There is a sentiment on the political left that Ezra Klein — Vox’s co-founder and editor-at-large, and the author of “Why We’re Polarized” — finds condescending and reductive: that the white working class frequently votes against its own interests.
Some liberal pundits argue this: By aligning themselves with the party of big business, Republican voters become unwitting allies of the institutions responsible for the white working class’ economic deterioration — union busters, big banks that foreclose homes after dealing subprime mortgages, price-gouging pharmaceutical companies, manufacturing industries that follow cheaper labor overseas and so on. The group’s embrace of President Donald Trump confounds some Democrats. How could blue-collar voters possibly see Trump, a billionaire from New York City, as someone who genuinely represents their interests?
In “Why We’re Polarized,” Klein argues the preeminent flaw in this theory is the assumption that Republican voters’ best interests are rooted in economics.
“It’s a mistake to imagine our bank accounts are the only reasonable drivers of political action,” Klein writes, rebutting James Carville’s famous doctrine emphasizing “the economy, stupid.” Along these lines, Klein acknowledges the demise of class-based politics and the dissolution of issue-based politics in general; the new governing impulse in American politics, he argues, is the all-consumptive force of identity.
By weaving together a composite of group psychological theory and political history in the trademark, rigorously logical style of Vox’s Explainer series, journalism, Klein traces the path of polarization from a time when the Republican and Democratic parties were virtually indistinguishable from each other to today, with two parties so ideologically and demographically distinct that voting across party lines — even when presented with a candidate as brazen and controversial as Trump — becomes unimaginable, a violation of one’s deepest instincts. Trump won, Klein says, simply because he was a Republican.
In an early section of “Why We’re Polarized” called “Rescuing ‘Identity Politics,’” Klein aims to redefine, or at least redirect, our contemporary understanding of the phrase, as he says it is most often reserved to pejoratively describe the grievances of marginalized groups.
“A core argument of this book is that everyone is engaged in identity politics,” he explains, “It runs so deep in our psyches, is activated so easily by even weak cues and distant threats, that it is impossible to speak seriously about how we engage with one another without discussing how our identities shape that engagement.” This hypothesis hinges on an array of group psychology studies that demonstrate how quickly and comfortably people draw boundaries around any of their identities: partisan preference, race, religion, gender, education level, alma mater, sports fandom, video-game console preference, pet preference, even reactions to things like #momswithtattoos. Although we attach different weights and values to each facet of our identity, Klein argues that any and all of them can be manipulated.
Further, Klein contends we are not just living in an age where identity politics are pervasive, but in the age of stacked identities (or “mega” identities), wherein many traits “fuse together into a single sense of self.” He continues, “Living in a city, being a liberal, shopping at Trader Joe’s, dabbling in Zen meditation may not have much to do with one another in terms of public policy, but they reinforce a singular identity.” As Republicans and Democrats migrate further into different cultural spheres, they become representations of ideologically distinct poles for which compromise and finding common ground become untenable.
“The post-Enlightenment view of humanity is that we are rational individuals whose actions may be inflamed by instinct, but are ultimately governed by calculation,” Klein writes. “But what if it was the other way around? What if our loyalties and prejudices are governed by instinct and merely rationalized by calculation?” Klein is astute in diagnosing the agitation and protection of identity as the primary driver in the polarization of politics; we guard our identities fiercely (even trivial ones), an unconscious or preconscious precaution rather than an intellectual one.
But it is important to ask: How much does this reading of politics leave out?
Klein’s willingness to cede autonomy to group psychology resolves in a neat, unified theory because it downplays the friction that culture, history and social frameworks have on our behavior. In Klein’s reading, figures like Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich and Barry Goldwater are not the architects of our country’s polarization because there are none. Rather, Klein argues that these figures and how they wield their power represent the logical responses to our evolutionary impulses and the feedback loop of polarization they have created. But, as is central to Klein’s whole conception of politics, some actors have more power than others. Would a different Republican president purposely activate the same identity cues Trump does? Would a different Senate leader refuse to consider a Supreme Court nominee?
And although identity is the focal point of “Why We’re Polarized,” Klein gives little attention to the venue where our most fractious, hyperpolarized arguments over identity occur: the internet. These arguments do not play out on a democratized playing field where all identities are weighted equally; rather, they play out in a meticulously crafted environment where identities are microtargeted and polarization is amplified by algorithms. The incentives of this structure have proven their ability to change our brain chemistry, which doesn’t seem like a coincidence in our current political era, in which Klein argues we are more polarized than ever.
“Why We’re Polarized” by Ezra Klein, Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $28
Author appearance: Ezra Klein will discuss “Why We’re Polarized” at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 10, at University Temple United Methodist Church, 1415 N.E. 43rd St., Seattle, presented by University Book Store; ubookstore.com/events