How We Walked Into This and How We Can Walk Out
Krista Tippett, host: Ezra Klein’s podcast is one of the few places I’ve been finding the political searching I’ve been looking for personally as a journalist and citizen. I’ve admired his willingness to stretch thoughtfully out of his comfort zone, with a real desire to understand aspects of American life very different from his own. So I took this opportunity to interview him for my show and have more of the fearless conversation I’ve been wanting to hear all around – about how this political moment goes deeper than now. And instead of asking how our current tumult happened to us, can we ask how we walked into it — Democrat and Republican alike — so we can walk out of it? Before he founded Vox Media, Ezra created the Wonkblog at the Washington Post. But even at his most wonky, a deep strain of humanism runs through his journalism. And that infuses his new book, Why We’re Polarized — and where he was willing to go with me in this conversation.
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Ezra Klein: As I traveled through politics in this era, as I started a media organization, as I wrote my articles and talked to people and went on cable news and did all the things that a political pundit or media person is supposed to do, I just would have this nagging feeling, sometimes, that I felt I was trying to do things well — not just good, but well; maybe not just well, but good; something like that — and that I was being caught, and the people around me were being caught, in this vise of like political decision-making that was making everybody worse than who I knew them to be or who I knew myself to be, at times.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Ezra Klein is now editor-at-large of Vox Media. His podcast is The Ezra Klein Show. And in 2018, he moved from Washington D.C. back to his home state of California.
Ms. Tippett: Your father was Brazilian. Was he first-generation, second-generation, or had he been here?
Mr. Klein: First-generation — so he emigrated to America in the ’70s.
Ms. Tippett: And then you grew up in Los Angeles, is that right?
Mr. Klein: Outside Los Angeles — I grew up in Irvine, California.
Ms. Tippett: I’ve never heard you speak about the religious or spiritual background of your childhood, and so I’m very curious how you’d start to think about that or talk about it.
Mr. Klein: So I grew up Jewish — I am Jewish. My father is deeply, culturally Jewish but is not a believer, and my mother is a seeker. And I sometimes tell the joke that — so I’m always looking for something to not believe in. I want to find something, but I never quite can find something to fasten onto.
But I grew up in a household that — we went to temple, and I went to Hebrew school, both in an afternoon way for some number of years, and then, for a period of time, went to a Jewish day school. So Judaism was a big part of my life, growing up. It, in many spiritual and ethical ways, remains a big part of my life now. But it isn’t something that — I’ve always, in some ways, envied people who are able to hold onto a sense of belief. I find that I have a lot of trouble with belief.
Ms. Tippett: I feel like that flows into, in a formative way and in a generative way, into your identity as a journalist, your work as a journalist. I think this is a sentence from the book — that you’ve described yourself: “I am a voter, a news junkie, and a liberal.” I’m curious about, were there roots of those identities, those aspects of your identity, in that world of your childhood?
Mr. Klein: I wonder about that, myself. So my parents were kind of softly liberal, I would say — and I don’t want to speak their politics for them. But the town I grew up in was conservative. In fact, it elected its first Democrat in the House of Representatives only in 2018.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, really? So were you in Orange County?
Mr. Klein: I’m in Orange County. So it wasn’t that I grew up in a very liberal area — although certainly had liberals in it. And the thing that I’ve thought about a lot, growing up, though, was that it was intuitively obvious to me that it was almost all luck. It was deeply, deeply evident, just looking around, knowing — we would go back to Brazil to see my family there, and Brazil’s just much poorer than America. It is just much poorer than America. And Brazil’s a middle-income country, so we’re not talking about the poorest country in the world, and we would be in Rio, which is a richer part of Brazil. And it was just obvious that what was deciding people’s life outcomes was the luck of where they were born.
I have my political opinions, but my political opinions, I feel, more than anything else, are built atop a foundation that — when I look at my own life, or when I look around me, what I see are structures. And you can see this in the book’s analysis, too: I’m very focused on: What are the structures that shape people’s decision-making? What are the structures that lead us to be who we are? I think that we often have an illusion that we made a choice for ourselves, when that choice was so fundamentally shaped by who we are and where we grew up and what was around us and what made sense for us to do, that in some final accounting, it was really almost never a choice at all. And I think when you look at the world like that, then it becomes very, very deeply important — it becomes of central importance — that those systems are just and that, in some big way, we are helping people who were born into, or who fell into, the wrong systems.
