The Psychology of Partisanship
Why We’re Polarized

The Psychology of Partisanship

Journalist Ezra Klein explores how partisanship in America has become synonymous with identity – and why that merging explains and reinforces faults in the US political system.  

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 astounded many people. But his victory was not a glitch in the system. Instead, argues Ezra Klein – co-founder of the news site Vox and host of The Ezra Klein Show podcast – it was the culmination of years of polarization in a political system that is beginning to show its deep and serious flaws. Once, membership in the Democratic or Republican parties said relatively little about an American’s sense of self. But today, Klein explains, people view the political opposition as nothing less than an existential threat.

How did the United States reach such levels of division? Klein succinctly sums it up: “identity politics,” burnished by deep-seated tribal instincts. Klein’s uncomfortable but incisive assessment leads commentator Fareed Zakaria to call this bestseller “powerful [and] intelligent.” Political scientist Francis Fukuyama says it is “superbly researched and written,” and author Andrew Sullivan considers it “well worth reading.” 

A Pivot Point in the 1960s

For decades, Klein relates, intraparty divides prevented America’s major political parties from solidifying their identities as either conservative or liberal. For example, FDR-era progressive Democrats turned a blind eye to the enforced segregation in the south championed by their “Dixiecrat” colleagues. But Klein notes that, when the national Democrats began to embrace civil rights in 1948, the party started to split.

When you vote for a candidate you’re not just voting for him or her….You’re voting to express your identity….You’re voting to say your group is right and worthy and the other group is wrong and unworthy. That’s bigger than any one candidate for president.(Ezra Klein)

The final straw for many southern Democrats came in 1964, Klein writes, when the Democratic Party supported the Civil Rights Act. Though a majority of House Republicans also voted for the Act, the Republican Party backed Barry Goldwater – who opposed the bill – for the presidency.

The Polarizing Power of Group Identity

Klein describes how issue-based differences in politics often lead to identity-based polarization: The more strongly individuals feel about an issue, the more they will align with the party that promises to fight for their view. Klein points to studies indicating that humans are quick to categorize themselves and others into in- and out-groups. What’s more, Klein notes, people will do anything to ensure that the gap between their group and others is as big as possible, even if doing so is detrimental to their own group.

When we participate in politics to express who we are, that’s a signal that politics has become an identity.(Ezra Klein)

Discrimination against out-groups not only arises from power conflicts and resource scarcities, Klein states, but also from the deep, inherently human desire to sort the world into “us” and “them.” Some scientists argue that, from an evolutionary perspective, individual survival is linked with the survival of the group. Hence, the author writes, group success or failure can feel as it were a matter of life or death, even if that is not, in fact, the case.

When Identities Merge

Human beings have many identities, but the problem today, in Klein’s estimation, is that individuals’ polarized political identities tend to bleed over into their nonpolitical selfhoods, such that a kind of political “mega-identity” forms. When this merging occurs, the author notes, a threat to one of a person’s identities feels like a threat to all of them, making political affiliation seem existential.

Klein recounts how, even when people know little about specific political policies, they feel they must protect and fight for their party. The declining tolerance individuals exhibit toward the opposing party reflects this development, Klein believes. Studies show that people tend to go with what their group thinks, even if facts or their own senses tell them that it is wrong. The author reveals that, the more people feel their identities are threatened, the worse their reasoning becomes; truth only wins out over falsehoods when no group loyalties are at stake.

Modern Media’s Complicity

Klein indicates that the advent of digital media ushered in a new emphasis on group identity, in part by focusing on the loudest, most outraged voices. On the internet, news sources advance narratives that help people express their selfhood, Klein states.

The more political media you consume, the more warped your perspective of the other side becomes.(Ezra Klein)

Journalism shapes the political world by deciding what stories, facts and events to publish. In this sense, Klein argues, the media contributed to Trump’s election success: His outrageousness garnered him exponentially more press coverage than any other candidate, Republican or Democratic, and it helped to legitimize his campaign.

A Diagnosis, Not a Cure

According to Klein, polarization itself is not inherently evil. Indeed, he notes, “The alternative to polarization often isn’t consensus but suppression.” Klein’s proposed solutions range from the possible to the quixotic, but at its heart, his book is not a guidebook for change as much as a readable distillation of today’s top scholarship on political and social polarization. In that, it succeeds admirably. At the same time, the text may seem, to some, to offer cover to those who knowingly fan partisanship’s flames for their own gain. Still, readers tired of endless finger-pointing may find some respite in Klein’s resistance to laying the burden of blame on any one person or party. 

Worthwhile texts also on this topic include ”Rethinking Polarization” by Jonathan Rauch; Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason by William Davies; and The Storm before the Calm: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond by George Friedman.

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