Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

This entry is part 16 of 23 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag, meaning I read this a while back—though in this case, a while back is just last week. 

I used to be a listener of Ezra Klein’s podcast. He often had (and has) interesting guests on… but as a non-American and a progressive, I find him sometimes very frustrating. I won’t get into why I don’t listen to the podcast anymore (though if you know me, you might be able to guess by listening to this episode. 1). 

I mention this to say that when I picked up a copy of Why We’re Polarized at the local library here in Sejong City, I knew what I was in for. 

I think the most important word in the title is Polarized—and Klein’s very focused on a specific meaning of that word. But the meaning is also defined by the hidden freight in that word We’re. Klein writes of debates about whether exposure to counterevidence helps people change their minds, and whether people stick to their ideologies because they’re not exposed to good arguments for the other side. He brings up a study on the subject:

The researchers were testing the collision between two popular models. In one, “a vast literature indicates contact between opposing groups can challenge stereotypes that develop in the absence of positive interactions between them. In the other, exposure to those with opposing political views can “exacerbate political polarization,” as being told you’re wrong by someone you already don’t like triggers annoyance, not reflection.

In this case, the pessimists won the day. The result of the monthlong exposure to popular, authoritative voices from the other side of the aisle was an increase in issue-based polarization. “We find that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative posttreatment,write the authors. “Democrats exhibited slight increases in liberal attitudes after following a conservative Twitter bot, although these effects are not statistically significant.”

The difference between the Democratic and Republican responses is interesting and merits more study. But the key finding is that neither group responded to exposure to the other side by moderating its own views. In both cases, hearing contrary opinions drove partisans not just to a deeper certainty in the rightness of their cause, but more polarized policy positions-that is to say, Republicans became more conservative rather than more liberal, and Democrats, if anything happened at all, became more liberal rather than more conservative.

In that passage, the emphasis is mine, and for a specific reason: is that the key finding?

It seems to me that Republicans demonstrated a strong trend toward being more entrenched in their beliefs, while Democrats didn’t show a statistically significant change in attitude, that’s a key finding. I would say that tells us a lot about an actual difference between Republicans and Democrats, and likely also about differences separating the Left and Right in other places. To declare that the difference is “interesting and merits more study” but isn’t a “key finding” seems to me a very skewed response.

And that’s my issue with a lot of the book: Klein’s account carefully avoids the possibility that the reason America is divided is because division is what happens when a sizeable chunk of your population starts cheering on explicitly xenophobic, explicitly fascistic leaders and policies: some people go along with it because they’re repugnant, and other people resist it for as long as they can because they’re less repugnant. Nobody on either side is perfect—undocumented immigrants suffered under Obama’s government too—but it’s telling that out in the world, all of the sneering about children in cages came from one side: Republicans. Klein does get around to addressing parts of that characteristic difference, in a chapter near the end of the book titled “The Difference Between Republicans and Democrats” but approaching it this way leaves me feeling as if he’s reduced a very important part of the story’s connective tissue is really just an afterthought. It’s not: the main problem is that the Republican party is thoroughly rotten, where the Democrats are still only partially rotten and might fight off the sickness.  One party is doing all it can to prevent Black people from voting. One party is doing all it can to tear apart every political institution in the US. One party played chicken with the a global economic catastrophe this year. You can say all you like about not engaging in a false equivalency, but if these facts are a footnote to your narrative, your narrative is perilously incomplete.  

Klein provides examples of “polarization” on both sides, and they’re telling:

Imagine you’re a liberal browsing Twitter and you’re suddenly confronted with a Trump tweet slamming “Sleepy Joe Biden” for destroying America. Your response isn’t to think, “Hmmm, that Trump makes some good points.” It’s to instantly come up with an argument for why he’s wrong and dismiss him as a bully. If you’re a conservative who comes across Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez railing against the GOP’s corrupt, racist agenda, you’re likely to be offended, not convinced. In both cases, exposure to the other side’s attacks is likely to trigger rebuttal, not reflection…

