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Why America is so polarized with Ezra Klein: podcast and transcript

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And I think the title of that episode a year ago is, I think we called it “How Bad Is It,” which was just the two of us spending an hour wrestling with all of the ways in which these deep structural defects in American democracy are manifesting themselves in the era of Trump in ways that feel like they're putting this stress on the structure where you can see if you imagine beams that have weight on them, you can start to see it a cartoon, the little cracks showing up in the beam right before the thing splits and cracks.And the conversation was a lot about polarization, about the asymmetries between the two political coalitions that enabled Donald Trump to be president. And yet, at the end of the day, is any Republican senator going to vote to remove Trump?Probably not because there is no persuasion because fundamentally this is a power show down between the two coalitions and the two coalitions as represented by different political parties in the United States Senate or representative of something much greater, which are two large coalitions of Americans that are increasingly distant from each other and increasingly polarized and increasingly at each other's throats.And there's a feeling in which the basic structure of American governance is at odds with the status of our polarization, which is there's all these veto points in American governance. I think that Ezra has done this amazing job of uniquely synthesizing a whole ton of political science and history and social science and just insight to lay out almost a systematic diagram of why we are where we are and why we're so polarized.The book comes out January 28th, but right now I'm looking at a screen of the impeachment hearings, and it does seem to me like the impeachment trial is the perfect microcosm.EZRA KLEIN: The book come to life.CHRIS HAYES: Yes, it is the book come to life and I want to talk about the book. There's something here that needs to be explained, and I'll maybe do this in a slightly different way than I would normally do the book, which is to say that one of the themes that comes into play later in the analysis is simply this, that the American political system is unusual and it is built, among other things, to resist political parties. And they're doing that in a context where if some people want more democracy, defined here as allowing white men to vote and some people are more concerned about democracy as a form of mob rule, and then they build this system to balance these things.And then, what happens over the arc of American history is, of course, political parties form. The core thrust, or my understanding, the core thesis of the book is this collision course between two things, highly polarized parties that are polarized along both ideological and identity lines, and a presidential system under the U.S. Constitution that is an anathema to systems of high levels of polarization.EZRA KLEIN: Yeah, and I think it's worth being specific on what that means. It is in that system that polarization makes America functionally ungovernable.CHRIS HAYES: And there's a famous political scientist who you cite named Juan Linz who wrote this famous paper and then, I think, book called “The Perils of Presidentialism,” which is basically about the fact that these kinds of systems like the U.S. Constitution, these presidential systems in which you have divided legitimacy... And the answer that Linz gives to why it worked here, and he's writing this, I think it's a 1991 paper, is that America uniquely has these very mixed political parties.You have liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Instead, you have long periods in Congress with the functional governing majority though it looks like it's Democratic; it's actually a coalition between Southern Conservative Dixiecrat Democrats and Republicans.And so, a lot of weird stuff is happening in American politics that makes it for this 20th century period, that is where we baseline our respect for the American political system. And the thing Linz says, which is the reason these systems break down, and think of something like Mitch McConnell and Merrick Garland is a good example here, is that what you end up having is collisions between two sides that represent different majorities or different forms of democratic legitimacy that have no way of resolving them.And so, one just, I think, easy way of thinking about this is imagine you get into a situation, just very, very simple to imagine, where Democrats begin routinely winning the presidency. The book opens, I think it opens with people writing in the mid-20th century about how the lack of polarization among American political parties is a problem that no one knows what they're actually voting for. And what's going on is that when the political scientists are writing that paper at 1950, and this paper gets covered on the front page of the New York Times, which is not normal for political science papers, it actually get some attention, their argument is that the parties and being mixed up in this way, in having a Democrat voting for Humphrey in Minnesota and a Democrat voting for a Strom Thurmond, voting for the same party, which represents these people's such different ideas about how we should be governed, is actually destroying the citizenry's ability to clearly and cleanly affect governance because the most important thing we do as citizens tends to be voting for a party.Politics actually is not just about the individual that you voted for, it's about the party you put in power. Oftentimes, the alternative polarization is suppression, not a comedy or even compromise.CHRIS HAYES: I thought this portion of the book, and I've read obviously this is a thing that I spent a lot of time thinking about and talking about the podcast, particularly Reconstruction giving way to the redeemers and the reestablishment of Jim Crow apartheid. It is so different from how things work now that it's crazy, but the reason that that was happening was the South, which would have given the crucial power to a conservative majority, cared more about retaining good relations with the Democratic Party so the Democratic Party would let it continue doing what it was doing, pushing racial hegemony, pushing white supremacy, than it did on a lot of these other