When journalist Ezra Klein thinks back on his time at UCSC, he misses the laid-back sense of possibility that surrounded him—the space and freedom. “The fact that, as a college student, you get to run around in this grove of redwoods in a dorm room that overlooks the ocean—it’s just a privilege wasted on the young,” says Klein, who co-founded the news website Vox in 2014, at age 29. “It’s just an incredibly beautiful place to be, with wonderful values and fascinating people.”
School, he admits, never felt like a great fit socially or academically, although he had a better experience after he graduated from high school in Irvine. He spent two years at UCSC before transferring to UCLA.
Early in his freshman year at UCSC, Klein applied for an internship at City on a Hill Press, the school’s student-run newspaper. He didn’t land the gig, but shortly after getting rejected, he started his own political blog. The writing process drew him in, and by the time he graduated from UCLA in 2005, Klein says he was pretty much “a full-time blogger.”
After college, his journalism career took him to the left-leaning magazine The American Prospect, and later to the Washington Post, where he managed the paper’s online “Wonkblog.” He’s served as a columnist for Bloomberg and as a frequent guest on MSNBC. He became the founding editor of Vox, for which he now serves as editor-at-large. Klein, who recently moved from DC to Oakland, oversees projects like Netflix’s Explained show—while hosting at least a couple podcast episodes per week, and covering beats like politics, impeachment and health care.
While at the Washington Post, Klein’s work often focused on the nerdier inside-baseball questions of politics—breaking down how things get done in the Capitol or showing how to craft good healthcare policy.
At Vox, his mission broadened to explanatory journalism intended for a wider audience. Vox’s calling card has been explainer stories like “Why the Iowa Caucuses Matter” and “What Trump Has Done to the Courts, Explained.” But at a certain point it becomes impossible for news junkies like Klein and his colleagues to explain much of anything in American politics without exploring the system’s underlying dysfunction. And the central ill of the country’s political system, he’s come to find, is political polarization.
In late January, Klein released his first book. The meticulously sourced Why We’re Polarized, which debuted at number five on the New York Times bestseller list, burst on the scene, somewhat presciently, in the midst of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Senate Republicans quickly acquitted Trump without bringing in any witnesses, despite the fact that the president repeatedly obstructed congressional investigations, and despite clear evidence that he and his administration withheld foreign aid in order to pressure Ukraine to launch a politically motivated investigation. The ordeal, as Klein has argued on his nascent podcast project Impeachment, Explained has been a crash course in polarization.
“There are moments in this whole process where I feel I can’t communicate how crazy what we’re seeing actually is, where I can’t quite convey that we are out of the realm of abnormal partisan conflict,” Klein said on the final episode of his impeachment show.
This country, he says, has veered into something much more dangerous.
TUG IN THE SYSTEM
For most of the 21st century, the U.S. wasn’t really polarized at all.
As recently as 1976, only 54% of Americans thought Republicans were more conservative than Democrats, and 30% said there was no ideological difference between the parties. The reasons, though, for the depolarized time of yesteryear are not pretty, Klein says.
That political landscape had roots in the legacy and influence of southern Democrats, known as Dixiecrats. The Dixiecrats ran as Democrats, but often functioned as a third party, supporting not only many progressive programs, but also segregationist Jim Crow laws that oppressed African Americans. So in the early 1960s, the Democratic Party included everyone from South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, one of the Senate’s most conservative members, to Minnesota Democrat Hubert Humphrey, one of its most liberal. Likewise, Republicans also had a range of conservative and liberal members.
For all its problems, the nation essentially had a multi-party system. What worked about this setup was that it allowed for collaboration and dealmaking. The Constitution’s founders, after all, never imagined that political parties would gain a foothold. As such, they did not build political institutions equipped to function amid party gridlock. In the early 20th century, however, what may have looked to white America like a flourishing democracy was, on another level, a repressive regime stepping on the rights of minorities.
“Oftentimes, the alternative to polarization is suppression,” Klein says.
