Donald Trump once famously said that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and he would not lose a vote, and a significant proportion of the US population still appears to support him. Trump’s ascension to the highest office has marked a symbolic apogee in our polarization.

But has such combative language been a constant of our political discourse, or is it new? Ezra Klein’s recent book, Why We’re Polarized, explores the reasons why we Americans are so at odds with each other. The answer that Klein gives is multifaceted and subtle.

Klein’s book attempts to answer two questions that are closely related but not identical: how and why Americans have become polarized. Klein answers the first question by drawing on the history of  journalism and political science and examining the American governmental system and its racialized history. He addresses the second question by looking at social and evolutionary biology.

Journalism and Politics

Klein argues that a series of feedback loops of polarization are manifested in some of the  institutions that shape our politics, including the media, social media, the Republican and Democratic parties and think tanks. For Klein, polarization is a technical term that describes how the two major political parties are sorted based on policy and identity issues:

Let’s start with polarization versus sorting, using cannabis policy as an example. Imagine a hundred person America, where forty people want cannabis outlawed, forty want it legalized, and twenty aren’t sure. If the Democratic and Republican Parties find themselves with an equal number of members from each group, America is totally unsorted. Now imagine that everyone who wants to legalize cannabis moves into the Democratic Party, everyone who wants to outlaw it joins the Republican Party, and the undecided voters are split evenly between the two parties. Now the parties are perfectly sorted.

Polarization, for Klein, is an extreme form of political sorting that emphasizes issue-based and policy-based divisions between the parties. The origins of this process can be traced to the mid twentieth century, when a sizable minority of Americans said that there was no substantial ideological difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Some contemporary political scientists argued that, if the Republican and Democratic parties were insufficiently differentiated, and, if the parties were the main vehicle through which the citizens exercise their political rights, then, if the parties aren’t differentiated enough, democratic rights will be weakened. If each party is roughly the same ideologically, it doesn’t really matter which party you vote for since the same policies will be implemented regardless.

In addition to the push by academics to differentiate the parties, historical factors related to race led to our polarization. Klein speculates that there were four political parties in the United States during the mid-twentieth century: liberal Republicans, conservative Republicans, northern Democrats and southern Dixiecrats. The fact that each party had an internal progressive and conservative polarity had a moderating effect, since internal party disputes tend to end in compromise, while intra-party disputes increase polarization. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by Lyndon Baines Johnson initiated the uni-polarization of each party. The Democrats would come to be defined as the party of civil rights and economic populism (LBJ also instituted the great society reforms and the war on poverty), while the Republicans, following in the footsteps of Barry Goldwater and Strom Thurman, would define themselves as the party of small government and social conservatism.

In the years following the Civil Rights Act, citizens began to sort themselves into parties based on more than just political ideology. Political identities were transfigured into mega identities. The Republican Party would not only be a party of small government, but of white America, Christian America, rural America, older America and so forth; the Democratic Party, conversely, would be the party of urbanites, secularists, racial minorities, youths, the sexually diverse, etc. This decades-long process has been amplified, in part, by changes to the media landscape. The profit motive in media organizations incentivizes conflict (which is good for business) and this lends itself to increased polarization.

Social Psychology

Aristotle, in his Politics, writes that “The state is a creation of nature, and … man is by nature a political animal.” But the same nature that makes humans into political or—as Aquinas glosses it—civic or social animals can make us antisocial as well. Klein discusses two aspects of this: first, humans have strong in-group preferences that can be activated by the most minimal differentiating features, such as what kinds of art each group prefers. Second, we are often willing to harm our own group if it means hurting an opposing group more. The studies that Klein cites are meant to put to rest the idea that group conflict is primarily grounded in scarcity of material resources. Writing of Henri Tajfel, proponent of social identity theory, Klein summarises:

The boys in his studies often had nothing to gain—and sometimes even had something to lose—by punishing those they believed, based on flimsy and false categorizations, to be different from them. Far from their behavior showing a pure desire to maximize their group’s gains, they often gave their group less to increase the difference between them and the outgroup. Far from the money being the prime motivator, “it is the winning that seems more important to them,” wrote Tajfel.

These tendencies form the basis of negative partisanship: the most politically engaged are driven not by love of their own group, but by a powerful hatred of an opposing one. Not only does our nature bias us towards strong ingroup preferences, it also blinds us to the arguments presented by the other side. Klein documents various studies that show that the most politically engaged commit astounding reasoning errors when faced with facts that challenge their ideology. This calls into question the efficacy of deliberative approaches to politics.

Reducing Polarization

At the end of Klein’s book, he offers four suggestions as to how to ameliorate some of these problems.

