In his book Why We’re Polarized political journalist Ezra Klein explains such Trumpian political stumpers as:
- Why poor rural whites support a New York City real estate mogul known for stiffing working-guy building contractors
- Why evangelical Christians support a foul-mouthed, p*ssy grabbing adulterer
- Why Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted and all the other contenders in the 2016 GOP presidential primary denounced Trump so strongly back then but afterwards did such an about-face to embrace him, which they continue to do today
- Why Mitch McConnell wouldn’t confirm Merrick Garland but will confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court
Why else, but partisan politics!
Having less in common with statesmanship than with sports, polarized politics is all about my team vs your team, and may the most aggressive players win.
That’s a terrible way to run a democracy, writes Klein, editor-at-large and founder of Vox who’s written on politics for such publications as the Washington Post, the New York Times, MSNBC and Bloomberg. In his experience, Klein finds that partisan politics is the major barrier stopping citizens from working together across differences of race, geography and social values to solve America’s biggest problems.
Partisanship may be deadly to good government, but the bad news is that polarized politics is not just a flaw in the system. It’s the way the system is set up, and it’s working just as it should.
The good news is that it wasn’t always like this. And it need not be this way in the future.
Our Guy is Just OK, but their Guy is a Threat to the American Way of Life
The most appalling finding of Klein’s analysis is that for most partisans, their politics has little positive content. Instead, the enthusiasm of the true believer on the right or on the left relies almost entirely on negative emotions — fear of and anger at the other side.
This is true whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Partisan feeling is less about loyalty to one’s own party and more about fear of the other guys. This negative psychology explains why it doesn’t matter how uninspiring or even scary your own leader is — under partisan rhetoric, the other side’s leader is always scarier.
Democrats were really excited about Bernie or Elizabeth Warren. But Joe Biden? Meh. Being “electable” seems to be the main quality that separates Biden from everybody else who’s not Trump.
Republicans seem to be the only ones really worked up about the Democratic ticket. Open borders, confiscated guns, drive-thru abortions free of charge under mandatory socialized medicine — apparently Sleepy Joe isn’t too drowsy to force a Maoist-feminist revolution down the throats of ordinary working Americans if they make the mistake of handing him the keys to the White House. At least if you believe the Trump campaign.
It’s the same on the Republican side. Plenty of GOP voters will concede that Trump is a crass, sexist and racist bully, and say that they wish he wouldn’t tweet so much. But hey, they add, he’s our bully, and he’s the last defense to preserve the “traditional” version of America from threats by immigrants, people of color and others who want to cut to the head of the line.
Only Democrats seem to think that Trump’s style is a big deal and worry that his reelection could pose an existential threat to American democracy.
Either side may be right. It could spell the end of the American experiment if the wrong candidate wins in 2020. But so far, over more than two centuries of presidential elections, that hasn’t happened yet.
For my part, I’m among the many Americans who would like to see the end of Trump for reasons of both style and substance. But I try to focus my ire on Trump as a candidate, rather than the ordinary voters who are his supporters, despite all the temptations to do so.
Meanwhile, how bad could it get if the other guy wins? Given the inertia in America’s politics, the coming anytime soon of either a Hugo Chavez-style leftist dictatorship of the proletariat or a rightist theocracy out of The Handmaid’s Tale seem equally unlikely.
Nonetheless, apocalyptic political thinking has gotten more powerful over the last twenty years. Ramping up in intensity since Obama, now partisans on each side increasingly worry that if the other side wins, it will be an existential threat to their group’s social status and thus, to their version of America. Which, to them, is the real America.
Campaign Finance is Broken, but Not in the Way You Think
An original take on one cause of hyper-partisanship comes when Klein tackles campaign finance. Unlike most writers, Klein doesn’t think that big corporate money in elections is the biggest culprit. He actually thinks that little money is worse.
Big donors, no matter how transactional (ie, corrupt), generally favor stability in government and the ability of an elected official to get things done. They also tend to focus their political donations and lobbying on dry issues of tax or regulatory policy that have little interest outside of industry circles, claims Klein. Big corporations and rich people want a return on their investment, and the biggest political donors measure return in dollars. So they tend to support more moderate, pragmatic candidates who can change laws and regulations using the tools of negotiation and compromise.
By contrast, little donors tend to be ideological zealots who care less about public policy outcomes and care more about tweaking the other side on emotional identity issues such as guns, immigrants, and religion.
So, when candidates spread negative and divisive messages on contentious issues, they succeed better at whipping up individuals and attracting more donations from them — which actually encourages those politicians to say even more extreme things in the future, creating a cycle of increasing polarization. Meantime, while abortion, immigration and guns suck up all the air in the room, the economy, the environment and national security get little attention, and continue to become harder to solve.
It’s an intriguing perspective, but I don’t entirely agree with Klein here.
For example, the Koch brothers engineered the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 that allowed much more money to enter politics not because they wanted some obscure regulation modified but because they wanted to protect their business selling fossil fuels from legislation to fight climate change.
Energy and climate are a huge issue and not one on which I am convinced that small, ideological donors have had much or any impact. All the money and all the power on the side opposing clean energy and reducing fossil fuels seems to come from the top, from fossil fuel companies themselves. Only later does pro-fossil fuel activism filter down to the bottom, to the Tea Party and other libertarian groups that appear to express real grassroots anger in a format of astroturf activism funded by the Kochs and their friends.
