Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized puts forward the proposition in its opening pages that nothing about the outcome of the 2016 American presidential election was unusual. Nothing weird. Nothing haywire. Nothing like U.S. democracy gone off the rails.
Yes, Americans had elected a man who bragged about the size of his penis, mused that his whole life had been motivated by greed, made no mystery of his bigotry and sexism, called himself a genius while re-tweeting conspiracy theories in caps lock and was declared by 61 per cent of voters in exit polls to be unqualified for the job. But the campaign, by the numbers, was mostly a typical 21st-century contest between a Republican and a Democrat.
Klein, co-founder and editor-at-large of the U.S. news and opinion website Vox, lays out the demographic breakdown of the most recent elections: The percentages of men voting for Donald Trump pretty much matched the percentages of men voting for Republican candidates in the three previous elections. The percentages of women voting for him was only slightly lower than in the three earlier elections.
His percentage of white-voter support was squarely in the middle of the pack for Republican presidential candidates in the elections of 2004, 2008 and 2012, and, as for the votes of white born-again Christians, Mr. Trump won more of them — 80 per cent — than his three Republican predecessors.
The simple definition of what happened in 2016 was that over-representation of white voters without college education in electorally key states won him the election.
The thesis of Mr. Klein’s book is that Americans have become so locked into their political identities that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition that can force them to change their minds.
Mr. Klein writes that Americans’ political identities have become mega-identities cemented to their level of education, their religiosity, where they live, where they shop, what kind of cars they drive, what they eat, what kind of music they listen to, what kind of beer they drink (light macro brews vs dark micro brews), how they raise their children — all now associated with the parties they support (along with their views on climate change, science and immigration).
Differing tastes, he says, are deepening and reinforcing political differences.
Yet on one key point, his thinking comes across as too narrow — he declares firmly that the cause of these differences, of this cleavage, is cultural, not economic, an argument not universally held in the academic community. There are strong advocates for both views and, indeed, advocates for a mixed view.
For example, University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart, considered one of the leading American experts on populism, believes that authoritarian populism emerged in the wake of the rise of inequality and the decline of the real income of the developed world’s working class.
However, Inglehart also includes cultural backlash as one of populism’s causal forces, a view shared by social scientists in both the U.S. and Canada.
Why Mr. Klein skips over the economic argument is a mystery. He doesn’t mention inequality, despite writing about a country that has the highest rate of inequality in the developed world.
He does point out, however, that political activism has ceased to be about persuading people to change their minds. Rather, it means getting supporters out to vote (hence the burr under the saddle of Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, hero of the young who are least likely to vote).
Mr. Klein writes that as recently as two or three decades ago, Americans saw themselves as having overlapping and intersecting political identities, whilst U.S. partisan strategists were debating internally whether the role of parties was to calm public divisions or to represent them. Now he cites statistics showing that Americans increasingly see supporters and leaders of the political party other than their own as threats to the well-being of the nation. Thus, he says, the last American presidential election (and likely the one coming this November) make more sense if Mr. Trump is seen as not the cause of Americans’ division but merely the vessel.
He quotes at length from research done by University of North Carolina political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, authors of Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide, who state that Mr. Trump is closer to the average American than his Democratic opponents, and much closer than the country’s elites — especially America’s elite media — have surmised.
The great dividing line presented in the Hetherington-Weiler writing is cultural, writes Mr. Klein.
It is fear: on one side, fear of loss, fear of scarcity, fear of terrorism, fear of cultural challenge, fear of immigrants; on the other side openness to new experience, to optimism, to open acceptance of the “other,” to being unconventional. It is two incommensurable Americas with vanishing middle ground.
Profs. Hetherington and Weiler say a lot of Americans are susceptible to the kinds of rhetoric that won Mr. Trump the presidency, especially his appeals to people’s innate xenophobia and fears of threats both internal and external. The liberals, people of colour, and traditional conservatives who are outraged by Trump’s comportment — those are the real outliers.
The resulting phenomenon is known as affective polarization — the extent to which people feel negative partisanship to political parties other than their own. And, outside, the U.S., where it is found most alive and well in developed democracies (although the evidence is somewhat limited) is in Canada.
A study of affective polarization in nine developed democracies published in January of this year for the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research concludes that Canada is most like its southern neighbour, an analysis corresponding to work done in recent years by Ottawa-based EKOS Research Associates.
One of the most interesting data differences between Americans and Canadians is that the percentage of Americans calling themselves conservative (according to Mr. Klein) has long overwhelmed the percentage who identify as liberal — 35-to-17 per cent as of January 2019 with still a large but significantly politically committed chunk in the middle — whereas north of the border, EKOS finds pretty much the reverse: 60 per cent of Canadians identifying as centre-left or liberal and about 35 per cent as conservative with virtually no one in the middle.
Nonetheless, Canada’s two major national parties, Liberals and Conservatives, are showing largely the same polarization as Democrats and Republicans.
First of all, the historic Conservative Party — which could accommodate centre terrain on the most divisive issues of the day—has largely disappeared. At a guess, this may explain why most senior members of the party have shown a reluctance to enter the party’s current leadership campaign.
Four years ago, EKOS found a 10-percentage-point gap between Liberals and Conservatives who selected climate change as the top issue of political concern. That gap is now 46 percentage points.
More than 90 per cent of Canadians who identify with the political centre-left, which is 65 per cent of adult citizens, think that Canada now has a climate emergency. For people who identify as Conservative or People’s Party of Canada supporters, the figure is less than 30 per cent.
At the opening of the 21st century, almost 50 per cent of Canadian voters said they were neither small-L liberals nor small-C conservatives. Today, those saying “neither” are less than half of what they were 20 years ago—everyone is picking sides.
It means the ability of Canadians to find centre terrain on the most divisive issues of the day is disappearing, just as it is across the border.
When it comes to causes, Klein narrows the argument down, but, realistically, the causes of this division are myriad. One compelling one that he doesn’t examine shows up in the work of professors Hetherington and Weiler. The subtitle of their book (How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide), refers to a study that was proven to determine political leanings.
Respondents were asked which qualities they thought it was more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders; curiosity or good manners; self-reliance or obedience; being considerate or well-behaved.
The first answers were given by people described by Profs. Hetherington and Weiler as holding a “fluid” (or open) world-view; the second by those with a “fixed” (or closed) world-view — Democrat/liberals vs Republican/conservatives.
EKOS used the same four questions in an exit poll for the 2019 election and found they nearly perfectly predicted who voted Conservative.
The surprise in the book is the depth and force of the multi-layered political identities. Who would have thought, for example, that child-raising beliefs (and, yes, they’re cultural) could be so precisely predictive of voting behaviour.
The disappointment is that Mr. Klein doesn’t really offer a path out of this chasm of polarization.