The GOP Is the Problem. Is ‘Human Identity Politics’ the Solution?

Love thine enemy. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

In Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein sets out to answer a simple (if counterintuitive) question: Why was America’s 2016 election so normal?

Which is to say, why was a solipsistic reality star — who “bragged about the size of his penis,” “made no mystery about his bigotry or sexism,” and “called himself a genius while retweeting conspiracy theories in caps lock” — able to win roughly the same share of ballots as the previous GOP standard-bearer, a staid Mormon ex-governor of Massachusetts? In the U.S., parties had traditionally paid a steep price for nominating extreme and/or eccentric candidates. So, how did nearly 63 million Americans look at the birther king’s Twitter feed and think, This is a man I can trust with nuclear weapons?

The answer, the Vox founder suggests, is “the enormous weight party polarization 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. We will justify almost anything or anyone so long as it helps our side, and the result is a politics devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability … There is much awry in American politics … But I’ve come to believe the master story – the one that drives almost all divides and most fundamentally shapes the behavior of participants – is the logic of polarization. 

To which some progressive readers may reply: What do you mean we, wonk man?

After all, Democrats didn’t nominate an authoritarian insult-comic in 2016; they backed a former senator and secretary of State. Nancy Pelosi’s caucus never pushed the United States to the brink of a debt default to gain leverage over the opposing party’s president; heck, congressional Democrats are so committed to putting the public good over partisan advantage, they are trying to provide Donald Trump with more election-year stimulus spending than Mitch McConnell is willing to condone. We aren’t too locked into our political identities to forswear unscrupulous tactics or presidential candidates who fail to clear the thresholds of common decency and civic literacy — they are.

And this isn’t the only bone that liberals will be liable to pick with Klein’s thesis. His suggestion that GOP voters looked past Trump’s norm-defying qualities (in deference to partisan loyalty) also smells of undue charity. Granted, most Republicans would have surely preferred a champion who tweeted with more discretion, and spared prisoners of war from his blitzkriegs of bile. But Trump did not win the Republican nomination in spite of his blatant bigotry against Mexicans and Muslims — he won largely because of it. And isn’t that what concerns Klein and his core readership most? Aren’t the meritocratic abnormalities that GOP base voters were willing to overlook in their nominee less troubling than than the barbarous ideology that they delighted in seeing?

But none of this is actually lost on Klein. And by the time they finish Why We’re Polarized, his most attentive readers will recognize it as an indictment of the conservative movement — albeit one camouflaged behind a critique of Americans’ unifying affinity for identity-based divisiveness.

Humanity had a traumatic childhood.

Why We’re Polarized fails to establish that polarization is the root of our democracy’s discontents. But the fact that America’s two major parties are now more ideologically and demographically distinct than ever before —while their respective partisans are more tightly wedded to their team and distrustful of the other one than at any time in living memory — is still a consequential development. And Klein’s account of how this came to be has much to recommend it.

His story (implicitly) begins 200,000 years ago in the Horn of Africa. There, humanity spent its formative years learning that the best way for a physically unremarkable but remarkably socially adept species of primate to thrive was to form tight-knit groups and then fortify them with collective cognitive biases. Natural selection endowed humans with extraordinary capacities for symbolic thought and reasoned argument. But if any of our early ancestors directed these tools toward the ruthless pursuit of objective truth — no matter how badly they alienated their clan or threatened its binding belief system — they were swiftly abandoned to the hyenas and removed from the gene pool. We are the descendants of men and women who mastered the art of chauvinistic self-delusion and in-group ingratiation. As a result, your brain treats your conscious mind as a president treats a press secretary: If disclosing a certain fact would undermine your ability to sell a narrative that flatters your team, then your brain will do its darndest to keep that intelligence out of your briefing. It is, of course, possible to apprehend a truth that contradicts the consensus of a social group with which you identify. But doing so requires swimming against the evolutionary tide — and, more often than not, increasing your identification with some other social group whose worldview is compatible with your newfound knowledge.

If our species’ traumatic childhood left us prone to identitarian delusions, it also tethered our self-esteem to the status of our in-groups. In humanity’s early years, the stakes of the relative standing between one band of hunter-gatherers and another were often life and death. Thus, prehistoric tribal conflicts bequeathed modern men and women an exquisite sensitivity to the rise and fall of our groups’ relative standing. To appreciate the awesome power of humanity’s instinct for pinning our emotional well-being to our side’s success in intergroup competition, recall that the outcomes of objectively inconsequential contests between athletes temporarily affiliated with our cities can bring grown-ass adults to heights of euphoria so vertiginous, they feel compelled to set fire to random parked cars — or to depths of despair so cavernous, they feel compelled to set fire to random parked cars.