Ms. Tippett: It’s also been interesting to me — especially listening to the podcast, where you’re very present as a human being — one of the things you’ve talked about, which was a little surprising, and it might be surprising to other people, is — I think, when you emerged onto the scene in Washington, in the Washington Post and then, later, with Vox, you felt like this quintessential inside-the-beltway journalist; but, in fact, that’s not where you came from. You weren’t great at school. You didn’t come — there is this well-worn path into that world, of going to certain colleges and having certain liberal credentials and writing for The Harvard Crimson. And that’s not where you came from. But you walked into this.
Mr. Klein: I remember being an intern at the Washington Monthly and being there late, closing an issue — or helping to close an issue — because I was an intern; [laughs] it didn’t fall to me. And I don’t remember why it happened, but somebody began looking at the masthead and looking at how many people on it had gone to Harvard or Yale or one of the Ivies. And I went to UC Santa Cruz and then UCLA. And I just hadn’t understood until then how small that world was, how much people had grown up with The New Republic in their homes. And the point is not to make me into some kind of populist folk hero. My father’s a university mathematician.
But for me, the most present fact about my life is that, for me, inside — when I’m inside the spaceship — it seems really easy that it could have failed. It’s been about half my life when I’ve been more or less succeeding, and about half of it when I was, at least by a lot of measures, failing. I graduated from high school with a 2.2; I got into school because I did well on the SATs. It’s really clear to me that if I had just ended up on a slightly different path, that things wouldn’t go well, that I could be the exact person I am, and if you just put me in the wrong situation, it’s not like I have an indomitable will to succeed. If you don’t put me in something where it fits who I am and what I do and what I love and what I’m able to obsessively focus on, versus not be able to focus on at all, I can just fall apart pretty easily. And so that’s another part of my just, I think, skepticism of how much individuals deserve credit for their success and deserve the desserts of that success, because certainly, for me — and I’ve been lucky, over time, to be successful — but for me, it feels much more like what happened is I lucked into, for a lot of reasons, a thing that fit me, as opposed to I reshaped the world to fit my interests.
Ms. Tippett: I feel like you make a move in the book which is really similar to what you did with Vox — do on Vox and with creating Vox — which is, trying to lay out and examine the broad and deep context behind the news, which also takes in the historical arc of time and not just what we call “real time” now. And I remember being — right after the 2016 election — in this room full of academics — very smart people, but academics who were mostly coastal, mostly white, and actually, also mostly male. And there was this deep assumption in the room that our democracy had been working so well; that we had, actually, arrived at this great thing, and now it was being undermined. And I think a big point that is true in your book is, first of all, that we walk around, these days, with a false and often romanticized or idealized version of our past, of how well democracy has worked across time; but also that depending on where you sat in this society, even in what we would now maybe look back at as the glory days of the late 20th century, that depending on where you sat, especially if you were not white, our democracy has been very fragile in places for a long time.
Mr. Klein: I would even go further. I don’t think it’s been a democracy for most of American history. When people think about what is the time period of American democratic — small-“d” democratic — greatness, they tend to think of the postwar 20th century. And for a lot of that postwar 20th century, what you had was what Ian Haney López, who’s a professor at UC Berkeley, calls a “herrenvolk” liberal democracy, which is to say, a liberal democracy for white people. We forget how much fighting there has actually been; how much violence there has actually been; how many people have paid; how many people do not get paid back for what they sacrificed for justice. And I think, in doing that, we blind ourselves to not just the reality of our history, but, because our present is an accumulated path of that history, the reality of our present, too. We fool ourselves into believing we are living through some aberration or divergence, when in many ways it’s what came directly before that was the aberration and divergence.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I don’t know if you knew this, but I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. And when I grew up there in the 1960s, I didn’t know any Republicans. Everybody was a Democrat. And you point out that there are so many things that — the GOP and the conservative movement had not merged as they merge in our imaginations now; the Democratic Party was not the party of civil rights, up until a certain point; that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president. And so that’s the long road that brought us to now. And you’re younger than I am, too. Did you know all of this history as you got into this? Did this fill out your picture of where we came from, how we walked into this?
