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Why We're Polarized

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Discover how American politics became a toxic system, why we participate in it, and what it means for our future—from journalist, political commentator, and cofounder of Vox, Ezra Klein.

After Election Day 2016, both supporters and opponents of the soon-to-be president hailed his victory as a historically unprecedented event. Most Americans could agree that no candidate like Donald Trump had ever been elected President before. But political journalist Ezra Klein makes the case that the 2016 election wasn’t surprising at all. In fact, Trump’s electoral victory followed the exact same template as previous elections, by capturing a nearly identical percentage of voter demographics as previous Republican candidates.

Over the past 50 years in America, our partisan identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. Those merged identities have attained a weight that is breaking much in our politics and tearing at the bonds that hold this country together.

In this groundbreaking book, Klein shows how and why American politics polarized around identity in the 20th century, and what that polarization did to the way we see the world and each other. And he traces the feedback loops between our polarized political identities and our polarized political institutions that are driving our political system towards crisis.

Neither a polemic nor a lament, Klein offers a clear framework for understanding everything from Trump’s rise to the Democratic Party’s leftward shift to the politicization of everyday culture. A revelatory book that will change how you look at politics, and perhaps at yourself.

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First published January 28, 2020

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Ezra Klein

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,728 reviews
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews966 followers
February 9, 2020
Why We’re Polarized sets out to succinctly break down why American politics has become so dysfunctional over the past forty years. The book begins by offering an oversimplified account of the fall of the New Deal coalition in the 1960s, then pivots to arguing that the subsequent party realignment along geographic and racial lines can largely be explained by the psychology of tribalism and white anxiety about America’s shifting demographics. Klein writes snappy prose that’s easy to read, and for whatever it’s worth he brings up a great deal of psychological and sociological studies, many of which are interesting. But his analysis of politics is so shallow. It’s no revelation that racism and bias are breeding animosity among the electorate, and he offers few new insights; he also fails to account for obvious factors that have led to the awful state of things today, ignoring everything from most history past the postwar period to our time’s skyrocketing level of socioeconomic inequality. Those seeking concise explanations of Trump’s rise should instead check out Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough and Carol Anderson’s White Rage.
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books707 followers
December 5, 2019
Politics uses us for its own ends

There are endless shelves of books on what has happened to politics in the USA, culminating in the rule of Trump. Most of them hit on polarization sooner or later. Ezra Klein’s book totally focuses on it, but in ways that are more engaging, relatable and relevant than many others I have read. It is thorough, fair, reflective, cautious and accurate. And therefore depressing.

Why We’re Polarized has an overall umbrella theory: Politics uses us for its own ends. We are captives, not participants. The two party system herds voters into corrals from which they cannot choose to leave, for fear the other party might win. It has come to the point where families discourage marrying someone who supports the other party, and people move to new neighborhoods to be with their own party supporters. I doubt this is what Jefferson and Madison imagined when they set it up.

Klein uses sports to illustrate how people devolve into mad animals in support of their favorite team. Fights break out, hooligans roam the streets. Everything must be done to keep the team on top, be it firing the coach, buying the best talent from a competitor, or rioting if that will help. Rallies and tailgate parties to rouse the emotions. The other team winning? That just cannot happen. Change teams? Never.

So with political parties.

Klein likes to think voters are intelligent, that they seek data and make rational decisions. But he also acknowledges that “an expert is a credentialed person who agrees with me.” And that most Americans cannot name the governor of their state. But they know with total certainty how they will vote. Because it’s no longer about government. It’s all about ideology.

As careful as he is in presenting his research, he continually acknowledges that he can still be called biased. He is aware that everyone is unfair at some level. He discovers he can’t be totally fair, even when he wants to be. Someone will find something to criticize, labeling him as representing the Other. Because that’s the frame today.

He knows firsthand that most election efforts are wasted. Both parties focus on “motivated reasoning:” knocking on doors and presenting unimpeachable facts. But you can’t change people’s minds “by utterly refuting their arguments.” It fails every time. As in sports, people have group loyalties that cannot be shaken. Attack their beliefs and they hunker down. Far better to spend those resources getting people to show up at the polls than thinking you can flip them from Red to Blue with logic. Can’t be done.

Klein spends a lot of time examining the evolution of the two-party morass. Right up to the 1960s, there was co-operation. Elected officials worked for the country more than the party. State mattered more than federal. Local was most important of all. Voters chose actual people they wanted to represent them, not which ideology should prevail. As early as age 15 I noticed and proclaimed that both political parties were two sides of the same coin. I didn’t know what the fuss was about. Didn’t matter which party you voted for – they’d work it out together anyway.

Today they are night and day, and it’s not better. Today, it is not how will this legislation affect my district, it is how does this legislation sit with my party, he says. It’s the wrong question, but it has become the only question. That’s why government doesn’t work any more.

He shows that Donald Trump is not an extreme anything. He is the logical next step in a party built on fear of losing not just an election but control of life. Nothing he says or does is too outrageous for Republicans, because they have a single narrow focus: self-preservation. Democrats are at a disadvantage because they are more open and inclusive – classes and colors and nationalist groups. As Will Rogers put it in the 1930s – “I am not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”

Polarization has been creeping into American lives at an ever-accelerating pace, and there is no end in sight. It is making the country dysfunctional, and the more dysfunctional it becomes the more polarized it becomes. Because the other ideology is a lie.

Klein ends by saying he doesn’t like Conclusions. He demonstrates it by having trouble with his. It’s a kludge of patches that will not be implemented, precisely because they count on the entrenched to make them happen.

Mostly, he trots out the tired arguments for proportional representations, which would encourage more parties to form. He does not say that this would turn the US into an Israel or a Belgium, where no one can govern at all. Belgium went for two years without a government because no one could assemble enough parties to form one. Israel is about to have three elections in a year for the same reason. Italy has not had a cohesive government since Mussolini. Multi-party is no solution. It is both surprising and disappointing that Klein, as fair and thorough as he is, never mentions the truly ugly downside of the multiparty system he recommends.

For all his work here, the problem is he does not follow through; he does not go nearly far enough.

At one point earlier on, he says the US is not a democracy, but he says it for the wrong reasons. He points to rural voters having far more clout than urban voters, and Republicans preventing minorities of all stripes from voting. But the real reason the US is not a democracy is because the US is not a democracy:
-Representation was never supposed to be a lifetime occupation.
-Elected representatives were not supposed to get rich from it.
-Representation was supposed to be a civic duty, not a career. It is an obligation, a burden and a sacrifice, not simply a process to create a ruling class of white men.
-Political parties, feared by George Washington and many other founders, should not have been allowed to arise in the first place. They watched them rise anyway, and stood by as all their fears came true. Party uber alles. Country be damned.

