Ezra Klein's new book "Why We're Polarized"

Seems to have come out today, and his thesis seems to be identity, not policy. (My bolds)

What Didn’t Happen

“I’ve spent part of nearly every day since November 8, 2016, wrestling with a single question,” writes Hillary Clinton in What Happened. “Why did I lose?”

1 What Happened is an unusual book. Published mere months after the 2016 presidential election, it is the defeated candidate’s effort to understand how she fell short. At its core is the belief that something extraordinary and bizarre occurred in 2016—an outcome beyond the boundaries of the normal give-and-take of American politics, an aberration that must be explained.

If Mitt Romney had won in 2012, Barack Obama would not have released a book entitled What the Hell? So, too, if John Kerry had swept to victory in 2004; George W. Bush would not be joined by millions in puzzling over the breach. In American politics, loss is part of life. Thrumming through Clinton’s book—and in the anguished flood of postelection commentary from liberals and never-Trumpers—is the belief that 2016 was not like 2012 or 2004. Reality had ruptured. We were owed answers.

To be fair, something strange had happened. Donald Trump won the election.

Even Trump’s team didn’t believe he was going to win. Plans were afoot for him to start a television channel in the aftermath of his loss. And then came election night. He won the electoral college even though 61 percent of voters, in Election Day exit polls, said he was unqualified to hold the presidency; even though most voters had a higher opinion of Clinton and believed Trump lacked the temperament for the office he sought. 2 The US presidency is a sacred trust, its occupant the wielder of unimaginable destructive power, and here, we had handed it to a human hurricane. And we had done so knowingly, purposefully.

It is this affront that motivates What Happened. …

With a margin that narrow—more than 136 million votes were cast in total—anything can explain the results. And that is where Clinton focuses her efforts, …

But such analyses pose the easy question rather than the hard one. Rather than asking how Trump won, we should be asking how Trump was close enough to win. How did a candidate like Trump—a candidate who radiated contempt for the party he represented and unfitness for the job he sought—get within a few thousand votes of the presidency in the first place?

This was a question I posed in mid-2017 to Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. …
… After I had worn myself out, he replied in a way that has tormented me since: What if nothing unusual happened at all?

The premise of my questioning, Bartels calmly explained, was that the 2016 election was weird. And he was right, that was my premise. …

But Bartels had been looking at the data and he disagreed. The 2016 election didn’t look like a glitch, he said. It looked, for the most part, like every other election we’ve had recently. The simulation was, if anything, too stable, like we had unleashed tornadoes and meteors on our virtual city and only a few windows had shattered. It was the normalcy that was unnerving.

Take gender. Clinton was the first female candidate nominated by a major party for president. Trump was a male id in a suit, bragging about grabbing women by the pussy and offhandedly rating the sexual desirability of those who challenged him. This was, then, an election designed to split us more deeply by gender than any in recent history.

But turn to the exit polls. In 2004, the Republican candidate for president won 55 percent of men. In 2008, he won 48 percent of men. In 2012, 52 percent. And in 2016? Trump won 52 percent of men, precisely matching Romney’s performance.

The story is similar among women. In 2004, the Republican won 48 percent of female voters. In 2008, he won 43 percent; in 2012, 44 percent. And in 2016? 41 percent. Lower, but only two percentage points beneath John McCain in 2008. No earthquake.

Let’s look at it a different way. This was the white nationalism election, when the alt-right came into its own, when Trump promised to sweep in after the first black president in American history and put America back the way it was, to build a wall and make America great again. And yet, in 2004, the GOP candidate won 58 percent of white voters. In 2008, he won 55 percent of white voters. In 2012, he won 59 percent of white voters. Fast-forward to 2016: 57 percent.

Of course, there was no group Trump assailed more regularly than Hispanic immigrants. He launched his campaign by descending a golden escalator and proclaiming, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you.… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” In 2004, the Republican candidate won 44 percent of Hispanic voters. In 2008, he won 31 percent. In 2012, 27 percent. And in 2016, 28 percent.