Mr. Klein: It filled out a lot of it. But just while you were saying, one of the things I came across while doing the book that I just found so shocking — and this just speaks to my own lack of historical knowledge — but the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which, of course, was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson — a higher proportion of Republicans, in both the House and Senate, voted for that act than Democrats did. [Editor’s note: The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Learn more about the vote totals for the House and Senate.] And I think there are two things worth noting about that. One is just, first, given how the parties have changed since then, where the Republican Party has become very responsive to white identity politics, and the Democratic Party has become very self-intentionally multiracial, that’s just a very different division than we have today. But the other — and this is just striking, to me — is, number one: Isn’t it amazing that you could have something as polarizing as the Civil Rights Act, which is one of the most polarizing pieces of legislation we have ever passed in this country, and it wouldn’t break down on party lines? Can you imagine anything that would be so central to American politics now that would not be on party lines?
So, just the way American politics worked in the mid-20th century, it is so different. Because we’ve kept the same names for institutions — there’s still a Congress, a Democratic Party, a Republican Party — it creates this illusion of stability. But actually, things really have changed.
[music: “An Oddly Formal Dance” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with journalist Ezra Klein.
[music: “An Oddly Formal Dance” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Ms. Tippett: You say that the master story here is the logic of polarization, which creates this massive feedback loop that just keeps making the polarization deeper. But I think what I find so helpful to frame this way is that, as you say, it’s not that American politics was not riven by deep and even violent disagreements previously, but these fights did not map onto party the way they do now; that that’s really the thing that’s new.
Mr. Klein: This is the central story of American politics in this age, and it’s a stranger story than I think we give it credit for. It’s really true: if you look back to mid-20th-century America, what we were fighting over, and the range in which we were fighting, is so much wider than it is now. There was so much more political violence. We had urban riots. We had assassinations. The kinds of legislation that was being debated — and not just debated, but actually passed — we just mentioned the Civil Rights Act, but you could mention Medicaid and the entirety of the Great Society. There is so much happening.
Ms. Tippett: The 1965 Immigration Act …
Mr. Klein: The 1965 Immigration Act, the Voting Rights Act — these are transformative pieces of legislation. We had the Vietnam War; National Guard killed a protester at Kent State; the occupation of Alcatraz by Indigenous Americans — there is so much happening — the feminist revolution in that period. It’s such a big period in American life.
But one of the things that is going on in it is that — as political as it all is, and it is political, it is not sorted by party. Compared to where we were 50 years ago, it isn’t just that Republican means conservative and Democratic means liberal, in a way where that wasn’t true — you used to have liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats — but it’s also the case that we sort by geography. It didn’t used to tell you a lot, to know did somebody live in a dense city or not; that wasn’t very heavily related to whether you were a Republican or a Democrat. Now it is. Religiosity was not very different by party, but now the biggest religious group in the Democratic Party are the religiously unaffiliated, whereas the Republican Party is overwhelmingly Christian.
The parties are not that different, racially. The parties weren’t that sorted, psychologically. But now they are. And this just goes all the way down the line. It just becomes so heavy that you become, rationally, more afraid of, upset at, angry at, in opposition to the other side, because they really are more different and more threatening to you. And so it’s really that mixture of not just having these divisions, but sorting them all across the same cleavage over a course of decades. But we’re now at a — I don’t want to call it a terminal point; it can keep happening — but we’re at a pretty advanced point in it.
I think, more than anything else, that is why politics feels so different to people now. When people say, “Oh, it just feels so bitter and divisive,” they’re not wrong. It’s not that we are more divided than we ever have been, it’s that all the divisions are stacked on top of each other in a way they haven’t been, previously.
Ms. Tippett: Something I’ve thought about so much in these years, something I believe, is that even if we did not have what feels like political disarray, we were going to have to completely reinvent what common life means and how it works in this century, because of the breakdown of that homogeneity, because of how technology is changing fundamental aspects of how we structure our days and how we learn and lead and — and we are this — as you say, this great sorting. But, so as you say, it’s not just limited to politics; it’s also about race and religion, geography, and how those play into politics.
But I also think — you have a sentence in the book, which I think is so important: “Change of this magnitude acts on us psychologically, and not just electorally.” The truth is, there are so many ways that aren’t about politics, that are just about the air we breathe and, again, how we define our identity and the fact that we’re the generation that’s redefining marriage and community and gender — this human ground beneath our feet, shifting, not to mention the economic ground beneath our feet, shifting — that makes this such an unsettled time. And sometimes I wonder, sometimes what I feel is that politics has become the thinnest of veneers over this – this human condition in a moment like this.