So imagine if the 500 thousand elected officials in the US could only serve one term. And if there weren’t enough candidates, they would be chosen as in jury duty (as they did in Ancient Greece). There would be no campaign financing, no PACs, no primaries, no lobbyists or bribery, because no one could establish a base or be around long enough to be compromised. Instead of constant fundraising, work could get done.

Imagine if people were elected to serve on committees instead of chambers. They would have to decide real issues, not ideological policies. They would only have one job to do. The committees would decide on roads or schools, foreign aid or civil rights, tariffs or taxes. Teachers would be on education committees instead of billionaires with no background. Scientists would be on science committees instead of lobbyists. Ideology would lose every time it was inserted into the deliberations, because ideology is not relevant to the work of government. And after four or five years, the committees would disband and members would be replaced by others who reflected the newer times better. That’s how they did it 2500 years ago.

That’s called democracy. Preventing the nomination hearings of a supreme court justice for the (entirely bogus) reason that it would take place in an election year should never be allowed to happen. Holding up government funding and shutting it all down, threatening the sanctity of the world financial system (over a wall) should never be allowed to happen. The two-party system itself should never be allowed. It is clearly poisonous. It forces people to label themselves and stick with them. Out of fear.

Real democracy is at least as impossible as proportional representation in the USA, but it is a viable solution to the polarization that cripples the nation.

David Wineberg
Profile Image for Raymond.
338 reviews246 followers
March 29, 2020
My review is also published on Medium: https://medium.com/ballasts-for-the-m...

I've been waiting for this book ever since Ezra Klein first mentioned he was working on it during one of his podcast episodes. As the title explains, Klein's book tells the story of how and why the United States is currently a polarized nation. Klein defines polarization as the phenomenon when the opinions of the public change which results in them splitting and gathering around two ideological poles leaving no true moderates in the country.

Klein addresses how did the US transition from a depolarized mid 20th Century to a polarized 21st Century. One of the biggest reasons has to do with the issue of race and how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought about a realignment between the Democrats and Republicans.

I love that Klein makes it clear from the beginning that this is a book about how systems cause polarization rather than people. He shows this by referencing high quality research across different fields of study (political science, psychology, sociology, and history). One of the fascinating studies that he mentions in the book to explain how bad polarization has become dealt with college scholarships. The study found committee members were less likely to vote to give a scholarship to a student if they were of a different political party than the committee member.

Klein also effectively shows how policy issues such as the individual mandate for health insurance, cap and trade, and Russian aggression have become polarizing. Using history he shows that the political party that once supported these issues came out in opposition once the opposing political party came out in favor of the policy.

Klein concludes his book advocating for reforms not to end polarization but to help the country adapt to it. I have heard of many of the solutions that he proposes such as eliminating the filibuster and the Electoral College and adding more justices to the Supreme Court. I found the proposals that were new to me to be interesting such as automatic economic stabilizers and multi member congressional districts in conjunction with ranked choice voting.

Ultimately, Klein's book should be read by all concerned citizens and policy makers who are interested in reading a non-academic book on the roots of polarization and are interested in creating systems within the government to lessen the negative effects of polarization.

Thanks to NetGalley and Avid Reader Press for the free ARC copy in exchange for a honest review.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,417 followers
March 25, 2020
Ezra Klein does pick a side, but his great gift is disengagement to the extent we can see how ordinary Americans got to where they are ideologically. It is not enough to point to our sources of news and draw conclusions from that, though that is clearly a factor. He points to the way political and non-political people experience politics: the least engaged voters tend to look at politics through the lens of material self-interest (What will this policy do for me?) while the most engaged look at politics through the lens of identity (What does support for this policy say about me?).

It is the discussion about identity politics which really moves our understanding of his thesis and makes it relevant to my understanding of what is happening in Pennsylvania, where I live. I am a volunteer with a group determined to end partisan gerrymandering. Almost no one—no one I’ve met—supports partisan gerrymandering, even legislators. It is a perversion of the democratic process and in the words of SCOTUS Chief Roberts, “excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust.” I’d thought it was the root of our discord, but Klein shows me it is just another symptom.

But I did learn something about how opponents of our nonpartisan attempt to end gerrymandering have countered our language: they have increasingly relied on attempts to polarize by painting our team as an offshoot of the Democratic party. Even though most voters (of both parties), most township officials, most legislators oppose partisan gerrymandering, when legislative leaders, in this case Republican, claim we are Democrats-in-disguise, the out-group mentality takes over autonomous decision-making in downstream party members. They can’t not oppose us.

A fascinating study Klein cites is one by Shanto Iyengar of Stanford University’s Political Communication Laboratory in collaboration with Dartmouth College political scientist Sean Westwood. When two people competing for a scholarship at a university added political affiliation on their resume, that political affiliation trumped all other criterion, including test scores, GPA, even race. Why?
Iyengar’s hypothesis is that partisan animosity is one of the few forms of discrimination contemporary American society not only permits but actively encourages…”The old theory was political parties came into existence to represent deep social cleavages. But now party politics has taken on a life of its own—now it is the cleavage,” says Iyengar.
Another example of how political affiliations structure how we think about problems is a question that could be used on a standardized science comprehension test but with a politicized theme. Even those good at math got this question wrong when the answer predicted an outcome that clashed with their political views. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to solve the problem correctly when the answer fit their ideology. “The smarter a person is, the dumber politics can make them.” If we needed any convincing…

Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at New York University, says the role that an individual’s reason plays in political arguments is a little like being White House Press Secretary: there is no way they can influence policy, so they merely find ways to justify that policy to listeners. This is why, Haidt argues, “once group loyalties are engaged, you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.”

These discussions presume a level of political engagement. What about among people truly uninterested in politics? They have access to more information—of all kinds—than ever before but are not necessarily more informed politically. “Political media is for the politically invested,” which leads to further polarization in our thinking about the out-group, even the motives of our own in-group.

