Why We're Polarized

by Ezra Klein

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: May 15, 2024
Why We're Polarized
Why We're Polarized

Discover key insights from "Why We're Polarized" and learn how to navigate political identities and group dynamics in a divided society. Explore the book's takeaways on media's role, shifting political strategies, and the stable underlying partisan landscape.

What are the big ideas?

Election Consistency Amid Unconventionality

Despite the unconventional nature of Trump's candidacy in 2016, the election results and voting patterns remained consistent with previous elections, suggesting a stable underlying partisan landscape.

Partisan Identity Overrides Personal Identity

Voters' attachment to their partisan identities often supersedes their individual opinions about candidates, showing a shift where party affiliation governs political preferences more than individual candidate qualities.

Polarization as the Central Narrative

The book emphasizes the role of polarization in shaping American politics, arguing that it drives many of the system's dysfunctions by aligning institutions and the public in increasingly distinct ideological camps.

Media's Role in Deepening Divides

With the rise of digital media, people can more easily select content that aligns with their beliefs, exacerbating political polarization by reinforcing existing views rather than offering diverse perspectives.

The Shift in Political Landscape from Persuasion to Mobilization

Modern political strategies have moved from persuading the undecided to mobilizing the base, reflecting a significant change in how electoral campaigns are conducted.

Navigating Political Identities and Group Dynamics

The book provides an in-depth look at how individual and group identities intersect with politics, shaping behaviors and perceptions in a deeply divided society.

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Election Consistency Amid Unconventionality

Despite the unconventional nature of Trump's 2016 campaign, the election results and voting patterns remained consistent with previous elections. This suggests a stable underlying partisan landscape in American politics.

The partisan divide in the electorate has deepened in recent decades. Voters have become increasingly sorted along party lines, with fewer persuadable "swing" voters. Instead, both parties have focused more on mobilizing their base of strong partisans. This has led to sharper contrasts between the parties and made it easier for voters to identify with one side.

At the same time, negative partisanship - a dislike of the opposing party rather than affinity for one's own - has become a driving force in American politics. Voters are more motivated by fear and anger towards the other side than by positive support for their own party's agenda. This further entrenches partisan divisions.

The stability in voting patterns despite Trump's unorthodox campaign indicates that these deeper structural changes in the electorate have created a durable partisan landscape. Voters' identities and allegiances have become more fixed, making elections more predictable even as the candidates and rhetoric become more unconventional.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight that the 2016 election results and voting patterns remained consistent with previous elections, suggesting a stable underlying partisan landscape:

  • Despite Trump's unconventional candidacy, he was able to win the electoral college even though 61% of voters said he was unqualified to be president and most voters had a higher opinion of Clinton. This suggests the election results were not as aberrant as they may have seemed.

  • The margin of Trump's victory was very narrow, with Clinton potentially winning if just 40,000 voters in 3 states had changed their minds. This indicates the election was decided by a small number of voters, rather than a dramatic shift in the electorate.

  • The context notes that "anything can explain the results" given the narrow margin, suggesting the outcome was not due to a single, extraordinary factor, but rather the typical mix of factors that influence close elections.

  • The context discusses the rise of "negative partisanship" - voters being driven more by dislike of the opposing party than support for their own party. This suggests the underlying partisan dynamics were consistent with previous elections, even if the candidates were unconventional.

  • The context states that "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." This points to a stable partisan landscape, even as voters' feelings towards the parties have become more negative.

In summary, the examples highlight how the 2016 election results, while unconventional in many ways, were ultimately shaped by the same underlying partisan dynamics that have characterized American politics for decades, suggesting a stable partisan landscape despite the unusual nature of Trump's candidacy.

Partisan Identity Overrides Personal Identity

Voters' partisan identities now dominate their political preferences, overriding individual opinions about candidates. This represents a significant shift in how Americans engage with politics. Rather than evaluating candidates based on their unique qualities, voters are increasingly basing their choices on which party the candidate belongs to.

This dynamic is known as negative partisanship. Voters are driven more by a desire to defeat the opposing party than by support for their own party's policies or candidates. They feel intense animosity toward the other side, which unites them more strongly than positive feelings toward their own party.

This partisanship has become a mega-identity, fusing together various aspects of a person's identity - their religion, race, neighborhood, even consumer habits. A single political choice can now signal a whole host of personal characteristics. This integration of identities makes partisan affiliation an even more powerful force in shaping political behavior.

The consequence is that voters often prioritize party loyalty over objective candidate qualifications. Studies show that partisans will choose a less qualified co-partisan over a more qualified opponent, demonstrating how deeply rooted these partisan identities have become. This dynamic poses challenges for the functioning of a healthy democracy.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight that partisan identity overrides personal identity:

  • The study by Iyengar and Westwood found that when evaluating high school students for a scholarship, Republicans and Democrats cared more about the political party of the student than the student's GPA - about 80% of partisans chose the student from their own party, even if the other student had a higher GPA.