Mr. Klein: I think there’s a lot of truth to that. How do I want to say this? When I began as a journalist, I had this very, maybe, naïve approach that I thought, “Well, I’ll look at something like healthcare, and I’ll talk to the experts and try to understand the issue as best as I can and give people good information and give them a clear sense of what’s happening and how it’s working. And then we can all, in the light of that rational [laughs] discussion, make some better decisions.” And particularly over the past five or six years, the unbelievable inadequacy of that approach just became clearer and clearer and clearer. And it’s not that there’s never a moment for a reasoned discussion about policy in America, because there is, and there are people who listen, and it can be really important; and it’s very important, the moments when a political party has the power to do something, and they want to do something well. So I don’t want to dismiss policy work, which is my roots.
But something that I will say, on the more human level that you’re talking about here, is that as I traveled through politics in this era, as I started a media organization, as I wrote my articles and talked to people and went on cable news and did all the things that a political pundit or media person is supposed to do, I just would have this nagging feeling, sometimes, that I felt I was trying to do things well — not just good, but well; maybe not just well, but good; something like that — and that I was being caught, and the people around me were being caught, in this vise of political decision-making that was making everybody worse than who I knew them to be or who I knew myself to be, at times.
And it’s not even that I think I — I don’t feel like this is a mea culpa; I try — I try to be conscious of it. But one of the really radicalizing things for me in the past couple of years has been this question, and it came a lot from my political reporting and talking to members of Congress and watching other journalists and starting Vox, of just: Have we built a system that has structured itself such that it is, at the very least, very hard for people to express the best versions of themselves within it? And I think we have.
I talk about this interview I did with President Obama, in the book. And I talked to him about polarization, and he’s somebody — I interviewed him many times, and I have great admiration for him. And he’s somebody who, I think, in a very deep way, believed that America could overcome its polarization, believed that a lot of that polarization was illusory. And I asked him about it, because at that point in 2015, when we had this discussion, he was quite polarizing. And I asked him about this. And he said, well, look: We all know that we’re one way in politics, but then, when we’re on the soccer or the little league field together, or we’re at the PTA meeting, or we’re talking to our neighbors, or there’s been a storm, we’re very different than that. And so, yeah, then, maybe, when you talk to that person about politics, you can’t believe what they’re saying, but then you look beyond that, and they’re good people. This country is full of good people.
Ms. Tippett: You’re in a relationship with them.
Mr. Klein: But not just that. I think what he was arguing was that the versions of ourselves that politics brings out felt, to him, sort of wrong. And that’s what that famous 2004 DNC speech is: we’re not red and blue. And the difficult thing for me is that this question of, “Well, what is the true version of our self? And is there even a true version of our self?” — because that version of our self, that political version, as you say, it’s getting bigger. It’s absorbing more things. It’s becoming more constant. It’s becoming more suffused in our culture. And so his optimism came from believing that these other versions of ourselves — the PTA version — that was a more core truth. And so that question of how politics became a toxic environment, and how to at least see it when it is doing that to us — that, to me, is the really important human question in the book and the one that is the most radicalizing for me to struggle with, myself.
Ms. Tippett: I’ve thought a lot, these years, about how — the Obama presidency, for all of us who were there. That election night — what’s actually really hard even to cast your imagination back to, at this point, is how — I do think, at least for a minute, for a window of time, there was an awareness across the political spectrum — largely, across the political spectrum — that something extraordinary had been accomplished and that this had this meaning, which was about what America wants to be and has aspired to be. But what that presidency also did at a human level is, it also surfaced all the unfinished business we had to do as a culture to be worthy of that accomplishment. And the truth was, for all the talk of a post-racial society, for example, we weren’t there. But it unleashed that work, in my mind.
What you’re describing — about how at the very same time that that happened, our structures have made us more polarized and lock us into polarization — that is really stunning for me to think about, the convergence of those two things. Because it’s hard to — the work is evident, out on the surface; and it feels harder to do it than ever before.
Mr. Klein: I think that’s right. I can’t believe I’m about to give the answer I’m gonna give you, but this is the only podcast where I can do it, [laughs] so I’m gonna give it a shot. In the past couple of years — and it was actually at the recommendation of Varshini Prakash, who is the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, the climate change movement — I had a conversation with her on my show, and I asked her, what does she do when she thinks about failure? And she said that every day she reads some of the Tao, the Tao Te Ching. And I thought, that’s a strange answer. And so I went, and I had not read it since I was young, when I didn’t get anything out of it. And — sorry, this is looping, but I promise you I’m gonna get somewhere.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Take as long as you need.