Political consultants have noted the shift since the early 2000s from trying to convince independents or swing voters to mobilizing one’s base, further evidence of the strength of in-group out-group polarization. Klein cites a drop in ‘true independents’ who don’t know who they will vote for but doesn’t mention the numbers leaving the parties. Since 2006, according to the Pew Research Center, political affiliation among Democrats has stagnated at 32% of the electorate while, it should surprise no one, those identifying as Republican have fallen to 23%. What is heartening to me is how many are leaving either party, refusing to buy into black-and-white dichotomies the parties dish out.

“Parties are weak while partisanship is strong,” is an insight garnered from Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari. Partly this is allowing an intense slice of the electorate to choose the party candidate in primaries and partly it is campaign finance. Small donors, it turns out, can be polarizing. Klein cites Michael Barber’s study of which states limit PAC contributions: in states where the rules push toward individual donations, the candidates are more polarized. Where the rules open the floodgates to PAC money, the candidates are more moderate.

I wasn’t expecting this outcome, but thinking about it, it makes sense, if only it weren’t contradicted by Pennsylvania’s case. There are practically no restrictions on campaign financing and a fiercely partisan Republican team has a stranglehold over which legislation moves in the state which appears to follow in lockstep with national, perhaps a little like Wisconsin politics. The animosity seen there is simply not local. Everyone seems to have a larger agenda or is playing on a larger stage, not taking into account objective facts on the ground. What is happening here? Is this the insurgent wing of the Republican party, the Tea Party?

Klein saves his pyrotechnics for the end, insights coming fast and hard in the second half. The weaknesses in local or state parties is partially due to the nationalization of party politics, easily seen in PA for those able kick back and enjoy viewing the bloodsport of this election. “Three-quarters of Republicans identify as conservative, while only half of Democrats call themselves liberals—and for Democrats, that’s a historic high point. Self-identified moderates outnumbered liberals in the Democratic Party until 2008.”

But that ‘conservatism’ of the Republican Party is not an ideology so much as an identity. I’m with him on that.
Profile Image for Dee Arr.
734 reviews89 followers
December 25, 2019
What began as a mostly balanced examination of why Americans are polarized transformed into multiple attacks on everything on the Right. It was almost as if two books had been written.

In the first half, author Ezra Klein seemed to try hard to be fair in his analysis, although from time to time he did inject his own political views. I concentrated on considering if the information Mr. Klein presented made sense, allowing his examples to strengthen his point that as our identities (everything we are that is primarily considered non-political) activate under one umbrella (our political identity), they become stronger. In his own words, “Our political identities have become political mega-identities.” Further into the book, Mr. Klein makes the point even clearer when referring to his own opinions: “I can’t tell you that’s not just my motivated reasoning in action.” But the main thrust of the first half of the book is not to point at each of us and show us how we each rationalize to support our beliefs. The question is what this behavior means and how it affects all of us.

The author traces the initial split - over half a century ago - to a time when conservatives and liberals were part of both major parties. The lines are more clearly drawn today, and I can’t remember recently seeing anyone identified as a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat. The author presents a multitude of facts, surveys, and tests that support what happened politically in America and why we are more divided than ever. If I would have been highlighting old school in a book rather than on my Kindle, I would have gone through several highlighters.

Like many of you, I realized long ago that it is easy and comfortable for all of us to support our own personal views if we only seek them out from those who think the same way we do. For years, I have done my best to read and listen to opposing views, although I can’t say that my own motivated reasoning doesn’t get in the way from time to time. It certainly did for Mr. Klein, who speaks at length about polarization and motivated reasoning yet by the middle of the book used Republicans and conservatives as cannon fodder. Almost every example featured a negative look at Republicans without a matching balance aimed at the Democrats.

Thus, he presents the strongest argument for his premise through personal example. In turn, those who disagree with him may take exception to his comments, thus strengthening the polarization he speaks about. It’s too bad he didn’t take a step back and remove his personal filters, rather than spend the second half of the book echoing the political comments found in pro-Democrat news outlets. While Mr. Klein’s description of why America is so split at this time is spot on, his unnecessary backhand comments and distorted “facts” in the second half of the book do not match his definition of mindfulness in the last chapter, and caused me to rethink the five-star rating I was prepared to give after reading the first half of the book.

I still recommend this book for everyone, no matter where you see yourself on the political spectrum. Knowing why we are so polarized may provide new thoughts for all of us, perhaps offering a path toward working together rather than tearing each other down. Three stars.

My thanks to NetGalley and Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster for an advance complimentary electronic copy of this book.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
February 4, 2020
I really like Ezra Klein--he's a really smart and generous guy. This book is calm and it's insightful and it really points to some of the troubling polarizations of our era. And in explaining them, he doesn't point fingers and the obvious culprits, but roots his analysis in human nature and large structural changes to political parties and elections.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,363 followers
January 6, 2021
Um dos livros mais importantes que li em 2020. Klein faz uma ótima discussão sobre como acontece o movimento polarizador em torno de identidade e política. Como se constrói uma identidade de grupo ao redor de algumas questões, de maneira que questionar essas "verdades" passa a ser questionar tudo o que o grupo representa. A origem de muito do pensamento de cartilhas partidárias do que não se pode questionar.

Importante para todo mundo, já que com redes sociais somos todos ainda mais afetados por isso. Mas especialmente importante para quem pensa em conhecimento científico, porque esse é o pior tipo de resistência que encontramos. Somos treinados para apresentar dados, mas como as pessoas interpretam verdades é muito mais ditado pela mentalidade de grupo do que somos preparados para enfrentar.
Profile Image for Brian Griffith.
Author 6 books226 followers
March 27, 2021
I was never bored, and never felt the author was berating others. Klein examines how decent, well-intentioned individuals can be collectively dysfunctional for system-level reasons. In many cases, "What is rational and even moral for us to do individually becomes destructive when done collectively" (p. 9).

Klein also shows how our sense of identity sucks us into a sense of win-or-lose rivalry: "It wasn't called identity politics when every cabinet member of every administration was a white male. It's only identity politics when there's pressure to diversify appointments" (p. 115). Furthermore, "The simplest way to activate someone's identity is to threaten it, to tell them they don't deserve what they have, to make them consider that it might be taken away" (p. 105).

He explores how partisanship becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop, and how that tendency has played out or been beneficially managed over the course of U.S. history. On the way, many practical and helpful coping strategies come to light, with ways of gaining more awareness about how we define (or are defined) by our sense of identity.

