Ezra Klein is one of my favorite political thinkers. He’s methodical, thoughtful, and clear. In this episode, he’s interviewed by David Axelrod about the current political moment, the pandemic, and his book entitled “Why We’re Polarized.” There are a number of takeaways I had from this episode.
First, identity is inherent in all of us, and identity politics activates identities to create political power. This can be applied to all sorts of movements from the #MeToo movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. In these cases, the identities being evoked are along gender and racial lines. But why don’t we hear more about identity politics as it relates to the majoritarian identities? Axe and Ezra discuss this (emphasis mine):
David Axelrod: You know, it’s interesting because you talk about identity. Identity politics is not limited to rising populations. It’s also true that there’s white identity politics. That’s what “Make America Great Again” was all about, it’s like: “let’s turn the clock back to when white men were running the deal.” When you think about it in that context, you can see why Trump bought an impeachment to try to stop Trump from becoming the nominee of the Democratic Party. Biden doesn’t look like a threatening figure to that base of Trump’s – he culturally doesn’t look that way.
Ezra Klein: Yeah, so something I try to do on the book is redefine and open up the aperture on this term. The argument I make is that identity is incredibly important in politics but we have blinded ourselves to its role by attaching it only to marginalized groups, or to smaller groups. The most powerful forms of politics are always majoritarian: white identity politics, Christian identity politics, American… You should always be looking for the identities that people aren’t questioning or seeing as identity because those are the ones that are exerting the most force.
Another takeaway I had was the fundamental reason so many Democratic Party nominees for President are centrist. Ezra explains how the Democratic Party is an extraordinarily internally diverse party, whereas the Republican Party is extremely homogeneous. This leads to extremely different internal structures. “The Democrats are a lot of groups in constant compromise with each other,” he says. This forces the Party to create a coalition between these groups. This means that no one group is likely to be able to promote their favorite candidate, but rather the final candidate is often a candidate who is acceptable to all the internal groups within the Party. Also, because the Republican Party is presently able to win the Presidency, the Senate, and the House without actually carrying the majority of Americans due to the structure of representation and electoral institutions, the Democratic Party must make a coalition with right-of-center voters in order to win. Ezra’s thesis is that this is how you end up with a candidate like Joe Biden – a candidate acceptable to a lot of groups within the Democratic Party simultaneously, but not necessarily anyone’s favorite.
He breaks down the constant question we all had during the Democratic Primary:
There are two ways of thinking about what you want to do in a polarizing era. The one that I think intuitively makes sense to polarized people – which is anyone who is very engaged in politics for the most part – is you want someone who really excites the base. Polarization is about mobilization, so you get folks saying, “If they’re going to have someone they’re thrilled about, then we’re going to have someone we’re thrilled about.”
Biden is in many ways a different kind of theory playing out, which is: you’re going to have someone who is broadly acceptable, is not the most exciting candidate really to anybody – not literally anybody but to any group in particular - but what he is is a candidate who does not push the other side away.
If you think about any candidate having a “push factor” and a “pull factor” – he can “push” his own side out but he can also “pull” the other side out too – Trump has a reasonably strong “push factor” and an incredibly strong “pull factor.” He’s very mobilizing to the other side. Biden has some level of “push factor” – he did win the primary – but it was the Donald Trump “pull factor” – Democrats coming out to vote for someone who could beat Donald Trump – that won Biden the nomination. So what Biden is really a bet on is what if you could have a candidate that’s not necessarily that exciting but did not over-excite the other side. So then could you let Donald Trump do the Democratic mobilization and Biden demobilize a lot of middling Trump supporters.
There is so much more to share from the episode here, but you’ll have to listen to hear more! They discuss President Obama in the context of identity, Ezra’s new book, electoral structures, and so much more.
This episode is a true gift to political hobbyists. Take a break from the news and zoom out with Ezra and Axe.