Why We're Polarized: Book Review

March 11, 2020

Why We're Polarized: Ezra Klein (2020). This is an important book with lots of content from several perspectives, including a substantial amount of academic research. Historically, it's not a pretty story. The Democrats were mainly northern liberals and Dixiecrats, Republicans with both liberal and conservative wings. A strange brew of mixed perspectives (with considerable racism, sexism, and anti-semitism. But it worked for moderation and improvements happened, but slowly. New Deal legislation was the best example of progress, but with festering limitations (like the inability to get anti-lynching laws passed). Democrats are still a "big-tent" party in the sense of multiple ideologies and groups, less so on the conservative-liberal spectrum. Republicans not at all (more a narrow iron vault).

 

On the 20-point scale (based on hibbing et al.) from conservative (0) to liberal (20), I'm a 10--ergo, Median Voter Guy; Democrats probably range from 8-20; Republicans now probably stop about 5, with exceptions like Mitt Romney and moderate governors. The Washington professionals do not seem to overlap on this scale: the most liberal Republican has a lower score than the most conservative Democrat. The book more or less suggests that Trump is a master marketer, exploiting the anger and partisan divide as a Machiavellian genius. I wonder if the more likely explanation is Trump is just bumbling through with the narcissistic mumbo jumbo that has worked for him most of the time; it worked, so the pundits pegged it as political genius.

 

Introduction; What Didn't Happen. "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?" (L. 56). Political scientist Larry Bartels did not see anything unusual. Clinton was the first female candidate, resulting in a deep gender split. In 2008 the Republican won 48% of male voters; in 2016 it was 52% (about the same as Romney in 2012). Women voted Republican 43% in 2008 and 41% in 2016. White voters went Republican 55% in 2008, 57% in 2016. Hispanics went Republican 31% in 2008, 28% in 2016. White, born-again Christians were 74% Republican in 2008, 80% in 2016. In 2008 the Democrat won by 9 million, less than 5 million in 2012, and almost 3 million in 2016. So 2016 did not seem much of an aberration, not much different that the previous four or so elections. "Voters ultimately treated Trump as if he were just another Republican speaks to the enormous weight party polarization now exerts on our politics. ... 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" (L 110). Klein views this as a toxic system and attempts to explain why. It could be money, political correctness, social media, political consultants or Mitch McConnell--actually, all the above and more. 

 

"The American political system--which includes everyone from voters to journalists to the president--is full of rational actors making rational decisions given the incentives they face. We are a collection of functional parts whose efforts combine into a dysfunctional whole. That the worst actors are so often draped in success doesn't prove the system is broken; it proves that they understand the ways in which it truly works. ... Organizations fail precisely because they are doing well--on a narrow range of performance criteria, that is--the ones that they get rewarded" (L 159). "Identity politics has been weaponized. It is most often used by speakers to describe politics as practiced by member of historically marginalized groups" (L 199). "Over the past 50 years, our partisan identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities" (L 225).  

 

Chapter 1: How Democrats Became Liberals and Republicans Became Conservative. Democrats have been around since Andrew Jackson, if not Jefferson. The Republican Party was founded in 1856 and Lincoln became the first Republican president in 1860. During the 1860's the Civil War demonstrated severe polarization. In 1950 the American Political Science Associated claimed there was little difference and called for more polarization. [Of course this was the time of Republican Joe McCarthy, which seems fairly polarizing to me.] The idea of the APSA was to provide obvious choices between the two alternatives. "The state parties were organizing politics around lines the national parties were erasing" (L 293); consider Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota versus Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. At least on the national level, median voter guy was important in this situation. Conflict meant suppression or compromise, maintaining party unity; polarization means division gets addressed through conflict. Party unity was challenged when Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964; his loss suggested ideologues loose elections. Ticket splitting was common. Last 50 years: "We became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more--indeed, we've come to like the parties we vote for less--but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed" (p. 10). In the 1990's there was general agreement (but not very strong) that immigrants strengthened the country. This has risen sharply for Democrats, but not Republicans. Note that Reagan signed an immigration reform bill and raised some taxes [after lowering income tax rates substantially], while Bush (41) signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, pushed cap-and-trade to reduce pollution, and raised taxes. In 1965 Medicare received considerable support from Republicans. The Republican healthcare plan was Romney Care in Massachusetts (this is the Republican idea instead of the equivalent of Medicare for All), basically the same as Obamacare (which received zero Republican votes). A 2014 Pew poll "found 37% of Republicans and 31% of Democrats viewed the other party as a threat to the nation's well-being," up to 45% and 41% in 2016 (p. 17).  