Overall, it's the most reasonably presented discussion I've seen about how competition and democracy can be made beneficial, both mentally and administratively.
Profile Image for Jason Furman.
1,175 reviews770 followers
February 2, 2020
The mere existence of Ezra Klein’s outstanding and compulsively readable account of the rise and consequences of polarization is a paradox. Klein creatively synthesizes a wide range of social science literature, mostly from political science and social psychology, combing it with his own extensive first hand observation of American politics in a book that is sympathetic to a wide range of perspectives without suffering from the traps of naked partisanship on the one hand or false equivalences on the other.

Klein is clear that our polarization problem does not stem from too little information or too little exposure to the perspective of the other side. In fact he cites a set of social psychology experiments that show that people are more rationalizes than reasoners, that smarter and more informed people turn their intelligence and information into more grist for their previous views, and that exposing people to opposing perspectives turns them off to them and strengthens their own views.

And that is why the mere existence of this book is a paradox. It reasons instead of rationalizing. It aims to persuade rather than mobilize. And Klein exposes himself and the reader to the other side of just about everything, including a relatively sympathetic account of everything form how whites feel their historic privileges threatened to Mitch McConnell’s decision to block Merrick Garland. It is almost like the very act of writing this book is a rejection of its thesis, or at least a loud protest against it—both explicitly and in form.

Many people will likely come to this book after reading the New York Times oped version. I liked the oped, but one thing I appreciated about the book is that, unlike the oped, it spent the first ~85% on the topic of polarization without talking much if at all about the different ways that it has affected Democrats and Republicans. I think this is intellectually honest and (perhaps a foolish hope) may bring along a wider set of readers. This presentational choice also makes the last part of the book that shows how the Republican Party has become more of an “insurgent outlier” that is captive to something more like one group and one set of highly partisan media, that much more compelling.

There wasn’t much in the book I disagreed with. My main complaint is that I wanted more. Klein calls for more democratization but does not discuss his view on whether that might conflict with protections for minorities and if so how it should be handled. He does not talk about the right way to balance democratic and technocratic control. And the relationship between polarization and the delegitimization of elites is largely missing from his account.

Finally, to expand something I said in the opening paragraph, I think Klein is a model for how to use social science. Too many political reporters ignore it entirely. Or if they like data analytics, think they can figure it out on their own. Ezra reads widely, books and articles. He talks to the authors. And he takes it seriously. But he also does something the social scientists cannot do: he has talked extensively to many of the leading political players over the last decade. Not everyone could pull it off as well as he does, but I certainly wish more people tried and even got half of the way there, it would be an improvement on a lot of the gut instincts of many of the people opining today.
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 2 books153 followers
February 24, 2020
I have read many books that attempt to explain the current nightmare of American politics.
Klein's book is one of the best. It is well researched and accessible. He provides a clear comprehensive
historical analysis of the shift from bi-partisan to polarized partisan politics. He also examines numerous studies of group think and identity sorting which he believes underlie this behavior. He examines the fear underpinning the" Trump phenomena" and the undemocratic practices of the Republican party.

His analysis of the current problems we face is strong and demonstrate a need for structural changes.
I am not sure how we get there, but I feel that this book is essential reading for all who are concerned about the current situation,
Profile Image for Rishabh Srivastava.
152 reviews150 followers
March 7, 2020
I am regular listener to Ezra Klein's podcast, and was flummoxed when he announced the book. His company, Vox, is one of the more polarizing media outlets on the left. In some of this podcasts on The Weeds, Klein used to explicitly include as a section that was effectively 'How will Republicans abuse this' for assessing policy proposals.

The book repeatedly reflects the author's biases. There were token acknowledgements of how the problem runs on both sides, but they were swiftly followed up by assertions that 'the Republicans are so much worse'. For instance, the author talked about how Democrats trust cultural institutions while Republicans do not, but did not acknowledge – at all – the ideological bias of cultural institutions (news media, universities, hollywood, tech-firms) that conservatives point to when they talk about their distrust of these institutions. Moreover, he did not talk much about the economic drivers of polarisation – devoting a mere 3 pages to these.

The author also ignores a number of areas where parties and the electorate are much _less_ polarized that they used to be (foreign policy, social spending, gay marriage) and focuses on issues where they are more polarized (immigration, abortion, cultural issues, healthcare).

The book did have some redeeming points – many of the papers and studies cited were interesting reads – but would not recommend it on the whole.
Profile Image for Todd.
111 reviews66 followers
January 22, 2022
Ever wanted a long-form version of the Ezra Klien show podcast? Then Why We're Polarized? might just be for you. Isn't there something about tv hosting and podcasting that puts you on a first-name basis with them? Well, Ezra is one of the smartest journalists in the room. It makes for a well-reasoned argument, but perhaps a tad superficial reading of our situation.

Here, Ezra argues that there has been a sorting of the parties that has taken place. Basically, it goes like this. For most of the 20th century, there were various unsorted identities in both parties. The Democrats formerly had modernists like FDR and JFK; and at the same time, they had Dixiecrats, which was a whole ecosystem to itself including Jim Crow and support for the New Deal. The Republicans formerly had the Eastern Establishment iconized by the likes of Ike, George Romney, Thomas Dewey, and Nelson Rockefeller; and at the same time, they had conservatives like Robert Taft and Sandra Day O'Connor. Now, the argument goes, Republicans have sorted to "free market" business interests, (white) nationalists, and "don't tread on me" libertarians. Where, the Democrats have built room under their big tent for liberals, progressives, and minorities.

Ezra sees the drive to polarization as part of the new Republican party's DNA. Before, throughout the so-called permanent Democrat Congress during the short 20th century, Republicans had incentives to cooperate because by doing so they could moderate the Democrats' agenda. Now, they have the most to gain from zero-sum hardball tactics. Meanwhile, Democrats have incentives to keep everyone under the tent, and hardball could upset some of the tent goers. Ezra concludes that there is no easy way out since the threats have been building up for decades; he thinks the only way out is through.

The conclusion we get from Ezra is sitting squarely within a zero-sum game. But are there really no other solutions? That seems unlikely; maybe the answer lies in response to an entirely different question. The mid-20th-century solution, although driven and constrained by economic development, was enlarging the size of the pie by various sorts of growth, then using social policy to ensure that the gains lift all boats. It's a little strange that Ezra does not contemplate this or other alternatives. It might not be about finding a way out or making our way through. Another solution may be changing the game.

