Why Are We Polarized?

Are we bound to follow tribal instincts when logic should lead us across the political aisle?

When I hear that the American political system isn’t broken, but exactly working as designed I can’t help but wonder how this can be true in times of all-encompassing social media, rapid loss of attention, and increasing discrimination of economic opportunity. However Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized claims that, and more, that this working political system is polarized by us as we are getting polarized by it. As confusing as it starts, Klein nevertheless does a fantastic job to elaborate his thoughts throughout ten chapters spread over 268 pages with convincing research and easy-to-read prose.

Frankly, I found this general topic challenging to comprehend. Hence Klein’s book appears to me neither a clear-cut psychological review of polarization nor is it a deep dive into America’s governance and democratic institutions. It comes across as a hybrid of history lessons, democratic ideas, and political media management. In light of such a mess I tend to gravitate to first principles: what is polarization? 

According to Klein “the logic of polarization is to appeal to a more polarized public, (so) political institutions and actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public.

Explaining polarization with polarization isn’t helpful. After searching for adequate definitions I found myself trapped in deciding between constitutional polarization and political polarization and the iterative sense of polarization. Interpreting Klein’s logic polarization may be a deviation from core political beliefs toward ideological extremes in an effort to reach a new audience. That in turn perpetuates a more extreme behavior of political actors and institutions. As Klein argues:   

“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 on on.”

It’s not an ideal beginning to a complex story, but it makes the most out of it. Across the first few chapters, Klein dives into the history of the American political system; mainly how Democrats turned liberal and Republicans became conservative. When it comes to group identity, the book dives deeper into the psychological aspects of us voters. 

“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.”

To put it simply Klein argues we have a stronger loyalty to our group than we have to our own ideology. Add in some cases a strong repulsion of the other group’s belief system. Klein continues:

“The human mind is exquisitely tuned to group affiliation and group difference. It takes almost nothing for us to form a group identity, and once that happens, we naturally assume ourselves in competition with other groups. The deeper our commitment to our group becomes, the more determined we become to ensure our group wins.”

There is plenty of well-established scientific research to concur with this notion. While the psychology of the crowd is one factor in this complex analysis, Klein manages to clarify that our identity, more than our previous system of beliefs, where we live, or who we associate with, dictates our sense of loyalty. And no other entity threatens our identity as much as the media. American media, the press, and political journalism are by nature mouthpieces of certain political powers – and always have been. Following the hotly contested Presidential election in the year 2000, the election of America’s first African-American President in 2008, and the consistently increasing economic gap between those who repair, clean, transport, deliver, and educate our communities and those who (merely) push paper our American identity has never been more called into question as it is today; especially in policy proposals of aspiring presidential candidates. Klein does not shy away from criticizing the media’s contribution to the skewed, partisan landscape:

“If we (the media) decide to give more coverage to Hillary Clinton’s emails than to her policy proposals–which is what we did–then we make her emails more important to the public’s understanding of her character and the potential presidency than her policy proposals. In doing so, we shape not just the news but the election, and thus the country.”

Overall, though, Klein’s book feels like a warm conversation with someone who is genuinely interested in understanding how we got where we are. He offers a clear diagnosis of the current State of the Union without swaying too far into either political camp, but falls short in offering a pathway forward or even mere suggestions on how to bridge the gap between opposing (political) viewpoints; therefore groups. Ezra Klein’s advice is “to pay attention to identity. What identity is that news article invoking? What identity is making you defensive? What does it feel like when you get pushed back into an identity? Can you notice when it happens?”

It is an engaging book that provides insight into the political discourse of America beyond New York or California. While it is well written and researched it feels more like a conversation, a starting point, rather than a solution or a means forward. 

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