First, he proposes “bombproof[ing] the government’s operations against political disaster,” i.e. ensuring that government institutions are safeguarded from catastrophe by implementing checks on volatile apparatuses, e.g. by reforming the debt ceiling.

Second, Klein proposes that we eliminate the filibuster and electoral college and reform the way that we do redistricting.

Third, Klein advocates creating a balanced political setting in which the parties can compete against each other. This would entail reforms to the structures of certain institutions to dilute specific influences. For example, we must avoid packing of the Supreme Court, Klein argues.

Finally, Klein proposes that people engage in mindful meditation upon their identities and focus more on local politics.


So what are we to make of all this? First, it is interesting that, despite the fact that the theoretical substructure of Klein’s text is based on findings from social psychology, the influence of that literature is largely absent from Klein’s suggestions for ameliorating polarisation. For example, Koomen and van der Pligt have found that mixed ethnic neighborhoods help prevent political radicalization. These findings could be used to influence policies that encourage more diverse neighborhoods and reduce the urban-rural divide that dominates our politics. Klein does not take this into account.

Second, Klein’s text minimizes economic factors. Although Klein touches on economics briefly, when he analyzes the geographical divide in our politics, he does not give such factors much of a causative role. This is probably because he considers economic factors to be subsumed in our larger political mega identities. However, as Koomen and van der Pligt have shown, economic inequality between groups can lead to political radicalization. Though Klein admits that polarization is manifested in all of our major institutions, the book suggests that the media and the political parties are the main relevant actors and thus Klein underestimates economic factors.

Finally, Klein’s book is slanted towards a neoliberal, technocratic worldview. This is why its explanatory model is social psychology and not philosophy, theology or the history of ideas and why it focuses on the historical permutations of our political parties and not the general transition our culture has undergone (though Klein does touch on the latter in his discussion of demographics) and perhaps why economic factors are not addressed as much, since most of our polarization happened under a neoliberal policy regime.

However, this is not to say that Klein’s analysis is not true or useful. Why We’re Polarized is a lucid and cogent description of how some of the forces of polarization have manifested themselves over some sixty years of American life, and, though it is not objectively correct on all points, it provides a useful lens through which to view our society.

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Marshawn Brewer  is a freelance writer, philosophy MA, and political consultant.

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  1. “Donald Trump once famously said that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and he would not lose a vote,” you said. So I went to your link, and then I followed their link to the actual quote and I found the following quote:

    “You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible,” Trump said.”

    You’ll notice, if you actually READ the quote, that Trump was recounting to his audience what OTHER PEOPLE had said ABOUT him, and in particular ABOUT his popularity. “THEY say I have the most loyal people. Did you see THAT? WHERE I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody….”.

    For you to claim that Trump simply said he could “shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and he would not lose a vote” is a Lie.

    1. A diligent student of Dr. Goebels 🙂

    2. Trump is a compulsive, narcissistic liar and one of his sociopathic habits is to invent a claim that someone else said something incredible about him as a way of bragging. At the time (Jan. 2016) he made the claim no one had polled people to see how they would feel about him “shooting someone on Fifth Avenue” (or anywhere). He made it up. And Trump is clearly treating it as a positive thing, not a disturbing sign of a creepy cult of personality. You can hope he was being hyperbolic, but the claim is squarely on him.

  2. I’m not sure what the hub-bub is really all about. While the terms “neoliberal” and “fascist” have been thrown around carelessly, in this article, the term “neoliberal” has been properly used in its historically correct definition, and not its present misuse, though inadequately operationalized until after the author’s comment served as an addendum. The real discomfort of commenters is about its use at the present, and not the definition of the ideology as it was pursued by Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, which was appropriately pointed out by author. If to quell the discomfort of some, by no means is the usage secluded to anti-capitaists only, capitalists use the term as well, say those who follow an economics based on evolutionary biology and ecology, like entrepreneurs such as David Bollier and Eric Beinhocker, and like E. O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson, both evolutionary biologists.

  3. ‘For example, Koomen and van der Pligt have found that mixed ethnic neighborhoods help prevent political radicalization.’

    Perhaps, but they also undermine social trust. (I am aware that the overall social trust research has some conflicting findings. My understanding is, however, that diversity within neighbourhoods show a pronounced effect supporting the Conflict hypothesis, if you separate that out from the impact from other kinds of interactions with less negative effects – eg interactions across diverse populations in a work context, which may improve trust.)

