Book Review: Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

To read Why We’re Polarized book notes click here

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Klein’s Why We Are Polarized is a compelling account of how structural forces embedded in the American political system have prompted rational actors to significantly increase political polarization since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He charts the ways that the breakup of a de-facto four-party system (Dixiecrats, other democrats, liberal Republicans, and conservative Republicans) ushered in party polarization, not just by policy, but of race, geography, culture, and other factors. His conversational style and peppering in of surprising facts (did you know that a filibuster was ended in 1908 when the blind senator Thomas Gore tried to pass the floor to a senator who had left the room?) eases the reader into the dark, but natural, conclusion Klein accepts: polarization is here to stay, and we should be thinking about how to structure our institutions around this reality.

Much of Why We’re Polarized is informative, charitable, and historically minded. The book avoids, in a conscious manner, blaming any individuals or group for bringing the polarized political environment about. Klein acknowledges and tries to reign in his liberal biases, leaving, to my eyes, relatively few sections of the book where a charitable conservative reader would roll his eyes. It provides a psychological grounding, from studies where groups of kids shift out-group members out of money, to an analysis of sports teams rivalries and riots, in order to understand the depth of group, and fundamentally, identity-based thinking. He uses this grounding to make sense of the trend of increasing polarization. And for some reason, if you doubted polarization was occurring, Klein provides much to disabuse you of such notions. Election results, polls, demographic data, and particularly in the second half of the book, recent political events, from the snub of Merrick Garland in 2016 to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, make polarization seem all too real.

The book does fail in at least a couple of ways, however, to argue for its central narrative from the ground up. There are enough brute facts to easily make it convincing that polarization has grown, and we are living in a dysfunctional period of American governance. It is also clear that the two political parties each have different incentives. However, for a deeper understanding of what polarization is, it would have been helpful to have more than a few pages dedicated to describing the phenomena and instead defined it and its subcategories rigorously. Klein makes use of comparative politics in describing the ways in which our presidential system makes governing in periods of split control and high partisanship near impossible. This international perspective is missing when one tries to gauge how normal (or not) high polarization is beyond America’s borders.

Perhaps most frustratingly, the primary historical narrative Klein offers — that the Democratic and Republican divergence “revolves around race”, principally after the Dixiecrat exit from the Democratic party — while in many ways compelling, is given without any meaningful thought to alternative arguments. There is little to no talk about the ways in which WWI, The Great Depression, WWII, and the Cold War might have helped bind the country, and parties, together. Additionally, there is a brief section, near the end, that describes how the one-party dominance of the American political system has been key in reducing polarization. However, it seems this could help construct a competing narrative to the one Klein offers in the first half of the book where it was the Republicans steadily regaining strength, post-1932, that was the primary driver of increased polarization, and party differentiation.

Klein might argue that what I have listed is still not mutually incompatible with his main thesis. However, displaying alternative theories, at the very least, provides the context in which curious readers can grapple with history themselves. Beyond these complaints, this book still does much to synthesize US history, human psychology, and contemporary politics in an interesting and useful package. If any of these topics interest you, it might be worth picking up.

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