Despite its monochromatic cover, Vox co-founder Ezra Klein’s new book “Why We’re Polarized” is full of vibrant political analysis. Klein’s background in political journalism comes across on every page; he was formerly a columnist and editor at the Washington Post, a policy analyst at MSNBC, and a contributor to Bloomberg. The book is chock-full of insightful commentary on situations that we all participate in, but do not necessarily have the capability to explore from the inside looking out, as Klein does. In “Why We’re Polarized,” Klein utilizes his abundant knowledge of American politics to investigate why our current situation exists as it does: dysfunctional, chaotic, and most certainly polarized.
Klein presents an explicit framework for his thinking in the book’s introduction: to “zoom out” from examining individual politicians, to instead investigate the “interlocking systems that surround them.” Klein explains this choice by saying that each individual is making fine decisions, but that American society more largely is “a collection of functional parts whose efforts combine into a dysfunctional whole.” This helpful premise serves as a reminder for how refreshing it is to read historically contextualized and research-based scrutiny of the political climate as a whole, as opposed to overly-specific and isolated critiques of individual politicians and policies.
One of Klein’s central arguments is that the current state of American politics makes it difficult to discern between one’s political identity and one’s other core identifiers, such as gender, race, class and sexuality. He presents bona fide evidence that supports the apparent reality that this blurring of identities is hindering our political decisions.
Klein evaluates the issue of how Americans are automatically going to take a stance on an issue given its partisanship. According to Klein, this means that essentially no issue could ever have bipartisan support or opposition — bipartisan opposition to the Vietnam War is an example of how different things were in the recent past. Klein writes repeatedly about how, in the current era, Americans are most defined by their political identities, which simultaneously “encompass and amplify” other identities. Klein pairs this with saying that, “How we feel matters much more than what we think” when it comes to politics, and that our emotions frequently get the best of us in politicized contexts, let alone elections.
Klein is probably right — the multitude of Ivy League studies he cites certainly seem to prove his point. However, this feels like a somewhat invalidating reality. Though Klein’s arguments are abundantly evidenced, his privilege as a white man comes across in statements such as this. With a president who incites racism, misogyny and homophobia on an almost daily basis, participating in American politics unemotionally is unrealistic, if not impossible.
When we think of the current state of polarization, news media comes to mind immediately. Klein analyzes large news media sources plenty, but his bringing to the table of other also polarized arenas — such as YouTube algorithms, the NFL, and Twitter— are much more revelatory. Recent research that you probably haven’t heard of is discussed to validate the relevance of these 21st century platforms. This is what makes “Why We’re Polarized” feel like a different kind of political commentary: it doesn’t just address American politics as they have existed for centuries, it addresses politics as they really are, with all the Tweets, subReddits, and YouTube recommendations seen as valid parts of how we experience politics in 2020.
“Why We’re Polarized” contains mostly in-depth explanations of the political landscape, with little to no sense of conclusion or solution. But Klein is upfront about this, saying that he “is more confident in my diagnosis than my prescription,” and that our national objective should be “to reform the political system so it can function amid polarization,” as opposed to somehow untangling the current mess. Though “Why We’re Polarized” does not make it clear what our end goal as a country is, it provides a solid foundation for us to work towards that answer; it doesn’t assure us of where we’re going, but it’s a great place to start understanding.