How Americans Were Driven to Extremes
In the United States, Polarization Runs Particularly Deep
It has been clear for many years that the United States is a house divided. But since March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the country, that division has taken on a ghastly new face. Staggering death tolls and nightmarish images of body bags, overwhelmed hospitals, and freezer morgues have stirred little sense of unity or common purpose. Instead, they seem to have simply fed an already raging case of partisan polarization—another virus for which there is as yet no treatment or vaccine. It has become difficult to ask even the most basic questions—whether a certain medicine works, whether a city has enough ventilators and protective equipment—without triggering a political brawl, usually revolving around President Donald Trump.
Two recent books, Ezra Klein’s left-leaning Why We’re Polarized and Michael Lind’s right-leaning The New Class War, attempt to explain how things got to this point. Klein, the co-founder of the news and analysis website Vox, puts the country on the couch. His explanations center on psychology, identity, and the dominant role that party affiliation plays in Americans’ psyches. By contrast, Lind—a prolific writer and a co-founder of the think tank New America—finds his answers in a single factor: social class. (It is one of the ironies of the present moment that putting class warfare front and center can now be a right-wing position.) Klein and Lind are two of the country’s keenest political observers, and their books are a cut above the slew of others on the United States’ divisions. They are best read in tandem, as complements to each other. Although they might not admit it, Klein and Lind are describing the same peak, just from opposite sides of the mountain.
Klein begins by marshaling an impressive body of evidence from cognitive and social psychology that reveals the human proclivity for group identification and us-versus-them conflict. Normally, people have many crosscutting group identities. Today, however, Americans’ political identities have become “mega-identities.” The labels “Democrat” and “Republican” increasingly subsume other sources of identity, including race, religion, and geography, and are highly predictive not only of where people stand on abortion or immigration but also of where they shop, what sports they like, what news they watch, and so on. These political mega-identities are “far more powerful than issue positions in driving polarization,” Klein writes. In fact, “there’s only a weak relationship between how much a person identifies as a conservative or liberal and how conservative or liberal their views actually are—to be exact, in both cases it’s about a .25 correlation.” In the United States, partisan identity has become central to “psychological self-expression” and is now the country’s most intense social cleavage, even more intense than race.
The most striking evidence Klein produces for this is a study published in 2015 by the political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, who asked about 1,000 people to review the résumés of two fictional high school seniors competing for a scholarship and to pick one as the winner. The résumés were essentially identical, except for the applicants’ grade point average (3.5 or 4.0) and either the applicants’ race (white or black) or their party affiliation (Democrat or Republican). One might have reasonably expected that grades would play a larger role in the selections than would party affiliation. Instead, when the résumés contained no information about the applicants’ race, the participants chose the student from their own party roughly 80 percent of the time, even when that student had the lower grade point average. Amazingly, party affiliation had an even stronger effect than race: when the résumés included no information about party, but the opposite-race applicant had the higher grades, only 45 percent of African Americans stuck with the person of their own race, and only 29 percent of white Americans did so. In short, Klein concludes, “partisanship even trumped race.”
This partisan divide poses grave danger, Klein argues. Societies marked by conflict along many different axes are far less prone to civil war than societies with a single major cleavage. Americans’ partisan mega-identities “have attained a weight that is breaking our institutions and tearing at the bonds that hold this country together,” he writes.
Partisan identity has become the United States’ most intense social cleavage.
In Klein’s telling, polarization’s original sin dates back to the 1960s. Before then, both major political parties were big-tent operations, “scrambled, both ideologically and demographically, in ways that curbed their power as identities and lowered the partisan stakes of politics.” Indeed, in 1950, U.S. political parties were so undifferentiated ideologically that the American Political Science Association published a report pleading for more political polarization. But this changed during the fight over civil rights, when the Democrats “chose to snap their alliance with the Dixiecrats to pursue justice,” prompting the segregationist Dixiecrats to jump ship to the Republican Party. “America’s modern run of polarization has its roots in the civil rights era,” he writes, “in the Democratic Party choosing to embrace racial equality and the Republican Party providing a home to white backlash.”
It was a fateful choice. By 2012, only nine percent of self-identified Republicans were nonwhite, according to a survey Klein cites. Klein observes that as the country’s demographics continue to change and the possibility of the United States becoming a “majority-minority” state grows ever more real, white Americans (and especially white men) increasingly feel that their status is threatened, and “the simplest way to activate someone’s identity is to threaten it.” (He cites my work on this topic to back up his argument.) To Klein, the election of Trump in 2016 represented the triumph of threatened white Americans, egged on by partisan primaries and “identity journalism,” in which media organizations compete for eyeballs and clicks by publishing provocative stories intended to reinforce people’s preferences for members of their own group and provoke hostility toward members of others.
Klein writes captivatingly well. Reading Why We’re Polarized is like having a conversation with a brilliant, extremely persuasive friend who has read everything and who is armed with scores of studies that he’s able to distill into accessible bites. Readers might be ready to buy his argument hook, line, and sinker—until they read Lind’s book, and suddenly, some of Klein’s deficiencies become apparent.