In 1950, the American Political Science Association advocated for a change. In a 98-page paper, some of the nation’s leading political scientists argued that the country’s two political parties were too similar. Voters couldn’t tell the two groups apart, and it was time for two political parties that were more ideologically sorted. The bipartisan period began falling apart over the next two decades—partly thanks to the Civil Rights acts of 1957 and 1960 and 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Eventually, the South switched from blue to red.
Although polarization itself was likely inevitable, Klein says, there are several ways polarization could have gone. “I don’t think it’s crazy to even imagine the Republican Party being the party of civil rights, [with] the Democratic Party, given its very powerful Dixiecrat wing in the mid-century period, being the party of racial inequality,” he tells me.
At the heart of Why We’re Polarized is the concept of identity.
Citing a robust assortment of social science literature, the book shows that it is human nature for people to sort into groups, developing an alarming level of distrust for anyone who appears to be outside their own group along the way.
And although the right often uses “identity politics” as a pejorative to describe the priorities of millennial social justice warriors, Klein shows that identity politics are long-held American traditions. The interests of white, Christian American men often seemed somehow too mainstream for pundits to refer to them as identity politics. But they are, he writes.
Klein explains that white identity politics rear their head when triggered—whether by the election of the nation’s first black president, or by slower demographic changes of a diversifying America. Anxiety is polarizing, especially when the emotion is shared by two opposing groups—each with a deep-seated fear that the other is undermining their core principles.
A citizen’s sense of self has always played a role in how he or she votes, but now, the way that Americans experience and form identities is changing—the parties aren’t just sorted politically or ideologically or racially or geographically. More than ever, an individual’s politics are predictive of whether they choose to drive a Prius or a pick-up, whether they eat at Cracker Barrel or shop at Whole Foods, how many guns they own, their musical tastes. And with the divisions between these two political coalitions sharpening, voters have stacked their identities one on top of the other to form what Klein calls “mega-identities.” In 2020, to offend one of these identities is to offend them all.
Other forces are accelerating polarization, including a changing news landscape, social media and the weakening of political parties, which used to serve as gatekeepers. Interestingly, some of the forces that gave rise to President Trump, Klein argues, are a reflection of some of the ones propelling the popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), although Klein doesn’t say that the two men are morally equivalent.
As Americans grow more ideologically sorted, they end up forcing the country’s institutions to become more polarized, as well. That further polarizes Americans, creating a vicious cycle. But hard-line partisanship is more extreme on the right than on the left, Klein writes. That’s partly because the Democratic Party’s diversity serves as a moderating force in the party. So too does a political map with features that are quickly turning into what are essentially built-in Republican advantages, like the electoral college. In much of the country, Democrats often see incentives to be more moderate, in order to compete. The country’s rural areas, meanwhile, are growing more conservative, and the nation’s most populous states, of which there are fewer, are becoming more liberal.
The result here, according to a FiveThirthyEight analysis, is that the average state is six points more Republican than the average voter. And a recent social science paper cited in Why We’re Polarized forecasts that Republicans can expect to win 65% of the presidential contests in which they lose narrowly in the popular vote.
That creates a distance between the voters’ public will and the nation’s political outcomes.
Given that the president and Senate are in charge of picking Supreme Court judges, the country could be headed for a crisis, one in which half the country views all three branches of government as illegitimate. The idea scares Klein, and not just because of low representation for Democrats.
“There’s also a power-begets-power dynamic, where Republicans or any political party that has power but sees the future turning against it begins using its power to maintain power,” he says, “so that’s Supreme Court decisions or legislative decisions around gerrymandering and the Voting Rights Act and Citizens United. You’ve seen a number of Republican states like Wisconsin and North Carolina—when Republicans lose power—begin changing the Constitution to, say, empower Republican legislature and disempower an incoming Democratic governor. We can go on a path in this country towards democracy. But another way, countries like ours sometimes go in conditions like these is towards disenfranchisement. And disenfranchisement is a scary thing for a political party to play with. I mean, it won’t be the first time in American history it’s happened, but it’s still scary. And I don’t think we have a real defense against it right now.”
Why We’re Polarized offers a few ideas for solutions to polarization—not out of any particular confidence from Klein that the fixes are easy.
