I strongly recommend Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein as single best diagnosis of American politics I have read.
Think back to the 1950’s. Republicans and Democrats were similar. Each party had its own left and right wings, but neither party was “the left wing” or “the right wing” of America. They were similar enough that most voters made decisions based a politician’s integrity, military service, regional heritage, persuasive speech, or something like that, but not based on ideology. The unique way voter coalitions were lined up made this possible.
Northern Democrats, Republicans, and Dixiecrats (Southern Democrats) were each about a third of the Senate, and any two together would win a majority. Northern Democrats were allied with Southern Dixiecrats with a commanding supermajority (2/3). The South had one-party rule because of Jim Crow voter suppression, which was distasteful to Northern Democrats. But Northern Democrats were willing to turn a blind eye to the injustices of Jim Crow because they needed Southern votes to pass their bills, like the New Deal.
Everything changed with the Civil Rights Movement. Political pressure grew for new legislation. Republicans supported it, and Northern Democrats eventually supported it. Together they passed bills culminating in the ’64, ’65, and ’68 Civil Rights Acts. Northern Democrats decided to snap their coalition to pass these bills, which alienated Dixiecrats, who for a time supported their own 3rd party candidates (like George Wallace in 1968) but then migrated to the Republican party. Republicans incompatible with racism in their party then reshuffled to become Democrats. In this way, the Civil Rights Movement’s success triggered a racist backlash, causing the polarization within parties to externalize into polarization between parties.
There are more answers to “Why are we polarized?” than racism, but racism is the foundational answer that kicked the other factors into gear. For example, Christian politics were roughly even between Republicans and Democrats, because the two parties were not yet polarized by racial (and racist) voting blocks. But a Christian Republican coalition emerged to defend segregation academies, and only later shifted to public morality and family values. Race caused the politicization, which then hardened, and as racism became less popular, new platforms had to develop. But even if those new platforms were race-neutral, their coalitions were race-driven.
Another topic Klein explores is the moral narratives through which we see our country, and how these are “activated” by threats to our personal identity. If you are a straight white male with a high school diploma who lives in the country and eats CFA, your identity will be “activated” most by a highly educated, non-white, smooth-talking politician from the city who disses CFA. Naturally! That’s just how personal identity works. The parts of who we are become more salient when they are differentiated from others.
If you are a black, gay, city-dwelling college student who drinks Starbucks, and a certain politician is racist, homophobic, rural-presenting, threatens to defund colleges, and hates Starbucks, your identity will be very “activated.” Naturally! That’s just how personal identity works. The parts of who we are become more salient when they are differentiated from others.
But imagine someone who crosses over those categories. Someone who is a white, Christian, man, who eats CFA, but also is gay, college-educated, somewhat urban, and drinks Starbucks… imagine someone… I’m certain there is a person you know. What effect do divisive politicians have on him? They pull in different directions on competing aspects, which leaves him ambivalent and unactivated. Truth be told, most Americans fit into that middle category in so many ways. Most Americans are some wild mix of these categories: gender, race, religion, location, and CFA/Starbucks. But because the ones whose identities align are most “activated,” their stories become the stereotypes that define our political coalitions. The most normative and the most marginalized, but who between?
Here’s what I’m getting at, and what I think Klein is getting at in subtext without fully spelling it out. There are more political stories to be told. There are varieties of American experience that our polarized politics seem designed to ignore. There are historical and structural factors pulling Americans into two silos of attempted homogeneity. Don’t let that happen. Recognize the unique ways politicians attempt to “activate” you, notice the times your experience is being ignored, and speak a politics from that place. As much as our media culture preaches at us to be ourselves, products sell better to crowds, and so we become crowds.
What would more American stories look like? What stories could be told that unsettle the simplistic narrative that there are two-and-only-two clashing visions of our country? I think that’s the value I see in current and specific ethnographies like Chris Arnade’s Dignity (Review, Book) or Amy Goldstein’s Janesvile: An American Story (Review, Book), or Ta-Nahisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (Review, Book), or Ryan Berg’s No Place to Call My Home (Review, Book). These accounts become the raw material for another American story. I’m talking about a politics built from the ground up, one that doesn’t begin with ideological abstractions and work down, but begins with real American stories and builds out.
Those are just a few of my thoughts. I can’t begin to cover everything Klein covers — he has written a fantastic book, one anybody interested in politics needs to read. As a disclaimer, I should note that Klein’s center-left slant comes through in some of his examples, but still I think progressives and conservatives will find themselves agreeing with the real substance of most of his points.
I especially recommend the chapters “Your Brain on Groups,” “The Press Secretary in Your Mind,” and “When Bipartisanship Becomes Irrational,” along with the conclusion, and then Francis Fukuyama’s review of the book. Most importantly, please, read it before the election, not after!