Whereas Klein is mostly focused on polarization in the United States, Lind sets out to explain the wider, global populist surge that led to Brexit in the United Kingdom, France’s “yellow vest” protests, and the rise of the nationalist politician Matteo Salvini in Italy. Lind argues that “almost all of the political turmoil in Western Europe and North America can be explained by the new class war.” As he sees it, this war pits the working class against a small “overclass” of “managerial elites”—university-educated, cosmopolitan professionals and bureaucrats who make up somewhere between ten and 15 percent of the population but who enjoy outsize influence on government, the academy, and the economy.
Lind also begins his story in the 1960s. By the mid-twentieth century, two world wars and the ongoing threat of communism had produced a kind of settlement in developed Western countries between the economic elites and the working class. In this system of power sharing, which Lind calls “democratic pluralism,” mass-membership political parties, legislatures, unions, churches, and civic associations gave the working class economic, political, and cultural clout that counterbalanced the professional management class’s influence over the corporate sector, universities, the judiciary, and the executive branch.
But as the threat of war and communism receded, elites—both conservative and liberal—began a “revolution from above.” Animated by a belief in free markets and “technocratic neoliberalism” (an ideology celebrating rule by “all-wise, altruistic experts”), these elites ground down the institutions that supported the working class. Big business undermined unions by moving (or merely threatening to move) factories and supply chains overseas in response to demands for higher wages and other benefits. Academics and activists celebrated the social and cultural contributions of immigrants and minorities and denigrated those of native-born white Americans. “Under technocratic neoliberalism,” Lind writes, “. . . the boss class pursues the working class after the workday has ended, trying to snatch the unhealthy steak or soda from the worker’s plate, vilifying the theology of the worker’s church as a firing offense and possibly an illegal hate crime to be reported to the police.”
Meanwhile, pro-immigration policies championed by elites depressed working-class wages even as returns to the wealthy skyrocketed. Lind cites a 2018 Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll that complicates any attempt to describe American populism in simplistic racial terms. The survey, he explains,
found that 64 percent of Americans, including 53 percent of Latinos, favor immediately deporting anyone who crosses the border illegally; 70 percent support more restrictive immigration laws. If, as many overclass neoliberals claim, supporting enforcement of immigration laws is motivated solely by “white nationalism,” then overwhelming numbers of Americans, including a majority of Latinos, must be “white nationalists.”
The working class, however, is not monolithic or unified. If it were, Lind points out, “the overclass . . . would lose every election.” Instead, national working classes are divided along many cleavages, including race, religion, region, and, “most important,” the divide between “old-stock” whites and “recent immigrants and their descendants,” creating a “split labor market,” in which elites can play subgroups of the working class against one another. The result is a managerial technocracy that sits atop a divided working class. It is no surprise that the working class distrusts the experts, whose do-gooder or high-minded initiatives so often seem to come at the working class’s expense, be it the “war on coal,” free trade, or taxes on goods such as soda and cigarettes. This class chasm has been visible throughout the pandemic, perhaps most prominently in protests against stay-at-home orders, which many working-class and middle-class Americans see as destructive overreach promoted by Democratic politicians, liberal media outlets, and alleged experts who can’t be trusted.
As frustration has mounted over the years, it has erupted in populist movements. According to Lind, however, without funding and expertise from elites, these movements almost inevitably fail or get co-opted by opportunistic demagogues, such as Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Italy’s Salvini. All purport to give voice to a marginalized working class, advocating economic nationalism, opposing free trade and immigration, and deliberately “using crude and belligerent language”—a symbol of their rejection of elite sensibilities.
Lind is not a populist. “Populism,” he writes, “is a symptom of a sick body politic, not a cure.” Both “technocratic neoliberalism and demagogic populism represent . . . highways to the hell of autocracy.” Nevertheless, at some points, Lind sounds as angry as the members of the working class with whom he obviously sympathizes. He writes caustically well. One characteristic takedown is worth quoting at length:
A . . . common view among transatlantic elites interprets the success of populist and nationalist candidates . . . not as a predictable and disruptive backlash against oligarchic misrule, but as a revival of Nazi or Soviet-style totalitarianism. One narrative holds that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime, by cleverly manipulating public opinion . . . , is responsible for Brexit, the election of Trump in 2016, and perhaps other major political events. A rival narrative . . . [holds that] demagogues can trigger the latent “authoritarian personalities” of . . . white working-class native voters, many of whom, it is claimed, will turn overnight into a fascist army. . . .
The reductio ad absurdum of this kind of mythological thinking is the adoption of the term “Resistance” by domestic opponents of President Donald Trump, which implies an equation between Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans and the heroic anti-Nazis of the French Resistance.