things. Once you set that flywheel into motion, politics radically changes in a way that the fact that we've had parties called Republican, Democratic for so long, I think really obscures how different American politics is in its basic functioning in 2020 than in 1945.CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, so two things that strike me about this story, and I want to now move to that "What happens post-Civil Rights Act," because I think that's clearly the kind of breaking point of the resorting. You make this great point, which I just think is super interesting about the way- it's not like what happens is that the Civil Rights Act passes and the next year the South converts to Republican.It does begin to go for Barry Goldwater. The younger voters in the South are just conservative and they don't have quite the same experience with the Democratic Party-CHRIS HAYES: Right, they have no attachment.EZRA KLEIN: Republican invasion is not in quite as near living memory. They are the right wing of the Republican Party, and a day before, they had been Democrats.What you see is a sort of slow change in identity and it's the identity of being a white Christian voter in the South fusing to Republican political identities that is a large part of what is driving the GOP now. It is not, I think, the cause of all this, but it's certainly an important accelerant of it.This site is protected by recaptcha Privacy Policy | Terms of ServiceCHRIS HAYES: You know, one thing I just- and you treat this in books, I want to talk about it here is that I always really hate the language of tribalism or group conflict because it's like, well yeah, I mean the Jews and the Nazis were engaged in group conflict. Calling it group identity conflict is a mouthful.CHRIS HAYES: Right.EZRA KLEIN: I've not come up with a great answer on this part of it, but what you're saying is right. That one of the markers of this era is a real disagreement about who has holds and is losing power.CHRIS HAYES: Exactly, yes.EZRA KLEIN: One of the things for American politics over long periods of time was that there actually was a reasonably stable white Protestant Christian power structure that had a lot of control. Functionally what's happening is that the right, because of its geographic advantages, even as it has a numerical disadvantage, the right has a lot of political power, but it feels itself losing cultural power very quickly.CHRIS HAYES: Right.EZRA KLEIN: It feels itself underrepresented on TV. You can really see the way power is trading back and forth, and it's very badly exacerbated by the geographic warping of our political system, such as if the Republican Party had to win a majority of the public in order to win power, which is how things tend to work. The way in which the somewhat shrinking white demographic Republican power structure is able to hold on to power and also pass laws and Supreme Court decisions meant to keep power, which is leading to an increasingly small D democratic turn in the Republican Party, I think is a pretty dangerous and distorting part of all this.CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. It's the right thing to do," but they won't touch it because what they actually think will happen and what it will be seen as is, well that's probably four more Democratic senators.If you state the logic of this out loud, we are not going to give statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico despite the fact that you can do that just with a vote in the Senate and the House and a signature. The person that I came up with at the time, as we play this power game of what would the democratic version be, was actually Kanye West, hilariously.EZRA KLEIN: You know, somebody else just had this conversation with me and said they'd come up with Kanye West.CHRIS HAYES: Because it's like Kanye is charismatic-EZRA KLEIN: For me, it's Michael Avenatti.CHRIS HAYES: Right. So, I mean I have this chapter towards the end about party asymmetry, right?CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.EZRA KLEIN: Why has the Republican Party become something different than the Democratic Party given that they're both exposed to a lot of the same forces here? And I make the argument that the Democratic Party has this immune system of diversity and democracy.CHRIS HAYES: Exactly, yep.EZRA KLEIN: So, it's diversity on two levels. Exactly.EZRA KLEIN: And so, it selects for a very different kind of politician because you can't just go super deep in the same way.The second thing that I do think is really important is that Democrats expose themselves and trust a much broader variety of media than Republicans do.CHRIS HAYES: Yep.EZRA KLEIN: So, there's a new Pew poll that just came out, last week actually, and it shows, it looked at 30 different media outlets and Republicans trusted seven of them. So, the fact that also Republicans are much more hermetic in terms of their information.CHRIS HAYES: Yep.EZRA KLEIN: I think is also part of why somebody like Trump was able to run up the middle there in a way that it's a lot harder for somebody to do on the democratic side.And then finally, and I think this is really important, if Democrats did what Republicans did in 2016, they would lose.CHRIS HAYES: That's the other thing. Exactly.EZRA KLEIN: If Democrats ran a candidate who got 46 percent of the two party vote, that candidate wouldn't be President.CHRIS HAYES: Right.EZRA KLEIN: If they ran Senate candidates who got fewer votes, they wouldn't be in charge in the Senate, which currently they're not despite getting more votes. If they had in 2018, split the popular vote, if Democrats had won 50 percent plus one of the popular vote, Kevin McCarthy would be speaker of the House, not Nancy Pelosi.CHRIS HAYES: Right.EZRA KLEIN: And so, there's a very deep thing where the Republican Party is allowed to have a strategy that wins in the minority votes because it wins in a majority of land. If he was more identity stack, which is to say, I don't think, and I'd be very curious what you think of this, I don't think a female African-American candidate from New York could run as a Democratic Socialist and win in the Democratic Party right now.CHRIS HAYES: No. No. It forced him to coalitionally get better with groups that he wasn't used to, which is not how the Republican Party works right now.CHRIS HAYES: No, that's the thing. Trumpism can work in a way that it couldn't on the democratic side.EZRA KLEIN: I