Why We're Polarized
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Why We're Polarized

Ezra Klein

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Why We're Polarized

Ezra Klein

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ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2022 One of Bill Gates's "5 books to read this summer, " this New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller shows us that America's political system isn't broken. The truth is scarier: it's working exactly as designed. In this "superbly researched" ( The Washington Post ) and timely book, journalist Ezra Klein reveals how that system is polarizing us—and how we are polarizing it—with disastrous results. "The American political system—which includes everyone from voters to journalists to the president—is full of rational actors making rational decisions given the incentives they face, " writes political analyst Ezra Klein. "We are a collection of functional parts whose efforts combine into a dysfunctional whole.""A thoughtful, clear and persuasive analysis" ( The New York Times Book Review ), Why We're Polarized reveals the structural and psychological forces behind America's descent into division and dysfunction. Neither a polemic nor a lament, this book offers a clear framework for understanding everything from Trump's rise to the Democratic Party's leftward shift to the politicization of everyday culture.America is polarized, first and foremost, by identity. Everyone engaged in American politics is engaged, at some level, in identity politics. Over the past fifty years in America, our partisan identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. These merged identities have attained a weight that is breaking much in our politics and tearing at the bonds that hold this country together.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 one another. And he traces the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that are driving our system toward crisis."Well worth reading" ( New York magazine), this is an "eye-opening" ( O, The Oprah Magazine ) book that will change how you look at politics—and perhaps at yourself.

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Chapter 1 How Democrats Became Liberals and Republicans Became Conservatives