After the GOP’s 2004 victory, the Republican Party’s dominance was widely ascribed to Bush’s deep, authentic bond with white, born-again Christians, of whom 78 percent pulled the lever for his reelection. In 2008, the GOP candidate won 74 percent of these voters. In 2012, it was back up to 78 percent. But Trump was different. He was a morally louche adulterer who flaunted his wealth, and when asked, on the campaign trail, if he ever turned to God for forgiveness, he said, “I am not sure I have.” So how did he do among white, born-again voters? He won 80 percent.

Perhaps this is best viewed through the lens of partisanship. In 2016, Republicans nominated a thrice-married billionaire who had been a Democrat mere years before, who was dismissed in a National Review cover story as a threat to conservatism, 4 who had few ties to the Republican Party and viewed its previous standard-bearers with contempt, who spoke openly about his affection for Social Security, Medicare, and Planned Parenthood. In 2004, the Republican candidate won 93 percent of self-identified Republicans. In 2008, he won 90 percent. In 2012, he won 93 percent. In 2016, he won 88 percent. A drop, to be sure, but nothing calamitous.

The popular vote margin is also telling. In 2004, the Republican candidate won by 3 million votes. In 2008, the Democrat won by more than 9 million votes. In 2012, the Democrat won by almost 5 million votes. And in 2016, the Democrat again won by almost 3 million votes. The intervention of the electoral college overturned this margin, of course, but if you’re just looking to the winds of popular support, 2016 isn’t an obvious aberration.

Here, then, is Bartels’s point: if you’d been given a printout of voter data from the past few elections and been asked to identify which campaign was the bizarre one, the one that would rock American politics and lead to book after book trying to explain the outcome, would you be able to do so? The results in 2016 mostly looked like 2012 and 2008 and 2004, even though the winning candidate is one of the most bizarre figures ever to crash into American politics.

What’s surprising about the 2016 election results isn’t what happened. It’s what didn’t happen. Trump didn’t lose by 30 points or win by 20 points. Most people who voted chose the same party in 2016 that they’d chosen in 2012. That isn’t to say there was nothing at all distinct or worthy of study. Crucially, white voters without college educations swung sharply toward Trump, and their overrepresentation in electorally key states won him the election.I5 But the campaign, by the numbers, was mostly a typical contest between a Republican and a Democrat.

The fact that voters ultimately treated Trump as if he were just another Republican speaks to the enormous weight party polarization now exerts on our politics—a weight so heavy that it can take an election as bizarre as 2016 and jam the result into the same grooves as Romney’s contest with Obama or Bush’s race against Kerry. We are so locked into our political identities that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition, that can force us to change our minds. We will justify almost anything or anyone so long as it helps our side, and the result is a politics devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability.

And yet, we have not changed so much, have we? We still coach Little League and care for our parents, we cry at romantic comedies and mow our lawns, we laugh at our eccentricities and apologize for harsh words, we want to be loved and wish for a better world. That is not to absolve us of responsibility for our politics, but to trace a lament oft heard when we step away from politics: Aren’t we better than this?

I think we are, or we can be. But toxic systems compromise good individuals with ease. They do so not by demanding we betray our values but by enlisting our values such that we betray each other. What is rational and even moral for us to do individually becomes destructive when done collectively.

How American politics became a toxic system, why we participate in it, and what it means for our future is the subject of this book.

Thinking in systems

Let me be clear from the beginning: This is not a book about people. This is a book about systems.

Just as a spoiler in case you don’t want to read it: his conclusions are both pedestrian and ineffective, like “get rid of the Electoral College” and “pay more attention to local politics” and “polarization is the norm, not the exception” and “Trump is horrible, but racist America of the 50s was worse”. Identity mindfulness and Politics of Place are his answer.

I posted this in another thread. It’s a great conversation between Ezra and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.

I’ve been saying this for a while. It’s why I’m afraid that an impeachment won’t actually move the needle for most voters. They’ll just hit R or D like they were going to anyway.

