Ezra Klein on Why We’re Polarized

Ezra Klein opens the concluding chapter of his new book – Why We’re Polarized – with this: 

“I should level with you. I don’t like concluding chapters. Authors write whole books about devilishly complex social problems and then pretend they can be solved in a few bullet points.”

And then he proceeds, without pretending, to his three bullet points – three approaches to overcoming our polarization – bombproofing, democratizing and balancing.

Bombproofing. “We know that one result of our polarizing parties is that bipartisan agreement is becoming harder to achieve,” he writes. “We know that politicians are becoming more responsive to a media that amplifies conflict and a base that loathes weakness. We know that confrontation and paralysis have become divided government’s natural state. Some of that political combat is necessary. Some of that gridlock simply reflects a divided country. But we should limit the damage it can do. We should, to the extent possible and consistent with political accountability, bombproof the government’s operations against political disaster.”

How? Front and center – get rid of the debt ceiling. “The debt ceiling could take routine bickering in Congress and transform it into a full-blown global financial crisis.”

Democratizing. “If we want politicians to adopt a broader and less polarizing approach to both politics and policy, we need to make them responsible for putting together broader, less polarized coalitions,” Klein writes.

How? Do away with the archaic electoral college. Proportional representation for House elections. In the Senate, get rid of the filibuster. Overall, make voting easier. 

“The alternative to democratizing America is scarier than mere polarization: it’s a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the fifteen largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only thirty senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by seventy senators.”

Balancing. “A central problem in any free political system is how to secure balanced competition. The problem in our system is that what we balanced for is no longer what’s competing. Today, the strongest and most politically important identities are partisan identities. We don’t talk about big states and small states but about red states and blue states. If there is a threat to American unity, it rests not in the specific concerns of Virginians or Alaskans but in the growing enmity between Democrats and Republicans. And here’s the thing: the Founders did not think about how to balance parties, because they didn’t think parties would exist.”

Klein likes a proposal by law professors Daniel Epps and Ganesh Sitaraman who argue that the conflict swirling around the Supreme Court has reached dangerous levels. 

“Epps and Sitaraman suggest rebuilding the Supreme Court so it has fifteen justices: each party gets to appoint five, and then the ten partisan justices must unanimously appoint the remaining five. Until all fifteen are agreed upon, the Court wouldn’t be able to hear cases.”

Get rid of the electoral college, the debt ceiling, reshape the Supreme Court, institute proportional representation.

What about getting rid of the Democratic and Republican parties – the two corrupt drivers of polarization?

In his farewell address, George Washington warned us against the partisanship of the political parties – “They put in place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community – and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”

But Washington’s attack on political parties was in fact a partisan move. 

Klein quotes Princeton historian Sean Wilentz who wrote that Washington’s farewell address was a “highly partisan appeal delivered as an attack on partisanship and on the low demagogues who fomented it.”

“Washington delivered the speech, co-written by Alexander Hamilton, as America was splitting into a two-party system – the Federalists, led by John Adams and Hamilton, and the Democratic Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison,” Klein writes. “Washington was, in effect, a Federalist, and in warning against the development of factions, he was warning against those who had arisen to challenge his chosen successors. 

As Wilentz wrote, “Washington’s address never explicitly mentioned Jefferson or his supporters, but its unvarnished attack on organized political opposition was plainly directed against them.”

The body of Klein’s book is filled with fascinating social science research into how, why and the extent to which we have become polarized around party lines. 

Klein reports, for example, that in 1960, Americans were asked whether they would be pleased, displeased, or unmoved if their son or daughter married a member of the other political party. 

“Only 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be upset by the cross-party union. On the list of things you might care about in a child’s partner – are they kind, smart, successful, supportive? – which political party they voted for just didn’t rate.”

By 2010, the results were much different – 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats professed concern at interparty marriage.

Why isn’t the answer to polarization — everyone become independent? 

Klein portrays a polarized system defined by political parties whose existence we decry.

“We mistrust ideologues and partisans,” Klein says. “We venerate centrists, moderates, independents.”

But Klein then cites research showing that self-proclaimed independents were more stable in which party they supported than self-described partisans. 

“I want to say that again,” Klein wrote. “Today’s independents vote more predictably for one party over the other than yesteryear’s partisans. That’s a remarkable fact.”

While that might be true, it is easier to have a conversation with a self-described independent than with a self-described Democrat or Republican. And it’s easier to have that conversation about local politics than it is about national politics.

And Klein concludes his conclusion with this advice – be mindful (“The idea here is to become more aware of the ways that politicians and media manipulate us.”) and go local (“It’s possible to make local and in-state news sources a bigger part of your media diet and thus make your local political identity more powerful.”) 

So, let’s modify that a bit and boil it down to four simple baby steps not involving the debt ceiling, the Supreme Court or the electoral college.

Read this book.

Be mindful.

Register independent.

Go local.

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