Saturday, December 7, 2019

Book Review: 'Why We're Polarized' by Ezra Klein

Why We're Polarized

There are endless shelves of books on what has happened to politics in the USA, culminating in the rule of Trump. Most of them hit on polarization sooner or later. Ezra Klein’s book totally focuses on it, but in ways that are more engaging, relatable and relevant than many others I have read. It is thorough, fair, reflective, cautious and accurate. And therefore depressing.

Why We’re Polarized has an overall umbrella theory: Politics uses us for its own ends. We are captives, not participants. The two party system herds voters into corrals from which they cannot choose to leave, for fear the other party might win. It has come to the point where families discourage marrying someone who supports the other party, and people move to new neighborhoods to be with their own party supporters. I doubt this is what Jefferson and Madison imagined when they set it up.

Klein uses sports to illustrate how people devolve into mad animals in support of their favorite team. Fights break out, hooligans roam the streets. Everything must be done to keep the team on top, be it firing the coach, buying the best talent from a competitor, or rioting if that will help. Rallies and tailgate parties to rouse the emotions. The other team winning?  That just cannot happen. Change teams? Never.

So with political parties.

Klein likes to think voters are intelligent, that they seek data and make rational decisions. But he also acknowledges that “an expert is a credentialed person who agrees with me.” And that most Americans cannot name the governor of their state. But they know with total certainty how they will vote. Because it’s no longer about government. It’s all about ideology.

As careful as he is in presenting his research, he continually acknowledges that he can still be called biased. He is aware that everyone is unfair at some level. He discovers he can’t be totally fair, even when he wants to be. Someone will find something to criticize, labeling him as representing the Other. Because that’s the frame today.

He knows firsthand that most election efforts are wasted. Both parties focus on “motivated reasoning:” knocking on doors and presenting unimpeachable facts. But you can’t change people’s minds “by utterly refuting their arguments.” It fails every time. As in sports, people have group loyalties that cannot be shaken. Attack their beliefs and they hunker down. Far better to spend those resources getting people to show up at the polls than thinking you can flip them from Red to Blue with logic. Can’t be done.

Klein spends a lot of time examining the evolution of the two-party morass. Right up to the 1960s, there was co-operation. Elected officials worked for the country more than the party. State mattered more than federal. Local was most important of all. Voters chose actual people they wanted to represent them, not which ideology should prevail. As early as age 15 I noticed and proclaimed that both political parties were two sides of the same coin. I didn’t know what the fuss was about. Didn’t matter which party you voted for – they’d work it out together anyway.

Today they are night and day, and it’s not better. Today, it is not how will this legislation affect my district, it is how does this legislation sit with my party, he says. It’s the wrong question, but it has become the only question. That’s why government doesn’t work any more.
He shows that Donald Trump is not an extreme anything. He is the logical next step in a party built on fear of losing not just an election but control of life. Nothing he says or does is too outrageous for Republicans, because they have a single narrow focus: self-preservation.  Democrats are at a disadvantage because they are more open and inclusive – classes and colors and nationalist groups. As Will Rogers put it in the 1930s – “I am not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”

Polarization has been creeping into American lives at an ever-accelerating pace, and there is no end in sight. It is making the country dysfunctional, and the more dysfunctional it becomes the more polarized it becomes. Because the other ideology is a lie.

Klein ends by saying he doesn’t like Conclusions. He demonstrates it by having trouble with his. It’s a kludge of patches that will not be implemented, precisely because they count on the entrenched to make them happen.

Mostly, he trots out the tired arguments for proportional representations, which would encourage more parties to form. He does not say that this would turn the US into an Israel or a Belgium, where no one can govern at all. Belgium went for two years without a government because no one could assemble enough parties to form one. Israel is about to have three elections in a year for the same reason. Italy has not had a cohesive government since Mussolini. Multi-party is no solution. It is both surprising and disappointing that Klein, as fair and thorough as he is, never mentions the truly ugly downside of the multiparty system he recommends.

For all his work here, the problem is he does not follow through; he does not go nearly far enough.

At one point earlier on, he says the US is not a democracy, but he says it for the wrong reasons. He points to rural voters having far more clout than urban voters, and Republicans preventing minorities of all stripes from voting.  But the real reason the US is not a democracy is because the US is not a democracy:
-Representation was never supposed to be a lifetime occupation.
-Elected representatives were not supposed to get rich from it.
-Representation was supposed to be a civic duty, not a career. It is an obligation, a burden and a sacrifice, not simply a process to create a ruling class of white men.
-Political parties, feared by George Washington and many other founders, should not have been allowed to arise in the first place. They watched them rise anyway, and stood by as all their fears came true. Party uber alles. Country be damned.

So imagine if the 500 thousand elected officials in the US could only serve one term. And if there weren’t enough candidates, they would be chosen as in jury duty (as they did in Ancient Greece). There would be no campaign financing, no PACs, no primaries, no lobbyists or bribery, because no one could establish a base or be around long enough to be compromised. Instead of constant fundraising, work could get done.

Imagine if people were elected to serve on committees instead of chambers. They would have to decide real issues, not ideological policies. They would only have one job to do. The committees would decide on roads or schools, foreign aid or civil rights, tariffs or taxes. Teachers would be on education committees instead of billionaires with no background. Scientists would be on science committees instead of lobbyists. Ideology would lose every time it was inserted into the deliberations, because ideology is not relevant to the work of government. And after four or five years, the committees would disband and members would be replaced by others who reflected the newer times better. That’s how they did it 2500 years ago.

That’s called democracy. Preventing the nomination hearings of a supreme court justice for the (entirely bogus) reason that it would take place in an election year should never be allowed to happen. Holding up government funding and shutting it all down, threatening the sanctity of the world financial system (over a wall) should never be allowed to happen. The two-party system itself should never be allowed. It is clearly poisonous. It forces people to label themselves and stick with them. Out of fear.

Real democracy is at least as impossible as proportional representation in the USA, but it is a viable solution to the polarization that cripples the nation.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.