  • This partisan bias was stronger than racial bias - when the candidates were equally qualified, about 78% of African Americans chose the candidate of the same race, compared to 80% of partisans choosing their co-partisan.

  • The context states that partisanship "simply trumped academic excellence" in this scholarship evaluation task, showing how partisan identity can override more objective, individual-level factors.

  • The context also discusses how the NFL became polarized along partisan lines after the Colin Kaepernick protest, with Republicans' favorability of the NFL plummeting while Democrats' remained unchanged. This shows how a non-political identity like football fandom became subsumed by partisan identity.

  • The passage notes that being an "independent" is more about personal branding than actual voting behavior, as many "independent" voters are actually strongly partisan but want to project an image of moderation.

Polarization as the Central Narrative

The book presents polarization as the central narrative driving dysfunction in American politics. It argues that a feedback loop has emerged where political institutions and the public are becoming increasingly aligned in distinct ideological camps.

As political institutions and actors become more polarized to appeal to a polarized public, the public in turn becomes further polarized. This self-reinforcing cycle is at the heart of the systemic problems plaguing the American political system.

The book contends that this dynamic has replaced the previous model where political parties were expected to offer voters a clear choice between alternatives, rather than a muddled middle ground. The rise of polarization has robbed citizens of their ability to meaningfully influence the course of public affairs through their party affiliation and voting choices.

Overcoming this polarization trap is critical to restoring the health and functionality of American democracy. The book will explore strategies for how individuals can become more mindful of how their own political identities are being activated and manipulated, and ways to cultivate a less polarized relationship with the political sphere.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight that polarization is the central narrative driving American politics:

  • The book argues that "the master story—the one that drives almost all divides and most fundamentally shapes the behavior of participants—is the logic of polarization." This logic is described as a "feedback cycle" where "to appeal to a more polarized public, political institutions and political actors behave in more polarized ways" which then "further polarize the public."

  • The context describes how political identity is a key locus of polarization, noting that "everyone engaged in American politics is engaged in identity politics" as people "form and fold identities constantly, naturally" in response to political issues and institutions.

  • The example of the 1957 civil rights filibuster by Strom Thurmond illustrates how intense polarization around civil rights issues drove party polarization, as Thurmond broke from a deal made by other southern senators to allow the bill to pass in order to appeal to segregationist voters and further his own political career.

  • The contrast between the less polarized mid-20th century political system, which was built on a "foundation of racial bigotry", and the more polarized modern system, which the author argues is less ideologically extreme, shows how polarization is not inherently linked to extremism, but rather a distinct dynamic shaping political institutions and behavior.

  • The point that polarization begets polarization, as issue-based polarization leads to identity-based polarization and vice versa, is a key mechanism underlying the central role of polarization described in the book.

Media's Role in Deepening Divides

The digital media landscape has fundamentally changed how people consume political information. With an abundance of content options, individuals can now easily curate their media diet to align with their existing beliefs and identities. This phenomenon, known as the echo chamber effect, deepens political polarization.

When people only engage with media that reinforces their views, they become less exposed to diverse perspectives. Instead of encountering information that challenges their beliefs, they encounter content that reaffirms their positions. This self-selection of ideologically-aligned media further entrenches people's existing political stances, making them less open to compromise or nuance.

The feedback loop of polarization is self-perpetuating. As political institutions and actors become more polarized to appeal to a divided public, the public in turn becomes more polarized, driving institutions to polarize even further. This cycle erodes the middle ground and makes it increasingly difficult for people to find common ground across partisan lines.

Overcoming this dynamic requires intentional efforts to seek out diverse perspectives and engage in constructive dialogue with those who hold different views. By cultivating identity mindfulness and a politics of place, individuals can break free from the pull of polarization and rediscover the shared humanity that transcends partisan divides.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight about media's role in deepening political divides:

  • The study that paid 1,220 Twitter users to follow accounts from the opposing political party found that this exposure did not moderate their views, but instead increased issue-based polarization. Republicans became more conservative and Democrats became more liberal after following the opposing side.

  • The context explains that when a liberal is confronted with a Trump tweet, their response is not to reflect on the merits, but to instantly come up with arguments against it. Similarly, a conservative seeing an AOC tweet is more likely to be offended than convinced. This "identity-protective cognition" leads people to double down on their existing views rather than consider opposing perspectives.

  • The rise of digital media has created an "all-out war for the attention" of audiences who are no longer captive to a limited set of news sources. This has incentivized media outlets to cater to the interests and identities of specific partisan audiences, rather than trying to appeal to a broad, non-partisan readership.

