Notes and Quotes: Ezra Klein’s WHY WE’RE POLARIZED (2020)

Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized was published a full year ago, in January 2020. Ezra Klein is a co-founder of the ‘explainer’ website Vox, and writes essays and columns for various other outlets. (And he lives somewhere here in Oakland.)

The book is of course about the seemingly widening political divide in the US. Part of Klein’s theme is that the system is working as intended, so the polarization shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

Take-Away Points

  • The two political parties used to be far less distinct than they are now. The split began in the 1950s when the southern Democratic party, the so-called Dixiecrats, lost the battle for civil rights, and so split from the national Democratic party and became Republicans. The two parties diverged along psychological grounds (e.g. about how dangerous you think the world is, familiar from Haidt).
  • Politics is about group identity (again, familiar from Haidt); evidence doesn’t matter, it’s about winning the argument.
  • America is more and more becoming non-white and non-Christian, and conservatives are threatened by these changes. Trump appeals to voters who want the white, Christian past.
  • People follow politics the way they do a sport or a band, and there are far more sources of information now than even in 1995 (when there were just three networks, and so on). Political news is more about who’s ahead, with scant attention paid to the actual issues.
  • Social media feeds audiences what they want, not what they need. Exposure to arguments from the other side increases polarization. Trump understands what “newsworthy” means: new, outrageous, conflict-oriented.
  • That extremists like Trump can win elections is a flaw in our electoral software.
  • Democrats are a party of difference, a coalition of various groups; Republicans are the party of sameness, of white voters. The former focuses on policy goals, the latter on pure ideology, and relies on a small number of news sources, e.g. Fox News.
  • The solutions, or at least things that would help, include eliminating the debt ceiling, doing away with the electoral college, making DC and Puerto Rico states, revising the Supreme Court, and changing our own personal relationship with politics, focusing more on local change.

My Take

To boil this down even further: America, unlike other countries, is especially divided because of its legacy of slavery and racism, because of the pace of change that is increasingly bringing non-white immigrants into the country, because of obsolete aspects of our political system, and because (this is what we do share with other countries) of modern social media that creates echo chambers of feedback.


The last paragraph, page 268:

The era that we often hold up as the golden age of American democracy was far less democratic, far less liberal, far less decent, than today. Trump’s most intemperate outbursts, his most offensive musings, pale before opinions that were mainstream in recent history. And the institutions of American politics today are a vast improvement on the regimes that ruled well within living memory. If we can do a bit better tomorrow, we will be doing much, much better than we have ever done before.

Going In

I always find it useful to ask myself what I expect of a book, what questions I want it to answer, what I suspect the answers might be, before I start reading. With this book my guess was: The bubble culture encouraged by web and social media, combined with groupthink, how people automatically assume the “beliefs” of those with whom they associate, i.e. community, congregation, political alignment. And what solutions might the offer? In this case, better education, critical thinking, respect for facts (and how would one do that?)? Also–why does this seem to be a problem especially in America? Social media is present around the world, and human psychology is the same everywhere too. (The answers are in the My Take paragraph above.)


Here, only somewhat condensed, are my detailed notes. [[ With some personal comments in brackets ]]


  • Trump’s win wasn’t an aberration. Most people are like they’ve always been. This is a book about systems, not people. Systems can fail the public even while succeeding by their own logic. There’s a feedback loop: as the public becomes polarized, politics becomes more polarized to appeal to the public.
  • The focus of this polarization is political identity—not “identity politics” exactly, concerning minority groups, but how we all have many identifies, and politics is about which one will vote on election day.

Ch1, How Democrats Became Liberals and Republicans Became Conservatives.

  • The two parties have dominated politics since 1864, but they changed over time. Being Republican didn’t always mean being a conservative. It used to be common for voters to split their tickets (i.e. vote for some Democrats and some Republicans). This has virtually disappeared; now those of each party think very little of the other.
  • Independents have grown. The parties have become more partisan. No Republican would raise taxes today; it was common in past decades for them to do so. Now many believe the other party is a threat the nation’s well-being.
  • So why did the parties become so different? It’s a story that revolves around race.
  • [[ My grandmother used to say she voted for the man, not the party. I guess this made sense at one time, in the 1960s or ’70s. But what led one to become a Republican or a Democrat in the first place? What I didn’t see in this book is what distinguished the two parties in, say, the 1950s and before. ]]

Ch2, The Dixiecrat Dilemma

  • In the 1950s the southern Democratic party, the so-called Dixiecrats, were the instrument for enforcing segregation, even via state-sponsored violence. The national Democrats let them get away with it in order to form a winning coalition for national goals. Yet anti-lynching legislation was blocked at the national level.
  • The national Democratic party came to embrace civil rights. And so the South split from the Democratic party and became Republicans. [[ Shifts among parties has gone on for 150+ years; thus no one gets any points for claiming that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. It didn’t mean then what it means now. ]]
  • The parties came to split ideologically, along many measures, e.g. Democrats prefer big cities, Republicans small towns with houses on large lots. The urban-rural divide, reflecting different psychologies. Of the five big personality traits the fundamental trait is how dangerous you think the world is. Openness to experience is associated with liberalism, which a preference for order and tradition that resists change connects to conservatism. These are reflected in tastes for music, art, restaurants.
  • William F. Buckley famously said, conservatives want to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop.” Yet—society needs lots of different kinds of people as times and circumstances change So what’s changed is how our psychologies map onto politics. This wasn’t true in the mid-20th century, e.g. party opposition to the Vietnam War. An unengaged citizen will ask what a policy will do “for me”; an engaged one is more concerned about identity, and will ask what the policy will “say about me”.

