IN HIS LATEST BOOK, Ezra Klein offers a systems-based account of the contemporary polarization in American Politics. In summarizing a wealth of literature on American history, politics, and behavioral psychology, he arrives at three core conclusions:
A) Polarization is the result of a complex regime of incentives and institutions, not individual actors.
B) Electoral design has made this polarization asymmetric, with the GOP becoming more homogenous and radical.
C) Polarization is “rational” under the regime; our most practical course from here is to reform systems to accommodate it.
These conclusions are uncontroversial on their face, but in taking a systems-based approach, Klein is fatalistic in how American Politics has progressed. This is inevitable when you turn your eyes towards systems rather than their agents, and in net more of this sort of analysis is needed. However, such determinism deliberately neglects the influence of bad ideas, and foregoes the real potential of novel political messaging.
For most of the book, Klein focuses on the logic of polarization, how it is a result of rational choices under a set of rules and informed by an innate biology endowed by deep, evolutionary time. I thoroughly enjoy such descriptive work, and the historical background he offers is what most students my age can learn the most from. Understanding the history of the parties, why they are what they are inoculates you from inane arguments that “Democrats are the party of the KKK” or a complacent, rose tinted view of a “bipartisan” past. Partially due to historical ignorance, and in part due to deliberately misleading internet charlatans (Dave Rubin, Candace Owens), there seems to be an astounding misunderstanding of the continuities/discontinuities in the political parties.
Some interesting points that oppose conventional wisdom or are usually underemphasized is how we see increased stability in voting patterns due to partisanship, how the focus on national races basically refutes a material account of voting (a notable blow to Buchannan and Tullock’s core assumptions and George Mason’s Public Choice School) , how small dollar individual donations promote more polarizing candidates, and how polarization is creating a selective pressure against moderate candidates.
It is in the last chapter, where I find his proposed remedies neglecting an important element: the role of ideas, and leaders. The Democratizing & Balancing reforms offered are necessary for our institutions to function and survive polarization. His prescriptions on “identity mindfulness” are good, uncontroversial, even banal. But to even get such reforms passed in the first place, to end our partisan-gridlock, we need leaders and ideas that can break through our identity-gridlock. The parties have failed at this. Republicans have stopped trying, and the DNC vision of cross-cutting appeal usually resigns itself to some sketchy, spineless neoliberalism with a dose of social justice rhetoric.
Klein has pointed out the rationality of this throughout the book, but we must be cautious in noting that any status-quo has some logic to it — as a descriptive journalist and policy wonk, Klein is predisposed to this sort of thinking. But that doesn’t mean better equilibria haven’t been foregone due to genuine incompetence and bad ideas. There are alternatives that could work within the logic of our electoral politics — I argue we’re seeing glimmers already.
Telling is Klein’s account of Obama, as someone who didn’t just reject polarization, but didn’t believe it. Simply put, Obama’s life didn’t agree with that narrative. Klein suggests there is an intelligence, but nonetheless a basic naivete to this view of American Politics. I disagree. Perhaps because my own experiences, and probably many students who grew up in Northern Virginia, also reject that narrative. My parents are Dalit Caste Indian Immigrants who arrived in this country in the optimism of the 90’s; I grew up around many different races, religions, incomes brackets, and yes — political identities. As Charles Murray outlines in Coming Apart such an upbringing is increasingly rare, my own neighborhood is only getting more segregated. My friends’ parents are bussing younger siblings out of Sterling VA to posher, whiter schools in Western Loudoun. But I have seen how what Klein calls “cross-cutting” identities facilitate dialogue and empathy.
I myself have a background that rejects an alignment of identities. My Indian, family background is lower class, traditional, strongly patriarchal; my upbringing suburban and vaguely elitist; I’m in a Greek Fraternity usually associated with white, affluent culture. I don’t think I’m special, I actually think that the liberal enclaves of the country have fostered many young people with similarly “unaligned” life stories. The generation that grew up under polarization has thoughtful members who may inevitably be its remedy. A generation of kids who grew up listening to Joe Rogan more than Wolf Blitzer will have a different, more skeptical view of partisan politics. Depolarization and realignment is happening, the pundits just haven’t noticed yet.
As I stated earlier, we’re only seeing the early stages of this. Factions of the parties are learning to play with the boundaries of identity rather than being trapped by it — promisingly, some Democrats are re-learning that cross-cutting appeal is not synonymous with being a moderate or a centrist. Yes, the midterms were won by moderates in swingy suburbs turned off by trump. But at the state level, Democrats are running Progressive Veterans, some well left of the party, to win independents and value voters. Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard had interesting coalitions not easily pinned down by the lamestream mainstream media. Both had non-negligible support from independents, young people, and Trump supporters. They both achieved this by emphasizing different identities or rechanneling potent anxieties. Yang deliberately justified the now debunked “economic anxiety” thesis (if he knows the Math, he knows this narrative of why Trump won is wrong) but redirected it from immigrants towards robots — he had a concise, digestible narrative. Gabbard clothed a rather progressive agenda in a sort of right-populist rhetoric aimed at the establishment, the DNC, and the “lamestream media.” They are the forerunners of a realigning project.
We are in a similar situation to the early 20th century, economically and politically. As the “labor question” threatened to boil over, but neither the populist Democrats nor the Capital-friendly Republicans were positioned to take on the issue, the political response was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a synthesizer, personally, politically, and aesthetically. A New York elite-Cowboy, a reformer who was occasionally clubby with captains of industry. He signaled himself as both a progressive, and a bulwark against anti-American radical forces. Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t a moderate. But he knew how to play with identity, how to synthesize progressive reforms and a romantic/reactionary patriotism. Where Roosevelt’s quest as a pampered New York boy was to earn the respect of cowboys and laborers, plenty of “liberal elite” students are vying to build bridges with conservatives and even Trump supporters.
My suspicion is that today, many reared in similar elite cradles, with analogously non-aligned identities, will present the political synthesis for the problems in the 21st century.