The idea that the fifties were worse than today is, to say the least, debatable. After all, the fifties seeded the sixties, and the Civil Rights movement in modern times got its start in 1955 in Montgomery. Eisenhower having to send in troops to Little Rock to enforce school desegregation showed the federal government, and the president, still had a sense of right and wrong and an adherence to law. I dare say that the chances of a Trump administration forcefully enforcing civil rights freedoms for marginalized people is less than zero.

It’s a problem with his thesis - or at least, tbh, I feel like it’s not near as “big” of a book as people are making it out to be. Pretty much every issues he brings up we’ve brought up here in one form or at one point or another.

There’s an undercurrent to his book which he either doesn’t really address or doesn’t want to address - the big elephant in the room is that America really only works as a one party state. California was dysfunctional until effectively demographic change removed the Republican party, at which point its system can function again. The Civil War happened because plantation owners in slave states essentially hacked the growth of the country into this horrible self perpetuating compromise that fixed nothing and made it all far worse. White, Protestant voters were the majority until they weren’t, at which point politics at some point in the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s stopped working. The Deal with Satan for 100 years was white Southern Democrats voting with white Northern Democrats to implement their policies to keep their hands off their racial laws.

That’s why the 50s were “worse” - not politically but socially. When we stopped compromising with southern racists, the cross party coalitions fell apart, and the parties segregated themselves into completely incompatible camps. But this is the cost of confronting racism, effectively.

That’s why none of this is particularly hot off the press news for anyone studying politics for a while now. And I think he underestimates the polarizing influence of media isolation, tbh.

But basically the US system doesn’t work with two ideologically polarized parties that have little to nothing in common.

So the reason he’s pretty timid (or optimistic) is that the Californian ‘fix’ shows demographic change just forcing the issue at some point in the future. It’s a political diagnosis that has no cure, but assumes it will work itself out in the end. The other side of the coin he calls a “legitimacy” crisis, which he refuses to describe but looks a whole lot like a nationwide split. But because the division is between rural and urban, and every state has some degree of rural or urban, it’s not clear how this plays out.

The idea is we gotta play the same game, the worse we make Trump, the less likely we are to have a bust of anyone.

If the Dems don’t bust, they win. Given Trump’s the alternative, there won’t be a bust- he’s that dangerous to Dems.

Our system is fatally flawed, and the only way to solve it I think is for one party to outright crush the other.

I am always surprised that anyone is surprised by that.
From an outsiders (non-US) perspective, it really does look to me like the Democrats are doing everything in their power to avoid fielding the next president. Or, alternatively, like they’re still mad about losing and just try and whack all the moles as they pop up.
Again, from the perspective of someone with no stakes in this, it just looks extremely desperate. And personally, I wouldn’t vote for desperate people. And I cannot imagine that too many out of the field of swing voters would be swayed by that performance, either…

So many resources wasted on something that will only strengthen the opponents resolve and feed into their narrative… If it has any effect, at all.

This is something I have also always wondered about.
Exaggerated, you have modern, open-minded, careless urban population against highly conservative, insert anything-phobic rural population.
It has always been like this, since mankind started forming cities. But now it is more extreme than before?

A government that doesn’t split a country into the usual states with arbitrary geography, but into urban/rural zones with their own laws each (so a minimum of two sets of laws, with a minimal “common ground” federal law to hold it all together), would be an interesting thought experiment.
Wouldn’t solve the question of who gets to be president, though.

This seems to miss the fact that late undecideds broke heavily for trump (aka Comey) whereas they historically almost always split evenly, that and the unusually high numbers for third party votes. The larger thesis that there is no longer any real cross over vote remains true since 2000.

Not just voters. Not just right wing media, but mainstream media as well.

Few asserted otherwise. But for the lolnothingmatters crowd, truth and facts and yes history do matter. This may sound like a useless bromide for anyone lost in their own cynicism, but that’s a personal issue. Just like science doesn’t give a fuck what anyone believes, neither does history.

