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Why We Are Polarized, Ezra Klein.

April 18, 2020

Why We Are Polarized
Why We Are Polarized, Ezra Klein.  Simon & Schuster, 2020.

5 stars

A thought-provoking analysis of the political and social situation we find ourselves in today by a political journalist and sharp observer of our culture; a book that gave me new information and insights that have changed my understanding of the polarized context in which I live.

Ezra Klein is first and foremost a journalist, bright and knowledgeable about our history.  He is among the journalists I rely on most because he creates the context for what is happening.   He was born, educated, and worked in California before coming to Washington, D.C. as a journalist.  After time at the Washington Post and being a frequent commentator on news programs, he created Vox,  an online media service dedicated to deeper and broader coverage of politics and society. His writing is full of pungent and memorable analyses, making it fun to read.

In Why Are We Polarized, Klein is not writing to provide an absolute answer to today’s problems.  Instead, he is offering what he has found and figured out and what he thinks others may find useful. His approach is largely that of systems theory. He offers an example.  Instead of looking for the immediate cause of a problem in the shape of a rusty screw or lazy service team, he asks what are the motivations that encourage a large corporation to skimp on their maintenance budget. He is less interested in individual leaders, though very willing to be critical of them, than he is in the question of why do they get the power to be our leaders. His well-researched historical accounts often focus on the importance of almost forgotten events and patterns that indicate how changes have occurred.

Overall Klein’s approach is not primarily economic or racial, but draws from social sciences. This is not a book about us and them.  Klein is careful to show how both sides are shaped. I saw my own liberal identity in his concepts.  He shows how we become so committed to the group to which we see ourselves so that nothing else matters.  His explanation of how people can deny facts is the first one that makes sense to me.  As he describes, forty or fifty years ago we each tended to have several identities within which we thought and acted. This variety made compromise and bipartisanship possible.  But that bipartisanship was built on the exclusion of racial injustice.

Here Klein shows how we have gone from a system where party lines were weak and easily crossed to our acceptance of system where representatives and voters are loyal to their party no matter how absurd, irrational, nonfactual, and self-serving. Reading his book, I felt like for the first time I understood those who take such positions.  I could grasp his explanation for how overlapping identities have encouraged narrower and narrower thinking.

In addition to his description of how all of us are caught up in polarization,  Klein makes clear that its impact has created sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats.  He points to the way in which the GOP has become grounded in a single-minded defense of traditional white supremacy. It limits its appeal to those who agree with this stance. Because of state-based structure of our elective system, they don’t need to appeal to a majority of voters.  The Democrats have become a more diverse group embracing a variety of people and ideas.  Appealing to their wide base requires them to offer broader and varied policies.  Within the party, they must reach compromises and programs that are good for a wider swath of voters.

Klein is too sophisticated a thinker to offer a simple solution.  Although he lists political changes that might help cut down out polarization, what he provides is chiefly a way of understanding and being aware of what is happening to us.  He sees individual awareness of what is happening around us rather than blindly polarizing as the best we can do to reestablish a less polarized politics.

I recommend this book highly, and I hope his ideas are widely discussed.

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