political identity is ascendant. People increasingly identify with their political beliefs more than the familial, religious or community identities. This trend motivates me because if political identity is ascendant than changing someone’s political identity is an effective way to create political change (enter the Neoliberal Project). That also means politics is more dangerous than ever. No longer are policy fights just about the merits of policy. We’ve internalized our political beliefs to mean who we are as people, such that policy fights have become identity fights. Attacks against a policy are attacks against who we perceive ourselves to be. This is scary, and Ezra Klein in his new book Why We’re Polarized (out today) explains how we got to this point.

Klein’s book serves as an academic literature review above all else, stringing together research from political science, history, psychology and more to explain the current political moment we live in. Why We’re Polarized doesn’t point fingers to explain its thesis. Instead, Klein analyzes the structural reasons for our current predicament. He shows how the passage of civil rights and the Southern realignment ended one of the major mechanisms for bipartisan support: racism. Afterward, Southern Democrats fled to the Republican Party, and Liberal Republicans fled to the Democratic Party. What followed was predictable. The parties became increasingly homogenous. The Democrats became more racially diverse, and the Republicans became whiter. The Republican Party became older and the Democratic Party became younger. The list goes on.

But there are also other factors. Social media and cable news have nationalized the political debate (something that was less possible thirty years ago). In the ’80s and early ‘90s, you would read your local paper that covered what was happening in your city, state and a sprinkling of national news thrown in. Nowadays, someone from Oregon wakes up and reads the latest news on the NYT app. The New York Times can longer just cover local and state news then: it must expand its reporting for an audience that stretches around the globe. This phenomenon means that we are exposed to issues and people who increasingly divide us and pay less attention to the people and issues that unite us: local issues.

What Klein demonstrates effectively in his book is how this current mess is politics as normal, and that the past decades of bipartisanship should be viewed as outliers rather than the norm. Polarization is the norm, and we’re living through it. It’s so powerful that it even affects our ability to do math:

Kahan and his team came up with a clever way to test which theory was right. They took one thousand Americans, surveyed their political views, and then gave them a standard test used for assessing math skills. They then presented them with a brainteaser. In its initial form, the brainteaser was a tricky math problem about how well skin cream worked; it was designed to deceive you on first glance…the better subjects were at math, the better they were at the brainteaser. This was true for both liberals and conservatives.

But Kahan and his coauthors also drafted a politicized version of the problem, using the same numbers as the skin-cream question, but instead about skin creams, the narrative setup focused on a proposal to ban people from carrying concealed handguns in public. The question now compared crime data in cities that banned handguns against crime data in cities that didn’t.

Presented with this problem a funny thing happened: how good subjects were at math stopped predicting how well they did on the test. Now it was ideology that drove the answers Liberals were extremely good at solving the problem when doing so proved that gun-control legislation reduced crime. But when presented with the version of the problem that suggested gun control had failed, their math skills stopped mattering. They tended to get the problem wrong no matter how good they were at math. Conservatives exhibited the same pattern – just in reverse.

Our political identities have not only become prioritized, but also tangled up in all our other ones. If you’re Christian than you are likely in the Republican party, if you are an atheist then you are likely to be a Democrat. If you shop at Trader Joe’s than you are likely a liberal, if you shop at Cabela’s then you are likely a conservative. So party differences are not just party differences: they are geographic, religious, age, gender, sexual orientation, consumer preference differences too.

Image result for sorting algorithms
Were in the midst of a political sorting algorithm

When we become this polarized, some funny things become normal. Joe Wilson yelling “YOU LIE” during Obama’s address to Congress earned him $1.8 million in campaign contributions (his opponent rose $1.6 million from the episode). We begin to prefer “wins” over compromise, such that no progress on issues becomes preferable to some progress on issues. We start self-censoring ourselves (I know I do it on Twitter) so that we don’t articulate views that fall out of the line with our group. We call each other names: conservatives are Nazis and neoliberals are socialists. And this is all normal! Our brains are wired for these behaviors, and for decades our institutions were able to keep it at bay. Only now are they rearing their true, ugly head.

Why We’re Polarized thesis can be summed up in a few paragraphs, as I have tried to do here. It’s not a novel theory. The book is devastating because of how thorough it is at proving its thesis. Klein goes far beyond a reasonable doubt to prove his point, citing dozens upon dozens of papers, books, interviews, and events. I find it hard for anyone to leave reading it not persuaded.

In short, Why We’re Polarized is excellent, but a dreadful book. It does not inspire hope for the future. If the book is true, then there are no easy fixes for the problem we are facing. Yes, Why We’re Polarized does offer solutions at the end of the book, but Klein admits that they are incremental at best. So, I can only fault him for not fully reckoning with the two scenarios that our future holds: that we will continue to live in a polarized and dysfunctional society, or that the American government will collapse. Hopefully, I am a pessimist.


This is what polarization looks like.

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