top of page

Why We're Polarized, Ezra Klein

"How American politics became a toxic system, why we participate in it, and what it means for our future is the subject of this book."


"The key idea here is "negative partisanship": partisan behavior driven not by positive feelings toward the party you support but negative feelings toward the party you oppose. If you've ever voted in an election feeling a bit bleh about the candidate you backed, but fearful of the troglodyte or socialist running against her, you've been a negative partisan. It turns out a lot of us have been negative partisans. A 2016 Pew poll found that self-described independents who tended to vote for one party or the other were driven more by negative motivations. Majorities of both Republican- and Democratic-leaning independents said a major reason for their lean was the other party's policies were bad for the country; by contrast, only a third of each group said they were driven by support for the policies of the party they were voting for.

So here, then, is the last fifty years of American politics summarized: we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more--indeed, we've come to like the parties we vote for less--but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed."

p. 9

"We like to think that we choose our politics by slowly, methodically developing a worldview, using that worldview to generate conclusions about ideal tax and health and foreign policy, and then selecting the political party that fits best. That's not how the political psychologists see it. They argue that our politics, much like our interest in travel and spicy food and being in crowds, emerges from our psychological makeup. "Certain ideas are attractive to some people and repulsive to others, and that means, essentially, that ideologies and psychologies are magnetically drawn to each other," says John Jost, a political psychologist at New York University."

p. 45

"These findings led the researchers to an interesting conclusion: "In forming an opinion, the question for the unengaged citizen is: what will this policy do for me? Among the engaged, however, reactions to economic issues are better understood as expressively motivated signals of identity. The question for the engaged citizen is: what does support for this policy position say about me?"

p. 48

"That sorting has been ideological. Democrat now means liberal and Republican now means conservative in a way that wasn't true in, say, 1955. The rise in partisanship is, in part, a rational response to the rise in party difference--if the two sides hated and feared each other less fifty years ago, well, that makes sense; they were more similar fifty years ago."

p. 136

"I say all this to give my next sentence some weight. The central truth I've learned about the audience in each and every one of those places is almost no one is forced to follow politics. There are some lobbyists and government affairs professionals who need to stay on the cutting edge of legislative and regulatory developments to do their jobs. But most people who follow politics do so as a hobby; they follow it in the way they follow a sport or a band."

p. 140

"The old line on local reporting was: "If it bleeds, it leads." For political reporting, the principle is: "If it outrages, it leads." And outrage is deeply connected to identity--we are outraged when members of other groups threaten our group and violate our values. As such, polarized media doesn't emphasize commonalities, it weaponizes differences; it doesn't focus on the best of the other side, it threatens you with the worst."

p. 149

"But the other perspective takes identities as living, malleable things. They can be activated or left dormant, strengthened or weakened, created or left in the void. In this telling, all this identity-oriented content will deepen the identities it repeatedly triggers, confirms, or threatens. It will turn interests or opinions to identities."

p. 156

"Politics is, first and foremost, driven by the people who pay the most attention and wield the most power--and those people opt in to extraordinarily politicized media. They then create the political system they perceive. The rest of the country then has to choose from more polarized options, and that in turn polarizes them--remember, the larger the difference between the parties, the more compelling it becomes for even the uninterested to choose a side."

p. 163

"But if you have to raise the money yourself, your incentives change. Most people, and most groups, don't give money to politicians. Those who do give are, predictably, more polarized, more partisan, or they want something. You motivate them through inspiration, outrage or transaction. Put differently, you appeal to them through ideology, identity, or corruption."

p. 184

"This is less benign than it sounds. Institutional donors want government to work, it's true--but they want it to work in their favor. If individual donors give money as a form of identity expression, institutional donors give money as a form of investment. Individual donors are polarizing. Institutional donors are corrupting. American politics, thus, is responsive to two types of people: the polarized and the rich."

p. 190

"My point is not that we should all go informationally Galt. But I'll be blunt here in a way that cuts against my professional interests: we give too much attention to national politics, which we can do very little to change, and too little attention to state and local politics, where our voices can matter much more. The time spent spraying outrage over Trump's latest tweet--which is, to be clear, what he wants you to do; the point is to suck up all the media oxygen so he retains control of the conversation--is better spent checking in with what's happening in your own neighborhood."

p. 265

Recent Posts

See All

Barbarian Days, William Finnegan

"I continued to doubt. But I was not afraid. I just didn't want this to end." "But surfing always had this horizon, this fear line, that made it different from other things, certainly from other sport

Emotions Revealed, Paul Ekman

"Emotions determine the quality of our lives" "Emotion is a process, a particular kind of automatic appraisal influenced by our evolutionary and personal past, in which we sense that something importa

bottom of page