 

Chapter 2: The Dixiecrat Dilemma. Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond conducted the most famous filibuster in 1957 to try to defeat an already watered-down civil rights bill. He stopped the Democrats from eliminating the Taft-Hartley provisions, greatly weakening the Democratic Party (and unions). Unlike other Dixiecrats Thurmond was not just racist, but a complete conservative (including anti-labor), then switched to the Republican Party in 1964. White supremacy was their focus; on other issues they were divided. By combining with northern, more liberal Democrats the party maintained control; the price was maintaining segregation in the South. "In the 1890's leaders of the 11 states of the old Confederacy founded stable, one-party authoritarian enclaves under the Democratic banner. Having secured a conditional autonomy from the central state and the national party, these rulers curtailed electorates, harassed and repressed opposition parties and created and regulated racially separate--and significantly unfree--civic spheres. ... By 1944 only 5% of age-eligible African Americans were registered to vote" (p. 23-4). "National Democrats cared about passing the New Deal, about winning presidential elections, about building infrastructure projects. ... They chose accommodation" (p. 26). At times the Dixiecrats controlled the Democratic Party and their proportion was never below 40%. Redistribution from rich to poor worked, because the North was rich and the South poor. Civil rights started under Truman in 1948, when he desegregated the military. The reasons were complicated: principle for some, hard math with demographic changes, the shift of Republicans to the right (e.g., Goldwater) and state and local rule. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a moment of rupture. "80% of House Republicans supported the bill, as opposed to 60% of House Democrats. ... they chose to snap their alliance with the Dixiecrats to pursue justice" (p. 29-30). Republicans could have been the party of Civil Rights, except Goldwater voted against the bill. Thus began the sorting based primarily on racism. "Issue-based polarization leads to political identity polarization. ... Intense polarization around the issue of civil rights drove party polarization around civil rights. The Goldwater campaign tried to seize political  opportunity by providing a home to angry racial conservatives, which eventually led those racial conservatives to cluster in the Republican Party" (p. 32-3). "The death of the Dixiecrats [Civil Rights Act] cleared the way for southern conservatives to join the Republican Party and northern liberals to join the Democratic Party. That let the parties sort themselves ideologically. ... With that essential clarity, the parties sorted around virtually everything else" (p. 36).  

 

"Obamacare was a public-private system with Republican roots that paid for itself through a mixture of tax increases and spending cuts, while Medicare was a liberal government takeover of health care for the elderly that created an open-ended entitlement" (p. 33). [Note that this is a payment mechanism that is government-funded. Actual healthcare services are predominately in the private sector.] What makes this extreme rather than an inefficient, complex system that leaves tens of millions uninsured seems to be a political calculation. "The irony is that the American political system was more calm and least polarized when America itself seemed to be on the verge of cracking apart" [McCarthyism, civil rights activism, Vietnam protests, etc.] (p. 34). [Apparently, we are not moderates], but "politically unsorted" (p. 35). "Political coalitions are becoming more sorted and more polarized. I mean only that: there is less ideological overlap, fewer of us are caught in the middle, and there is more tension between the poles" (p. 35). The largest Republican religious coalition based on a 2014 Pew pole was evangelical Protestants, for Democrats, none; another identity to generate hostility. "There is no dense city in America that routinely votes Republican. There are few rural areas that vote Democratic" (p. 39). 

 

"Psychologists speak of the Big Five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion-introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism" (p. 43). Republican differ from Democrats (conservative versus liberal) on openness, open for Democrats (e.g., okay with uncertainty, open to new experiences and more optimistic), closed for Republicans; related to that is how dangerous is the world, where Republicans are more fear-driven, but more conscientious, prefer order and tradition. Klein refers to the Whole Foods/ Cracker Barrel differences. This suggests party affiliation comes from psychology makeup, rather than developing a world view based on experience. Obama's "hope and change" appealed to liberals, not conservatives. Conservatives "mistrust change, appreciates tradition, and seeks order, ... prefer living in a small town nearer to family, going to a church deeply rooted in ritual. ... What is changing is how closely our psychologies map onto our politics and onto a host of other life choices" (p. 46). "In Prius or Pickup? Hetherington and Weiler use a psychological scale they call fluid and fixed: people with a fixed world view are more fearful of potential dangers, and are likely to prefer clear and unwavering rules ... This mind-set leads them to support social structures in which hierarchy and order prevail. ... People with a fluid world view are less likely to perceive the world as dangerous. By extension, they will endorse social structures that allow individuals to find their own way in life. They are more inclined to believe that a society's well-being requires giving people greater latitude to question, to explore, and to discover their authentic selves. Every dimension of our lives--ideology, religiosity, geography--carries a psychological signal" (p. 47). In forming an opinion, the question for the unengaged citizen is: what will this policy do for me? [that is, transactionally.] Among the engaged, however, reactions to economic issues are better understood as expressively motivated signals of identity" (p. 48). 

