How partisanship broke the United States in two
Three new books examine the collapse of consensus and why American society is so divided on key issues
In his traducement of norms, Donald Trump invites us to view him as an aberration. And there’s succour in this: the prospect of restored decorum after the orange comet sputters. But what if Trump is endogenous to America’s political system – a “rational actor” observing “the logic of polarisation”? This is altogether more inculpatory, not to mention disconcerting – waylaid by his ego, Trump has proved a poor demagogue; what if a competent one comes along?
“We collapse systemic problems into personalised narratives, and… cloud… understanding,” writes Vox co-founder Ezra Klein. In Why We’re Polarized he applies “systems thinking” to a US political firmament that selects for divisiveness. The result is riveting, revelatory, but also slippery – a specimen of the malaise it diagnoses.
Wasn’t US politics ever thus? Actually, Klein exhumes a be-careful-what-youwish-for missive from the American Political Science Association in 1950 lamenting insufficient inter-party differentiation. If this deprived voters of meaningful choice, it also had merits. JFK deemed it a centripetal check on an otherwise divisive society, furnishing a “vital centre” wherein politicians could horse-trade and ideology wasn’t merely suspect but impractical.
But this isn’t an era we should feel nostalgia for towards making the US collegial again. Under the ascendancy within the Democrats of southern conservative “Dixiecrats” it was shamcomity resting on African-Americans’ subjugation. “It’s not that American politics was not riven by sharp, even violent disagreement,” writes Klein, “it’s simply that these fights did not map cleanly onto party.” The Civil Rights Act brought them into alignment, cleaving the parties apart demographically and ideologically – southern conservatives finding common cause with “states’ rights”– proclaiming Republicans; African-Americans flocking to the Democrats – toward today’s entities.
Abetting polarisation is a media market that skews incendiary in its quest for clicks, rewarding politicians who court controversy with coverage. Then there’s America’s “diffuse” distribution of power, hedged around with mechanisms to forestall the
Why We’re Polarized
By Ezra Klein
Simon & Schuster, 336pp, $28
The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Metropolitan Elite by Michael Lind
Atlantic Books, 224pp, £14.99
The Age of Entitlement: America since the Sixties
By Christopher Caldwell
Simon & Schuster, 352pp, $28 tyranny of any one governmental branch. These design in sclerotic dysfunction by furnishing the parties with tools to sabotage one other.
But there’s flesh-and-blood theory behind Klein’s technocratic analysis: “Identity is present in politics in the way gravity, evolution or cognition is present in politics.” Party affiliation has come to subsume a nexus of “identities”, he adds – race, gender, class, religion, locale, even consumer affinities.
This seems self-evident – perspective is relative to position. But “identity politics” is typically wielded as a pejorative, Klein notes, to delegitimise “the concerns of weaker groups . . .” Instead, he recasts identity as a source of light not heat, even, in its impetus toward authenticity, a beneficent force to be affirmed.
It figures an online media entrepreneur would find this appealing. It comports with a business model of aggregating demographic slivers across the internet’s long tail.
But another reading is that identity is one among many framing devices and fixation on it as an organising principle deleterious. Accenting politics as selfexpression seems unlikely to better dispose us towards opponents and liable to ingrain our own partisanship. And one word you won’t find here is “narcissism”.
Also minimised is class. Like other Brahmin analyses of Trump-era America, Why We’re Polarized flaunts a questing, empathic spirit of intellectual inquiry but comes over all incurious and gimlet-eyed before working-class populism, disposed of as race-tinged status anxiety. We’re informed with faux-academic gravitas that, “in a careful review of the literature” – like he didn’t merely consult sources and write up an article but conducted a meta-analysis – “Vox’s Zach Beauchamp” found that the common denominator of populist right parties is “hostility to immigration, particularly when the immigrants are nonwhite and Muslim”. There’s an oddly hermetic feel to this: Klein, the dispassionate wonk whose start-up arrogates to itself the title, “the explanatory news publication,” floating above the fray, judiciously mediating the studies.
How convenient, would, I suspect, be Michael Lind’s rejoinder – “woke”washing multinational corporations’ Wall Street-approved “labour arbitrage” – hiring unauthorised immigrants as easily cowed shadow workers without the protections afforded domestic labour and obliged to toil at a steep discount to what these companies would otherwise have to pay. Let an idea be known by the interests it serves.
For Lind, the 2016 election opened up a transverse tear in America’s left-right political fabric between the working class and a professional-managerial “overclass” presiding over “technocratic neoliberalism,” a compound of “free market economic liberalism… and the cultural liberalism of the bohemian/academic left.”
The rupture was a long time coming, he writes in The New Class War, rooted in the dissolution of power-sharing between elites and masses. This compact had been enforced by the need for the former to conscript the latter in the event of “great power” conflagration and forestall their “radicalisation”. But as these threats receded, the accommodation, with its demotic cacophony, messy redundancies and proclivity to produce buffoons as “tribunes” of the lower orders, began to seem ripe for rationalisation.
The effects were no less dramatic for their lack of design: the ascendance of an order ministering to the exigencies of global capital, transplanting power from legislatures to elite conclaves in government agencies, courts and supra-national bodies, and drawing moral legitimacy from pieties on race and gender that, as constituted in policies (“class-neutral” affirmative action), avoid unduly subverting its smooth operation (or overclass status).
The final catalyst was the estrangement of leftist parties – in their embrace of urban