That said, the damage this regime, his sycophantic party and a supplicant media have inflicted will likely result in real damage over the short term.

Said every right wing troll everywhere. Not saying you are, you may not be aware of the US system of separation of powers. Extorting a foreign government to investigate a political rival is why the impeachment clause exists: To prevent executive abuse of power. It’s the Constitutional duty for Congress to hold the executive branch accountable. What we’ve seen is a complete break down of our system of government.

Note the independent column. (Granted, 41% supporting removal is rather low IMO.)

(Usual caveat, it’s one poll. Average is I think ~43%, where it’s been for most of trump’s term.)

(To be fair, with American ADHD, impeachment will be long forgotten by the time November rolls around.)

Did it ever occur to you that insulting people as right wing trolls is not necessarily the best course of action?
I can assure you I am as far away from the right as I am from the left (on average, anyway, concerning single issues I may be very left or very right).
What I am doing is simply telling you the perception of someone who isn’t even part of the US circus, which is the kind of perception that is the most viable, IMO, as a system can never be truly judged from the inside. And that perception is that Democrats are seemingly grasping at straws to remove Trump instead of accepting that he’s there now and they should focus on winning elections, while Republicans are using that actionism to spin their own narrative around it.

Due to that, every outcome except for actual removal from office (which won’t be happening as Republicans won’t allow it, if I am informed correctly) will result in a strengthened position for Trump.

That may be - but it ultimately doesn’t matter.
“It’s the right thing to do” is a noble motivation, but what really matters is outcomes and when the most likely outcome is strengthening the other side, it is ultimately just a bad idea.

Does that mean the US system is kinda messed up in allowing stuff like that in the first place? Yeah, sure. But insisting on being righteous about it while actually strengthening the opposition is not only not going to change the system to the better, but might actually make it worse by allowing four more years of harm. Or more.

Which is why not even all Democrats support that impeachment, I assume. They are afraid it is likely to do more harm than good.

Doesn’t that actually prove my point?
44% in favor of it, 46% against (if I’m not missing something about that “censure”, it is pretty much identical to dismissing charges, a slap on the wrist, nobody cares, Republicans will still be able to sell it as a victory), 11% undecided. Very similar in the independent voters.

Basically split in half, like everything else in the US it seems (not trying to be a dick here, but this two party mentality and inability to form compromises or coalitions is just really weird to me).

The real question is how things will change, voting-wise, once the entire thing is done and decided - and the Republicans can really start spinning the tales about the “attack on the president that has been defeated” or something along those lines.
Which they will certainly be spinning until December to make sure it won’t be forgotten.

I thought my statement “Not saying you are” indicated I’m not accusing you of of being a right wing troll. I should have made that more clear.

Doing what is required isn’t being righteous. Not doing it however I would consider cowardly.

I read your point as if the impeachment process would hurt among independents. That’s not the case or the numbers would be higher. I think the general sentiment with independents is that it’s viewed as partisan politics as usual as indicated by the sizable 15% “don’t know” response - meaning they’re probably not paying attention - and that’s why Republicans are refusing to have any witnesses that might change that narrative.

Edit: But re-reading your point, yes independent support/opposition has largely remain unchanged.

That’s not dickish. It’s ultimately an untenable political system (it explains the instability for example in Latin America) and we are now seeing its flaws here. The US has been an outlier in that our system has managed to last for as long as it has.

It might not change anything. The Kavanaugh hearings and Republican outrage over it was supposed to hurt Democrats in the 2018 mid-terms but Democrats gained 40 seats nonetheless. But it’s a two edged sword - Republicans might be angry about it, but Democrats will also be angry that Republicans have all but anointed trump as a de facto King.

In reading your summary of the book, it seems to me that the missing piece is salience.

I’ll take a simplified case. So my neighbor thinks Donald Trump is unqualified to be president, but also finds the progressive chorus to be negative.

The question is which of these views is more prominent, more influential in determining what gets marked on his ballot.