The first thing I need to do is convince you something has changed.
American politics offers the comforting illusion of stability. The Democratic and Republican Parties have dominated elections since 1864, grappling for power and popularity the whole time. Scour American history and you will find Democrats and Republicans slandering each other, undermining each other, plotting against each other, even physically assaulting each other.I1 It is easy to cast a quick glance backward and assume our present is a rough match for our past, that the complaints we have about politics today mirror the complaints past generations had of the politics of their day. But the Democratic and Republican Parties of today are not like the Democratic and Republican Parties of yesteryear. We are living through something genuinely new.
Rewind to 1950. That was the year the American Political Science Association (APSA) Committee on Political Parties released a call to arms that sounds like satire to modern ears. Entitled Towards a More Responsible Two-Party System, the ninety-eight-page paper, coauthored by many of the country’s most eminent political scientists and covered on the front page of the New York Times, pleads for a more polarized political system. It laments that the parties contain too much diversity of opinion and work together too easily, leaving voters confused about who to vote for and why. “Unless the parties identify themselves with programs, the public is unable to make an intelligent choice between them,” warned the authors.2
It is difficult, watching the party-line votes and contempt for compromise that defines Congress today, to read sentences like “the parties have done little to build up the kind of unity within the congressional party that is now so widely desired” and hear the logic behind them. Summarized today, the report can sound like a call for fewer puppies and more skin fungus.
But as Colgate University political scientist Sam Rosenfeld argues in his book The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era, there were good reasons to worry about the muddle the parties had made of midcentury American politics. The activists and politicians who worked relentlessly, over years, to bring about the polarized political system we see today had good reasons for what they did. Appreciating the logic of the polarizers’ argument, alongside the wreckage produced by their success, is a bracing antidote to both a golden view of the past and overly confident prescriptions for the future.II
To understand the political scientists’ concerns, we need to understand the role political parties are supposed to play in a democracy. Consider the issues that you, as a citizen, are routinely asked to render a judgment on. Should we go to war in Iraq, or Syria, or Iran, or North Korea? Does it make sense to organize our health-care system around private insurers brought to heel by regulations and an individual mandate? What is the proper term for a copyright—should it last for a decade, four decades, a hundred years, or until the sun burns out and dooms this fragile world? Should federal tax revenues equal 28 percent of GDP, 31 percent of GDP, or 39 percent of GDP over the next decade? What’s the proper level of immigration each year, and how much of it should go to reuniting families and how much to filling economic needs? Would breaching the debt ceiling really damage America’s creditworthiness forevermore? None of us can amass sufficient expertise on such a range of topics.
Political parties are shortcuts. The APSA report called them “indispensable instruments of government,” because they “provide the electorate with a proper range of choice between alternatives of action.” We may not know the precise right level for taxes, or whether it makes sense to create a no-fly zone over Syria, but we know whether we support the Democratic, Republican, Green, or Libertarian Party. The act of choosing a party is the act of choosing whom we trust to transform our values into precise policy judgments across the vast range of issues that confront the country. “For the great majority of Americans,” the authors write, “the most valuable opportunity to influence the course of public affairs is the choice they are able to make between the parties in the principal elections.”
The problem in 1950 was that the nation’s two major political parties weren’t honoring the intentions of their voters. A Minnesota Democrat pulling the lever for Hubert Humphrey, her party’s liberal Senate candidate in 1954, was also voting for a Senate majority that would include Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who was among the chamber’s most conservative members. Rather than offering a choice, the parties were offering a mush.III
This was the problem as the members of APSA saw it. The state parties were organizing politics around lines the national parties were erasing. “The national and state party organizations are largely independent of one another, each operating within its own sphere, without appreciable common approach to problems of party policy and strategy,” complained the authors. The US Congress included Democrats more conservative than many Republicans and Republicans as liberal as the most left-leaning Democrats. They were robbing voters of their most valuable opportunity to influence the course of public affairs.
Senator William Borah, an Idaho Republican, put it piquantly in 1923. “Any man who can carry a Republican primary is a Republican,” he said. “He might believe in free trade, in unconditional membership in the League of Nations, in states’ rights, and in every policy that the Democratic Party ever advocated; yet, if he carried his Republican primary, he would be a Republican.”3 Being a Republican did not mean being a conservative. It meant being a Republican. Party affiliation was a tautology for itself, not a rich signifier of principles and perspective.
In 1950, Thomas Dewey, the former governor of New York and the GOP’s 1944 nominee for president, freely admitted that if the measure of a “real” political party was “a unified organization with a national viewpoint on major issues,” neither the Republican nor Democratic Party qualified. Dewey thought this a great strength, since “no single religion or color or race or economic interest is confined to one or the other of our parties. Each party is to some extent a reflection of the other.
 This is perhaps part of the secret of our enormous power, that a change from one party to the other has usually involved a continuity of action and policy of the nation as a whole on most fundamentals.” He allowed that there were those who “rail at both parties, saying they represent nothing but a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.” If the critics had their way, he said, “they then would have everything very neatly arranged, indeed. The Democratic Party would be the liberal-to-radical party. The Republican Party would be the conservative-to-reactionary party.”4 (Narrator: They would have their way.)
In 1959, then vice president Richard Nixon—who would go on, as president, to create the Environmental Protection Agency, consider a basic minimum income, and propose a national health-care plan more ambitious than Obamacare—spoke with derision of those who sought to cleave the parties by their beliefs. “It would be a great tragedy if we had our two major political parties divide on what we would call a conservative-liberal line,” he said. The strength of the American political system is “we have avoided generally violent swings in Administrations from one extreme to the other. And the reason we have avoided that is that in both parties there has been room for a broad spectrum of opinion.”5
In this, if in little else, Nixon was joined by Robert F. Kennedy. The journalist Godfrey Hodgson recounts a conversation where Kennedy warned that “the country was already split vertically, between sections, races, and ethnic groups,” so it would be “dangerous to split it horizontally, too, between liberals and conservatives.”6 Politics, in this telling, was meant to calm our divisions, not represent them.
In 1959, the Republican National Committee held an internal debate over whether the party should be driven by a distinct set of ideological values. At the inaugural meeting of the Committee on Program and Progress, which was tasked with designing the GOP agenda, the group invited the political scientist Robert Goldwin to make the case that “it is neither possible nor desirable for a major political party to be guided by principles.” Our modern cleavages give Goldwin’s concerns a force that they would not have carried in 1959. “With both parties including liberals and conservatives within their ranks,” he said, “those differences which would otherwise be the main campaign issues are settled by compromise within each party.” He warned that “our national unity would be weakened if the theoretical differences were sharpened.”7
This is a profound enough point worth dwelling on for a moment. When a division exists inside a party, it gets addressed through suppression or compromise. Parties don’t want to fight among themselves. But when a division exists between the parties, it gets addressed through conflict. Without the restraint of party unity, political disagreements escalate. An example here is health care: Democrats and Republicans spend billions of dollars in election ads emphasizing their disagreements on health care, because the debate motivates their supporters and, they hope, turns the public against their opponents. The upside of this is that important issues get aired and sometimes even resolved. The downside is that the divisions around them become deeper and angrier.
This debate exploded into the open during Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential announcement speech. The address is now remembered for Goldwater’s promise to offer “a choice, not an echo.” Less well-known, but perhaps more telling, is the rationale for his candidacy that comes a few paragraphs earlier. Goldwater says, with some disgust, “I have not heard from any announced Republican candidate a declaration of conscience or of political position that could possibly offer to the American people a clear choice in the next presidential election.” This was Goldwater’s promise: if Republicans nominated him, the election would “not be an engagement of personalities. It will be an engagement of principles.” Goldwater, of course, won the nomination and got destroyed by Lyndon Johnson.
Goldwater’s convention was a harshly factional affair, with conservative Republicans doing their damnedest to expel the moderate wing of the party. In its aftermath, George Romney, then the governor of Michigan and a leading light of moderate Republicanism, wrote a twelve-page letter outlining his disagreements with Goldwater. “Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress,” he wrote, rather prophetically.8 (Decades later, his son, who had carried on his father’s legacy as the popular moderate governor of Massachusetts, would win the Republican nomination for the presidency by recasting himself as “severely conservative.”)
Goldwater’s electoral destruction entrenched the conventional wisdom of the age: ideologues lost elections. In his 1960 book Parties and Politics in America, Clinton Rossiter wrote, “There is and can be no real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, because the unwritten laws of American politics demand that the parties overlap substantially in principle, policy, character, appeal, and purpose—or cease to be parties with any hope of winning a national election.”9 Better to be an echo than an also-ran.
The muddling of the parties carried well into the modern era. Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina notes that when Gerald Ford ran against Jimmy Carter, only 54 percent of the electorate believed the Republican Party was more conservative than the Democratic Party. Almost 30 percent said there was no ideological difference at all between the two parties.10 Imagine, in a world where the ideological difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties was slim enough to confuse half the population, how much less force party identity must have carried.
Actually, we don’t have to imagine. We can see it.