  4. I would have to disagree with you there. Though it is the case that a term could be diluted of substance in popular discourse, that fact by no means leads us to embrace an only nominal definition. Neoliberalism, strictly speaking, is both a school of economics and an ideology that made refinements to The Classical liberalism of thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other members of the Scottish and English enlightenment. Classical liberal Theory tends to to take a more laissez-faire approach to government believes that most suboptimal economic outcomes are caused by government interference into Market affairs. Historically speaking, neoliberal movement gained dominance after the shortcomings of Keynesian economics became clear in the late 70s and early 80s. Some of the intellectual architects of this ideology are Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. As far as policy is concerned, neoliberalism is asystem that emphasizes the deregulation the economy liberalisation of free trade, privatization of state-owned Enterprises. It often also support tax cuts for businesses and high income earners, and the use of interest rates to keep inflation in check. It is also an ideology that is anti-union since it favors so-called labor flexibility; it is an ideology the that supports the expansion and integration of global economies. It is often paired with a technocratic apparatus since the profit motive is one of the main drivers of the ideology the employment of expert from the realm of business and commerce is often seen as a necessity for properly functioning government. This is the dominant ideology of those in the mainstream media class( Klein himself mentions this “liberal bias” in the book). The emphasis on technocratic solutions, the predominance of social sciences and quantitative methods in the book are why I say the book is ” neoliberal”. I use this term not as a pejorative, but simply as a way to make the reader understand what the framework of te argument is. Terms like neoliberal and fascist have been given rigorous and complex definitions by academics that study in said fields, so just because these words are used casually by some, does not mean that everyone uses them so loosely.

    1. Amartya Sen was asked some question about ‘Neoliberalism’ and said that the only thing he understood by the term was that the person using it didn’t like the thing they were describing, beyond that he didn’t understand what it meant.

      You may claim to not be using it as a pejorative, but the more I read the more I believe that as with most things Sen’s spot on with his observation.

  5. Ezra Klein, as noted by Shawn Brewer, emphasizes innate human social psychology, while neglecting economics, philosophy, technology, and the history of ideas, in explaining our current and recent political polarization and tribalism. By a curious coincidence of the sort that Carl Jung used to cite in arguing for his quasi-metaphysical concept of “synchronicity” or “a-causal connection,” in an e-mail to a few friends that I myself just sent off this morning, commenting on today’s “hegemonic” academic embrace of postmodern relativism and compulsive disavowal of any Western superiority as “racist” and “colonialist,” I myself wrote that :

    “the self-confidence of liberals themselves in confronting their opponents has likewise been sapped, in comparison to what I see as their greater self-assurance half a century ago. They had far less hesitation back then than they seem to exhibit now in arguing that the well-educated were more likely to hold enlightened, tolerant, cosmopolitan social and political views, while the less educated were more prone to bigotry, racism, intolerance, and conspiracy theorizing.” Ezra Klein seems to be one of those contemporary liberals very much fitting that description! I then wrote, continuing my argument in the next few paragraphs quoted below before switching to a somewhat different topic:

    “In the 1950’s and 1960’s, writers like Richard Hofstadter, David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, Peter Viereck, and Seymour Martin Lipset had no embarrassment in noting and “valorizing” the greater education of liberals and also of reasonable centrists (e.g., “Eisenhower Republicans”) as compared to the relative educational and intellectual deprivation of Coughlinite and McCarthyite Yahoo-populists, John Birchers, and religious fundamentalists. Hofstadter could write a whole book on Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), while Riesman and Glazer could note in 1955 that the ex-working-class and third-generation immigrant “newly prosperous” created by post-World War II affluence often tended to “reject the traditional cultural and educational leadership of the enlightened upper and upper-middle classes,” even if some of their children, sent to college “as one way of maintaining the family’s social and occupational mobility,” had “become eager strivers for cosmopolitanism and culture.” ”

    “Today’s liberals, by contrast, seem to be embarrassed about frankly, proudly, self-confidently calling themselves members of a better-educated cultural elite, and instead invoke evolutionary and cognitive psychology to talk endlessly about “bubbles,” “tribalism,” and “confirmation bias.” Perhaps less sure now than they were half a century ago of the value of their own education, they now seem to be more comfortable about warning us about universal human foibles inherited from our primate ancestors to which we are all prone than about the special delusions of the uneducated and unsophisticated. Could postmodern skepticism wedded to leftist guilt about the West’s racist and colonialist sins have contributed to this educated liberal diffidence about their own education?”