  • The context describes how algorithms on platforms like YouTube can serve as "engines of radicalization", by constantly recommending more extreme content that aligns with a user's existing views and pushes them further towards the ideological poles.

  • The shift from a "monopolistic bundle" of news to a highly competitive digital media landscape has transformed political journalism from a model of appealing to a wide audience to one of serving the intensely politically invested, who are more interested in content that affirms their partisan identities than challenges their views.

The Shift in Political Landscape from Persuasion to Mobilization

The political landscape has undergone a dramatic shift in recent decades. **Campaigns have moved away from persuading undecided voters and instead focus on **mobilizing their partisan base. This represents a fundamental change in electoral strategy.

In the past, campaigns aimed to sway independent and swing voters to win elections. But as the electorate has become more polarized, it has become harder to convince those in the political middle. Instead, campaigns now prioritize energizing their core supporters to turn out and vote.

This shift towards base mobilization over persuasion has significant implications. It means candidates are tailoring their messages and policies to appeal to their ideological base rather than trying to find common ground with the opposition. As a result, the political divide has deepened, with the parties offering starker contrasts to voters.

The move away from persuasion and towards mobilization is both a cause and consequence of growing political polarization. As the parties cater more to their bases, the electorate becomes further entrenched in its partisan identities. This self-reinforcing cycle continues to reshape the dynamics of American politics.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight about the shift from persuasion to mobilization in modern political strategies:

  • By 2012, 32% of independents and 45% of strong partisans said they'd heard from a campaign, indicating a focus on mobilizing the base rather than persuading undecided voters.

  • In 2000, the Bush campaign contacted 17% of independents but 39% of strong Republican partisans, showing an early shift towards base mobilization over persuasion.

  • The Democratic Party nominated Bill Clinton in 1992, a "white, southern centrist" designed to cross-pressure the electorate through persuasion, but later nominated Barack Obama in 2008, a candidate focused more on mobilizing the Democratic base.

  • Hillary Clinton in 2016 ran more like Obama than her husband Bill, focusing on mobilizing Democratic constituencies like voters of color rather than persuading undecided voters.

  • The rise of small-donor fundraising has empowered candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump who were able to bypass traditional party structures and appeal directly to their bases, further weakening the hold of political parties.

Key terms:

  • Base mobilization: Focusing campaign efforts on energizing and turning out the party's core supporters, rather than persuading undecided or swing voters.
  • Persuasion: Attempting to win over undecided or swing voters through targeted messaging and outreach.

The key insight is that our political identities have become deeply intertwined with our other core identities, such as race, religion, geography, and culture. This has led to a heightened sense of group dynamics and tribalism in politics, where we view those with different political affiliations as threatening out-groups rather than fellow citizens with different views.

This political identity fusion has created a feedback loop where our political allegiances now shape how we see the world and each other. We are more likely to view political disagreements through the lens of identity conflict rather than substantive policy differences. This makes us less willing to compromise or find common ground, as we perceive the stakes as a zero-sum battle for group status and power.

To navigate this landscape, the book advocates for identity mindfulness - the practice of being aware of how our various identities are being activated and manipulated by the political environment. This self-awareness can help us regain some control over our emotional and behavioral responses, allowing us to engage in politics in a more constructive way. The goal is to weaken the grip of our political mega-identities and rediscover a politics of place - focusing more on local issues and community-level engagement where our individual voices can have greater impact.

Here are key examples from the context that illustrate the insight about navigating political identities and group dynamics:

  • The term "identity politics" is often used to diminish the concerns of marginalized groups, while ignoring how all politics is influenced by identity, including for dominant groups. The context states "If you're black and you're worried about police brutality, that's identity politics. If you're a woman and you're worried about the male-female pay gap, that's identity politics. But if you're a rural gun owner decrying universal background checks as tyranny, or a billionaire CEO complaining that high tax rates demonize success, or a Christian insisting on Nativity scenes in public squares—well, that's just good, old-fashioned politics."

  • Over the past 50 years, people's partisan identities have become "merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities" which has "attained a weight that is breaking our institutions and tearing at the bonds that hold this country together." This shows how political identities have become deeply intertwined with other core aspects of identity.

  • The concept of "identity mindfulness" is proposed as a way for individuals to become more aware of how their identities are being activated and manipulated by politics, in order to gain more control over their relationship with politics. This involves noticing physical reactions and emotional responses when certain identities are triggered.

  • The idea of "rediscovering a politics of place" suggests that people can disengage from divisive national politics and instead focus their civic engagement on local issues and community-level change, as exemplified by the story of Erik Hagerman withdrawing from national news to focus on restoring land in his local area.

