Stop obsessing over polarization and partisanship.
The United States has had federalists and antifederalists, slave owners and abolitionists, prohibitionists and bootleggers, reformers and revanchists, Democrats and Republicans, and we’ve made progress—sometimes with clear winners and losers, other times by changing or coexisting—in nearly every succeeding generation.
Partisan, sharply opposing visions of a future America are in our DNA. We have frequent elections, and competing visions eventually give way to domination or compromise in big ways and small ways.
Polarization is fine. We’re good at it, and we’re used to it. What is not fine are irrational structures and perverse incentives that lead to un-democratic outcomes. We have voting rules that favor hunting licenses over student IDs, legislative districts gerrymandered into false majorities, a Senate dominated by states where nobody lives, and two presidents in the last 20 years elected without a majority of votes.
Vox co-founder Ezra Klein makes a frighteningly compelling case in his new book Why We’re Polarized that social, technological, political and other forces have combined to polarize the country in ways we likely can’t undo, but he concludes that what has broken down—and what we actually can fix—are the mechanisms that currently prevent majorities from governing.
Klein sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about the book.
Where did you begin and end on how to think about the polarization problem?
I don’t think of polarization as a problem. We had worse problems as recently as 30 or 40 years ago because the consensus that preceded polarization for much of the 20th century was built on protecting racial segregation in the American South. What I’m trying to offer is an account of how the system works, and right now the system has made the country basically ungovernable.
Would you say that anti-democratic structural problems are what’s making the country ungovernable and that polarization is at the root of it?
The Republican Party has been able to win a majority of the power without winning a majority of the votes, and the Republican Party has seen that restricting the franchise and people’s involvement in the political system works to its advantage.
Donald Trump abandoned campaign promises to raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy and balance the budget. How concerned are you that Trump voters have substituted identity for the promises that appealed to them in the first place?
Identity has always been a part of why people like one candidate more than another, so I wouldn’t say that it’s completely cleaved from policy. Trump has certainly used identity as a way to distract people. The Republican Party and the conservative movement have long used identity as a vehicle for tax cuts for the rich and corporate deregulation, and Trump is no different than that.
Trump has been flexible on issues partly because he doesn’t care about a lot of issues and doesn’t know much about them. During the 2016 campaign, he praised the Canadian health care system and said he wanted coverage for everybody. He said he would raise taxes on people like himself. That was all somewhere between bullshitting and lying.
How does identity fit into it?
Most people who rise high enough in the Republican Party to compete for a presidential nomination have a conservative ideology as part of their political identity, but Donald Trump didn’t have that. Trump’s form of identity politics is white identity politics.
Trump formed an identity around illegal immigration even though we’re at a 50-year low on illegal immigration and have had a net outflow of immigration on the southern border over the last decade. He depends on his followers not knowing that.
We are at a low on net inflow, but we are nearing historic highs of the percentage of Americans who are foreign-born. To the extent that people sense that America is becoming more of a country of recent immigrants, they’re right. For people who do not want that to happen to the country, Donald Trump speaks to them in a very real way.
I have a chapter in the book about how we process information through the lens of political identity. Highly informed voters are very good at finding information that backs up what they already think is true. We find information and choose who to trust based on group identity, and the people who are the most informed are often just wrong.
You have some research in the book about how we’re more motivated by who we don’t like than who we do like. Would a vanilla Democrat in 2020 maybe do better than a bold, ideological Democrat?
I don’t know, but there’s definitely an argument for it. That’s part of the case for Amy Klobuchar. If you look at how senators perform in their own states compared to the partisan lean in those states, Klobuchar over-performs everyone else in the U.S. Senate. She over-performs in a state, Minnesota, that is demographically similar to Wisconsin.
Candidates pull their own voters out, and they push the other side’s supporters out. It’s base motivation vs. a backlash effect. You want a candidate who is inspiring to their own side but not mobilizing to the other side. Barack Obama is a good example of that. He was inspiring to Democrats, but he wasn’t that threatening to Republicans.
Are you either surprised or disappointed that all of the major Democratic presidential candidates still in the 2020 race are white? That Democrats will have a nominee who doesn’t look like the middle of the party?
The majority of the Democratic vote in 2016 was white, so you may still wind up with a candidate who looks like the middle of the party. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but I don’t think it’s a big surprise. I’m disappointed personally that Cory Booker didn’t perform better. He has an interesting policy agenda and message, but it didn’t get through. I thought Kamala Harris was an impressive candidate, and she was polling well enough to keep going when she dropped out.
A Republican can get the nomination by appealing to one kind of person, but a Democrat has to appeal to California liberals and New Hampshire independents and South Carolina African-Americans. Barack Obama put together a coalition of white, liberal voters and non-white voters, and it will be interesting to see if someone like Bernie Sanders can do that.
You included a lot of current research in the book from political scientists, historians, demographers and pollsters. Are there a few of those people who are under the radar that you wish had a bigger following?
I am an avid consumer of political science, and one thing that has really helped me as a political reporter is the Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post, which publishes a huge amount of political science research. On Twitter I really like Matt Grossmann, who wrote a great book called Asymmetric Politics about the Democratic and Republican coalitions. And I have learned a huge amount from Lilliana Mason, whose book Uncivil Agreement was a foundational work for my book.
You’re one of the producers of Vox’s Explained series on Netflix. Are you doing a series of episodes this summer on the election?
I can’t talk too much about future plans for Explained. I am thinking a lot about how amplifying the worst parts of American politics makes American politics worse but that you can’t let racist slurs by the president go unmentioned. I’m thinking about how Vox can be newsworthy without being beholden to a toxic news cycle, which is true for video, for audio, and for text.
You started Vox as sort of a smarter, tonier Wikipedia. Did you have to become noisier because the media business rewards noise?
When we launched Vox, people were still primarily reading news on news organizations’ websites where the news organizations had a lot of control over the product. Over time, that changed to people reading on platforms controlled by other players. Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles, and Google AMP are now a big part of where people read Vox.
The idea of a news product built on these constantly updated card stacks couldn’t make the jump to a world where we didn’t control the platforms, which was tough. That has not changed our focus on explanatory journalism. Explained, our Netflix series, is very much of that vision. Our podcast Today, Explained focuses on a deeper, important topic. Our core beliefs haven’t changed.