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.