  • Research shows that "civil war is 'an average of nearly twelve times less probable in societies where ethnicity is cross-cut by socio-economic class, geographic region and religion.'" This illustrates how the intersection and overlap of different identities can reduce political polarization and conflict.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "Why We're Polarized" that resonated with readers.

Unfortunately, the term “identity politics” has been weaponized. It is most often used by speakers to describe politics as practiced by members of historically marginalized groups. If you’re black and you're worried about police brutality, that’s identity politics. If you’re a woman and you’re worried about the male-female pay gap, that’s identity politics. But if you’re a rural gun owner decrying universal background checks as tyranny, or a billionaire CEO complaining that high tax rates demonize success, or a Christian insisting on Nativity scenes in public squares — well, that just good, old fashioned politics. With a quick sleight of hand, identity becomes something that only marginalized groups have.

The term “identity politics,” in this usage, obscures rather than illuminates; it’s used to diminish and discredit the concerns of the weaker groups by making them look self-interested, special pleading in order to clear the agenda for the concerns of stronger groups, which are framed as more rational, proper topics for political debate. But in wielding identity as a blade, we have lost it as a lens, blinding ourselves in a bid for political advantage. WE are left searching in vaid for what we refuse to allow ourselves to see.

The concept of identity politics is often misused to discredit the concerns of marginalized groups, implying that their interests are self-serving and less important. This term is selectively applied to diminish the voices of weaker groups, while stronger groups' interests are presented as more rational and legitimate topics for debate. By doing so, we lose sight of the true significance of identity in shaping our political views and actions. As a result, we fail to acknowledge the inherent biases and power imbalances that exist in society.

The simplest way to activate someone's identity is to threaten it, to tell them they don't deserve what they have, to make them consider that it might be taken away. The experience of losing status -- and being told your loss of status is part of society's march to justice -- is itself radicalizing. There's a quote I occasionally see ricochet around social media. "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression." There's truth to this line, but it cuts both ways. To the extent that it's true that a loss of privilege feels like oppression, that feeling needs to be taken seriously, both because it's real, and because, left to fester, it can be weaponised by demagogues and reactionaries.

When people feel their privileged status is being threatened, they may perceive it as a loss of power or identity. This sense of loss can be intense and even radicalizing, leading them to resist changes that promote equality. It's essential to acknowledge and address these feelings, rather than dismissing them, to prevent demagogues from exploiting them for their own gain.

The news is supposed to be a mirror held up to the world, but the world is far too vast to fit in our mirror. The fundamental thing the media does all day, every day, is decide what to cover — decide, that is, what is newsworthy.

Here’s the dilemma: to decide what to cover is to become the shaper of the news rather than a mirror held up to the news. It makes journalists actors rather than observers. It annihilates our fundamental conception of ourselves. And yet it’s the most important decision we make. If we decide to give more coverage to Hillary Clinton’s emails than to her policy proposals — which is what we did — then we make her emails more important to the public’s understanding of her character and potential presidency than her policy proposals. In doing so, we shape not just the news but the election, and thus the country.

While I’m critical of the specific decision my industry made in that case, this problem is inescapable. The news media isn’t just an actor in politics. It’s arguably the most powerful actor in politics. It’s the primary intermediary between what politicians do and what the public knows. The way we try to get around this is by conceptually outsourcing the decisions about what we cover to the idea of newsworthiness. If we simply cover what’s newsworthy, then we’re not the ones making those decisions — it’s the neutral, external judgment of news worthiness that bears responsibility. The problem is that no one, anywhere, has a rigorous definition of newsworthiness, much less a definition that they actually follow.

The media's role in shaping public opinion is a significant one, as they decide what information to present and how to present it. This decision-making process can influence the narrative and ultimately affect the outcome of events, such as elections. By choosing what to cover and how to cover it, the media becomes an active participant in politics rather than a neutral observer. This power can be both constructive and destructive, depending on how it is wielded.