Our minds’ tribalistic operating system worked great for the bulk of our species’ existence. But it’s always been an awkward fit for modern, pluralistic mass societies. And it poses especially acute challenges for a multiethnic liberal democracy whose historically dominant identity group is rapidly losing demographic supremacy and social status; which is to say, the United States.

The golden era of bipartisanship was (not coincidentally) an age of authoritarian white supremacy.

The tension between America’s white-supremacist foundations and its democratic ideals is not new. But for the bulk of our republic’s history, it was suppressed by the latter’s subordination to the former. The golden age of unpolarized parties and bipartisan comity that prevailed in the mid-20th century was underwritten by the subjugation of most African-Americans to authoritarian rule. The North’s abandonment of Reconstruction had moved the civil-rights question to the margins of our nation’s political life. And this enabled the two major parties to form socially and ideologically heterogeneous bases of support. The Civil War’s long shadow kept the white-supremacist South beneath the Democratic tent, even as the Donkey Party’s strength in northern cities brought immigrants, labor unions, and — after the onset of the Great Migration — African-Americans into “blue” America. The Republican Party meanwhile brought many secular urban professionals, Bible-thumping Western farmers, and reactionary financiers into a motley coalition. This state of affairs was terrible from the perspective of democratic accountability. But the demographic and ideological incoherence of the two-party system also barred America’s most wrenching intergroup divisions from the realm of partisan conflict.

In the early 20th century, a white, Christian, conservative Republican farmer did not experience the election of a Democratic president as an affront to the social standing of all of his identity groups: A victory for the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Strom Thurmond did not signify the triumph of a multiethnic conception of American identity over a white ethno-nationalist one, or of secular social liberals over Christian conservatives, or of urbanites over country folk. The two parties were simply too heterogenous for most Americans to view elections as clear referenda on the relative status of us and them. This enabled voters to toggle between partisan allegiances with relative ease, and allowed each party’s congressional leadership to form bipartisan alliances around transactional legislative compromises.

But the Democratic Party’s big tent eventually collapsed beneath the weight of its contradictions. As African-Americans migrated North in greater numbers, and the civil-rights movement forced Jim Crow into the spotlight, Democrats caved to their better angels — and thus, forfeited their stranglehold on Dixie. Over the ensuing decades, the South slowly but surely seceded from blue America. During the same period, the ascent of feminism and the Evangelical right turned questions of sexual morality into sources of partisan conflict, thereby cleaving America’s secular liberals and (white) religious conservatives into separate coalitions. And all the while, the unintended consequences of the the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 were gradually transforming the nation’s ethnic composition and dramatically increasing its foreign-born population. This would ultimately bring disputes over immigration policy — and between a (tacitly) ethno-national conception of American identity and a multicultural one — to the forefront of U.S. politics, where they would further divide college-educated urbanites from non-college-educated rural dwellers, and whites from nonwhites. Today, America’s most invidious social divides — and its most salient partisan divisions — are nearly identical; those who belong to an identity group on the “right” side of any one partisan divide are unprecedentedly unlikely to identify with a single social group on the “left” side of a different partisan dispute.

Run socially polarized politics through our primate brain’s primordial mainframe and it starts to overheat. Seeing our most frivolous social identities (e.g., “Red Sox Nation”) brought low by their rivals is enough to sink many of us into existential despair. Align the most fundamental dimensions of our self-conception behind one political party and let it compete with an agglomeration of all our out-groups for control over the state’s monopoly on violence, and you’ve got a recipe for something approaching civil war. In this context, politics becomes a venue for zero-sum fights over social status, rather than a vehicle for finding broadly agreeable solutions to our shared societal challenges. GOP voters might want health insurers to provide affordable coverage to people with preexisting conditions. But throughout the Obama era, they wanted to see their team defeat the other side more — even if doing so required inflicting economic damage on the nation as a whole.

The left is all right.

The bulk of Klein’s account is persuasive at best, and plausible at worst. But, as already indicated, his analysis is compromised in places by its compulsion to universalize pathologies that are peculiar to the GOP. While it is true that both parties are more demographically and socially homogeneous than they used to be, the Democratic coalition remains profoundly diverse. More than a quarter of Hillary Clinton’s supporters in 2016 were white voters without a college degree. A large minority of African-American Democrats are social conservatives who believe that it is “always wrong” for two people of the same sex to engage in intercourse. One-third of Democratic voters believe that discrimination against whites is at least as big of a problem in the U.S. as discrimination against blacks. And for all of the talk of blue America’s supposed multiculturalism, a majority of Democratic voters agree with the statement “speaking English is essential for being a true American.”