    “Educated “politically correct” liberals still of course, as we all know, love to disparage the less-educated white working classes as racist, sexist, homophobic bigots and “deplorables” (to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous 2016 epithet), impatiently dismissing any attempts to exonerate their fears and prejudices as reflections of “economic anxiety.” However, their disdain for the “deplorables” is framed in frankly, even naïvely moralistic and condemnatory terms, with no attempt to understand their fears, anxieties, or confusions in psychological or sociological terms, no attempt at empathy, and no allowance for the lack of educational opportunity many of them have suffered, even in our post-G,I. Bill age. They condemn educationally deprived working-class and lower-middle-class whites in a naïvely moralistic manner they would be the first to attack as “racist,” “classist,” and “victim-blaming” if applied to inner-city Blacks, undocumented Mexican immigrants, or fundamentalist Muslims–no “Gee, Officer Krupke!” 😀style exculpation for the “deplorables”! There is little of the sympathetic understanding of the less-educated and their unenviable social situation shown by Riesman and Glazer in their 1955 reference to “the gap created by the uneven development of social mobility and cultural status” as a major obstacle to understanding between educated liberals and the Rightward-leaning “discontented classes.” “

    1. Ironically, people are unaware (uneducated?) that Clinton’s remark about deplorables specifically made the point that many people voted for Trump not because they were bigots, but out of economic anxiety. She argued that the Democrats had to figure out a way to reach those people and help them. But the hyper-partisan conservative propaganda apparatus spun this as an insult to anyone who would even think of voting for Trump, stoking resentment instead of thoughtful consideration, and the myth lives on to this day.

  6. Interesting, but:-

    “Trump’s ascension to the highest office has marked a symbolic apogee in our polarization.”

    An apogee indeed. Though not THE apogee, compared to the Civil War period, for example.

    “Second, Klein proposes that we eliminate the filibuster and electoral college and reform the way that we do redistricting.”

    So Mr. Klein is against Federalism and believes in Majoritarianism and rule by populous states. That’s a problem, not a solution.

    1. Wouldn’t it be something if my vote actually did something in the presidential race? Instead, I could move to another district or state and my vote can be around 12 times more useful. Also, why is majoritarianism a bad thing? You can already be president with what? 23% of the vote?

      It’s just weird that someone who is supposed to lead the country is so unpopular.

      The filibuster has shown that it’s completely useless, I mean, it has been used only to DELAY a vote, instead of actually arguing AGAINST the thing that was supposed to be voting on. Completely reading a dictionary is really going to show why X is so good or bad.

      My biggest issue with the current system? How do you ever need a 2/3rd majority in order to vote for something? When you need a 1/2 majority afterwards in order to pass the vote. Why would I, when I am against the bill, ever agree to vote in the first place? I am against it, so given a 2/3rd chance to a 1/2 chance, I take the 2/3rd chance of the bill failing to pass (because I dislike it). I understand it can be useful to filter nonsensical bills, but look to any other damn western nation and see how they vote there, in the house, for their president or otherwise.

      I guess Germany isn’t doing so bad right now, The Low Countries or the Norse are holding up pretty well too. Do they have a problem with filibusters? Or does majority vote give any problems for them? It seems to be working out relatively well. They don’t have a failing democracy yet, or so I’ve heard.

      But I guess the Ethos in the US has always been “We like change, but not too much change.”

    2. Hello Dennis Hakkie,

      So, like the author, you favour a unitary republic over a federation. Fair enough, you’re far from alone. But I still agree to differ, both regarding the USA and the EU (I’m a citizen of both). I live in Ireland, which has about 1% of the EU population but 2% of the seats in the European Parliament and a vote equal to Germany’s in other EU authorities. I’ve never heard of anyone moving to Ireland as a result, or moving to a less populous US state to get a more influential vote.

      US Democrat Majoritarians might note that dispensing with Federalism may seem to favor their party now, but that may not always be the case in the future.

    3. No, Josh, flatly FALSE.

      Her subsequent reference, to those voting out of economic anxiety, was the sharpest possible contrast, to the prior paragraph, which lacked ANY reference to economic anxiety.

      Her prior reference was ONLY to those driven by Deplorable motives:

      “… their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks – they are **irredeemable**….”

      That sort of rhetoric was a flat rejection, of the latter paragraph’s reference to “a way to reach those people”, i.e.those who were not the

      IRREDEEMABLES dissed in the first para.

      As long as you insist, upon flatly misrepresenting the plain facts, and thereby smearing “the hyper-partisan conservative propaganda apparatus”, you have no place here, where folks actually aim to refrain from incendiary agitProp.

      You’re much more at home at MSNBC, or Daily Kos, or maybe The Jacobin.

  7. “Neoliberal” has become one of those words like “fascism” that, despite no longer having any meaning, is thrown around carelessly and liberally to invoke sympathy from certain ideological tribes.