Comprehension Questions

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How well do you understand the key insights in "Why We're Polarized"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How does the stability of voting patterns in an unconventional political campaign reflect on the electorate's partisan alignment?
2. What factors contribute to the deepening of the partisan divide in recent elections?
3. How does negative partisanship affect voter behavior and election outcomes?
4. What does the narrow margin in a major election suggest about voter distribution and decision factors?
5. What does the term 'negative partisanship' refer to in political behavior?
6. How does partisan identity influence voter behavior towards candidates during elections?
7. In what way has partisanship become a 'mega-identity' according to the context?
8. What are the implications of strong partisan identities for the functioning of a democracy?
9. What is the feedback loop described as central to the increasing polarization in politics?
10. How has the rise of polarization altered the choice voters have between political parties?
11. What strategies are suggested to overcome the cycle of polarization?
12. How does issue-based polarization contribute to identity-based polarization?
13. How does the modern polarized political landscape differ from the mid-20th century political system in terms of ideological extremism?
14. What happens when individuals selectively expose themselves to media that aligns with their existing beliefs?
15. How does the echo chamber effect contribute to political polarization?
16. What is the role of the feedback loop in the polarization of political institutions and the public?
17. Why is it challenging to find common ground in deeply polarized societies?
18. What measures can be taken to mitigate the effects of media-driven polarization?
19. What has been a primary shift in campaign strategies in recent decades?
20. Why have campaigns reduced their focus on persuading independent and swing voters?
21. What are the implications of prioritizing base mobilization over persuasion in political campaigns?
22. How does the emphasis on mobilizing a party's base contribute to political polarization?
23. What does the term 'base mobilization' mean?
24. How does political identity intertwine with other aspects of one's identity, such as race or religion, affect group dynamics in politics?
25. What is identity mindfulness and how can it help individuals deal with political environments?
26. What does the 'politics of place' refer to, and how does it benefit individual and community engagement?
27. Why is the fusion of political identity with other personal identities problematic for societal harmony?

Action Questions

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"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "Why We're Polarized". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can you strengthen your own understanding of your political alignments to better participate in the democratic process?
2. What actions can you take to mitigate the influence of negative partisanship in your community?
3. How can you critically assess your own partisan biases and aim to form opinions based on candidate qualifications rather than party affiliation?
4. What steps can you take to encourage a dialogue that bridges political divides in your community or social circles?
5. How can you critically evaluate your sources of information to ensure they contribute to a more nuanced understanding rather than reinforcing polarization?
6. How can you actively diversify your media consumption to include a broader range of perspectives?
7. What steps can you take to engage in constructive dialogue with individuals who hold differing political views from your own?
8. How can individuals engage with political campaigns to ensure their issues of importance are addressed in the era of base mobilization?
9. In what ways can voters encourage political candidates to adopt a more inclusive approach rather than solely focusing on base mobilization?
10. How can you practice identity mindfulness to better manage your reactions to political discussions and debates?
11. What steps can you take to engage more deeply in the politics of your local community and reduce the impact of national political divisions on your personal perspective?

Chapter Notes

Introduction: What Didn’t Happen

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The 2016 election was not as unusual as it seemed: The voting patterns and results in 2016 were largely consistent with previous elections, despite the unconventional nature of Trump's candidacy. Metrics like the Republican share of the male, female, white, and evangelical Christian vote were all within the range of recent elections.

  • Partisan identity is the dominant force in modern American politics: Voters are so locked into their partisan identities that they will justify and support almost any candidate or position from their own party, regardless of the candidate's actual qualities or policy positions. This has led to a politics devoid of persuasion, accountability, and guardrails.

  • The author's focus is on systemic factors, not individual actors: Rather than focusing on the personal qualities and decisions of individual politicians, the author aims to analyze the broader systemic forces and incentives that shape political behavior and outcomes. The goal is to understand the "machine that shapes political decisions."

  • Polarization is the master story of American politics: The author argues that the logic of polarization, in which more polarized institutions and actors appeal to and further polarize the public, is the driving force behind many of the dysfunctions in the political system.

  • Identity politics is ubiquitous, not just for marginalized groups: The author argues that all political engagement involves identity politics, as our various personal and group identities shape our political views and behaviors. The term "identity politics" is often used to dismiss the concerns of marginalized groups, while ignoring the identity-based nature of politics for dominant groups.

  • Partisan identity has become the most powerful political identity: Over time, our partisan identities have merged with and amplified other central identities like race, religion, geography, and culture. This has created a form of identity politics that is particularly divisive and destabilizing for political institutions.

Chapter 1: How Democrats Became Liberals and Republicans Became Conservatives

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Democratic and Republican Parties of today are fundamentally different from the parties of the past: In the mid-20th century, the parties were more ideologically diverse, with liberals and conservatives in both parties. This made it difficult for voters to clearly distinguish the parties' policy positions.

  • The APSA report called for more polarized, ideologically-distinct parties: The report argued that for voters to make an "intelligent choice" between the parties, the parties needed to be more unified around distinct policy platforms and programs.

  • Ticket-splitting and ideological ambiguity declined over time: As the parties became more ideologically distinct, voters became more reliably partisan in their voting behavior, with less ticket-splitting. Even self-identified independents now vote more predictably for one party.

  • The rise of "negative partisanship": Voters' partisan behavior is increasingly driven by dislike of the opposing party rather than positive affinity for their own party. Voters have become more consistent in supporting their party not because they like it more, but because they dislike the other party more.

  • Partisanship is a rational response to real policy differences: As the parties have adopted increasingly divergent policy positions, especially on issues like race, immigration, and the role of government, it has become more rational for voters to align themselves consistently with one party or the other.