Taken as a whole, the book is not amazing, but it is a solid addition to the analysis of our situation. As a concluding thought, Ezra thinks national politics is sucking up all of the oxygen in the room, which as citizens we have very little we can do to control, even compared to even our state-level politics which is much closer to our sphere of influence and where major state decisions shape our local lives and the national political picture. There is something to this. It is likely necessary to coordinate local, state, and national engagements and split the division of labor.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
427 reviews410 followers
February 3, 2020
12th book for 2020.

Ezra Klein's new book offers a fascinating deep dive into the reasons for America's increasingly polarized political discourse.

According to Klein, polarization in American politics is hardly new and in-and-of-itself not something that should necessarily be lamented. Klein posits that the start of polarization was the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which essentially ceded the American South to the Republican Party. Prior to this there was relatively little to distinguish the two main political parties in America—evidenced by the fact that approximately half the voting population voted for one party at a federal level and the other a state level—this statistic has now flipped with 97% of voters consistently voting for a single party at both state and federal levels (in another statistic Klein shows how even independent voters vote now like partisan voters of yesteryear).

As the party's identities have continued to coalesce around a core set of values, party allegiance has become literally a form of identity politics. This has been exacerbated by both our primate brains seeing all things in the world through a tribal filter, and by the increasing fragmentation of our media landscape. However, as Klein rightly points out this polarization has not affected the two parties equally. Whereas demographic forces force the Democratic Party to remain something of a broad church, the Republican Party has increasingly contracted into upon a much narrower base, which reflects its increasing extreme positions race and immigration.

Klein ends this analysis by examining how US political structures—especially the division of power between Congress, the Senate and the Presidency, something unique to functioning Western democracies—may actually lead to greater polarization and gridlock. Klein chilling points out that the US Presidential system has ultimately failed in every other country that has tried to enact it.

What this book shows clearly is that Trump and the current Republican Party are not the aberration that they are often portrayed as, but are a natural outcome of increasingly tribalized politics over the last fifty years. How this situation can be fixed is left as an exercise to readers.

Profile Image for Andrew Garvin.
135 reviews217 followers
February 12, 2020
In high school, a friend of mine (now a rabble-rousing scholar and critic) and I had a bright idea: Let’s watch the O’Reilly Factor for a month. Let’s understand what the other side is hearing. This was post-9/11 in the run-up to the Iraq War. We were galvanized.

I had to stop. It was melting my mind. None of O’Reilly’s arguments are smart or genuine. It’s all facile, motivated reasoning. I found myself taking for granted the underlying facts of his positions, only to often discover they were made up.

My media diet evolved in college and I found Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias - they are my age. The whole ethos to explain the news appealed to my technocratic mind. So, I have followed the full evolution of Klein’s thinking and I also have my own perspective on why we’re polarized.

Klein’s thesis is that demographic change in the electorate and the nationalization of media has sorted the parties and has given more power and meaning to Republican and Democrat as identities. Where he explains the role of media in polarization, he has a strong footing. Where he does a lit review of academia’s take on sorting, polarization, political science, and demographics, he has less insight.

The book is missing a thorough discussion of the incentives in the American political contract. And, how those incentives differ from less polarized countries. (Or, is every country becoming polarized?) Yes, the media is more national now, but that’s not a unique feature of the US, so why does it seem to be getting so much worse here? (Or is it?)

The incentive to focus on small, like-states for Senate/Electoral College reasons has been there for a century at least. Gerrymandering was always a lever, just recently abused.

Two theories for ‘why now? why us?’:

1. Demographic change, as Klein discusses. (Although, look at Canada.)
2. The growing power of the federal government, which Klein misses. There is a greater and growing incentive to take control of the federal government and less of a reason to focus on local issues. The Senate/Electoral College once preserved decentralization, but with centralization winning (perhaps inevitably) those systems now incentivize anti-democratic activity.

The prior norms and gentility of American politics was endogenous to the founding structure. Polarization (like the media itself) is a tool to transform norms to respond to the shifting incentives and that’s why it has been adopted.

Of course, as with any system change, there is a time lag to innovation. It’s going to get worse.
275 reviews10 followers
May 30, 2020
I can't remember a political book that has made me think this deeply, or reframe my own perceptions this much. I am only a casual fan of Klein's work, but a friend who is a more committed fan points me to him frequently. I heard Jill Lepore interview him on his own podcast about the book, and I thought it was interesting (I am more than a casual Jill Lepore fan).

Reading the book has been much more powerful for me than hearing him talk about it. Basically, Klein has done the really hard work of thinking through polarization from first principles: he isn't regurgitating any of the common tropes, though he relies on the work of many political scientists, psychologists, and other experts to help shape his thinking and convince the reader of his points. He is trying to understand why politicians, and voters, do what they do, without tearing his hair out or demonizing anyone. (He is clear about his own predilections, and sometimes he's funny about them, but they aren't what drives the book.) As he says in the beginning, this book isn't about personalities, including his.

I think it will be a month or more before I take in what kind of changes this book will make in my thinking. And, of course, it was published before COVID-19 was a thing, at least in the U.S., so it is essentially dated--in ways that may in fact make it more illuminating as we watch the inevitable shifts in the culture.

Recommend to anyone who wants to think about politics or, for that matter, anyone who doesn't understand why other people want to think about politics.
2 reviews1 follower
May 19, 2020
Not an analysis so much as a defense of an ideology that is rapidly deteriorating. Ezra Klein is firmly in the center left camp of the Democratic Party, the dreaded PMC class, that is largely high on its own supply of moral superiority. Klein correctly points out that political preference is a lens shaping Americans' view of the world, but Klein cannot take a step back and see how his own ideology is shaping this book and leading to conclusions that are well short of providing answers.

'They are racist, we aren't' is typical navel-gazing among PMCs to make themselves feel better about their own complicity in a system wholly unable to solve problems. All class or economic analysis is completely ignored by Klein.
Conservatives really hate people like Klein because of this sense of moral superiority. Remember, Americans sense of self is increasingly wrapped up in the individual's political dogma - for Klein (and others if his ilk) that means their sense of self is wholly dependent on moral righteousness.

A more thorough understanding of class antagonisms combined with racial resentment will provide a much clearer picture of why we are so divided, but Klein is incapable of doing so. His own ideology and moral righteousness prohibits his ability to use class to examine society, because the result of doing so would challenge the idea that is central to his ideology - that he is a good person because he is a Democrat.
Profile Image for Laura Noggle.
677 reviews388 followers
October 31, 2020
Extremely interesting, and at points, encouraging — especially the part that said people are less religious than at any other time in US history.