 

Chapter 3: Your Brain on Groups. Henri Tajfel was a Polish Jew. His family fled to France before World War II. Tajfel joined the French Army, captured by the Nazis and spend the rest of the war as a prisoner of war. If the Nazis knew he was a Polish Jew, he would have been executed; the "false identity" as a French soldier saved his life. As a later psychology professor, he focused on identity, theorizing that we view ourselves with favor and outsiders with hostility. "The most important principle of the subjective social order we construct for ourselves is the classification of groups as 'we' and 'they.' ... We will do that even if there is no reason for it in terms of our own interests. ... People believed those prejudices reflected reality. ... The whole point of racial and ethnic stereotypes ... justifies our hatred or fear of them" (p. 50). "The post-Enlightenment view of humanity is that we are rational individuals whose actions may be inflamed by instinct but are ultimately governed by calculation. But what if it was the other way around? What if our loyalties and prejudices are governed by instinct and merely rationalized as calculation?" (p. 50). He conducted a famous experiment dividing subjects by estimating how many dots they saw. They were arbitrarily divided into those seeing more versus those seeing less that the actual number (essentially random). He then made a second experiment with the handing out money to "highs" and "lows." The idea was to establish a baseline behavior. It turned out the first test of group identity mutated into a bias: they gave more money to their group than to the other group (they were "fair" when handing out money within their own group). More experiment followed, including maximizing the total amount handed out versus maximizing their own group, even if that meant less total money. In other words, groups do not have to be based on objectively important criteria. "It is the winning that seems more important to them" (p. 55). Large-scale communities: "Sometimes it leads to large-scale, wonderful advances in human cooperation. like the nation-state or religions. Sometimes it leads to hatred, violence, even genocide" (p. 59).  

 

Patrick Miller and Pamela Conover turned this analysis to politics in "Red and Blue States of Mind" (2015). Important points were preserving team status rather than the broader good, with feelings of anger and rivalry to the other party. "While high-minded factors like policy ideas and ideology played some role in how partisans felt, the overwhelming driver was the strength of partisan identity. Elections accentuate the team mentality of party identifiers, pushing them repeatedly to make 'us-them' comparisons between Democrats and Republicans" (p. 61). Anger, rivalry, and incivility against the other side dominated. Identity was primary for engaged voters, while least-engaged looked at self-interest. "Nothing brings a group together like a common enemy" (p. 63). Beto O'Rourke drew interest because of the hatred ("liberal loathing") for Ted Cruz. There is political power in inspiration: "The most effective politicians thrill their supporters. But they do so in the context of the threat their opponents pose. As politicians become less well-known and capable on the stump, they rely more and more heavily on activating fear of the other side. ... You don't just need support. You need anger" (p. 64). Barack Obama's rise came from his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, which was an argument on the structure of polarization, attempting to unite the public "The polarizers are out there. We are their victims. ... Obama is the most thoughtful and reflective, the best at seeing American politics with historical perspective and analytical altitude. ... He could speak to the best in America because he believed the best of America. ... The paradox of Obama's political career is that he himself was a polarizing figure. ... Obama had sincerely tried to pursue a politics that he thought would foster compromise or at least understanding. But he had failed. ...  Obama argued that polarized media, gerrymandering, and the flood of political money tended to balkanize us into our political identities" (p. 65-8).

 

Lilliana Mason in Uncivil Agreement: "The American political parties are growing socially polarized. Religion and race, as well as class, geography, and culture, are dividing the parties in such a way that the effect of party identity is magnified" (p. 69). Mega-identity politics: "I think Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times reading ... body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont" (p. 69). The kneeling Colin Kaepernick brought politics to football, including a Trump tweet storm. Republicans were outraged and started viewing the NFL unfavorably. According to psychologists Brewer and Roccas, people with cross-cutting identities are more tolerant of outsiders. With diverging identities, so to do worldviews and agendas diverge. Identification as a conservative or liberal only correlates about 25% with actual conservative/liberal traits. Identity is more important than issue positions; intolerance is key rather than policy self-interest. Democrat versus Republican differences were even tested for awarding scholarships (Iyengar and Westwood), where 80% were awarded to their co-partisans: "partisanship simply trumped academic excellence. ... Iyengar's hypothesis is that partisan animosity is one of the few forms of discrimination that contemporary American society not only permits but actively encourages" (p. 77). Social scientists see a difference between rational and irrational group conflict. Rational means genuine competition between groups, like policy differences; irrational serves to relieve anxiety or hatred, reinforcing  identity conflict. The two categories are mutually reinforcing. Trump's anti-immigration policies seem mainly irrational.   

 

Chapter 4: The Press Secretary in Your Mind. What became Obamacare started in an 1989 Heritage Foundation (conservative think tank) brief featuring the individual mandate, after Democrats were considering single payer healthcare (presumably not market-oriented). Under Obama, this seemed to be a bipartisan winner. Then all Republicans were against it, claiming it was unconstitutional. What separates political opportunism from intellectual growth? Not much according to Klein and the rest of the chapter explains why. The Enlightenment claimed reason was entirely individualistic, but research show it's decentralized and dispersed: "rationality is inherently a collective project" (p. 85). People flip their positions to fit group needs.  Solomon Asch did a 1951 experiment with a simple answer, matching the length of two lines. Most people got it right, but would change their answer if a group of confederates all agreed on a wrong answer: how people and partisans think. In a welfare experiment (stingy versus generous) people matched "group cues" (reference group overrode policy content).

