Ezra Klein, the editor-at-large and co-founder of of the online news and culture site, Vox, has written a timely book about America’s polarization: Why We’re Polarized.
He aims to explain how we came to this point, even though he feels that not much can be done to change things. Klein has some structural suggestions, but he knows that these are mostly out of reach in the polarized environment he is describing. All we can do right now is manage our polarization and try not to add to it.
Klein succeeds in showing how bad polarization has become. Our political identities now dominate even our ability to judge facts and come to rational conclusions.
But Klein fails in his main goal of explaining why this has happened. This failure is the reason he cannot see any hopeful way forward.
The story Klein tells is straightforward. In the 1950’s, the two major political parties were homogeneous. Then the parties sorted themselves over the issue of race. This led to ideological sorting, so that Democrats became liberals and Republicans became conservatives, in a way that would not have been understood in 1955.
Partisanship increased because the two parties were now different. But that partisan sorting brought along all sorts of other differences between the two parties—not just racial, but religious, geographic, cultural and psychological. When you stack all those differences together, you get political identity as a mega-identity constantly activated and reinforcing.
Once this occurs, feedback loops of polarization operate so that institutions such as the media and the political parties increasingly polarize in order to appeal to a more polarized public.
For Klein, the major factor in all this is race and especially white racial resentment appealed to, but not caused by, Trump, in the presence of the demographic threat to white majority rule.
Klein’s account does not capture the feel of the 2016 election. What Trump actually exposed was the extent to which the two parties had not sorted. Both parties were committed to the economic status quo. Trump ran against what he constantly called a rigged system. Of course, some people heard this claim in racial terms—rigged against white people.
But Trump did not present it that way. When, in July, 2016, now ex-FBI Director James Comey announced that Hillary Clinton would not face criminal charges for her use of a private email system while secretary of state, Trump put his entire campaign into one statement: “Because of our rigged system that holds the American people to one standard and people like Hillary Clinton to another, it does not look like she will be facing the criminal charges that she deserves.”
Trump was suggesting that Clinton got off because of her wealth and connections. He was running as part of the populist wave against the entrenched elite. Trump was our Brexit. He was, in effect, running against Davos.
The absence of party sorting on these issues is shown by the fact that Bernie Sanders is now successfully running on essentially the same themes as a Democrat that Trump ran on as a Republican—the game is rigged in favor of the rich and the powerful.
And Elizabeth Warren, proposing some similar policies, has had less traction because she projects as more a part of the elite than does Bernie.
The absence of party sorting runs the other way also. Republicans and Democrats, despite all the talk of polarization in our system, were able to come together to renew NAFTA, now called the UMSCA. Our political parties can work together when capitalism and free trade demand it.
Klein is right that political identity now dominates everything. But the reason that this occurred is not racial resentment or party sorting more generally. It happened because the sources of universal identity have disappeared.
Political identity is just what’s left.
The postwar hopes for humanity and for progress that culminated in institutions like the United Nations and the Peace Corps, and the enunciation of universal human rights, no longer resonate. We no longer anticipate ever expanding democracy and freedom in the world.
Klein shows this pessimism at points in his book, but he does not recognize its significance.
Thus, Klein argues that it is easier to organize against the other group than for your own. This is why negative partisanship is more pronounced than positive partisanship today.
But, the great reform movements of the past—slavery abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement—demonstrate not only that positive programs have tremendous potential for political organizing, but that lasting change is only possible with a positive message.
Klein is analyzing systems and structures, not ideas. But the void that has allowed political group identity to dominate American public life came about because of the collapse of universal ideas, such as truth, the common good, progress and hope. It happened not just in America but in the West generally. We no longer dare to believe in what our predecessors created. We no longer have faith in the arc of the moral universe proclaimed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The collapse of universal identity grounded in religion is especially clear in Klein’s book, but again, the significance of this point eludes him.
Klein notes that America is “secularizing” as well as “browning” but does not remark on the implications for identity when he quotes Attorney General William Barr claiming that “‘progressives treat politics as their religion.’”
This same weakening of religion as an identity independent of politics is also happening among churchgoers. Klein quotes a tweet by Jerry Falwell, Jr., arguing that Christians “‘need to stop electing ‘nice guys’. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters.’” There is no sense in Falwell of God as the Lord of history. Falwell knows as well as any atheist that everything rests on our shoulders and our group better get in the first punch.
There is a positive side to seeing polarization as the consequence of a loss of faith in the future. It means that we can do more than just manage our polarization.
We can renew our universalism. We can begin again to see our opponents as potential allies in creating what Ronald Reagan, quoting the Bible, called “a shining city on a hill”—a beacon for all the world. Americans, not that long ago, assumed we were all building it.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.