Pre-internet, his impression of the progressive chorus was far more based upon the people he saw in everyday life. Neighbors, family members, co-workers, and so on. It was all very reality-based, and not very scary. Probably not even very objectionable – these were people who coached Little League and talked about TV shows just like everyone else. That might change in those periods of time when dangerous sounding protests were being reported on television, but otherwise, impressions of the other political wing were reality based.

The internet aand associated technologies changed all that, because now the most strident voices were elevated and noticed. Also those strident voices found each other and reinforced each other.

Most importantly, operatives from the other political wing could now curate those most strident voices and dwell on them, spinning them into a truly threatening thing… which not only causes the other political wing to circle the wagons, but also raises the level of their most strident voices, which sound truly threatening to the our side… igniting still more strident voices on our side… and so on.

So now my neighbor reacts far more viscerally to the progressive voices than he does to a candidate’s lack of qualifications, whereas the reverse would have been true back in, say, 1960.

This vicious cycle intrinsically helps Republicans, so I really doubt that they will cooperate in trying to ratchet it down.

I’m reasonably confident that this is your perception, which is as likely to be biased by priors as is anyone else’s. Unless you have some evidence in the form of polling, etc, which supports the notion that there is broad acceptance of this view among your fellows?

In any event, it’s a particularly odd perception, given that Dems had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the impeachment effort, and have acknowledged from the start that it can’t possibly succeed but that they had no alternative given the egregious illegal behavior of the incumbent.

Yet this surely happens with voices on the right as well. Which means your friend is choosing right extremism over left extremism. Which means that he is philosophically on the right and inclined to vote for the candidate on the right regardless of the existence of Twitter. Which means Twitter is irrelevant to his choice.

Well, let’s look at it the other way around.

I am most definitely a left winger. But let’s say that the Dems nominate a candidate who I know to be unfit for office. I can think of a couple such cases over the years. (The cases I have in mind were not presidential candidates, but still.)

Should I vote for a corrupt or unreliable or disgusting or unstable left winger? The greatest factor is what I think will happen if the other side wins this particular election.

I might see the situation as “Hey, they might do some things I don’t agree with for a few years, but that’s okay, we’ll come back with a better candidate and beat them and undo all that.”

Or I might see the situation as “Hey, that crowd is evil to the core, and they fully intend to do terrible things to me and people like me. Given a chance, they will permanently change my world before the next election.”

The more people who see things the latter way, the more likely they are to vote for a candidate they see as unfit. (Including an extremist of their own party.) And I have no doubt that our overall communications technology (not just Twitter) – leveraged by political operatives – pushes more and more people to see things the latter way.

You may not see this as much, because, as you have posted in another thread, you have people close to you who spout stuff that pushes you into that second way of thinking, regardless of communications technology. But a whole lot of people I know are extremely motivated by their impressions of the other side, based almost entirely on stuff that comes to them through technologies that arose during my lifetime.

Edit: Re-reading your post, I see I have not really addressed you main point.

Sure, liberals prefer left wing extremists to right wing extremists. And conservatives prefer right wing extremists to left wing extremists. But I think that that is besides the point.

A somewhat liberal or somewhat conservative voter consumes media that he/she is comfortable with – and those outlets emphasize the most dangerous sounding voices on the other side, not the most dangerous sounding voices on their own side.

See, I doubt that it’s true that their views result from the contemporary communications technology, at least in the sense that they would otherwise have different views. Your friend (and you) are hearing extreme views from both sides, and choosing one or the other. That choice can’t just be motivated by the extreme views of one side.

Here’s an interesting test. Does your friend think Trump should be removed from office? I’m guessing he/she does not. But removing Trump from office will replace him with another Republican, one who is not demonstrably unfit for office, and make that other Republican the incumbent in the next election; which will give your friend the opportunity to vote for a Republican who is not unfit.

