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Excerpts from Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized.

Part 2 of 2; Dec 9, 2020

Ezra Klein contends that Americans have not become more polarized today than they were, say, 50 years ago. Rather, America’s political parties have become more polarized.

People have “self-sorted” into narrower, like-minded groupings (including political parties) which more closely match their own worldviews, personal preferences, political views, cultural values, and religious beliefs. Groups and political parties today contain less diversity in thought, ideas and beliefs—within themselves—and therefore give the appearance that “people” are more polarized. Americans are more likely today to belong to groups that are quite distinct, and often, are polar-opposites of other groups.

Here are the key points that Ezra Klein makes in his chapter, “The Dixiecrat Dilemma,” in his book, Why We’re Polarized, that completes his circle of how politics in America has become so polarized after Americans transmigrated through a process of self-sorting into tighter and more focused identity groups:

1. Americans have not necessarily become more polarized, Klein says, but rather have gone through a “self-sorting” process into tighter groups of like-minded others. People have not changed so much as the parties themselves, that people have self-selected into, have changed. Up until the 1950s both the Republican and Democrat Parties held broadly diverse perspectives within their party. There were as many liberal Republicans as there were conservative Democrats.

Many remember these "glory days" of peaceful compromise absent of the vicious conflicts that we witness today between the two parties. But actually, Klein says, the vicious battles were present then also, but they were present within each party, not between the parties. Different views were fought over and ironed out within each party before they came to the floor debates of bills, that would eventually (or not) lead to the passage of laws.

2. The Georgetown University political scientist Hans Noel says that sorting is just a sub-category of polarization. … I agree with Hans Noel and would take it a step further. The polarization versus sorting debate is better understood as describing issue-based polarization and identity-based polarization. (p. 32)

3. Crucially, these forms of polarization reinforce each other. Issue-based polarization leads to political identity polarization: if there's more intense disagreement about policy, people will want their political representatives to fight for their beliefs, which will push the parties to polarize around the issue as well. You can argue that that's what happened in the [Civil Rights Act in 1964], as 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, and vice versa. (p. 33)

4. After passage of the Civil Rights Act, southern Conservatives began to join the Republican Party and northern liberals joined the Democratic Party. That let the parties sort themselves ideologically, such that there [were] no longer any house Democrats more conservative than any House Republicans, or any House Republicans more liberal than any House Democrats. And with that essential clarity, the parties sorted around virtually everything else too. (p. 36)

5. Are we more extreme today? In the era when Washington was least polarized, political consensus rested on a foundation of racial bigotry most would find abhorrent today. The compromises Congress made to preserve the peace included voting down anti-lynching laws and agreeing to lock most African Americans out of Social Security. I would call that political system far more ideologically extreme than the one we have today, even as it was less polarized. Extremism is a value judgment. (p. 34)

6. What has emerged are political parties that have self-sorted into two major, separate, compartmentalized identities. The identities that characterize each party do not just include conservative versus liberal views on government policy, but have expanded more broadly into virtually every segment of our lives: rural versus urban preferences for living, views on how to deal with racial equality, whether we are generally optimistic or pessimistic about the future and the kind of policy platforms that we are willing to support as a result, whether we view the world as relatively safe or dangerous, the role of government, pro-life/pro-choice issues, Right-to-Work laws vs. unions, tax policies, our religious affiliations and beliefs (the Republican coalition is generally made up of evangelical Protestants—Democrats include the largest religious group: the “nones,” people who no longer claim any religious affiliation), how to move forward in the health coverage/insurance debate—even how to respond to COVID-19!

7. Some of these differences are rooted in nurture, in experience. But others are evident from our earliest days. Psychologists speak of the Big Five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion--introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Where we fall on these scales is measurable in childhood and shapes our lives thereafter. It affects where we live, what we like, who we love. And, increasingly, it shapes our politics. … In their book, Open versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution, political psychologists Christopher Johnson, Christopher Federico, and Howard Levine write that “Democrats and Republicans are now sharply distinguished by a set of basic psychological dispositions related to experiential openness—a general dimension of personality tapping tolerance for threat and uncertainty in one's environment.” (p. 43)

8. The more we affiliate with people who are most like us, the more polarized we become from others. It's a vicious circle. The more we sort into like-minded groups the more comfortable we feel being with others who are like us and the more we attract others who are also like minded. Our sorting acts like gigantic “social magnets” says Klein, that multiplies the attraction--repulsion force upon people to choose to be with others who are like themselves.

9. We like to think that we choose our politics by slowly, methodically developing a worldview, using that worldview to generate conclusions about ideal tax and health and foreign policy, and then selecting the political party that best that fits best. That's not how the political psychologists see it. They argue that our politics, much like our interest in travel and spicy food and being in crowds, emerges from our psychological makeup. “Certain ideas are attractive to some people and repulsive to others, and that means, essentially, that ideologies and psychologies are magnetically drawn to each other,” says John Lost, a political psychologist at New York University. (p. 45)

10. What is changing is not our psychologies, but how closely our psychologies map onto our politics and onto a host of other life choices. As the differences between the parties clarify, the magnetic pole of their ideas and demographics become stronger to the psychologically aligned--as does their magnetic repulsion to the psychologically opposed. (p. 46)

11. The kinds of people most attracted to liberalism are the kinds of people who are excited by change, by difference, by diversity. Their politics are just one expression of that basic temperament—a temperament that might push them to live in polyglot cities, to hitchhike across Europe, to watch foreign-language films. By contrast, the job of the conservative, wrote National Review founder William F Buckley, is to “[stand] athwart history, yelling stop.” You can see how that might appeal to a person who mistrusts change, appreciates tradition, and seeks order. That kind of person might also prefer living in a small town nearer to family, going to a church deeply rooted in ritual, celebrating at restaurants they already know and love. (p. 46)

12. It turns out that our deeper preferences map in alignment with our politics. The upshot of this is that the Democratic Party is always going to be a less homogeneous party because, by the nature of its make-up, it values and embraces more diversity. That's why a minority party (GOP) can hold so much more power than its electorate would dictate: The Republican Party is more homogeneous as a minority and can speak with one voice more effectively than Democrats, and because its natural principles to “conserve” rather than change will often end up playing defense “against” the Democratic Party’s new directions, ideas and expanded rights that need to be distributed to the newest minorities or people groups.

13. Psychological sorting, in other words, is a powerful driver of identity politics. If you care enough about politics to connect it to your core psychological outlook, then politics becomes part of your psychological self-expression. … When we participate in politics to solve a problem, we’re participating transactionally. But when we participate in politics to express who we are, that's a signal that politics has become an identity. And that's when our relationship to politics, and to each other, changes. (p. 48)


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