Mr. Klein: And this time when I read it, I was really, really, deeply struck by its ideas of non-dualism, its challenge to think about everything is also encoding its opposite. And so much of how we are taught to think — I just think in general, but very much in politics — is, things are one way. They are right, or they are wrong. We got it right, or we got it wrong. This person won, and this person lost. It’s a clean equation that has one answer, every single time. And the deep truth about the Obama presidency is that the Trump presidency was within it …
Ms. Tippett: Yes. Yes.
Mr. Klein: … that there is no Trump without Barack Obama: he is, in a weird way, the yin to Obama’s yang, or vice versa, or whatever it might be; that these things create their own counter-reactions. Having elected Obama is very much why we then elected Trump. And, by the way, this story does not end with Donald Trump.
Ms. Tippett: No.
Mr. Klein: Even right now — and we’ll see what happens in the election; I’m not here to predict that — but there’s been a very sharp liberalization of attitudes towards immigrants under Donald Trump. There’s been a very, very big change in the Democratic Party’s view towards immigrants. If you go look at Bill Clinton’s platform on immigration, it reads like Donald Trump today. The Democratic Party’s changed dramatically, in part for reasons preceding Donald Trump, but in part for reasons that reflect him too.
So there’s this very deep way in which everything here is deeply entwined with itself, and the moments when people think they have most won are almost certainly the moments that are gonna be remembered as the folly a couple years later, when they think — Democrats talking in the Obama era about the rising demographic tide and not recognizing that it was exactly the fear of that rising demographic tide that was gonna change white voting patterns and lead to an outcome they never could’ve predicted — that we’ve got to be able to see these things as somehow — it’s never gonna be all one way, and it doesn’t — hopefully, it doesn’t end. And it is a very — for me, certainly, a very hard way to train yourself to look at politics, or even just to look at life.
[music: “Rolling” by Roedelius and Arnold Kasar]
Ms. Tippett: This conversation with Ezra Klein ran for two hours. The full, unedited version of this one is worth a listen, and we always post those in our podcast feed. There’s more of a surprising dive into the history of American politics and the current politics of journalism. Find that along with all of my conversations on Spotify or Apple Podcasts — or wherever you like to listen. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Rolling” by Roedelius and Arnold Kasar]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with journalist Ezra Klein. Though only in his mid-30s, he’s been a prominent political analyst for a decade, first as creator of the Wonkblog at the Washington Post, then as co-founder of Vox Media and as a podcaster. His new book, Why We’re Polarized, takes a deeply researched and historical, yet also personally searching and surprising look at how this political moment goes deeper than now.
Ms. Tippett: I think that taking a long view of time, which you do, which — we have to remind ourselves that a long view of time is how time works. And it’s just un-American to think that way, and it’s not instinctive; and, in fact, the digital world and journalism, the way it works now, and news, are training us to not realize that reality.
Seeing this historical moment, as you said, with some expansiveness and some reality about it means that, as you say, nothing stops here, but it’s not necessarily all going to transform because there’s another election in 2020. And that doesn’t mean it’s not going to — it is going to transform. That is the only constant. The way you lay out where we’ve been in the last 50 years, 60 years — it’s all change.
Mr. Klein: I love your insight there, that it’s un-American to think about time as long. It’s very deeply true. I struggle with this so much. I find myself often caught between my instincts as somebody who does big-picture analysis of American politics — and that’s to take these very zoomed-out views — and then the constant, urgent recognition that a lot of people don’t get the luxury of that view. The stakes are life and death. People will die if they don’t get health insurance. They will be deported. They will be separated from their children. And so there’s this way in which these two things —
Ms. Tippett: They’re both true.
Mr. Klein: It’s maddening to be held between them, because, on the one hand, you want to say, “You have to take a step back and see this for what it is” And this is the thing, though, that I do think is very important — I’m in the media, and there’s a big part of this book that’s very, I would call, “media-critical.” But, on the other hand, I’m just trying to describe what I think is true, and it’s something for all of us in the media to struggle with, which is: There’s a real way in which the business models, the technological underpinnings of how we get our, particularly, political information, have oriented towards outrage and urgency. And so I think that there’s a deep way in which we are manipulated into a constant state of — feeling a constant state of emergency. And it would be one thing if that was a productive emotion, but what I think it leads to is a constant state of either exhaustion or hypervigilance, both of which can be bad in their own ways. Now, it’s not to say — a lot of people are within that and doing great work and organizing and trying.