think just something that's important to appreciate about polarization and it's important for appreciating how Donald Trump won because the great mystery of him is how does this totally bizarre, aberrant figure crash into the Republican Party, say that he prefers people who weren't captured in war, like John McCain. It creates a real opening for demagogues and dangerous players, is that as the parties become more different, it becomes much more rational to put aside whatever qualms you have with your standard bear, just vote for them anyway.So, I mean, if Kanye West was running against, I don't know, Marco Rubio, but Kanye West is going to appoint liberal judges in particular to an open Supreme court seat that would swing the entire Supreme court.CHRIS HAYES: Yep.EZRA KLEIN: And Kanye West had Pramila Jayapal as his vice president, not, I'm saying that she would serve particularly in that capacity, but kind of going on down the list here.CHRIS HAYES: No, absolutely.EZRA KLEIN: It would become rational to say, "Look, I'm not voting for him. It just doesn't work that way anymore.EZRA KLEIN: It's a key difference in politics now and I think it messes with a lot of people's thinking and I think by the way, this is a thing that even changes how one might think about the democratic primary, look, I think that there's probably a two to three point swing between the various front runners there that you could imagine. I don't even really myself know which way it goes, but if you want to ask who's more electable between Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, I am open to arguments that one or the other can do 2.5 points better than the other ones can, particularly in key states.But what is not going to happen, just as it didn't happen to Trump in 2016, but did happen to people like Goldwater and McGovern, is that they win with 65 percent of the two-party vote or they lose with 40 percent of it. It actually says, "Look, there's some in our party who believe in abortion on demand and some in our party who believe it's totally wrong and we respect that difference of opinion." The parties, you can move between parties much more because the parties are much less different if you're a Democrat looking at Nixon in '72 and the McGovern election, well, Nelson Rockefeller had liberalized abortion laws in New York.CHRIS HAYES: Right.EZRA KLEIN: Bertrand Nixon wanted a universal healthcare and potentially universal basic income. Right?CHRIS HAYES: Right.EZRA KLEIN: The answer is Donald Trump is our leader and we are on his side not because we love him or think that what he did is even right, although many on the right do love him, but because we are absolutely not going to risk the left getting power in this country. Polarization for all the reasons we've discussed, makes it harder to do anything big.CHRIS HAYES: Right.EZRA KLEIN: So, every time if I wander out with solutions, and I do have some in the book, I talk about democratizing things like proportional representation, election-CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. So one, this is much more description than it is a prescription, but two, I think that what is going to happen is either we are going to get a legitimacy crisis or demographics are going to change the situation such that some of these distortions begin to fade out of the system.CHRIS HAYES: Yep.EZRA KLEIN: One of the just ironies of it all right now is as bad as things feel, I always tell people to not confuse their level and their trend in American life. And so it was bad, but it can be bad without being a total crisis and most periods in American politics have been pretty bad if you wipe away the nostalgia and the profiles, encourage narration that we now impose on them.CHRIS HAYES: To me, the best case scenario is essentially the California scenario which is back 15 years ago and I know you and I were sort of around during that period of time there was like a mini think tank…EZRA KLEIN: I mean, I grew up in California in the middle of all this.CHRIS HAYES: Right. It also has very diverse demographics, but for reasons both of how Texas Republicans have sort of set up the system or rigged the system, depending on how you want to look at it, but also other factors, it's at least for now, retained quite at red character.But what I think is sort of interesting about thinking about those demographic paths is number one, they rely on competition actually being able to express itself.CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.EZRA KLEIN: They rely on the system not getting so rigged that the changes cannot actually be seen. But because he didn't lose Trumpism has taken over the party and entrenched itself.And so, I think one of the big questions, even if you imagine demographic change cutting through some of these divisions and restructuring it so Republicans cannot win, running exactly this strategy is does Republican Party get so captured by it's base, which does not want to see it diversified, does not want to be told that the future of the Republican Party has to be this more diverse inclusive future, does it get trapped in a sort of almost an innovator's dilemma situation where it can't change itself and so has to become like a cornered Wolverine fighting out the rules of American politics? Or do you, at some point do they embrace a more diverse set of standard bearers and try to reform what they are in the way the Democrats did in the late eighties into early nineties and I don't know the answer to that, but I think that's one of the interesting questions.CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.EZRA KLEIN: That's why I do think an important thing in American politics, both for the system and just as a value is democracy is good. It's a good thing and it is good when political parties have to actually appeal to the country as it exists and so both as a value that people should be pushing towards, a rich understanding of democracy, but also as a way to fix a system that has been somewhat deranged by the Republican Party finding that it can maintain this character by choosing a sort of minority rule approach to politics. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to is this happening?Related Links"Why We're Polarized" by Ezra Klein"White Identity Politics with Michael Tesler" (Oct. 30, 2018)"The Information Crisis with David Roberts" (Dec. 4, 2018)"How Bad Is It?

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