 

Law professor Dan Kahan on "how politics makes smart people stupid." "Science comprehension thesis ("more information") versus "people don't want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument" (p. 91). Politicized experiment on concealed handguns: ideology drove the answers, not answers based on data (especially for smart people). "Being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problems correctly, when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. ... They were using reasoning to get the answer they wanted to be right" (p. 92); ditto climate change. Experiments on expert scientist results showed: "expert is a credentialed person who agrees with me" (p. 93). "Our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we're dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our group. ... We react to threatening information by mobilizing our intellectual artillery to destroy it" (p. 95-6). Kahan calls it "identity-protective cognition." "The role that individual reason plays in political argument as akin to the job of the White House press secretary. ... No matter how bad the policy, the secretary will find some way to praise or defend it" (p. 100). "Psychologists have a term for this: 'motivated reasoning'" (p. 100). Gathering information should help people understand policy decisions, but political identities dominate. "Kahan's work suggests that cognition exists on a spectrum, ranging from issues where the truth matters and our identities don't to issues where our identities dominate and the truth fades in importance" (p. 102). "People invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly" (p. 102). 

 

Chapter 5: Demographic Threat. With Obama it was hope and change. Trump made change a threat: make America the way it was before (you know, great). "There is nothing that makes us identify with our group so strongly as the feeling that the power we took for granted may soon be lost or the injustices we've long borne may soon be rectified. An identity is questioned only when it is menaced" (p. 106). Craig and Richeson psychology experiment: survey of white independents beginning with California becoming a majority-minority state (or not included); "The barest exposure to the concept that whites were losing their numerical majority in America would not just make whites feel afraid but sharply change their political behavior....Those who read that whites had ceded majority status were more likely to favor the Republican Party" (p. 107), plus they shifted to more conservative views on several issues like health care reform. "Even gentle incidental exposure to reminders that America is diversifying [in the experiment, sending Spanish-speakers to train stations, then asking questions on rail platforms] ... pushes whites toward more conservative policy opinions and more support of the Republican Party" (p. 109). Michael Tesler: "The mere existence of Obama's presidency further racialized American politics ... not just by racial composition but by racial attitudes. ... In the Obama era, attitudes on race began shaping attitudes on virtually all political questions. ... In his 2012 reelection campaign, Obama won merely 39% of the white vote. ... Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant. ...  In thee conditions, democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition--pure political tribalism" (p. 109-11). 

 

"The Right wields political power but feels increasingly dismissed and offended culturally. This is the crucial context for Trump's rise, and it's why Tesler has little patience for those who treat Trump as an invader in the Republican party. In a field of Republicans who were trying to change the party to appeal to a rising Hispanic electorate, Trump was alone in speaking to Republican voters who didn't want the party to remake itself, who wanted to be told that a wall could be built and things could go back to the way they were" (p. 113). Thus, Trump is the master marketer who reads the market correctly; he had previously experimented with the "birther conspiracy." Tucker Carlson: "How precisely is diversity our strength?" Similar comments from Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Laura Ingraham. "57% of whites agreed that 'discrimination against whites' is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. ... In 2012, Romney chose to run a campaign mainly based on class identity" (p. 115). "White political identity is conditional. It emerges in periods of threat and challenges. A sense of racial identity can be based on in-group favoritism or out-group hostility. ... A savvier politician than Trump could focus on defending white privileges without constantly crossing into outright racism. ... American politics is often a chorus of contradictory voices persuasively claiming victimhood" (p. 117-9). "A bitter debate erupted after the 2016 election between those who blame our politics on economic anxiety and those who see a country riven by racial resentment. A popular synthesis has emerged: economic anxiety activated racial resentment. ... Before Obama's presidency, how Americans felt about black people did not much affect their perceptions of the economy. After Obama, this changed. ... Racial resentment was a powerful predictor of economic perceptions: the greater someone's level of racial resentment, the worse they believed the economy was doing. ... According to Gallup polls, Trump's election led to a remarkable 80-point jump in economic confidence among Republicans and a 37-point fall among Democrats" (p. 120-1).      