But something that I really do urge people to think about is, is their informational diet a good one? And particularly, have they gotten so caught on national politics and the outrages of national politics that they have forgotten the place that they live? What were once very dominant state and local political identities: People were more involved in the place that they were, and the place they were was quite different.
And now a lot of state and local politics is nationalized, and people’s politics have nationalized, and the media sources we follow are nationalized. But there’s something a lot more generative — you can have a lot more effect and impact on state and local politics. So, as much as it’s a bit against interest — I’m a national political journalist — one of the very few, I think, actually productive pieces of advice I have for people is to truly try to think about how can they — it’s good to know about national politics, but if your diet is basically 90:10 national, or more, maybe think about tilting that back.
Ms. Tippett: I remember somebody saying to me, when I started my show, somebody who was questioning that it was journalism, saying, “The news is about…” — this was a definition of news, and it was from a really eminent journalist — that news is the extraordinary thing that happened today. And I think when we read that in the newspaper every morning, you could put it into the context of everything else that happened during the day. But in this 24/7 news cycle, people get this constant — they get this overload, this constant diet of — and generally, not just extraordinary things; it’s extraordinarily terrible things. It’s the things that are going to capture attention, which, as you said, and I think you said, “political media is biased not towards the left or the right as much as toward loud, outrageous, colorful, inspirational, confrontational.” And the effect — the impact question of journalism — the effect of all of that is to demoralize and debilitate and depress people in the same way that politics is demoralizing and depressing people; that journalism is trying to be a constructive force in that — or good journalism.
Mr. Klein: And it’s worse. And I think it’s even worse than that, because the great lie of journalism is that we’re a mirror held up to the world. In fact, we’re an actor upon that world. And this is really, to me, so deeply important. During, particularly, the period of “objective” journalism, there was this idea that we weren’t really making decisions, we were just reflecting: “Just the facts.” Of course, choosing which stories is a tremendous —
Ms. Tippett: “All the news that’s fit to print.”
Mr. Klein: Choosing those stories is a tremendous form of bias and judgment and whatever you want to call it. But the key thing to me is that the more we focus, say, on confrontation, the more confrontation there actually will be. The more we focus on the most polarizing stories, the more polarized the country will actually be. Now, the audience has some relationship to this: as you say, we’re a little bit trying to chase audience. I’m not sure I actually believe that the audience wants the worst work, and I think they get much better than the worst work; and I want to say, for all that I’m trying to examine both my own organization and my industry, I think that, overall, there’s a tremendous amount of wonderful work done. I just think we’re in a period where we have to reevaluate a lot of the way we cover, very specifically, national, confrontational politics.
Ms. Tippett: And I see a real challenge in journalism that is a human challenge, is, how tricky it is to make — and I’m not just talking about a better politician or a more thoughtful politician, but just goodness — there’s a whole alternative narrative to the story of our time, which is actually people, real people in real places, stitching our country back together, one relationship at a time. It’s very hard to make that into a riveting story the way it’s easy to make something terrible or a disaster or an evil person into a riveting story.
Mr. Klein: And this is where the economics and technology of it are so important: that when you knew that the way people were going to read your stories was, they were already subscribed to your paper, and they had a ritual where they spread it out in the morning while they drank their coffee, you had a lot more license to take risk with those stories, because you weren’t fighting —
Ms. Tippett: You weren’t gonna lose them.
Mr. Klein: They were already there. You weren’t gonna lose them. So you could take some risk, or somebody could be a little boring — it was OK. And now that it’s very competitive, that is when we optimize in these directions. You mentioned the ways in which the brain is built to respond to intense emotion; but the other thing that it’s very built to respond to is identity, “our” group. Is our group winning or losing? Is our group being threatened, or are we safe? It’s incredibly deep in us. We are social, pro-social creatures, at our most fundamental level. We live in this moment, but our brains live in deep, evolutionary time. And they’re not used to this many identities and groups and this much conflict. It’s just not what they were built for. And so one of the things I think is also very important is that it turns out that a really important shortcut to getting people to do anything, but particularly to be active in politics, to read or share a news article — and, more than both of those, to operate on social media, is to activate their identities. And so something that I think is really a big question with that is, are we activating good identities in people or bad identities in people? A huge argument of the book is that we’ve misunderstood the term “identity politics.” We apply it only to traditionally marginalized groups; so African Americans and Black Lives Matter — well, that’s identity politics; but rural gun owners who are upset about universal background checks — well, that’s just politics. We wipe out particularly dominant identities.