Klein’s solutions come from a sense of responsibility to offer some sort of path forward. He proposes structural reforms and rule changes, like abolishing the Senate filibuster to allow the legislature to better function amid polarization. He suggests voters consider taking up mindfulness practices to be more aware of the assumptions they make.
He also suggests activists get more involved in their own communities. That doesn’t mean that cities are immune from partisanship internally.
Not unlike D.C., Klein says that local communities can be quite polarized.
“I just think they’re different,” he tells me. “They don’t break down on the same red-blue lines. You know, the fights over affordable housing in San Francisco often pit progressives against progressives in very sharp and conflictual ways. It’s not that everybody’s in agreement. And it’s not that there isn’t polarization.”
Nonetheless, there’s inherent value, he says, in logging off of Twitter to engage in different issues, ones that have the potential to make a real difference in people’s everyday lives.
“A lot of the ways people participate in national politics is functionally following politics as a form of infotainment—even if it’s not very fun—versus being actually involved in a local community, which is about organizing, and it’s about making connections with neighbors,” Klein continues. “And I just think that’s going to be healthier and more nourishing. But it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to go into community politics or local politics and find fighting or very real arguments.”
I know that, personally, when I watch local government meetings here in Santa Cruz, I see political identities flaring up and driving discussions, like they do at the national level. But they are different. Voters engage with city and county leaders as landlords and tenants, as Eastsiders and Westsiders, as locals and students.
In Santa Cruz, just as in San Francisco, observers have watched the rise of anti-development “not in my backyard”—or NIMBY—politics, as well as the YIMBY (for “yes in my backyard”) movement that’s sprung up in response.
Broadly speaking, Klein says that each group has a different way of understanding their local community and what makes it special. Anti-development “neighborhood defenders,” as he calls them, view themselves as the real residents of a community. “And their identity is as the guardians of the place in which they live,” he says.
Similarly, the other side sees something at stake. As with the neighborhood defenders, the pro-development crowd feels a real concern that the community is at risk of losing something special. It isn’t just affordability, either.
Klein says YIMBY activists believe their community has a moral responsibility to be welcoming—just as it once welcomed in them when they first arrived.
“It has to be open,” he says, articulating that point of view. “It has to be inclusive.”
The Localization of Polarization
Political polarization has made its presence known in Santa Cruz County over in recent years—with rent control, with the future of the rail trail corridor, with Highway 1 widening, even with a possible mixed-use library and parking garage. There’s also the divisive effort to recall controversial Santa Cruz City Councilmembers Drew Glover and Chris Krohn on ballots this March.
In his book, Klein shows that the most voracious news consumers are also the most polarized. I’ve seen in my own work that journalists can spend as much time as they want avoiding ideological talking points in their coverage, pushing conversations in constructive directions. But many readers will still interpret any articles about contentious topics in polarized—and polarizing—ways.
My sense of curiosity has long been my best motivator, fueling the inquisitive part of my job that I enjoy most. As Good Times’ news editor, I’ve found that political fights with no insights whatsoever—just two sides exaggerating their talking points—are no fun for me, or for the reader. If there’s nothing to think critically about, the story probably isn’t going to change anyone’s mind, anyway, so it might not be worth spending GT’s limited resources on it.
And so when I’m being honest with myself, I often find writing within a polarized environment to be emotionally draining, weak on intellectual stimulation, isolating and even rather boring.
In many ways, I’m fortunate to be reporting in a small city. I don’t feel compelled to respond to the scrutinizing whims of Twitter—which has little following in Santa Cruz right now—in the way that Klein’s colleagues do. But whereas a national reporter’s greatest critics might be internet trolls, many of mine are valued community members, who I might run into at Shopper’s Corner.
I ask Klein, in general, how he approaches journalism in an era of deep partisanship.
It’s tricky, he says, partly because the digital age’s poor incentives tend to push news organizations to chase clicks and go in other “bad directions.” Journalists, he says, need to learn to rise above all the noise. Trump supporters, for instance, don’t want to hear that Trump is a liar. Sometimes it needs to be said, anyway.
“At least part of the problem is polarization and people not wanting to hear things they don’t already believe,” he says. “Our job is to try to tell people things that are true, whether or not that’s what they believe.”