The virtues and vices of these books mirror each other. Klein assembles reams of social-scientific evidence to back up his claims, so much so that his book occasionally resembles an academic survey of the literature. Lind, by contrast, is weak on empirical evidence, offering little substantiation for contested propositions that are central to his book, such as the adverse effects of immigration and free trade on the working class. Klein’s story takes into account a multitude of factors—institutional, cultural, psychological—that he says work together to produce identity-reinforcing feedback loops. Lind’s thesis is monocausal, focusing on class alone, at the expense of numerous other factors, such as racial resentments and demographic fears.
But just as Lind downplays the role of race, Klein is surprisingly dismissive of class, concluding, after an uncharacteristically cursory analysis, that in the 2016 election, “racial resentment activated economic anxiety,” and not the other way around. A larger weakness of Klein’s book lies in its U.S.-centric focus. If Klein’s explanation for the rise of polarization and populism is correct—tracing it to the peculiar racial realignments brought about by the civil rights movement—then why are the same phenomena occurring in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, whose racial histories, electoral systems, and political cultures are totally different? These strikingly similar movements all across western Europe strongly suggest that other forces are at work. Lind’s account, even if incomplete, is much stronger on that point.
Conversely, when it comes to the rise of populism in the United States, Lind doesn’t grapple with facts suggesting that additional factors are at play besides class. For example, according to a 2020 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 41 percent of Republicans feel that there is too much economic inequality in the country, and 78 percent of Republicans (including 66 percent of lower-income Republicans) are satisfied with existing opportunities “to get ahead by working hard.” If, as Lind claims, class warfare is principally motivating Trump supporters, they should not be so complacent with the state of inequality and upward mobility in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the books differ sharply when it comes to prescriptions. Klein’s proposals are fairly conventional. He advocates, for example, eliminating the Electoral College, giving congressional representation to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., and eliminating the filibuster, arguing that these measures would enhance democracy and thereby dampen polarization (and, incidentally, favor Democrats).
Just as Lind downplays the role of race, Klein is dismissive of class.
Lind, by contrast, rejects many of the most familiar reform ideas and calls for radical structural change. He dismisses proposals to expand access to higher education and encourage entrepreneurialism as “neoliberal panaceas,” noting projections that the fastest-growing jobs in the future will be concentrated in service-sector roles that don’t require college degrees. Besides, as he notes in a powerful passage, such ideas err in “offering workers the chance to become something other than workers, as though there were something shameful and retrograde about being an ordinary wage earner.” What is perhaps more surprising for someone championing the interests of nonelites, Lind also opposes massive redistributive measures, such as a universal basic income, on the grounds that such proposals are unrealistic and, in any event, designed to “anesthetize” the working class without actually giving workers more power.
Instead, he calls for a return to the kind of democratic pluralism that emerged in the United States and Europe after World War II, a power-sharing system in which a variety of subnational entities or institutions give working-class members a genuine voice and influence. This would involve a shift toward what Lind terms “microdemocracy,” in which more decision-making would be transferred to the level of “wards,” or “units small enough to permit ordinary people to experience politics as participants and not mere observers.” Lind sees much to admire in German-style “codetermination,” which requires corporate boards to include worker representatives. Finally, Lind calls for authorities to give “creedal congregations”—principally churches, but also “secular groups like American Atheists and neo-pagan creeds like Wiccans”—formal roles in overseeing media and education policy.
The COVID-19 crisis has vindicated both books. Dispiritingly, responses to the pandemic have split along party lines, just as Klein’s account would predict, with Americans retreating into their political mega-identities. One’s partisan affiliation and views of Trump almost completely determine one’s ideas about who is to blame for the failure to contain the coronavirus and when lockdown orders should be eased.
The pandemic has also brought into ugly relief the class divisions that shape Lind’s vision. The wealthiest Americans have retreated to their vacation homes, golfing and meditating and working remotely while in quarantine. Service-sector employees who can’t survive without weekly paychecks have paid a much higher price. At the same time, the United States’ suddenly exposed dependence on other countries for antibiotics and medical equipment makes Lind’s warnings about the dangers of globalized supply chains and the collapse of domestic manufacturing seem darkly prescient.
Ultimately, however, one cannot fully understand the pandemic’s consequences in the United States, the politics surrounding it, or the country’s destructive broader political dynamics without seeing how class and ethnic divisions interact with and sometimes catalyze each other. Consider how the death rates for COVID-19 have been markedly higher among minorities than among white Americans. Although African Americans represent only around 30 percent of the populations of Chicago and Louisiana, they account for roughly 70 percent of all COVID-19 fatalities in both places. In the United States, anything with a class dimension—any policy, any event, any disaster that has adverse effects on the poor—will necessarily have a racial dimension and the potential to amplify racial tensions.
Above all, the pandemic has revealed that the United States is reaching a systemic breaking point. Amid the chaos, it increasingly seems that the country might be on the road to a violent political reckoning. In their timely examinations of this dysfunction, Klein and Lind offer important tools to navigate its fault lines in the period of soul-searching to come.
In the United States, Polarization Runs Particularly Deep