And so the easiest way to get people to read political stories is to tap on that political identity; you don’t like Trump, or you really love Trump and he’s the greatest president ever. And I think that something that we’re gonna have to get better and better at is trying to call forward alternative identities, because we don’t just have one. You can be curious; you can be fair-minded; you can see yourself as an animal lover. I find a lot of — it’s one reason I push state and local politics: you can care a lot about what’s happening nearby. I find a lot of power — and I often really work to frontload this in my personal identity as a journalist; sometimes, when I feel the other stuff is overtaking me, I try to pull myself back into that. My job is to be curious, to try to understand how things work, to try to explain them to an audience that wants to know. But one of the very difficult things in all this is, it’s not just that we are tapping on people’s emotion, we’ve found the best way to do it is to combine it with their deeper identities. And that is really powerful kindling to play with. And I’m not saying that we don’t, and I’m not saying that I don’t. I want to be real clear that this is not me saying, “Hey, they’re all doing this, but me…” I’m part of it, too.
Ms. Tippett: No, I think it’s what you’re saying: it’s built into the structure. It’s built into the way it works now, even for individuals who might not want to be doing that.
Mr. Klein: Right. And so we’re all part of it, and we’re all here together. But it’s very hard to think about — it’s not impossible to imagine how we can get out, and again, it’s not to say it’s worse than it’s ever been; we had a civil war in this country. But it’s bad. I think these are very powerful dynamics. These are like feedback loops that have been set off, and if they’re not actually interrupted in some way, they will just keep going.
Ms. Tippett: And, as you say, part of the poverty of our time is how the way we’ve been sorted — and this is extremely represented in politics — has kind of made us all caricatures of ourselves in public.
Mr. Klein: I think there’s a lot to that, although I always want to be careful, because sometimes you can fool yourself into thinking — I don’t want to say, “people are more reasonable than they are,” but that the more reasonable version they are with you is gonna be the one that they act in, out in the world. And I will often, then, have the experience — and I’ve had this as a reporter, many times — I’ll sit with a Republican member of Congress, and we’ll have a good discussion, and they’ll go and vote in a way where — I’m not shocked, because I know how the votes are gonna turn out, in general, but — it’s very different than that. And so, sometimes — it’s a hard thing to hold. It’s a hard thing to hold that the face people present you with may be a true one, but then, in another context, it may not be the one that drives their behavior; or given a choice, they may choose something that you feel is just much further into an extreme version than what you had seen with them. And that’s always a difficult thing. And that said, that’s also a criticism I’m sure many people could make of me.
[music: “Dark State of Mind” by Tuatara]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with journalist Ezra Klein.
[music: “Dark State of Mind” by Tuatara]
Ms. Tippett: There’s a sentence — I sense that the conversation you had with Danielle Allen meant a lot to you.
Mr. Klein: She’s so great.
Ms. Tippett: And I can tell that that one was really meaningful for you, and this sentence that you quote really jumped out at me: “It’s the love of democracy that has to compensate for the pain of democracy.” I wonder, you speak, also, about “democratic practice.” What does that mean, for you, “love of democracy”? Is that appealing to you, that notion, personally?
Mr. Klein: It is. I have a pretty deep commitment to — I’m actually trying to work on an essay about this and having trouble with it, but — a commitment to a pretty full idea of democracy and democratic equality, which I think is the more important dimension of it. There’s a question of majority rule, and I care a lot about those, but that’s thin. If you just create majority rule, then hopefully you get your 51 percent or more, and you’re able to do the thing that you think is better for the world; and that’s better than the people you don’t think are better for the world, doing their thing — I get that, and I want to abolish the filibuster and all of it.