Ch3, Your Brain on Groups

  • The language people use to characterize “others” is remarkably similar across many dimensions.
  • To hate like this is to be happy forever, with examples of sports: it’s all about sorting “us” from “them” even though there might be no effect or benefit. Sports became like politics: one team wins, the other loses.
  • And so politicians focus on the common enemy: the other side. Even football got politicized. It used to be people didn’t care of a child married someone of the other political party. Now such concerns are very high. Now partisanship is as deep as race.

Ch4, The Press Secretary in Your Mind

  • Reasoning is not an individual act; rationality is inherently a collective project, to serve group ends.
  • (This chapter reflects many psychological studies familiar to me; the title alludes to Jonathan Haidt’s book; Haidt is quoted.)
  • The Solomon Asch experiment (discussed here:
  • Politics makes smart people stupid: Why doesn’t overwhelming evidence of climate change persuade the skeptics? It’s not about more information and finding the right answer; it’s about winning the argument. Examples of how people’s math skills are undermined by using them in political contexts. The idea that if everyone were given the same information, they would overcome their misunderstandings, is wrong.
  • People don’t reject evidence on inconsequential issues; they reject evidence on questions where the answers could threaten their group, e.g. if Sean Hannity suddenly recognized climate change as a threat, he would become a pariah among his supporters, and lose his job.
  • So what’s the right way to search for answers? We can’t trust our own reason. Well, political answers depend on interpretation. There are no right answers. [[ Maybe it’s simply about either trying to make the world better, or trying to keep it exactly the way it’s been. ]]

Ch5, Demographic Threat

  • America is becoming non-white, and non-Christian; the white Christian domination is dropping.
  • Changes makes us conservative, p107. Knowledge that California is no longer majority white makes whites 13 points likelier to favor the Republican party.
  • Trump, appealing to voters who wanted to go back to the way things were.
  • White identity under threat, p113. Examples of rhetoric from Rush L, Bill O’R, Laura I, Tucker C. (Appealing to anti-diversity.) So now there’s white identity politics. Loss of privilege feels like oppression.

Interlude, p135.

Summary so far in 2 pages.

Second part of book is about how institutions become more polarized in response to a more polarized public.

Ch6, The Media Divide beyond Left-Right

  • No one is forced to follow politics; those who do follow it like a sport or a band. And so many things compete for attention. In 1995 you had three networks, a couple hometown papers, etc. A decade later you could go online and find most newspapers of the entire world. Yet voters aren’t more involved; now it’s less about left-right than it is interested vs. uninterested.
  • Now we have horse-journalism – about who’s ahead, not about policy. Beware moral equivalence.
  • Audiences are told what they want, not what they need.
  • Reading the other side doesn’t change our minds, it deepens our certainty; echo chambers. Exposure to the opposite side increased polarization. If anything, the effect was stronger among Republicans. We dismiss counter-evidence, especially if they are extreme examples.
  • Trump understood what ‘newsworthy’ really means: new, outrageous, conflict-oriented. So the political media is biased—to what’s loud, outrageous, confrontational. And toward those with the most intense political identities.

Ch7, Post-Persuasion Elections

  • Few voters are persuadable, i.e. ‘swing voters’. Now it’s all about mobilizing the base.
  • Parties are weak, partisanship strong. Thus Republicans who demonized Trump later endorsed him.
  • Politicians learned to be confrontation, e.g. the congressman who shouted “you lie” at Obama. He sorta apologized—and he thrilled conservatives.
  • Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party was hostile. That extremists can win elections as Trump did is a flaw in our electoral software.

Ch8, When Bipartisanship Becomes Irrational

  • Scalia, Garland, and McConnell, who changed his position in 2020.
  • American form of government is unstable; the president and legislature are voted separately. So who’s in charge? The system encourages crisis.
  • All politics isn’t local. Politicians routinely make deals in favor of their local constituencies. People identify more with their home than their country. Yet this is changing; people now more often cite nationality as important to their identity. Very different from what the founders thought.
  • The filibuster wasn’t supposed to exist; it used used to be rare. Another dysfunction is the debt ceiling. These are all norms that have broken down, resulting in polarization.

