Polarization Rationalized

A review of
Why We’re Polarized
(Author: Ezra Klein)

It’s nice that Ezra Klein has expertly explained why we are polarized, why it is worsening and is self-reinforcing, and why it will have a stranglehold on politics for a generation or more. Though, there are important nuances missing, and some of his conclusions are hasty.

Smarter is Worse

For example. Amidst his admiration for Dan Kahan’s controlled experiments about partisan effects on solving math-based word problems, Klein makes several troubling statements:

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been cornered by someone arguing that the answer to our problems is lifelong civic education or media literacy classes…

…Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth—purposes like increasing their standing in their community or ensuring they don’t find themselves exiled by the leaders of their tribe…

…The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them…

…I want to dwell on this for a minute, because it’s an insane finding: being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right…

My point is not that all of this is bunk (which it is not), but rather that Klein then takes it as a settled matter that, from the standpoint of combating polarization, there is no point to making people smarter.

(As an aside, I love cognitive science, but skepticism is warranted around the recent wave of clever lab experiments where subjects are coaxed into demonstrating irrational thinking. People obviously exhibit “poor” thinking about things that don’t matter. As for politically-engaged people, why shouldn’t they want to shift into their partisan fanaticism at any opportunity?)

More importantly, though: what is this “civic education” that Klein has concluded is useless? Perhaps the kinds of civic education that people get today are not in fact terribly helpful for understanding issues, but is it not possible that new and different kinds of civic education could be? (If it were made simple, enjoyable, and compelling enough?)

Thinking Has Vanished

Another example. In another chapter, Klein observes the trends towards partisanship, noting:

What [campaign strategist Matthew] Dowd found was that the share of true independents—the number of people who were actually undecided and could vote for either party—had plummeted in recent elections, going from, in his calculations, about 22 percent of the electorate to 7 percent. The implications of this were “fairly revolutionary, because everybody up until that time had said, ‘Swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters.’ ”

It is correct that the majority of voters who are not registered as Democrats (29%) or Republicans (30%) (i.e. the conventional definition of “independent”) do nevertheless “lean” decisively to one side or the other. This change has led to prioritization of getting the base out in elections, and to yet further polarization. Well and good, but… that’s the end of it? There’s only 7% of Americans left who are “persuadable”?

The question should be: persuadable about what, exactly? Dowd’s focus of course is, persuadable about which candidate to vote for in the current election. But is that the only thing voters think about? What about all the independent voters who lean Democratic, but don’t want Medicare For All, or don’t want prolonged COVID restrictions? Or, independents who lean Republican but hate tax cuts for the rich? Klein is silent about the “messy middle.” (Aside from making a casuistic argument that moderates really hold extreme views.)

Yes, in the aggregate we’ve become significantly sorted by race, geography, and religion; but on issues and on ideas, ordinary people recognize that there are—at least at some level—legitimate tradeoffs. Party activists and those whose livelihood rests on toeing the party line cannot publicly acknowledge any such nuance. Yet, candidates know that their positions on issues matter, that subtle emphases are noticed. If the candidate offends opinions of independents who (otherwise) lean to their side, it may well keep them home from the polls.

Klein seemingly would like to paint the picture of a pandemic of partisan zombies. But public opinion does shift on the issues. People do reason about stuff, and it directly affects what politicians do once in office.

Truth Is Rationalization

Last example (and, related to the above). Klein laments the implications of identity’s preeminence:

…My whole career—and much of politics more generally—is based on the idea that gathering good information helps us understand hard policy issues and that putting the two together can change minds and lead to a better world. But once our political identities and interests push themselves in front of our cognition, that model of reasoning falls to pieces. 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.

Okay, admittedly, Klein does say “spectrum.” However, who, reading this, wouldn’t come away with the impression that it is a binary? Physics: truth. Human affairs: rationalization.

Let’s first of all remember that there is truth to be had in the public sphere. I assume Klein would admit, for example, that it is true that blacks still experience systemic discrimination, and it is true that climate inaction will lead to disaster. Regardless whether citizens know them, there are facts underlying these. And people do try to reason with as many of them as they have.

But back to the point: Klein gives us a spectrum, but he never shows interest in the most interesting and prevalent cases within it.

I’d assert that “rationalizations” are in fact the key to understanding polarization. People are polarized because questions are posed and answered without ever establishing the terms of the debate; and, like the submerged portion of an iceberg, broad agreement is never in view.

Just to illustrate: so-called Bernie Bros would seem to be deeply in thrall to their identity. What if, though, we began a conversation with an earnest group of them by asking, “Can we agree it’s true that there’s a limit as to how large a government should be?” “Well, sure, theoretically I suppose…but…” Such exploration of assumptions obviously would require a lot of work, and it is not the direction that Klein wants to take us. But if you at least visualize such conversations, you immediately realize there is a ton of structure underlying people’s positions. (Although it is not obvious to laypeople, anyone who has studied artificial intelligence knows that all normal humans possess a gigantic amount of what is referred to as consensus knowledge.)

Over the course of their lives, people try. Even if distracted citizens (present company included) do motivated reasoning ninety-five percent of the time, all political reasoning is not driven by identity.


As custom seemingly requires, there is a disappointing “what are we going to do about it” chapter at the end. I personally have thought hard about solutions for the past two years (see the article I published in Arc Digital); and, with Klein, I take it as a given that human psychology cannot be changed, and that social media’s tilt towards outrage cannot be stopped.

To his credit, Klein regards his own solution ideas with modesty. Most of them are mechanical, institutional changes that seem to me unlikely to be enacted. But he does also talk about “depolarizing ourselves” via a kind of mindfulness in which each of us should become more aware of how politicians and the media manipulate us. (Hmm. And hopefully we can do that without media literacy classes.)

That does relate to a neat idea that I previously got out of Lilliana Mason’s book, namely: patient development of a new type of “political correctness,” a new intolerance for any public dialogue that inflames us-them identities. As grounds for some hope, consider the progress made with other prejudices in the second half of the twentieth century. While prejudice has obviously not been eliminated, there has at least been a reduction in the acceptability of expressing racial and religious prejudice in public. Perhaps a similar thing could be accomplished with our political identities. And so, Klein’s mindfulness could be a part of that, though it would have to be very widespread before people could start shaming others about it.

A Slightly Different Perspective

In the medium term at least, though, polarization is a fact.

I do like and admire Klein’s book. He does not paint a flattering picture of white conservatives who, as an identity group, sense that they are slowly but inexorably losing the power they once had, and are trying desperately to stop it. Klein is right, though, to point out the asymmetry between Democrats’ emphasis on problems and Republicans’ fixation on ideology and cultural paranoia.

I have gotten to a point, though, where I wish people would stop talking about polarization. Could we turn the polarization issue on its head? Instead of bemoaning it (as many observant people do) or justifying it (as Klein does), could we instead put all of the focus on what we’re trying to accomplish with democracy: to govern. Instead of “how can we stop polarization?”, the way I’d love to see it discussed is, “how can we beat back all of that noise and foolishness so that our polity can govern a little more?”

Yes, I do have a method to propose, and I believe independent voters are the key. Not the low-information citizens who couldn’t be less interested. And certainly not the highly-engaged partisans. Rather, the large in-between swath of semi-engaged persuadables (in the broader sense that I alluded to above.)

The two things they need are (1) defenses against all the fear-mongering bullshit out there, and (2) basic facts about the shape and reality of problems. If a large enough percentage of these independents were equipped and energized, much of the polarizing rhetoric would be neutralized, and governing would be more feasible.

Best case: maybe a new identity group could even form.

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