  • The parties have become more ideologically distinct, especially on issues of race: On measures like views on discrimination, immigration, and the role of government, the gap between the parties has grown dramatically since the 1990s, making the choice between them much clearer for voters.

Chapter 2: The Dixiecrat Dilemma

  • The Dixiecrat Dilemma: The southern Democratic Party was an authoritarian institution that ruled autocratically in the South and protected its autonomy by entering into a governing coalition with the national Democratic Party. The Dixiecrats gave the national Democrats the votes they needed to control Congress, and the national Democrats let the Dixiecrats enforce segregation and one-party rule at home.

  • Polarization vs. Sorting: Polarization refers to the clustering of opinions around two poles, while sorting refers to the alignment of political identities with those poles. Both processes can reinforce each other, but they do not necessarily imply extremism. The mid-20th century, often seen as a golden age of moderation, was in fact a period of significant political violence and repression.

  • Demographic Sorting: Over time, the Democratic and Republican Parties have become increasingly sorted along demographic lines, with the Democratic Party becoming more racially diverse, urban, and secular, while the Republican Party has become more white, rural, and evangelical.

  • Geographic Sorting: Americans have become increasingly sorted by geography, with Democrats concentrated in dense urban areas and Republicans in rural areas. This urban-rural divide also tracks an economic divide, with Democratic-leaning areas accounting for a larger share of the country's GDP.

  • Psychological Sorting: Differences in psychological traits, such as openness to experience and sensitivity to threat, are increasingly predictive of political affiliation. As these psychological differences have become more closely aligned with political identities, politics has become more closely tied to individual self-expression and identity.

  • The Consequences of Sorting: As the parties have become more sorted along demographic, geographic, and psychological lines, the magnetic pull of their ideas and constituencies has strengthened, leading to a more polarized and identity-driven political landscape. This has profound implications for how Americans engage with politics and each other.

Chapter 3: Your Brain on Groups

  • Group Identity and Discrimination: Henri Tajfel's experiments showed that even when people are randomly assigned to meaningless groups, they exhibit strong in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination, suggesting that the tendency to view the world in terms of "us" and "them" is a deep-seated human instinct.

  • Sports Fandom and Group Identity: Sports fandom demonstrates how powerful group identities can be, as people often attach their happiness and sense of self to the success or failure of their team, leading to violence and destruction in the aftermath of games.

  • Partisan Identity as a "Mega-Identity": In modern American politics, partisan identity has become a "mega-identity" that aligns with and reinforces other social identities like religion, race, and geography, leading to deeper and more intractable political divisions.

  • Partisanship Trumping Rationality: Studies show that people are more likely to discriminate based on partisan affiliation than on race or other characteristics, even in non-political contexts, suggesting that partisan identity has become a more socially acceptable target for prejudice and hostility.

  • Mutually Reinforcing Relationship between Policy Differences and Identity Conflict: Policy disagreements and identity conflicts often reinforce each other in a "relentless spiral," as political decisions shape group identities, which in turn shape political preferences and behaviors.

  • The Limits of Reason in Politics: As people become more politically engaged, their political views are increasingly driven by identity-based concerns rather than rational self-interest or policy considerations, making it difficult to resolve political conflicts through reasoned debate.

Chapter 4: The Press Secretary in Your Mind

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Individual Mandate as a Bipartisan Idea: The individual mandate was originally proposed by conservative think tanks and economists as an alternative to single-payer healthcare or an employer mandate. It was later included in Republican healthcare proposals like the Chafee bill in the 1990s. However, when Democrats embraced the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, Republicans turned against it, declaring it unconstitutional.

  • Reasoning as a Collective Process: Reasoning is not an entirely individual act, but rather a collective process influenced by the groups we belong to. We often outsource our reasoning to the groups we identify with, even if it means going against our own senses or prior beliefs.

  • The Backfire Effect: When presented with information that contradicts their political views, people often become more entrenched in their original positions, especially if they are more knowledgeable about the topic. Increased information and education can actually make people more resistant to changing their minds on politically charged issues.

  • Identity-Protective Cognition: People's political beliefs and judgments are often driven more by a desire to protect their social identities and group affiliations than by a dispassionate search for truth. Changing one's position on a politically charged issue can carry significant social and professional costs.

  • The Limits of Constitutional Interpretation: There may not be a single, objectively "correct" answer to many constitutional questions. The Supreme Court's rulings on such issues may be influenced by the political leanings of the justices, undermining the notion of the Court as a neutral arbiter of the Constitution.

  • The Abyss of Motivated Reasoning: Recognizing the pervasiveness of motivated reasoning calls into question the ability of individuals, experts, and institutions to arrive at objective, unbiased conclusions on complex political issues. This can lead to a sense of intellectual uncertainty and skepticism about the possibility of resolving political disagreements.