The power of negative partisanship

It used to be common for voters to split their tickets: perhaps you preferred Democrat Lyndon Johnson for president but Republican George Romney for governor. And if you were a ticket-splitter, and most of the people you knew were ticket-splitters, it was hard to identify too deeply with either party; after all, you occasionally voted for both.
In a striking analysis entitled “All Politics Is National,” Emory University political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster show how that behavior collapsed in the latter half of the twentieth century and virtually disappeared across the millennium’s dividing line. Looking at districts with contested House races, they found that between 1972 and 1980, the correlation between the Democratic share of the House vote and the Democratic share of the presidential vote was .54. Between 1982 and 1990, that rose to .65. By 2018, it had reached .97!11 In forty years, support for the Democratic presidential candidate went from being a helpful, but far from reliable, predictor of support for a party’s House candidate to being an almost perfect guide.
Ticket-splitting requires a baseline comfort with both political parties. Behind its demise is the evaporation of that comfort. Amid the battery of questions that surveyors ask Americans in every election lurks something called the “feeling thermometer.” The thermometer asks people to rate their feelings toward the two political parties on a scale of 1 to 100 degrees, where 1 is cold and negative and 100 is warm and positive. Since the 1980s, Republicans’ feelings toward the Democratic Party and Democrats’ feelings toward the Republican Party have dropped off a cliff.
In 1980, voters gave the opposite party a 45 on the thermometer—not as high as the 72 they gave their own party, but a pretty decent number all the same. After 1980, though, the numbers began dropping. By 1992, the opposing party was down to 40; by 1998, it had fallen to 38; in 2016, it was down to 29. Meanwhile, partisans’ views toward their own parties fell from 72 in 1980 to 65 in 2016.12
But it wasn’t just partisans. In his important paper “Polarization and the Decline of the American Floating Voter,” Michigan State University political scientist Corwin Smidt found that between 2000 and 2004,...

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