This gives me a tiny bit of hope that, no matter who is elected in November, maybe we can all be adults and not let religious beliefs cloud our politics.

Maybe that is too much to ask, but it is 2020.

“So here, then, is the last fifty years of American politics summarized: we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more—indeed, we’ve come to like the parties we vote for less—but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed.”
Profile Image for Miles.
464 reviews151 followers
February 2, 2020
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: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure). 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)

This review was originally published on my blog, words&dirt.
Profile Image for Whitney.
98 reviews482 followers
January 27, 2020
Finished this book a week ago and am still thinking about the convincing case it makes. I don't agree with Ezra Klein on everything, but I agreed with his conclusions – and appreciated his thoughtful, meticulous approach to answering the titular question. The rationale behind the current state of the Republican Party, and the scale of the challenge facing Democrats, are thoroughly clarified here. In Klein's words: "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." The specific democracy reform proposals he goes on to argue for are exactly the right way to think about rebuilding American democracy post-Trump.
Profile Image for Ali.
186 reviews
March 9, 2023
Good exploration of political polarization in the US, as nine out of ten chapters summarize almost every polarizing figure and event in recent US history. Last chapter suggests some remedial actions but overall it lacks the foundations that “The Righteous Mind” and alike offer.
Profile Image for Sheri.
1,210 reviews
February 5, 2020
So I decided last March that I was going to go back to grad school (after having been out since 2005). When I met with my former adviser and asked for tips on who/what/where I should be paying attention as I started to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, she suggested three podcasts. One of which is Ezra Klein show. I have listened to the majority of his shows since April and have read books by several of his guests in the past 10 months. I really like Klein's view point in general and tend to agree with his politics, so I was excited to grab his book when it came out.

First, I should put out there that I am not a political junkie. I used to be a sociologist with a focus on social psychology (MS and almost PhD) and am currently in a MSW program. I am interested in politics and in policy, but I tend not be enamored with the minutia of political theory. And Klein write about politics, but the majority of his argument is focused on identity and the ways in which both the American political structure and the media have created feedback loops with modern Americans that further polarize all of it (individuals, politics, and the media).

That said, he does provide a great historical look at the parties and the ways they have changed (become less strong while simultaneously more polarized within themselves) over the years. He also does a very good job of specifying the context in which our identities become activated and the ways in which they can affect our behavior.

I like all the social psychological research and references, but I was floored that Klein left out social effervescence. Going back to Durkheim, there is theory and data about the emotive reaction we have in large groups. Klein goes to great length to try to create a sports analogy (even while being careful to acknowledge his own lack of sports-feelings), but neglects to consider that being in a large crowd of people all cheering for the same thing (whether it is during a religious, political, sports, or pop-singer event) creates a warm and pleasant feeling. This is a HUGE contribution to the group effects that he goes to great length to discuss.

As always with these kinds of books, there is a lot of repetition (in part because an author is making their point over and over and in part because they want to appeal to larger audiences), but I found the feedback loop (as we are more polarized, the parties become more polarized to appeal to the voters and the ratings-fueled media focuses on conflict and further polarization which creates more individual polarizing which...) to be over emphasized.

I also wanted to agree with other reviewers' criticisms that Klien's political values show through. They absolutely do. In the beginning when he is mostly focused on history he manages to appear less partisan. However, by the end of the book, he has reached the point of Democrats are "inoculated by diversity" (which I think is correct), but then goes on to essentially explain how and why Republicans have no rational choice incentive to stop manipulating the system to hold on to power. This is all true and certainly relates to his identity argument (which also hinders on the idea that the American system is not currently broken, it is just working towards extremes), but reads as a huge slap at the Republican party. I get why those who tend to vote Republican might be upset and write off his proposals for change. After all, why shouldn't they do whatever they can to hold on to power?

Finally, I like a lot of his suggestions for change. He suggest that we need to remove some long term fiscal planning from yearly Congress votes using automatic economic stabilizers and eliminating the debt ceiling, eliminate the electoral college, change representation in the House such that ranked-choice voting is used rather than "winner take all" in small districts, add seats in the Senate for DC and Puerto Rico, eliminate the filibuster, and overhaul the gerrymandering and voter restriction that makes so many people's votes not count. I would add to this the re-enfranchisement of formerly incarcerated folks (and elimination of "poll taxes" that link to court fees) as well as re-districting so populations of jails do not count towards representation in areas where the jails are held. Those folks should either not count (since they can't vote) or be counted in their previous residence (because that is where they will go back to living when they are released).

Overall, it is a very approachable book; I didn't feel like I learned a lot, but I was entertained throughout and I think that the book is read-able for the "average job" and not geared towards political junkies or academics.
Profile Image for Diz.
1,564 reviews88 followers
June 18, 2020
This is an insightful look into the state of American politics these days. Klein points out that the political parties contained a wider diversity of liberal and conservative members in the past, which encouraged politicians to be more flexible and more willing to work with those in the other party. Since the 90s, the parties have become more polarized, which leads to more conflict between the parties. In this book, Klein points out how this polarization is pushing the American political system to its breaking point, and he provides some suggestions for fixing the system.
Profile Image for Book Shark.
744 reviews136 followers
June 20, 2020
Why We're Polarized by Ezra Klein

“Why We're Polarized” is a very good book that describes how American politics became toxic and what it means for our future. Host of the Ezra Klein Show, editor-at-large and cofounder of Vox, Ezra Klein provides readers with an insightful and timely book on our political divide. This instructive 336-page book includes the following ten chapters: 1. How Democrats Became Liberals and Republicans Became Conservatives, 2. The Dixiecrat Dilemma, 3. Your Brain on Groups, 4. The Press Secretary in Your Mind, 5. Demographic Threat, 6. The Media Divide beyond Left-Right, 7. Post-Persuasion Elections, 8. When Bipartisanship Becomes Irrational, 9. The Difference between Democrats and Republicans, and 10. Managing Polarization—and Ourselves.

