Reviewed in the United States on February 12, 2020
"Why we are Polarized" by Ezra Klein isn't a very goo book, in my opinion. It's thesis as to why we are polarized and the conclusions are wrong, despite starting off well and be correct in some of its observations.
The author lays down some key framework throughout the book, and it was here I found myself agreeing with him...but if you think about it, that's a part of the problem, because in the world of science, establishing true premises is basically a truism. Of course this part was correct, because it lays down so much of what is alreayd known. Klein points out that Americans have grown more polarized than a generation ago. This polarization is refelcted in the rancor and hard-line grandstanding in Congress, in the media, and even at the ballot box. This tendency towards polarization is a vicious circle: we make our institutions more partisan, and they make us more partisan, and so on. The views of the American people get reflected in our institutions, since we elect the people who compose those institution; but these people are incentivized to remain in power, and use partisan issues as a wedge to get themselves elected, thus making the electorate more partisan. Klein discusses how this wasn't always the case, and it is here that he veers off into the world small-"c" conservatism (not big-"C" Conservatism, like Reagan or Bush).
Klein looks back fondly on the era of US politics when the two-parties were not really political parties in the proper sense. At one point in time, the Democrats and Republicans didn't represent organized coallitions of like-minded voters and politicians coordinating to influence policy, but were essentially fraternities or clubs that individuals joined. Thus, they represented nothing but a brand that you voted in or joined cause grandpa did. In this millieu, writes Klein, there were Liberals, Moderates, and Conservatives in both parties. Thus, vertically (within the two-party system), the electorate was not divided along ideological lines. Voters would vote for individual personalities like Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon, rather than a party. Further, electing a liberal democrat like Humprhey meant supporting a conservative democrat like Strom Thurmond. This made political rancor along partisan lines diminish, and had a "middling" effect on politics, meaning that when you looked at the big picture, you'd tend to see a US government or nation-state that was neither Liberal nor COnservative, but Moderate. Klein than speaks fondly of Washington's farewell address denouncing parties as factions.
Klein basically insinuates that the existence of partisan coallitions that are organized around shared ideals is hurting America. The lightening rod that made the parties so different were the race-related issues of the 1960s and 1970s. After the parties were restructured along a right-wing conservative-reationary Republican and left-wing liberal-radical lines, the damage was done. Since then, the viscious circle of institutional parties using wedge issues and voters pressuring politicians to adopt wedge issues, has caused the electorate to drift more to the left or right, respectively. This is why we are polarized, writes Klein. This is his thesis.
But, if making it so that Republicans and Democrats each have equal numbers of Liberals, Moderates, and Conservatives in their ranks, so that ideological differences in the electorate don't coincide with which partisan brand (Democrat or Republican) a politician or voter belongs to, than that begs the question: what's the POINT of the parties at all? This is the "PETITIO PRINCIPII" to Klein's thesis, and betrays his small-"c" conservative bias. This is why I disagree with Klein and this book.
I prefer the school of thought followed by people like Kenneth Arrow (the "Arrow's Theorem" guy), that the two-party system is its self the problem. The US electorate is not a monolith: there are fundemental differences in worldviews among Americans. Further, there are real issues that are more than just a matter of opinion, but are present in the real world and require novel solutions, and different people of different ideologies can offer different approaches to solve them. Inasmuch as these differences are real, and prior to politics, it follows that politics (at least in the context of democratic societies) should reflect these cleavages in the electorate in the seating arrangement in Congress and Statehouses. If 17% of the electorate thinks a certain way on a certain issue, than 17% of the seats in the legislature should think that way too. Political parties and partisanship are GOOD and NECESSARY because organizing into a party is how that bloc of 17% of voters gets those 17% of seats in the legislature.
After all, its not like the politicians themselves have some intrinsic right to just be there; it's not like we are supposed to have a "political class" of lifetime politicians that join meaningless brands like Democrat or Republican that don't actually stand for anything, but are just "fraternities." Also, the idea that they should "have a middling effect" by moderating what the voters want on their behalf (like the politicians know better than their voters do) is aristocratic and undemocratic. People like Klein would argue that "middling" the voters disparate demands is necessary in the name of the greater good. After all, we can't argue about the same issues forever, we have to reach consensus on the issues and bring the debate to a close at some point; otherwise we can't move forward and do the job of actually running the country (this is called "comity" to use Thomas Jefferson's term).
I would agree with the school of thought that Klein belongs to (small-"c" conservatism) on the point of comity. But I disagree with him on how he thinks we should get there. We don't need two large-tent parties to "middle down" our differences on out behalf. Instead, we need a Congress and Statehouses that reflect the diversity of opinion that exists in America, and the "middling effect" will happen from the tug-of-war between these groups in the Legislature. The politicians should battle it out, make concessions, and do deals on the floor of the legislature so that a middle ground can be reached between them. To make that happen, we need one party each for every major school of thought in America. What we don't need is a LEGACY SYSTEM where we have two monolithic parties, that are essentially just brand names that have been around since the 1860s, don't stand for anything in particular, and are populated by lifetime politicians who joined this or that party cause daddy and granddaddy had, and essentially view their voters as "clients" that visit them cause they are the only game in town.
Klein describes America's political system as "broken" and I agree. But before we can describe something as "broken," we have to look at something that isn't broken. What comparable non-broken political systems exist in the world that the US could be contrasted to? Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Japan, France, the UK, the Nordic countries, and so on, all offer great examples of unbroken democracies. And what do these countries have in common, that the USA lacks? They are all multi-party systems. Not one of these countries has a political party thats more than few decades old (unlike our parties that go back to the 1860s), and none of them have only 2 parties. Some have as many as 8 equally viable parties! Parties come and go all the time. Some disgruntled people somewhere, who feel strongly about some issue, can organize a new party and get seats in Congress easily. Nobody shows any loyalty to their parties...they aren't viewed as football teams with colors, but vehicles that are meant to serve as a spring board for this or that issue. People do vote along party lines, and demosntrate more "partisanship" than americans; but that's because the parties always reflect some issue. At first, you might thinks this sounds like chaos; but it is not. The parties have to find a balance of power between one another in the legislature, and policy that more surgically reflects popular support for any given issue is the result. Again, Canada, the Netherlands, and so on, lack the entrenched cronyism and corruption of the USA, and the governments of these countries ACTUALLY govern (they get work done).
There was a political scientist named Juan Linz who, decade before Klein wrote this book, compared the multi-party systems of these countries to the two-party systems of the UK and the USA. Even though he wrote long ago, ironically he seems to "answer" Klein, cause many of the points Klein makes in defense of his thesis are overturned by Linz. I suggest looking at this author.