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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Understanding Polarization

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

Ezra Klein’s new book, Why We’re Polarized, has been getting generally positive reviews, especially for its extensive summary of a vast literature on social psychology, group identities and emotional reasoning. How highly one values the book therefore depends a lot on how illuminating one finds this literature about our current political situation. I am less enthusiastic than some about this literature so I was less enthusiastic about the book

And I did feel the book had a serious weakness which Francis Fukuyama correctly noted in his review of the book in the Washington Post:

“The bottom line of Klein’s argument is that polarization was driven fundamentally by race. The Republican Party has become the home of angry white voters anxious that the United States is turning into a “majority minority” society, as California already has, a reality epitomized by the election of Barack Obama.

There is no question that race played an important part in the 2016 election and that for many Trump voters, cultural identity was a more significant factor than economic self-interest. It is otherwise impossible to explain why so many working-class whites supported Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare, a policy that benefited them above all.

But cultural identity is fed by many factors besides race, and understanding this complexity is very important if the Democrats hope to win back the Oval Office and Congress. Failure to appreciate the legitimate grounds for resentment by populist voters is a general failure of liberals everywhere, from Turkey and Hungary to Britain and the United States, and one of the reasons they keep losing elections…..

Klein dismisses economic drivers of populism like globalization and the loss of working-class jobs, noting that if those were the fundamental issues, then left-wing populism rather than the nativist variety should have seen a big upsurge in support.

There is no question that race has resurfaced in an ugly manner in American politics, driven by an overtly racist president. But culture and identity are much broader than race. Gender is at least as important: Men have been losing status and economic power to women in workplaces and families steadily for the past generation. Many people in 2016 didn’t so much support Trump as vote against Hillary Clinton, who represented to them a certain kind of self-satisfied feminism and came into the election with very low trust and favorability ratings.

The urban-rural divide that Klein correctly notes as central to the red-blue division encompasses a host of cultural values beyond race, related to religion, patriotism, respect for traditional sources of authority and other lifestyle issues. Working-class whites in rural areas have undergone a social decline epitomized by the opioid crisis, which has led to a drop in male life expectancy in the United States. As Angus Deaton and Anne Case have argued, this is a result of despair engendered by job loss and social isolation.

Opposition to our current immigration system does not necessarily have to stem from xenophobia and racism: Polls from Gallup and Pew show that more than 60 percent of Americans have positive views of immigration but more than 50 percent worry that so much of it is illegal. High culture today is produced in liberal agglomerations like New York, Los Angeles and London, and it has created a kind of intellectual snobbery that is bitterly resented by people who don’t like being dismissed as ignorant racists.”

I feel this is rather a big miss in a book that purports to explain our current level of polarization and the rise of right populism. Such a miss of course is consistent with the current world outlook of not just Klein and his website Vox but a wide swathe of contemporary liberal opinion in and around today’s Democratic party. In my view, if we’re ever going to become de-polarized that outlook needs to change.

You will not be surprised to learn that such a change is not among Klein’s recommended list of fixes for the polarization problem. That’s a pity.

One comment on “Teixeira: Understanding Polarization

  1. Candace on

    Are people still wondering how the Trump gop divides this country and manipulates these voters? Do the Democrats really need to adopt a tone of understanding about it?

    As a suggestion for the suggestion box for understanding trump supporters:


    “In interviews and emails, these backers tell me they regard Trump as “strong.” His battles with adversaries reveal him as “tough.” What in a conventional light looks outrageous—the bragging, the insults, the defiance, the rule skirting, the shredding of familiar standards of how a president should act—in this more sympathetic light looks like charisma. It gives him the aura of “a winner.”

    It wouldn’t hurt to point out what a country full of men trying to be Donald Trump would look like. Miserable relationships, neglected children with rampant learning disabilities, chronic health problems, crime, starvation, businesses constantly folding and/or understaffed – but hey, they’re always hiring! Its not their fault the people they hired are always so pathetic and undeserving.
    Getting in trouble and going to court will be considered opportunities to show how unstoppable these guys are.. yes, that’s how it will always work out.
    And what will happen to these guys when the love of the outdoors is replaced with watching TV eating fast food, and then the tweets? And will we be able to call them American anymore really, because to survive they will all be owned by foreign interests. That’s some real strength, sure!
    If its greatness for him why is it unthinkable for everyone else?

    “To put a fine point on it, his backers regard him as a real man—possessed of a virility that flows not in spite of his excesses but because of them. In these minds, Trump represents a certain ideal of male power in exaggerated form. ”

    Ah the a good man isn’t a real man bit. Those two need to merge.
    I guess its reflective of problems some Americans have with their fathers and maybe the reasons they’ve identified for the difficulties they’ve had in relationships.

    Perhaps Trump is their favorite entertainer.
    His supporters can like all the raunchy shows they like but the job of the potus and the need for someone with decency and integrity holding that position, someone you can trust, is very real.

    Trump supporters could be asked if its important to them to trust any of the most important people in their lives or do they put a higher value on being entertained by their lack of character and because they’re not crazy ? as long as they are unapologetic about it??

    “His followers seem to love his strength. But it wasn’t so long ago his act would have been seen as exactly the opposite.”

    It also wasn’t too long ago that these people were upset about how dads were being portrayed on TV. Why have they embraced White American Dad and Husband Donald Trump as their ideal?
    For their daughters, for their mothers!

    If Democrats don’t want these people to vote for Trump, they have to discredit why his supporters stick to him even if they think its stupid or beneath them.
    If its patriotism, manhood, you discredit that. If its white nationalism then you discredit his pro white bona fides – it wouldn’t hurt to mention his thing with Saudi Arabia
    If its that dt is against abortion you show them how he and the gop are for creating a society that enhances all of the top reasons women get an abortion


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