Ch9, The Difference Between Democrats and Republicans

  • [[ My rough take going in: Democrats are more concerned about equality (at least of opportunity), but are hobbled by “identity politics” that focus on individual identities at the expense of the common good; and are less ideologically driven than evidence and fact driven; Republicans are concerned with freedom (including freedom to discriminate against people they don’t like), yet have been hijacked by oligarchs with promises of support for fundamentalist Christianity, white supremacist and racist resentment against cultural diversity, and rejection of science and reason as tools of the coastal elites who don’t respect traditional middle American values. Republicans, conservatives in general, tend toward simplistic answers to every question or issue no matter how complex.) ]]
  • By 2012 the idea of party equivalence was rejected; there’s no comparison between Trump and Clinton in terms of political norms, appeal to conspiracy theories, and so on. Republicans have been the ones to shut down the federal government. Democratic leadership has rejected the disruptive actions that Republicans have indulged in. Why? Democrats have an immune system of diversity and democracy; the Republicans don’t.
  • Democrats are a coalition of various groups; Republicans are the part of white voters. The former the party of difference, the latter of sameness. Oddly then, fewer Democrats are liberal, than Republicans are conservative. The latter thus depend more on pure ideology, the former on policy goals. The former politicians who stick to their positions, and latter those who compromise to get things done. And yet—most Republicans fell in behind Trump. Because for most people conservatism isn’t an ideology, it’s a group identity. So conservatives fell in line behind Trump no matter *what* Trump said; they felt their identity group was under threat.
  • The Fox News effect. The Democrats are more diverse in terms of trusted information sources; conservatives rely on just a few. CNN and NPR on the left; Fox News on the right. Those on the left strive to maintain journalistic standards that are respected by each other; those on the right are self-contained ecosystems that demonize all mainstream institutions. (e.g. Rush L) The right relies on purity; the left on process. Information is valued if it supports the tribe’s values and goals. Thus accusation of “fake news.” Why didn’t conservatives build their own trusted institutions? Because they get farther stoking paranoia, e.g. about brown people. And the trusted institutions of the NYT, say, aren’t really that liberal, so there isn’t much demand for alternatives.
  • America, the undemocratic. In America winning more votes doesn’t gain control. Geography matters more than votes, and sparsely populated rural areas are privileged over dense, urban ones. This leads to restrained polarization among Democrats and unleashed polarization among Republicans. The Republican coalition is endangered, as the population changes. They’re becoming desperate. “I want my country back!” The Flight 93 election. [[ scared, paranoid, frightened people ]] How to explain William Barr? He equated a free government with being religious (!). Thus changing tactics to use any means to bring about their ends. …Yet Democrats need broad coalitions; Republicans appeal to one specific coalition.

Ch10, Managing Polarization—and Ourselves

  • It’s not as simple as rediscovering our common bonds, etc. Polarization itself is not necessarily a problem. There is no idealized past to return to. So how do we work with the polarization that we have? Author has no solutions, just a few principles.
  • Bombproofing, p251. Bombproof the government against political disaster. Debt ceiling—get rid of it. The budget process. Other ideas.
  • Democratizing, p253. Do away with the electoral college. Instead of gerrymandering, do multimember districts with ranked choice voting. This would make third parties viable. As for the senate, get rid of the filibuster. Give DC and Puerto Rico state status; Republicans would be forced to relax their racial polarization. Make voting easy, not hard. If it’s hard, only the most polarized voters will vote. As things go now, by 2040 70% of Americans will live in 15 states; thus 30% of America will be represented by 70 senators. These various measures to make a more democratic system will create healthier competition.
  • Balancing, p258. Competing groups are no longer states; they are political parties. So a new balance is needed. Suppose the parties are guaranteed equal power. Suppose the Supreme court expands to 15 justices: each party gets to appoint 5, the other 5 must be unanimously agreed to. Similar measures to ensure balanced hearings in congress.
  • Depolarizing ourselves, p261. How to change our own relationship to politics…
  • Identity mindfulness, p261. Be mindful of which of our identities are being engaged. Be aware of the things in the environment that trigger them (flags, religious symbols, etc.) Be aware of how the media is manipulating you.
  • Rediscovering a politics of place, p264. Recall a man who simple shut all mention of Trump out of his life (2018). Instead he focused on local change, a personal project. We pay too much attention to national politics, not enough to local issues, where we have more influence. Media has nationalized…. Pay more attention to local issues. [[ Well, this is all very well when there aren’t huge international issues that must be addressed, like climate change. ]]
  • There are no solutions, only corrections, p267. There is no end state. There’s no one best way for the system to work. “For all our problems, we have been a worse and uglier country at almost every other point in our history.” Recalls the political assassinations of the 1960s. Lynchings. Urban riots. Nixon. The consensus about historians is that the state of democracy in American has only recently become successful.

My concluding thoughts:

As things stand now, the system favors the minority, shrinking party of reactionaries against science and modernity, which will doom the US to irrelevancy on the world stage, and in particular the consequences of unaddressed climate change. *Eventually* they will fall from power as their base dies off. But that will take a generation or two.

Final note:

Issues of abortion and “religious freedom” go virtually unmentioned here; issues some on the right are obsessed with are really not central to the problem at all.

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