Jason Furman's Reviews > Why We're Polarized

Why We're Polarized by Ezra Klein
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it was amazing
bookshelves: nonfiction, politics, journalism

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.
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Reading Progress

December 11, 2019 – Shelved
January 28, 2020 – Started Reading
February 1, 2020 – Finished Reading

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