The Best Way to Squelch Polarization: One-Party Rule
Especially interesting is when Klein compares today’s era of extreme polarization with more eras in the recent past when politics seemed more cooperative, such as after World War II.
During most of the American past, you could find liberals and conservatives in both parties. In the 1950s the two parties were virtually indistinguishable. But starting with Goldwater in 1964 and ending with, well, Trump, the two parties have gotten further and further apart.
Klein doesn’t claim that Americans were less nasty in the fifties or sixties, but that the parties had more in common than not. And while such developments as the rise of cable news (especially Fox) and social media have done their part to make political news into entertainment and widen the divide by giving a forum to the most extreme voices, Klein does not think that things will get better if we just reform the news media or tone down Facebook and Twitter. Instead, and much more disturbing, Klein posits that politics get nasty when they get competitive.
Past eras of cooperation were times when one party, or at least their ideology, enjoyed a clear majority of popular support.
So, during the New Deal Era, Democrats and their approach of social welfare dominated politics. In the 1950s, Republicans recognized this and they knew that they had no chance to overthrow the New Deal consensus anytime soon. So they just took their second-best option, and tried to play what they saw as a positive role by, for example, trying to limit the scope of Democratic programs. However, this amity started to come apart in the 1960s, when Democrats passed civil rights legislation and alienated their southern wing.
Seeing an opportunity, first Goldwater and then Nixon instituted the GOP’s infamous Southern Strategy of making covert appeals to racism by promising to “get tough on crime.” Thus the Republicans were able to offer a new home to Dixiecrats free of threatening moves towards racial equity.
Gaining a whole new group of supporters evened things out for the Republicans and gave them a real chance to win again with their own ideology. They took that chance, and it paid off with Reagan’s victory in 1980. With that victory, Republicans could finally dethrone the New Deal consensus and replace it with their own free market consensus in the form of Reaganomics. Then it became the Democrats’ turn to play second fiddle to Republican “small government” reforms. Mostly, for two or three decades, especially under Bill Clinton, Democrats played along nicely.
But then after the Great Recession of 2008, the Reaganomics consensus started to unravel. Democrats saw their own opening to attack. And so, rather than cooperating as they had been with Republican presidents, they went into fierce opposition. The Republicans did the same under Obama.
And that leads us to today, where each party feels that they have about a 50% chance of winning a presidential election and taking or keeping control of Congress. To make the most of that chance, party leaders want the other party’s governing initiatives to fail, whatever may be the best thing for the country (which becomes much harder to define and agree upon in a polarized age).
Klein makes a good case that as long as national politics are competitive, then polarization will not recede.
Yet, electoral competitiveness does seem to come in cycles, with some eras characterized by benign one-party rule and other eras in which elections are more up for grabs. But Klein does little to address pendulum swings in our political history, which creates other problems for his approach (more on that below).
Grasping for Solutions
After outlining the problem convincingly through the majority of the book, at the end, Klein himself admits that he’s at a loss for solutions. He comes up with a few — such as restructuring the Supreme Court — that could help a bit. But the lack of a package of solutions at the scale of the problem left me a bit depressed at the end of Klein’s book.
I know there are lots of other books that offer solutions to hyper-partisanship and contentious elections where people argue about emotional but unimportant issues to the exclusion of the issues that really matter. But still, Klein is a smart enough guy on Washington politics that he could have offered a more robust group of policy responses.
Also, Klein seems to imply that things will just keep getting worse unless something is done to somehow turn the tide, forgetting that history does have a way of swinging back and forth over time.
Other recent writers, such as George Friedman in The Storm Before the Calm: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond, suggest that cycles of history may have played a big role, setting the stage for today’s polarization.
Those same cycles could also be setting the stage for solutions in the near future too, based on geopolitical and economic trends that Friedman identifies. The biggest of these trends is the end of a 50-year cycle of free market economics that began with Reagan’s election in 1980 and that Friedman predicts will end in about 2030.
After the end of the Reaganomics cycle a new cycle will begin bringing a more cooperative economics that hearkens back to the New Deal era. That monumental shift in the economy will bring correspondingly huge changes in culture and politics, and will likely disrupt the basis of today’s political polarization, bringing Americans back together across party lines to solve problems just as we did in the 1930s-1970s.
But Klein doesn’t seem to recognize historical cycles at all, leaving the reader with the grim prospect of an ever darkening night of partisanship driven by social media and a news media that thrives on outrage over substance, extending indefinitely into the future and ultimately leading to neo-fascism — unless some heroic and unexpected intervention occurs. Good luck with that, Klein seems to say.
I think we can do better. That’s why I urge Klein’s reader to consult Friedman and other writers with a broader understanding of historical cycles and a more expansive vision of the future. If you believe that history ebbs and flows in cycles, it doesn’t mean you can just sit on your hands and wait for things to swing your way again. It will take action to make change happen.
But if you accept that the U.S. can’t possibly go on much longer in the direction of widening inequality between the top 1% and everybody else, and that a resolution to the wealth and income gap must come simply to save capitalism from itself, then it means that if you favor such reforms, the wind will finally be at your back instead of in your face.
That’s not a reason to get complacent. It’s a reason to take heart and take action, knowing that we may now have the best chance in decades to dump “greed is good” ideology once and for all and institute a program like the Green New Deal to make the economy fair again while avoiding climate chaos.