Why We’re Polarized
America is a politically polarized country. We see it all around us, but it is particularly visible now, in the middle of a pandemic. The response to COVID-19 could have been a real unifying force in American life and politics, but even this has become just one more issue over which we fight. We are convinced that our team is demonstrating all that is good and decent, and the other team is using the health crisis for corrupt political opportunism. Political scientists have long studied polarization in congress and the electorate, but over the last decade, it seems, people have really begun to feel it. We are a culture and country that is deeply divided, and we are more dramatically divided today than we were 20 or 30 years ago.
Earlier this year, before the pandemic and the George Floyd protests, Vox co-founder and podcaster Ezra Klein published a book simply titled Why We’re Polarized. While Klein is not a political scientist, he is a long participant in and student of American politics, and he takes his reader through an immersive tour of the best evidence from psychology, political science, and history. His story has no heroes or villains, and yet he provides a comprehensive and deep explanation for why our country feels so divided. In case you are not someone who reads books about politics, let me give you my recommendation at the start. I think this is the most important book you can read to understand contemporary American politics. Klein’s work is fascinating, compelling, and frightening. Christian leaders, in particular, should read this book to understand our times, and hopefully to prevent the Church from being one of the casualties of our divided culture.
First, though, what does it mean to say that we are polarized? One thing people mean when they say we are polarized is that people’s views are more extreme: Republicans push for more extreme conservative policies and Democrats more extreme liberal policies. This is actually only a small part of it. Klein notes that while this kind of polarization seems to be happening, the actual views and proposals of republicans and democrats around the country are generally not more extreme than they used to be. The real polarization is different: it is not that we are pushing into more extreme views, but that we, and our representatives, are more consistently conservative or consistently liberal. Thus it is better to think of polarization, Klein says, as sorting. The U.S. electorate and our political leaders are much better sorted into ideological camps than we used to be.
This raises the big question of the book. Why are we polarized? Klein argues that it is partially about race. The golden era of political consensus and collegiality, in the middle of the 20th century, was built on a giant compromise that ignored the racism of the Jim Crow era. This lasted as long as Democrats needed the south to have a governing majority. Once southern segregationists abandoned the Democrats for Goldwater, Regan, and the Republicans, the parties started slowly sorting into the coalitions we see today. History is only the start of the explanation, though. Klein gives a long list of different reasons for our increasing polarization, all of them somewhat persuasive. The list warrants a whole series of political science lectures: (a) our media has become more polarized in the internet age, (b) our political identities have become national, not local, (c) small individual donors reward more dramatic candidates, and (d) parties have become weaker, exerting less discipline on the choosing of political candidates.
The big interesting takeaway from the book, though, is that our cultural identities have become political in a way that they might not have been previously. Klein says that we have developed political “mega-identities.” For example, it used to be the case that both the Republican and Democratic parties were largely Christian, both had rural and urban representation and both contained business, worker, and agricultural interests. Today, the parties have very different constituencies: the Republican party is largely the party of White Christians, while the Democratic party has a large majority of Black and Hispanic Americans and those who are not religious. The Republicans are the party of business people, whereas the democrats dominate in social services. The Republicans dominate the outer suburbs and rural areas, while Democrats rule the cities. There are psychological differences between the parties as well, as has been well documented: democrats attract those with the personality trait that describes “openness to new experiences,” Republicans attract those with a more “closed” personality. Many different parts of our lives that were not politically sorted before have become partisan. The short of it is, we are now far more likely to live in a context in which vast majorities of those we trust all belong to the same political movement.
This political sorting and polarization have two results. First, all politics are now identity politics. Because there are layers of identities that are all aligned with a political movement, it seems like the opposing party doesn’t just have bad ideas, they are against everything that you are. For a rural White Christian small business owner, you can easily be convinced that Democrats are out to destroy everything you hold dear. Similarly, a Black woman teaching in an urban school may legitimately feel like the Republican party is attacking her every day. With politics becoming sorted around our identities, the stakes are higher and the opportunities for political compromise fall apart. We don’t necessarily love people on our side, but we know that the other side must lose or civilization will crumble. You can’t compromise with a party that opposes your very being. We don’t even want our politicians to compromise. This is a self-reinforcing cycle, moreover, because once real policymaking breaks down, symbolic identity issues are all that is left for politicians to push for, and our national representatives cease to focus on making policy, preferring instead to fight the symbolic culture wars.
Klein offers a few solutions to this cycle, but they are half-hearted. He has no solutions for the polarization of our culture, but he does think that some political reforms could allow us to have a more functional government in this polarized landscape. He suggests a number of process and democratic reforms in particular: ranked-choice voting, reforming the supreme court, procedural changes in the senate, and eliminating the electoral college. He argues that a government where less is at stake for the political parties might be one where they could compromise more. Similarly, if we eliminated some of the policymaking veto-points and barriers built in to the system, things could operate more smoothly.
The far more interesting thing about Klein’s book is the way it diagnoses the dysfunctional nature of our political culture. This, in particular, is where the great danger lies for the Church in the United States. We have all seen how political identity and Christianity have become entangled. Klein, without really meaning to, explains why this is so hard to avoid. When the other political party represents an attack on everything you hold dear, it is really hard not to think about politics in religious terms. As these mega-identities take hold, it becomes harder to imagine that Jesus might have any sympathy for the other side. When politics becomes about identity, it is impossible for Christianity to be our common ground.
The only solution, fleeting though it may be, is for the Church to re-establish itself as what Klein calls a “cross-cutting identity.” In other words, if we can build a church that is demographically and politically diverse so that our experience as Christians pushes outside of our political categories, we might be able to push against these partisan mega-identities. Right now that is a tall order, though, because all the momentum is pushing us the other direction.