Not being convinced by Trump’s insulting tweets doesn’t seem to me to be a good example of polarization. The man is a notorious liar, a fount of false claims and insults. Anyone with common sense would not consider his drivel as making “some good points.” Meanwhile, I don’t think it’s just Democrats who see Trump as a bully: I think everyone does, it’s just that Republicans get a kick out of the bully, because he’s their bully. Trump’s bullying is explicitly something Republicans see and get a kick out of: “he fights for us,” is a way of stating this. Likewise, Republicans react badly to being called racists and corrupt by Democrats not because it’s untrue—it’s quite overtly and unmistakably an accurate characterization of the modern Republican party, and you need look no further than their legislative record or their rhetoric. (Take your pick, really.) In fact, in my experience, the people who protest being called a racist most loudly are those who are racists and corrupt themselves, or are in bed with them, and they just don’t like having it said aloud about them. 

It’s one thing to try produce a balanced account. It’s another when you have to contort the story to present it as if it is balanced, and I feel like Klein’s falls into the latter pitfall. 

I think of the cult of personality that characterizes some significant proportion of Trump’s base, and the stark absence of the equivalent among those who voted for Biden. Surely more must be made of this? Surely we could learn something by looking at historical patterns abroad where fascistic, cult-of-personality leaders took the reins of other nations?  

Which brings me to to the other thing that bothered me about Klein’s book is how highly provincial is his account. This is weird since polarization seems to be on the rise everywhere. (Where I live, in South Korea, we’re seeing multiple polarizations happening at once: political, gender, and generational divides are polarizing people more and more, at least from what I can see.) Seeing this global rise, it’s hard to be patient with lengthy explanations of the minutiae of American politics of yesteryear, even if what Klein is up to is important. I know, I know: Klein’s a policy wonk specialized in US government, plus writing about this topic in an international scope would make for a very different—and much bigger—book, as well as probably a smaller audience in the US. Still, one could read this book and walk away from it imagining that the problems Klein is discussing are definitely the result of specific issues in American governance and American social and political life… but 

That’s not to discount the complexity of polarization, or to say all polarization is the same—or to downplay America’s propensity for  exporting specifically American social and political ills abroad, much less the willingness with which or populations overseas willingly import those ills. The right-wing here in South Korea takes a lot of cues from the US right, and from far-right media generated within the US. (I’ve observed several US-to-Korea ideological trash pipelines at work: the antifeminist backlash was fed on Prager U and American Red Pill videos online; similarly, there’s a internet pipeline of whackaloon religious garbage straight from American to Korean fringe churches. And of course, commentators have pointed out how much the current President draws inspiration from Trump’s approach.) But I think Klein’s given too little thought to how global this phenomenon is, and how that can tell us something about its causative agents. (Social media is a major starting point, I’d say, but it gets little-discussed in his book, and I think this will be a glaring omission to those who look at it even a decade hence. Hell, I think it’s a glaring omission now.)

It’s just that, well, I started reading The Iliad alongside this, and found it hilarious with Klein providing such a U.S.-centric explanation for polarization in America. I couldn’t help but imagine some ancient Greek theorizing about why polarization was such a problem in their region. Isn’t this, fundamentally, a problem with human beings and how they operate? Are the details all that crucial? Maybe Klein’s arguing something more like, “Why We’re So Polarized In the Particular Ways We Are, Instead of Being Polarized to Some Other Degree and in Other Ways.” But, well, his studies didn’t convince me that America wasn’t polarized back in the old days: it was just polarized along very different faultlines, some of them invisible on purpose. 

I still learned a few things about U.S. history, and I did get some insight into how certain elements in U.S. politics, media, and culture have accelerated specific, highly visible forms of polarization. Well, some of them. (There’s very limited discussion of social media, for example, which baffled me since it seems like rocket-fuel when it comes to accelerating polarization, even in places where you wouldn’t expect it to.) 

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  1. I cannot take seriously an adult man who venerates “the founders” in such a religious manner; yes, I’m saying I think George Will kind of a clown, intellectually speaking. Intellectualize it as much as he tries, at bottom he argues that limited government means democracy is kinda bad.

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