1. Superbly-researched, well-written book for the masses.
2. An excellent and timely topic, how American politics became toxic and what it means for our future.
3. I really like Klein’s style. It’s a smooth, pleasant read. His tone is respectful and the facts are professorial. It’s a fair account despite his own obvious leanings.
4. The introduction sets the right tone for the rest of the book. “The first part of this book will tell the story of how and why American politics polarized around identity in the twentieth century and what that polarization did to the way we see the world and each other. The second half of the book is about the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that are driving our political system toward crisis.”
5. One of the great strengths of this book is the research done and providing great historical accounts of how we got to here. “So here, then, is the last fifty years of American politics summarized: we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more—indeed, we’ve come to like the parties we vote for less—but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed.”
6. Illustrates political changes over time. “Reagan, for his part, signed an immigration reform bill that today’s Democrats venerate and today’s Republicans denounce. “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said.
7. Fascinating history on the Dixiecrats. “The passage of the Civil Rights Act heralded the death of the Dixiecrats. The death of the Dixiecrats cleared the way for southern conservatives to join the Republican Party and northern liberals to join the Democratic Party.”
8. An excellent chapter that looks at the science behind partisanship. “How we feel matters much more than what we think, and in elections, the feelings that matter most are often our feelings about the other side. Negative partisanship rears its head again.” Bonus, “But it didn’t matter. “For both liberal and conservative participants, the effect of reference group information overrode that of policy content. If their party endorsed it, liberals supported even a harsh welfare program, and conservatives supported even a lavish one.””
9. A look at demographics. “Obama himself was a symbol of a browning America, of white America’s loss of control, of the fact that the country was changing and new groups were gaining power. That perception carried the force of fact.”
10. Quotes that stick. “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
11. In the second half of the book, Klein focuses on the feedback loop of polarization. “You can call this the echo chamber theory of polarization: we’ve cocooned ourselves into hearing information that only tells us how right we are, and that’s making us more extreme.”
12. The art of appealing to the masses. “You can arouse that passion through inspiration, as Obama did, or through conflict, as Trump did. What you can’t do is be boring.”
13. Interesting conclusions. Spoiler alert. “How did a candidate as abnormal as Trump win the Republican primary and end up with such a normal share of the general election vote? Weak parties and strong partisanship is the answer.”
14. American politics in a nutshell. “Individual donors are polarizing. Institutional donors are corrupting. American politics, thus, is responsive to two types of people: the polarized and the rich.”
15. The irrationality of bipartisanship. “Over the past decade, “justices have hardly ever voted against the ideology of the president who appointed them,” Epstein and Posner find. “Only Justice Kennedy, named to the court by Ronald Reagan, did so with any regularity.””
16. What America is. “America is not a democracy. Our political system is built around geographic units, all of which privilege sparse, rural areas over dense, urban ones.”
17. The differences between the parties. “Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on white voters. Democrats are a coalition of liberal whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on Christians. Democrats are a coalition of liberal and nonwhite Christians, Jews, Muslims, New Agers, atheists, Buddhists, and so on.”
18. How to manage polarization. “But let’s start with the system. There are three categories of reform I think particularly worth exploring: bombproofing, democratizing, and balancing.”
19. Insightful conclusion. “My point is not that we should all go informationally Galt. But I’ll be blunt here in a way that cuts against my professional interests: we give too much attention to national politics, which we can do very little to change, and too little attention to state and local politics, where our voices can matter much more.”
20. Notes included. Many references quoted.

1. Klein is fair but there is no way to hide his bias; as my friend once stated, the facts have a liberal bias.
2. Lacks supplementary visual material like charts or graphs that would have complimented the excellent material.
3. As Klein himself admits, the diagnosis is far more complete than the diagnosis.
4. Focuses on process but very little on the organizations and people behind them.
5. No Table of Contents?

In summary, this was an insightful and fun book to read. Klein is a professional author, he exhaustively researches his topic and provides many useful insights. A fascinating topic conveyed with great rhythm and substance. Lack of supplementary materials aside and the fact that the book focuses on processes more than the people behind it, this is a must-read, a very topical book that provides readers with clarity on the polarization of American politics. I highly recommend it!

Further suggestions: “How Democracies Die“ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “Trumpocalypse” by David Frum, “Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America” by Cass R. Sunstein, “It’s Even Worse Than You Think” by David Cay Johnston, “Inequality” by Anthony B. Atkinson, “The Great Divide” by Joseph Stiglitz, “Winner-Take All Politics” by Jacob S. Hacker, “White Rage” by Carol Anderson, “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” by Kurt Andersen, and “A Colony in a Nation” by Chris Hayes.
Profile Image for Filip Struhárik.
69 reviews266 followers
March 15, 2020
Koho nezaujímajú detaily americkej politiky, nech sa knihe oblúkom vyhýba. Koho bavilo How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future, ten by mohol byť nadšený.

Ezra Klein je nesmierne bystrý novinár, dobre rozmýšľa, dobre píše a táto kniha je dôkladnou analýzou amerického politického systému, jeho chýb, nedemokratickosti - a toho, aký je to prúser v časoch narastajúcej polarizácie.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
September 14, 2020
This is essentially an extended Vox feature article about political polarization. It is not bad as it goes: The author appreciates and explains very well the irrational depths of the problem. Subjectively having just read Matt Taibbi's Hate Inc it just seemed to be a more compelling and exciting depiction of more or less the same phenomenon. Would recommend this book to hardcore political wonks but Taibbi's for casual observers.
Profile Image for Ada.
440 reviews201 followers
September 5, 2020
M'encanta l'Ezra Klein. Fa temps que escolto el seu podcast i sentia la seva veu mentre el llegia. M'agrada la seva manera de pensar i, és clar, m'agrada del que parla. El llibre analitza la polarització en la política dels Estas Units en els últims últims 60 anys (més o meeenys). Una de les coses que més m'ha agradat és l'anàlisi que fa i les dades que dóna sobre com votem els que votem; què ens mou a votar el que votem i com les nostres identitats cada cop ho regulen més. Però, a part d'això, que es pot entendre de manera quasi global, aprofundeix sobretot en com el propi sistema polític dels Estats Units fa possible i quasi obliga a una polarització cada cop més gran de l'electorat. Un peix que es mossega la cua. Molt interessant. I dóna moltes eines per entendre la situació política actual dels USA i com Trump, més que una anomalia del sistema, és el seu producte natural.
Profile Image for Philip.
976 reviews259 followers
July 6, 2020
Before you read this book, check out Ezra Klein on Ben Shapiro's podcast. YouTube or SoundCloud. Or just listen wherever you get your podcasts.

(Also, I recognize that a lot of people - especially people who would come all the way to goodreads for an Ezra Klein book - are put off by Ben Shapiro. I am, too. In fact, I gave his book one of my five-harshest 1-star ratings: Here,, it's a quick, fun read. Sometimes I go back to it to cheer myself up. ...But the podcast where he interviews Klein: magnifique.)