 

Political correctness: "What can you say without being criticized? ... American colleges have always believed the regulation of civility and behavior norms to be part of their mandate" (p. 124). "Whose grievances get heard? ... Who grants respectability; ... In a changing America, who holds power?" (p. 126). "Humans are social animals, exquisitely tuned to agonize and obsess over insult" (p. 127). Immigration: Lots of tough talk by the various administration against illegal immigration, but little was done at the borders, with the free flow of migrants and drugs. In 2016, Democrats were more accommodating to Hispanics as a growing voting block, but attempted to maintain non-white bases without alienating white voters; Republicans tried to win white voters without appearing racist; voters turned to Trump. Democrats moved more left on race. "Part of being a Democrat today ... is a commitment to racial equality, built on an understanding of systemic racism as a central scourge" (p. 130). The racial differences are an important component to identity politics. Mayor Eric Garcetti: "talk less, act more" (p. 131). "In 2016 Bernie Sanders centered his campaign on class and was criticized for a tin ear on race. ... In 2020, Sanders has run a more race-conscious campaign, emphasizing his past as a civil rights activist" (p. 132). "Obama found after he was elected in this era requires delivering for diverse coalitions, taking sides in charged cultural battles, and thus becoming part of the very conflict you're trying to calm" (p. 134). 

 

Interlude: a summary of the first half. "It takes us almost nothing to form a group identity ... we assume ourselves in competition with other groups. ... Winning is positional, not material; we often prefer outcomes that are worse for everyone so long as they maximize our group's advantage.  Ideologically mixed parties were an unstable equilibrium" (p. 135). Today, the parties are sharply split across racial, religious, geographic, cultural, and psychological lines" (p. 136). "Obama's presidency was an example of the younger, more diverse coalition taking power; Trump's presidency represented the older, whiter coalition taking it back. ... Institutions polarize to appeal to a more polarized public" (p. 136). 

 

Chapter 6: The Media Divide Beyond Left-Right. The internet gave the public massive amounts of information, but apparently not access to critical thinking skills. The net effect was divisiveness. James Hamilton: "News emerged not from individuals seeking to improve the functioning of democracy but from readers seeking diversion, reporters forging careers, and owners searching for profits" (p. 144). "In 1870, 54% of metropolitan dailies were affiliated with the Republican Party, 33% were Democratic, and 13% claimed independence from party" (p. 145). What changed was technology and a new business model. "The development of presses with runs of 25,000 sheets or more per hour meant a single newspaper could supply a significant portion of a city's readers. ... Newspapers became cheaper, which meant their potential audience became larger. ... Newspapers, and other forms of news media, began building an ethic of nonpartisanship, one that both protected their businesses and served important editorial goals" (p. 146). "What makes people interested in political news? It's that they are rooting for a side. ... The differences between the parties and their coalitions are profound. They are ideological, geographic, demographic, temperamental. ... Whether your side wins or loses is also a matter of identity and group status" (p. 146-7). How bias is considered becomes important (and puzzling to many of us): "It's considered biased to say one party's health plan is better than the other's, but it's not considered biased to say one candidate's campaign is better run than the other" (p. 147). [The New York Times seemed to single-handedly take out Kamala Harris when they interviewed 50 of her workers to document that in detail; this seems to work on the Democratic side, but not the Republican.]  

 

According to Ahler and Sood: "Majorities of both parties' supporters are white, middle-class, and heterosexual, and both parties' modal supporters are middle-aged, non-evangelical Christians. ... The parties we perceive are quite different from the parties that exist. ... Misperceptions were high among everyone, but they were particularly exaggerated when people were asked to describe the other party. Democrats believed 44% of Republicans earned over $250,000; it's actually 2%. Republicans believed that 38% of Democrats were gay, lesbians or bisexual; the correct answer is about 6%. ... Democrats  believed that more than 40% of Republicans are seniors; in truth, seniors make up about 20% of the GOP. ... Republicans believed that 46% of Democrats are black and 44% belong to a union; in reality, about 24% of Democrats are African-American and less than 11% belong to a union. ... The more political media your consume, the more warped your perspective of the other side becomes" (p. 148-9). "For political reporting, the principle is: 'if it outrages, it leads" (p. 149). BuzzFeed apparently was built to test "how viral content spread online: identity was the slingshot. And the key insight was there were more identities that people felt strongly about than anyone had every imagined. ... BuzzFeed was successful as a laboratory for discovering the principles and drivers of social sharing. ... Much of what the media thought were interests were actually identities ... inherent in having an actual relationship with your audience. You feed an interest with information; you build an identity through socialization. ... [Identities] can be activated or left dormant, strengthened or weakened" (p. 153-4). 

 

Reading the other side doesn't change our minds, it deepens our certainty. "Technology which brings the world to us also allows us to narrow our point of view, the echo chamber theory of polarization" (p. 158). Another theory: "People are open to counter-evidence, but they're just not getting much of it" (p. 159). Theories suggest either 1) contact with opposing groups leads to better understanding or 2) creates more polarization. A psychology experiment for following Twitter bots showed "an increase in issue-based polarization. ... Democrats show a non-significant increase in liberal attitudes" (p. 160), but significant for Republicans. Neither side moderated their own views. "Exposure to the other side's attack is likely to trigger rebuttal, not reflection--identity protective cognition" (p. 161). Positive collaboration could promote understanding, but there is no evidence of this happening. Just watching opposing cable news either did nothing or backfired. Fox News and other networks have small audiences, but apparently have the right audiences. Political elites are hooked and behave in more polarized ways. Trump rhetoric seems to come directly from conservative media. 