Chapter 5: Demographic Threat

  • Group Affiliation and Competition: Humans have a strong tendency to form group identities and perceive other groups as competitors. This leads to a "us vs. them" mentality and a desire to ensure one's own group wins, even at the expense of overall outcomes.

  • Partisan Sorting: The Democratic and Republican parties have become increasingly ideologically and demographically sorted, with the parties now representing distinct racial, religious, geographic, cultural, and psychological identities. This has increased the partisan stakes of politics.

  • Demographic Change and Threat: America is undergoing rapid demographic changes, with the country becoming more racially and religiously diverse. This has led to a sense of threat among some white Americans, who feel their dominant status and privileges are being challenged.

  • Racial Resentment and Economic Anxiety: Racial resentment, rather than economic anxiety, has been a stronger driver of political behavior and attitudes in the Obama and Trump eras. Perceptions of racial threat have activated economic anxieties, rather than the other way around.

  • Political Correctness and Safe Spaces: Debates over political correctness and safe spaces reflect a broader struggle over who gets to define the boundaries of acceptable discourse and behavior. This struggle is driven by a sense of threat among those who previously held power.

  • Demographic Change and Party Platforms: As the Democratic and Republican parties have become more racially and culturally distinct, their policy platforms have shifted to reflect the changing priorities of their respective bases. This has led to more explicit appeals to racial justice and equality on the Democratic side, and more explicit appeals to white identity and anti-immigrant sentiment on the Republican side.

  • Polarization Feedback Loop: Polarization is not just something that happened to American politics, but something that is actively happening, with a feedback loop between a more polarized public and more polarized political institutions. This process is likely to continue unless addressed.

Chapter 6: The Media Divide beyond Left-Right

  • The explosion of choice in media has widened the divide between politically interested and uninterested audiences: Prior to the digital revolution, political news was bundled with other content, so even uninterested audiences were exposed to it. Now, people can easily avoid political news in favor of other forms of entertainment and information, leading to a growing gap in political knowledge between those who actively seek out political content and those who do not.

  • Audience-driven media incentivizes identity-based, polarizing content: In a competitive media landscape, outlets are incentivized to create content that resonates strongly with specific identity-based communities, as this content is more likely to be shared and engaged with on social media. This leads to the production of more polarizing, conflict-oriented political coverage.

  • Exposure to opposing political views can deepen polarization rather than promote moderation: Contrary to the "echo chamber" theory, studies have shown that when people are exposed to views from the other side of the political spectrum, it often leads them to double down on their existing beliefs rather than moderate them. This is due to the psychological tendency to engage in "identity-protective cognition" when confronted with disagreeable information.

  • Political elites and activists are more susceptible to the polarizing effects of a partisan media environment: While the general public may be able to avoid highly polarized media, political elites and activists who consume and participate in these media environments on a regular basis are more likely to become polarized themselves, which then shapes the broader political landscape.

  • The media plays a powerful role in shaping political narratives and outcomes: By making decisions about what is "newsworthy" and giving disproportionate coverage to certain political figures and issues, the media can significantly influence the public's understanding of politics and the outcomes of elections and policy debates, even if unintentionally.

  • Identitarian candidates who can effectively exploit social and media dynamics have an advantage: Candidates who are skilled at using outrage, offense, and identity-based appeals to capture media attention and social media engagement can dominate the political discourse, even if their policy positions or qualifications are not necessarily the strongest.

Chapter 7: Post-Persuasion Elections

  • Decline of Persuadable Voters: The share of true independent or persuadable voters has declined significantly in recent elections, from around 22% to 7% of the electorate. This has led campaigns to shift their focus from persuading the middle to mobilizing their base.

  • Base Mobilization Strategy: Campaigns have increasingly prioritized mobilizing their base over persuading swing voters. This strategy was pioneered by the Bush campaign in 2004 and has become the dominant approach in both parties.

  • Weak Parties, Strong Partisanship: Parties have become weaker while partisanship has grown stronger. This has allowed candidates like Donald Trump to win the Republican nomination despite opposition from party elites.

  • Broken Primaries: The shift from party-controlled nominations to primary elections has made it easier for ideologically extreme or demagogic candidates to win nominations, as they can appeal to the most engaged primary voters.

  • Institutional vs. Small Donors: Institutional donors tend to support more moderate candidates, while small donors are more likely to support ideologically extreme or polarizing candidates. This dynamic further incentivizes candidates to cater to the party base.

  • Nationalization of Politics: As politics has become more nationalized, with voters paying more attention to national figures and issues, candidates have incentives to appeal to national partisan identities rather than local concerns.

  • Negative Partisanship: Voters are often more motivated by a desire to defeat the opposing party than by support for their own party's candidate. This dynamic can lead to the election of candidates who are unfit for office but seen as the lesser evil.