In other words: It isn’t actually the case that the median Democrat lacks all connection to the Republican Party’s dominant identity groups. There simply are not enough nonwhite (and/or enlightened white), secular, cosmopolitan, urban-dwelling people in the U.S. for a national party to be predominantly composed of them.

Klein understands this. The penultimate chapter of his book is devoted to cataloguing the asymmetries between the two major parties, and explaining why polarization has rendered the Republican Party an order of magnitude more dysfunctional than its adversary. Democrats’ inability to win national elections without bringing disparate social groups into common cause features prominently in his account. But Why We’re Polarized never quite reconciles its clear-eyed indictment of “both sides-ism” with its own overarching frame. At various points Klein stipulates that polarization is not inherently bad, and that our present two-party system is preferable to the one that preceded it. “For all our problems, we have been a worse and uglier country at almost every other point in our history,” Klein writes. “For much of the twentieth century, the right to vote was, for African-Americans, no right at all. Lynchings were common … The era that we hold up as the golden age of American democracy was far less democratic, far less liberal, far less decent, than today.”

Which invites the question: Why did Klein make “why are we polarized?” his book’s central question? Even when Klein is spotlighting the limits of his chosen framework, an impulse to maintain the book’s thematic integrity muddies the analysis. Take this passage from his chapter on the differences between the two major parties:

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 financial system. When Democrats took the House in 2006, Pelosi resisted calls to defund the Iraq War … Make no mistake: Plenty of liberals will read this capsule history as a recounting of Democratic weakness. The difference here is not that liberal activists haven’t wanted the Democratic Party to escalate its tactics in opposition; it’s that elected Democrats have largely been able to resist their demands … [I]f polarization has given the Democratic Party the flu, the Republican Party has caught pneumonia.

If polarization is not inherently problematic — as Klein elsewhere asserts — then why should we stipulate that it has given the Democratic Party any figurative illness? If Democrats had made a more vigorous effort to bring the Iraq War to an abrupt end upon taking power in 2006, would that have necessarily made the world a worse place, or our democracy more dysfunctional? If not, what is the basis for asserting that polarization’s impact on the Democratic Party has left it less healthy, rather than more so? The Democrats’ leftward ideological drift has (arguably) brought them into closer alignment with the median political party across all Western democracies. Given that advanced post-industrial societies face broadly similar policy challenges — and that America’s aberrantly right-wing status quo on health-care policy and labor rights has held up so poorly amid the present pandemic — why shouldn’t we consider today’s Democratic Party more moderate than its predecessors, which were much farther from the Western European norm?

Why the right’s gone wrong.

Laced throughout Why We’re Polarized is a penetrating answer to a more pertinent question than the one implied by its title; namely, “Why has the conservative movement become a threat to American democracy?” In an early chapter, Klein notes that political identities gain salience under conditions of threat, and that much of white Christian America finds their nation’s demographic changes profoundly threatening. A half-century ago, their group’s numerical, cultural, and economic supremacy in U.S. society appeared invulnerable. In that context, white Christians were less conscious of a potential distinction between their ethno-religious identity and American identity. In the age when an African-American candidate can win the presidency without the support of a majority of white voters, a critic of racist policing can be a Nike spokesman, and Black Panther can be a tentpole blockbuster, the distinction between whiteness and American-ness is clear — and for many white Christians, it feels like a present danger.

Klein argues that the logic of polarization has led the American left to embrace policies and modes of rhetoric that heighten white conservatives’ sense of cultural insecurity. But he attributes this largely to the Democratic Party’s legitimate interest in representing the aspirations of its increasingly diverse base. The basic problem is not bipartisan. One party is comfortable with America’s now-inevitable demographic trajectory (for reasons both principled and electorally self-interested). The other longs for an America that cannot be recovered through anything short of ethnic cleansing and/or, race-based restrictions on the franchise; given America’s existing demographics and birth rates, even the full implementation of Donald Trump’s immigration agenda would only modestly slow the rate of America’s ethnic diversification. Meanwhile, such immigration restrictions would likely hasten Christianity’s declining influence in American society. “To say American politics is in for demographic turbulence is not to say we are in for dissolution. A majority of Americans — though not of Republicans — believe the browning of America is a good thing for the country,” Klein writes, before conceding that “as long as much of the country feels threatened by the changes they see, there will be a continuing, and perhaps growing, market for politicians like Trump.”

Here, Klein indicates that the answer to his opening question — “Why didn’t Donald Trump lose the 2016 election in a landslide?” — has less to do with partisan identity blinding GOP voters’ to the mogul’s worst qualities than with racial threat attracting them to those qualities. Which is to say: The problem isn’t polarization; it’s white revanchism.