Assuming as I do that your friend does not think Trump should be removed, then he is not motivated by fear of crazy leftists. He is a team member, motivated by winning against the other side. He’s a Republican, someone on the right, and reliably so no matter what he reads or hears. He will vote for Hitler if that’s who his party nominates, and defend Hitler no matter what he does. And you will blame leftist extremism for your friend’s choice.

As for this:

Your friend undoubtedly hears (from Fox News) both outrage at leftist extremism and enthusiastic support of rightist extremism. That is the nature of the partisan conventional and social media channels. He’s choosing the rightist extremism over the leftist extremism, because he’s more comfortable with rightist extremism. That is not the fault of leftists on Twitter or anywhere else.


I’ll add this: The Democrats have not nominated a leftist extremist, or any sort of person who is very left, in decades. Certainly Hillary Clinton was not a progressive, and no person of sound mind can have thought she was. Your friend has been presented with a string of moderate Democratic nominees going back at least 20 years: Clinton, Obama, Kerry, Gore, Clinton. Ask him how many times he’s voted for the Democrat.

Well, I never claimed that it wasn’t my perception. Of course it is.
And it formed mostly from reading German, Finnish and Irish news outlets over the years. I don’t generally read news from US sources as I think they are by now almost impossible to get in non-biased.
Anyway, in those outlets, the news about Trump are almost entirely negative - and the news about US Democrats are almost entirely negative, too.
Not in a “wow, how evil” way that Trump is often portrayed here, but more in a “wow, how powerless/clueless/struggling” way.

And I can guarantee you, since 2016 is pretty much the first time I saw one of the US parties so desperately struggling. Maybe the reporting over here changed over night to a different focus, but I doubt that somewhat. Not only with the impeachment - this basically started when Trump won. The impeachment is just the peak, well for now, anyway.
To most Europeans (no matter where you stand here, politically), US politics have always been kind of a circus swinging in random directions every few years - but ever since 2016, it’s been extreme.

Why do you think the picture of US amongst Europeans has suffered so much (now this definitely has tons of polls)? Yes, Trump, sure, but also because Trump is a showcase of how unreliable the US can be - which is something many did not realize before.

Voting has become a lot more about preventing the worst case scenario than it has about supporting ideas worth supporting.
In other words, fear has become a major (if not the primary) voting factor.
Which has always been an inherent problem with democracies - once populists take over, you can basically say goodbye to common sense.
If corruption is the inherent problem of authoritarian regimes, populism is the inherent problem of democracies.

Wrong assumption. If Trump was removed from office, it would not be wrong to assume that this would deal a significant blow to the Republican party (I just cannot imagine this not dealing a blow to any party) and no matter who came after, that person would have severely reduced chances against a Democrat candidate.
So, yeah, I could absolutely see someone thinking Trump should be removed, while also not wanting that as the alternative is perceived even worse - especially considering what Trump has done really doesn’t impact any voter directly.

Oh. Okay, nvm. I took you serious there for a moment.
But, yes, sure, conservative people are just rotten to the core and would vote for anyone as long as it is “theirs”.
Godwin, where art thou?!

You claimed it was a more objective perception. I’m asking you why you claim that.

Of course, but that’s not what you’re claiming. You’re claiming that it is the Democrats who are behaving wrongly.

In one response, you agree with me that the hypothetical friend (it’s not your friend we’re talking about here) would indeed vote for and support a serial abuser of power rather than take the chance that someone on the left gains power, and in the next you express outrage when I take that tendency to its logical conclusion. Ask your imaginary friend what Trump would have to do to merit removal. You’ll hear crickets.

Not really wrongly.
More… well, counterproductive. Wasting resources on something that has only a very low chance of benefitting them, with a higher chance of actually costing the next election.
Where the next election would be the one and only thing to more reliably get rid of Trump in a timely manner.

Trump abused his power (I guess allegedly, you have to say, right?). A corrupt, rich politician. Wow. You just won’t see many people shocked by this. Not anymore.
There is nothing logical in comparing the idiocies of Trump to Hitler or assuming anyone who’d vote for the former would would for the latter.