Chapter 8: When Bipartisanship Becomes Irrational

  • The Polarization of the Supreme Court: Over the past few decades, Supreme Court justices have become increasingly ideologically aligned with the presidents who appointed them, making the Court a more partisan institution that renders more partisan decisions on more partisan cases. This has raised the stakes around Supreme Court nominations, leading to more confrontational confirmation battles.

  • The Nationalization of American Politics: American political identities and media coverage have become increasingly nationalized, with voters and politicians focusing more on national political issues rather than state or local concerns. This has contributed to greater polarization, as legislators now tend to evaluate proposed legislation through a partisan lens rather than considering how it will affect their specific constituents.

  • The Decline of Bipartisanship: The American political system is structured in a way that encourages partisan conflict and makes bipartisan cooperation difficult, especially as the parties have become more ideologically polarized. The filibuster and the debt ceiling are examples of how the rules of the system can be used by the minority party to obstruct governance and sabotage the majority's ability to govern.

  • The Instability of the American Political System: The division of power between the executive and legislative branches, combined with the nationalization of politics and the decline of bipartisanship, has made the American political system increasingly unstable and prone to crises. The Garland affair and the debt ceiling crisis are examples of how the system's rules can lead to deadlock and even global financial instability.

  • The Importance of Informal Norms: The American political system has historically relied on informal norms of compromise, forbearance, and moderation to function effectively, even when the formal rules of the system would suggest a more confrontational approach. As these norms have broken down, the underlying dysfunction of the system has become more apparent.

  • The Role of Political Competition: The level of political competition in the American system has a significant impact on the incentives and behavior of political actors. When one party is dominant, the minority party has an incentive to cooperate and work within the system. But when control of government is more evenly balanced, the incentives shift towards more confrontational and obstructionist tactics.

Chapter 9: The Difference between Democrats and Republicans

  • The Difference in Party Coalitions: The Democratic Party is a diverse coalition of different interest groups and ideological leanings, while the Republican Party has a more homogenous, ideologically-driven base. This difference in party structure has significant implications for how the parties respond to polarization.

  • The "Fox News Effect": The Republican Party has built an insular, self-contained media ecosystem centered around conservative outlets like Fox News, Breitbart, and talk radio. This has allowed the party to dismiss mainstream media sources as "fake news" and has contributed to the party's increasing radicalization. In contrast, Democrats rely on a more diverse set of media sources, including mainstream outlets that adhere to journalistic standards.

  • Asymmetric Polarization: While both parties have become more polarized, the Republican Party has moved further to the ideological right than the Democratic Party has moved to the left. This asymmetry is reflected in the parties' nomination of candidates, with Republicans nominating Trump, who was "contemptuous of established norms," while Democrats nominated Clinton.

  • The Undemocratic Nature of the U.S. Political System: The U.S. political system, with its emphasis on geographic units like the Senate and the Electoral College, gives Republicans a structural advantage, allowing them to win power without winning the popular vote. This, in turn, has allowed the Republican Party to cater to a more conservative electorate and adopt more extreme tactics without fear of electoral consequences.

  • The Apocalyptic Mindset of the Republican Party: Many conservatives, including prominent figures like Attorney General William Barr, view the current political landscape as an existential crisis for their values and way of life. This sense of desperation has led them to embrace more confrontational and disruptive tactics, as they believe the stakes are too high to play by the traditional rules of the game.

Chapter 10: Managing Polarization—and Ourselves

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Polarization is not inherently a problem: Polarization can sometimes be a solution, as it allows political disagreements to express themselves. The alternative to polarization is often suppression rather than consensus.

  • Reversing polarization is unlikely: The polarization we see today is the logical outcome of a complex system of incentives, technologies, identities, and political institutions. Absent an external unifying force, the divisions we see today will likely be the norm.

  • Bombproofing the government: Reforms should be made to limit the damage that political conflict and gridlock can do, such as eliminating the debt ceiling and revamping the budget process to make it more automatic.

  • Democratizing the political system: Reforms like abolishing the Electoral College, implementing proportional representation in the House, and granting representation to Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico could create a healthier form of political competition.

  • Balancing partisan power: Rather than unleashing the parties to fight for power, the political system could be reformed to guarantee equal power to the parties or ensure the minority party has a voice, such as through a balanced Supreme Court.

  • Identity mindfulness: Individuals should be more aware of how their political identities are being activated and manipulated, and work to strengthen the identities they want to inhabit.

  • Rediscovering a politics of place: Individuals should focus more on state and local politics, where they can have a greater impact, rather than being consumed by national politics.

  • No perfect solutions, only corrections: There is no end state to American politics, only the best we can do in the current era. Progress comes through a series of corrections, not a single solution.


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