By the end of his book, Klein has made this point all but explicit. In a section observing the GOP’s myriad attempts to preserve its tenuous grip on power through disenfranchisement and procedural radicalism, he writes, “Republicans know that their coalition is endangered, buffeted by demographic headwinds and an aging base … there is nothing more dangerous than a group accustomed to wielding power that feels its control slipping.” Shortly thereafter, in a passage calling for small-d democratic reforms to our political institutions, he writes, “There is no less polarized politics without a less polarized GOP, and the path to a less polarized GOP is forcing the party to reach beyond the ethnonationalist coalition Trump rode to victory.”

In other words: The Republican Party must be repeatedly defeated in democratic elections until it finally decides to betray its existing base. To end our culture war, the left must win it.

Empathy for the Trump voter may be our democracy’s best hope.

Klein’s book serves as a synthesis of the existing literature on polarization. But his account puts a distinctive emphasis on two key claims. The first is that identity is “dizzyingly plural”; we all cycle through a multitude of self-definitions as we move from one social context to the next. The second is that which of our myriad social identities becomes paramount in our politics is rarely the product of conscious choice. Most often, it is socially determined — generally, by politicians and media outlets with agendas that aren’t necessarily our own. As Klein writes:

Much that happens in political campaigns is best understood as a struggle over which identities voters will inhabit come Election Day: Will they feel like workers exploited by their bosses, or heartlanders dismissed by coastal elites? Will they vote as patriotic traditionalists offended by NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, or as parents worried about the climate their children will inhabit?

Had Klein embraced a more forthrightly left-wing analytical frame, he might have given more space to the question of who owns the means of identity production. His account of polarization is largely dismissive of economic explanations for America’s present social strife. While he compellingly rebuts the argument that Trump supporters were motivated primarily by material anxieties, this scarcely establishes that the past four decades of upwardly redistributive economic policy played no role in bringing our republic to its present crisis. In a society whose richest 0.1 percent command as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, a lot of powerful people will be literally and figuratively invested in having Americans identify more as patriotic traditionalists than as exploited workers. One need not deny humanity’s innate affinity for in-group chauvinism — or pretend that white supremacy and nativism would disappear from this Earth the second the billionaire class does — to posit a relationship between the Republican Party’s plutocratic donor base and its increasingly maniacal appeals to white racial paranoia, nor to observe that there are multiple corporate media outlets working round the clock to stoke white Christian America’s cultural resentments, and none working to cultivate the proletariat’s class consciousness. (Klein does have plenty to say about the role played by Fox News and other right-wing outlets in exacerbating polarization, but he attributes their incendiary programming choices to market incentives, despite empirical research suggesting that at least some conservative media companies are sacrificing market share to the higher good of disseminating reactionary propaganda.)

But if Klein’s book could use a bit more Marxism, it’s replete with an empathic humanism. The modern conservative movement may be the problem. But that does not mean that we aren’t all implicated in it. As human beings, our social identities and political allegiances do not emanate from our inner souls, bearing the imprint of our essential goodness or deplorability; they are largely imposed upon us by the interactions between our evolutionary endowments and social contexts.

Liberals can acknowledge the contingency of their immunity to Trumpism — the way that accidents of birth and experience shaped their values and self-understandings — without forsaking all moral judgement or believing that the president’s rallies are frequented exclusively by those who know not what they do. But one cannot faithfully adhere to a political philosophy that insists that social conditions shape individual life outcomes while interpreting every Trump supporter’s voting history as a proof of his or her intrinsic immorality. Adopting such a self-righteous posture toward a vast subset of one’s fellow Americans is not only ideologically inconsistent, but tactically counterproductive: A growing body of research indicates that it is much easier to change a prejudiced person’s mind by giving them your empathy than trying to activate their shame.

In delivering its tacit indictment of the conservative movement in the first-person plural, Why We’re Polarized does just as the doctors (of political science) order. In the book’s final pages Klein implores his readers “to become more aware of the ways that politicians and media manipulate us” and of “what happens when our identities are activated, threatened, or otherwise inflamed.” Our democracy may need Republican voters to heed this message more urgently than it needs Democrats to do so. But it is a directive that all of us would be wise to follow. We are all subject to the same biases and chauvinistic impulses that lead conservatives to look at our president and see a great statesman. If our outdated cognitive software has not blinded us to Trump’s depravity, we cannot claim to be the sole authors of our relative moral clarity. And if we wish to maintain such clarity, we must never delude ourselves into thinking that there’s no truth that our own identities are preventing us from seeing.

Why Polarization (Still) Isn’t Our Democracy’s Real Problem