What did I take out of this book?

Thoughts on Politics as Identity

It got me to ask a lot of questions of myself. How much of my identity is political? What's the difference between asking what a policy can do for me, and what does a policy say about me?

Klein's got a section that didn't age particularly well - even though the book just came out in like... January:

"Kahan is quick to note that, most of the time, people are perfectly capable of being convinced by the best evidence. There's a lot of disagreement about climate change and gun control, for instance, but almost none over whether antibiotics work, or whether the H1N1 flu is a problem, or whether heavy drinking impairs people's ability to drive. Rather, our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we're dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our group - or at least our social standing within the group."

COVID is the new H1N1 and man: has it become political. Mask mandate for Elkhart County? Check out the comment section from ABC57 or WNDU's post. Go shopping and see who's wearing the mask. Look at the stores where people are wearing the masks. ...I'm sure you realize how we've moved from "how does this policy do for me?" to "what does this policy say about me?"

The book reminded me to ask, "What do I need to fight within myself - rather than in the system?"

I need to make sure I'm working on keeping myself depolarized. I need to make sure that I'm listening.

It was angering for me - reading about Joe Wilson making so much bank of his "you lie" outburst. It was also angering rehashing the Garland block. But Klein did a good job of getting me angry, and then saying: but come on. What did you expect? McConnell didn't break the law. All he did was make a gamble - and the gamble looked to be one that wasn't in his favor, right? Like, Hillary could have won and replaced Garland with a nominee who was much farther to the Left.

That's the thing about hypocrisy, though: it's impossible for either side to level that charge without indicting themselves. The whataboutism of whataboutisms. The Right demands safe spaces while making fun of safe spaces. The Left complains about Garland forgetting about Bork. (Some on the Left might point out that Reagan got his nominee...)

Klein calls us to "mindfulness."

"If the beginning of wisdom on identity politics is recognizing that all of us are engaging in it all the time, the path of wisdom on identity politics is to be mindful of which identities are being activated, so we can be more intentional about what which identities we work to activate."

Or, as the Boy Scouts say: Be Prepared.

SNCC wasn't just non-violent. They practiced and prepared to be nonviolent. If you don't see a situation coming, you'll react far differently than if you've been let in on the secret ahead of time.

I'm reminded to take that knowledge into how I activate my own identities - and how much I let them pull me.

Klein made the point that he sees news organizations more as collaborators than competitors. I liked that: and it's true - both Left and Right. They're feeding off each other - and helping each other. I view schools and education much the same way: I don't want my school to succeed and a neighbor district to fail. I want ALL these kids to get a great education. And really, that's how I see this country as well. Right and Left are complements of each other. Not competitors.


Klein's not right on everything. Go back and read Federalist 10. And then go back and RE-read Federalist 10. (And maybe 6,7,8, and 9... The Founders were worried about parties.)

Oh: And the idea that moderates actually hold more extreme views than people on the Right and/or Left. Good stuff. "Independents" indeed. What a cop-out that I'm about to sign onto.
Profile Image for Julia.
73 reviews1 follower
January 11, 2023
Dear Every Person I Talk to In 2023,

Apologies in advance for talking incessantly about this book and then forcing you to go read it.

Ezra Klein Fan Girl
Profile Image for Ryan.
990 reviews
July 30, 2020
In “The Chase,” an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard is given a sculpture. At first glance, the sculpture is just a person, but it can be opened and within the person are many small people who represent the different voices that make up an individual. I love that, and I think it’s true.

In Why We’re Polarized, Klein adopts a similar theory about identity, namely that we each have a bunch of them. Klein, for example, is a father, a Californian, a vegan, a journalist, etc. How does this relate to polarization? Klein argues that our identities can help us to form groups. Because our identities are beginning to stack on top of each other, there are fewer politically neutral identities and also fewer group identities. Second, our identities are activated by threat. If you put that all together, it means that almost everything is activating our identities and group responses. Sadly, we're almost never as rational as we'd like to think, so it seems like we're in a tricky moment.

Some people will tell me they mostly don't have political identities, often arguing that they are uniquely independent, uniquely rational, or both. I'm skeptical of that position, so here is one way of understanding Klein's point. In an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, Klein points out that people will identify as vegans but not as omnivores because the former is more often spoken of with disdain. The omnivore identity mostly goes unrecognized. If I go to a dinner attended only by strict vegetarians here in the Pacific Northwest, I'll suddenly realize I'm different from the group. In that moment, I'll realize I grew up on a small town farm on the prairies. I never once attended a dinner hosted by vegetarians. I never once thought of myself in a deep way as person from a small town on the prairies, even though that is undeniably who I was and who I am.

Klein points to broad demographic changes, such as the “browning of America,” to show that many Americans (a phrase which here often means white Americans) feel threatened by this shift. Consequently, they feel identities within them being activated that used to go unrecognized (e.g. omnivore). Sometimes, changing dynamics are pretty easy to discuss. Klein points to an academic building that has only one washroom for women. No one saw that as a problem until more women became academics and pointed out that it was not such a great system for them. Unfortunately, people aren’t great at thinking about their identities in this contextualized way, perhaps because it’s new to them and therefore uncomfortable, or perhaps for less admirable reasons. Regardless, it does seem to be happening.

Why We're Polarized can be read as a "what happened" book. Because Klein has interviewed so many people for his admirable and engaging Ezra Klein Show podcast, his book often reads as the culmination of four years of reflection. Although I suppose I'd rank Why We're Polarized one of the best "what happened" books I've read, it's in part because it was published in 2020 and has benefited from other scholarship. It's a useful synthesis, and even those who have read many of these books will still find some new content in the second half of Why We’re Polarized. Klein analyzes, persuasively imho, many structures within American culture that act as positive feedback loops: the more polarized the population becomes, the more polarized the media, political campaigns, daily governance, etc. become. The more that polarization happens within those systems, the more it triggers identity polarization within individuals. We think too rarely about runaway effects and positive feedback loops, though it's also true that we too rarely consider backlash and mitigating efforts.

Ultimately, I'm not an American and I was most interested in Klein's analysis of groups and identity. I found his analysis often insightful. I'm not sure that there are any easy fixes to this polarizing dynamic on the individual level. But if I can be forgiven for throwing in my two cents, I recommend reading local and international papers and reading politically adjacent content rather than "across the aisle" content. In another time, I might also recommend travelling more, but failing that, I'll recommend watching more Star Trek.
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