 

What to cover is an issue. "To decide what to cover is to become the shaper of the news rather than a mirror held up to the news. ... The news media isn't just an actor in politics. It's arguably the most powerful actor in politics. It's the primary intermediary between what politicians do and what the public knows. Trump, meanwhile, routinely gets cable networks to air his rallies live. ... There's good argument to be made that this is why he became president" (p. 164). During his run for the nomination, Trump routinely got more that half of the total coverage that included 17 Republicans and this percent went up close to the election. As president, he gets more air time than his predecessors, even with his rambling fact-impaired monologues. "In practice, newsworthiness is some combination of important, new, outrageous, conflict-oriented, secret or interesting" (p. 166). If other media is covering it, then it's newsworthy period. "Trump weaponizes outrageousness, offensiveness, and identity cues. ... You can dominate the media by lobbing grenades into our deepest social divides. ... In a media driven by identity and passion, identitarian candidates who arouse the strongest passions have an advantage. You can arouse that passion through inspiration, as Obama did, or through conflict, as Trump did. ... Trump's Twitter feed matters because it sets the agenda for every political news outlet in the country. ... The political media is biased, but not toward the Left or Right so much as toward loud, outrageous, colorful, inspirational, confrontational" (p. 169-170). [Going back the last 100 years, this can explain the seemingly puzzling attraction of a Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, or Benito Mussolini.] 

 

Chapter 7: Post-Persuasion Elections. Political consultant Matthew Dowd found that true independents--the number of people who were actually undecided and could vote for either party--had plummeted in recent elections, from 22% to 7% (p.172). The electorate was not open to persuasion; almost everyone made up their minds. The strategy shifted to getting your group out to vote; even though voting is optional and difficult. The 2004 election was mainly about mobilizing the base and turning out the vote. In 2008 Obama mobilized Democrats, but did not convert Republicans with "hope and change." Clinton was less successful in turning out the base, Trump did it big time: his message: "Parties are weak while partisanship is strong" (p. 176). Republicans competing in 2016 called Trump a pathological liar, utterly amoral, a cancer on conservatism, a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag; then they all endorsed him. "Robert Boatright found that the share of Republican primary challenges that are based around the incumbent not being conservative enough has shot from less than 25% in the 1970's to more than 40% in the 2010's; among Democrats, ideological primary challenges have gone from a bit under 10% to a bit over 10%" (p. 181). More powerful parties led to less polarization in state legislatures. La Raja and Schaffner looked at the 36 'professional' legislatures (those that were real paying jobs); polarization was much higher in the 28 that limited party contributions. "Most people, and most groups, don't give money to politicians. Those who do give are, predictably, more polarized, more partisan, or they want something. ... You appeal to them through ideology, identity, or corruption" (p. 184). La Raja separated pragmatists (focused on staying in power) from purists (policy-driven agenda); winning versus group conflict. "Loud gets noticed. Extreme gets noticed. Confrontational gets noticed. Moderate, conciliatory, judicious--not so much" (p. 186) [bad news for median voter guy]. 

 

Small contributions have gone up 10-fold from 2000 to 2016; more candidates have funded campaigns this way. Bernie Sanders has been leading the way. "Trump and Sanders ... represent the weakening hold of political parties" (p. 188). "Institutional donors are more pragmatic. They want candidates who will win, and they want candidates who, after they win, will get things done. ... If individuals give money as a form of identity expression, institutional donors give money as a form of investment. Individual donors are polarizing. Institutional donors are corrupting. American politics, thus, is responsive to two types of people: the polarized and the rich. ... We don't hear about most of what politicians do, leaving a truly vast space for the corruptions of transactional fund-raising to warp policy. ... The Supreme Court, in a series of rulings dating back to the '70's, has decided that political spending is constitutionally protected speech" (p. 190-1). "Donald Trump didn't win the Republican Party over gently. It was a hostile takeover. ... Trump ... promised to preserve Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, to raise taxes on people like himself (he was lying), he promised healthcare for everyone (also a lie), and end to free trade, a softer line on Russia, a wall across the border. Much of this polled well and drove support for Trump. ... It was a strategy to mobilize an alienated minority of the Republican base in order to prevail in a crowded, fractured field." (p. 191). It was supposed to work in the primary, but presumably would not work in the general election. "These predictions were based on an old understanding of politics, one in which partisanship was weaker and deviations in candidate choice were punished" (p. 192), like Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972. "None of this happened to Trump ... because the parties are more polarized, so the alternative--Hillary Clinton--was unimaginable. This is the key to the weak parties/strong partisanship dichotomy. ... Trump had an 11-point margin among voters who said they were primarily voting against the other side. ... Trump's voters were actually just voting against Clinton" (p. 193). 

 

Stephen Utych wrote "Man Bites Blue Dog": "While moderates have historically enjoyed an advantage over ideologically extreme candidates, that gap has disappeared ... individual candidate traits lose their power" (p. 193). Extreme candidates increase turnout for the opposing party, one rationale for running moderates. Partisanship is generating more stability, rather than ideology. "Parties, and particularly the Republican Party, are losing control of whom they nominate" (p. 195); extremists can more easily penetrate the system. 

 

Chapter 8: Why Bipartisanship Becomes Irrational. Juan Linz, raised in Francoist Spain: "Systems based around an independent president tended to dissolve, as conflicts between  the executive and the legislature were often irresolvable. ... The American system had failed wherever else it had been tried. ... The vast majority of the stable democracies in the world were parliamentary regimes, where whoever wins legislative power also wins executive power. ... At any given moment, only one party or coalition holds power" (p. 201). When Scalia died, Obama selected Merritt Garland to replace him. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring up his nomination--for the first time in history. Nothing illegal in this, and it worked to get a absolute conservative majority on the Supreme Court. "McConnell's behavior was both unprecedented and dangerous: in flatly refusing to consider any candidates nominated by a president of the other party ... a successful deployment of absolute obstruction" (p. 204). "In the twentieth century, the ideological and demographic diversity of the Republican and Democratic coalitions lowered the stakes of partisan political disagreement" (p. 204)."The rules, as set down in the Constitution and our institutions, push toward partisan dysfunction, conflict, and even collapse. The system works through informal norms of compromise, forbearance, and moderation that collapse the moment the stakes rise high enough. McConnell didn't break any laws or devise any new Powers to stop Garland; he just led his party to break with the historical practice of appointing Supreme Court justices they didn't agree with ideologically" (p. 207).

 

Initially, primary allegiance was to states rather than nationally. In the constitution, states were given specific rights. That changed, especially after World War II. Both politics and media went national. The Republican Party ran federal politics from the Civil War through  the 1920's (Cleveland and Wilson were the exceptions); Democrats were in charge from the 1930's until Eisenhower. Political priorities were: "win reelection; win the majority; shape governance as much as possible" (p. 216). Senate filibuster: "Originally, both the House and the Senate had what's called a 'previous question motion,'  which allows a member of the body to move off whatever point is being debated--and demand an actual vote. ... The Senate got rid of it and created the filibuster as an unintended consequence" (p. 219). The problem was without the 'previous question motion,' there was no way to cut off debate. Someone figured out they could hold the floor and the filibuster was created. The cloture rule came from Woodrow Wilson, which required a two-thirds majority, then reduced to 60 members or 50 members. Equally strange was the debt ceiling which required authorization for increasing debt (which happens when there is a budget deficit--which is almost always). The Affordable Health Care Act gave Medicaid and subsidies to lower income people. Unfortunately, it was up to the states to accept this care for the uninsured. Most Republican states turned it down including Texas, although the feds would pay the full cost for three years and 90% after that. Consequently, Texas still has the largest uninsured population in America. This looks like horrendous public policy to me.

 

Chapter 9: The Difference Between Democrats and Republicans. Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein were media experts on Congress and balanced (Mann at the Brookings Institute leaning left and Ornstein at the American Enterprise institute leaning right). In 2012 [an entire election cycle before Trump] they wrote"It's Even Worse Than it Looks:" "Today's Republican Party is an insurgent outlier. It has become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government. The Democratic Party, while no paragon of civic virtue, is more ideologically centered and diverse, protective of the government's role as it developed over the course of the last century, open to incremental changes in policy fashioned through bargaining. ... The asymmetry between the parties, which journalists and scholars often brush aside or whitewash in a quest for 'balance,' constitutes a huge obstacle to effective governance. ... Mann and Ornstein ... had gone from representing the cherished assumption of party equivalence to representing the controversial rejection of it" (p. 226-7). Ornstein had no trouble arguing that Trump could win: "I have seen a GOP Congress in which the establishment, itself very conservative, has lost the battle to co-opt the Tea Party radicals" (p. 227). Ditto to states. Ornstein saw Trump not as a big break but the logical result to rage and revenge; maximize confrontation and disruption. Trump "was the most authentic expression of its modern psychology. ... The Democratic Party, which, though it has moved ideologically left, has remained tethered to traditional institutions" (p. 228). 

 

"Between 2012 and 2018, House Republicans drove John Boehner from the speakership for being insufficiently radical and then made Paul Ryan's life so miserable he resigned [Klein has more respect for Ryan than Paul Krugman who views him as a flimflam guy]. ... By contrast, House Democrats were led by the same leadership team they elected in 2006" (p. 228). Republicans repeatedly shut down the federal government. "For all the rage Democrats felt toward George W. Bush in 2006 and Donald Trump in 2018, they have not attempted to gain leverage by endangering the global financial system" (p. 228). "Sorting [by ideology, race, psychology and so on] has made Democrats more diverse and Republicans more homogeneous. This is often seen as a weakness for Democrats. They're a collection of interest groups. ... But it's played a crucial role in moderating the party's response to polarization. ... Democrats are a coalition of liberal whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on Christians. Democrats are a coalition of liberal and nonwhite Christians, Jews, Muslims, New Agers, atheists, Buddhists" (p. 230). [Racism seems really important. Blacks are mostly conservative protestants; Hispanics conservative Catholics. They could be natural allies to Republican ideas, but these groups are essentially rejected.] "Democrats need to go broad to win over their party and, as we'll see, they need to reach into right-leaning territory to win power. ... The percentage of Americans calling themselves conservative has long dwarfed the percentage who identify as liberal. In 1994, conservatives outnumbers liberals 38-17; as off 2019, conservatives still lead 35-26. ... Republicans have been able to appeal to their party through ideology. Democrats haven't" (p. 231). Grossman and Hopkins wrote Asymmetric Politics: "The Democratic party is a diverse collection of interest groups held together by policy goals, while the Republican Party is built atop a more united base that finds commonality in more abstract, ideological commitments. ... Democrats say they prefer politicians who compromise to get things done, while Republicans say they prefer politicians who stick to their positions" (232).

 

Conservative values suggest Trump's presidency is a crisis; George Will left the party; others have criticized and paid the price. "For most conservatives ... there proved to be no contradiction between conservatism and Trumpism. ... That is because conservatism isn't for most people, an ideology. It's a group identity. ... This is what Trump understood about conservatism ... they were an identity group under threat, and so long as you promised them protection and victories, they would follow" (p. 233-4). Pew Research poll in 2014 on trust in media: "Respondents who counted as 'consistent liberals' trusted a wide variety of media outlets. ... Consistent conservatives did not. ... Only a handful of deeply ideological sources commanded more trust than distrust. ... For liberals there was no dominant news source. ... among consistent conservatives, 47% chose Fox News" (p. 235). Liberals include reading center-right sources like the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. The GOP "ecosystem is entirely built around conservative news sources, many of them propagandistic" (p. 236). "The New York Times and ABC News fear a liberal reputation--they want to be understood as neutral arbiters of truth--and reporting oppositionally and inconveniently on the Democratic Party is both part of the self-identity and the business model" (p. 237). "Breitbart, Limbaugh, and the Blaze are operating in a self-contained conservative ecosystems, where part of the appeal is outright hostility" (p. 237). "The mainstream media and academia actually aren't that liberal, because they mostly put truth-seeking ahead of partisanship, there isn't that much demand for alternatives" (p. 239).

 

The political system is based on geography, which favor rural areas over urban ones, the Senate being the most obvious, made worse by gerrymandering and voter suppression. "Nate Silver estimates the average state is six points more Republican than the average voter" (p. 241). "Republicans should be expected to win 65% of Presidential contents in which they narrowly lose the popular vote" (p. 241). The GOP therefore can appeal to voters well right of the median voter [super bah!]. "Freed from the need to appeal to the median voter, Republicans have hewed to a more conservative and confrontational path" (p. 243). William Barr became Attorney General early in 2019."Barr quickly proved himself by prosecuting the president's vendettas and flying around the world investigating conspiracies. ... Why make this your legacy? ... He argued that the conflict of the twentieth century pitted democracy against fascism and communism. ... In the 21st century ... free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people. ... The left has "an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values. ... Their holy mission is to use the coercive power of the state to remake man and society in their own image. ... Barr sounded like Liberty University President Jerry Falwell" (p. 245-6)."Christian conservatives believe that they've been held back by their sense of righteousness, grace, and gentility, and as a result, they are on the verge of being vanquished, and America forever lost. Trump is the enemy they believe the left deserves" (p. 247). "Successful national Democrats construct broad coalitions, and that's a practice that cuts against the incentives of pure polarization. What national Republicans have learned to do is construct deep coalitions relying on more demographically and ideologically homogeneous voters. ... They win power by winning the votes of most places" (p. 247). 

 

Chapter 10: Managing Polarization--and ourselves. "The alternative to polarization often isn't consensus but suppression. The polarization we see around us is the logical outcome of a complex system of incentives, technologies, identities, and political institutions" (p. 249). Klein has three categories of reform: bombproofing, democratizing, and balancing [none of which I find very convincing; skepticism has been my usual response to end-chapters on reform]. Bombproofing attempts to stop ridiculous disaster, like the periodic raising of the debt ceiling, dumping filibustering in the Senate, and continuing budget resolutions. [These are worth doing, but don't fix the underlying problem of polarization.] The Republicans can win without a majority; eliminating the electoral college would help, eliminating gerrymandering; making voting easy rather than voter suppression. [Worth doing, good luck.] Public financing of elections would be particularly useful to eliminate corporate and wealthy political control. Eliminate the Hastert Rule. [I just don't see how to make the country less partisan. We need more honesty, respect, and good will; but how?] 

 

 

 

 

 

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© 2016 Gary Giroux