But I think that if you ask me what I really think we’ll need to do — although I’m not confident we will — is that we need to have a much richer form of democratic practice. And one of the things that is suffused in Danielle Allen’s work — and there’s another philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson, who does a lot of work on this — that we need to build a politics where one of our aims is the participation and respect we give to each other. And that doesn’t mean a politics where the fights aren’t hard-fought or the stakes aren’t high or everything is compromised down for no reason, but that in some kind of deep way, we need to be looking to pull people into the process, and we need to be looking to pull people back from a ledge.
And something that I struggle with and feel somewhat strongly about — but it’s a tricky thing — is that I think there’s a lot of push towards something I’ve come to think of as kind of an anti-politics: a politics of writing each other out, of saying that you’re actually irredeemable at this point, that I don’t have to deal with you. Arthur Brooks had a nice distinction in a podcast with me, where he talked about the difference between anger and contempt. Anger is an emotion that maybe can bring us closer together: When I’m angry at you, what I want to do is solve the problem. Contempt is: I don’t even need to deal with you anymore; I’m just writing you off; I can’t even.
And I think a lot of online politics pushes towards a politics of contempt and pushes towards a sort of anti-politics, which would be fine, maybe, if it worked — I can be enough ends-justify-the-means that if that’s how you could pass universal healthcare, great. But because I’m pretty pessimistic about that anti-politics working — because I’m very pessimistic — with the kinds of disagreements we’ve had in this country, the polarization we have in this country, the divides we have in this country are illusory or just gonna go away — well, then, if you can’t find a way to pull people into your side, if you can’t find a way to at least make them feel unafraid of you holding power, then you’re in a tough spot. Maybe demographics will do the work for you over time — I think that’s possible — but in the meantime, it’s pretty hard. And so I’m pretty committed, personally, to a form of small-“d” democratic politics, where one of the things you are trying to do is have disagreements where the losers can still feel respected.
Ms. Tippett: Doesn’t Danielle Allen talk about “political friendship” — that notion of … And I think one of the things you describe as part of a factor in this polarization is that the people who get the attention are, perhaps, people who are quite happy for contempt to be the mode. But even, as you say — even as I feel like that that certainly has become more real, and certainly more formative, forceful, I think there’s this counter-movement — not in places that get publicized, and it’s not even necessarily a big political change of heart; it’s just, people don’t want to live this way. People are exhausted. And also, I think this moves into the question I want to ask you as we close. People are also thinking — so many of us, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, are parents. And we are thinking about the world our children will inherit. And you have become a parent in this tumultuous, tender moment in American life, and I’m just curious about how that is flowing into this thinking that you do, and this reflecting on politics and our country.
Mr. Klein: It’s very deeply grounding. And, in many ways, it intensifies some things. But certainly, something that I feel very deeply, being a parent, is, God, does it strike you in the face with how unfair things are, both just in the lottery of birth itself — were you born healthy? Were you born to a family that could care for you? Were you born to a family that had resources to care for you, that had time to be with you? — I know what I have the ability to give and do, for and with my son, and it breaks my heart that not everybody, not every parent, is able to have, say, even the flexibility in their time to be there for when they go to sleep. And so one thing it just does is, I think it really strikes you in the face with the reality and the unfairness of inequality, what you are asking people to make up for on the back end. So that’s a way in which, I think, it has — I trend towards a pretty egalitarian politics, and it’s pushed that a lot further.
The other part of it is just — and this is softer, maybe, but — my son seems to me so good, just when I look at him and when I look at the natural way he engages with the world. And somewhere along the line, most of us lose a lot of that. And there are, I’m sure, a lot of different reasons and evolutionary things, and you don’t want people to just smile, literally, at everybody; but there’s something about thinking about where is that getting lost? And also, how do I react to him that makes that possible, such that I don’t react that way to other people? I think a lot about how, when he’s upset and being kind of what one might call a jerk — and I’m very tired today, and he was up in the middle of the night and the whole thing — my question set is not, “Well, first of all, how dare you? Don’t you know what I’m going through?” [laughs] It’s, “Oh, are you hungry? Are you tired? Is something bothering you? Is it cold in here? Is something wrong? Is there a zipper?” You go through this whole thing — “Something must be wrong for you to be acting this way. Maybe I can help you find what it is.” And then, as soon as we get the ability to speak, it’s like, somebody wrongs us, and it’s like, “How dare you! Let me tell you why.” And I am not saying that it has occasioned this capacity to be like a bodhisattva in my interactions with other people, including people I love: I was tired today, and I spoke sharply to somebody I love because of it. But it’s at least given me something deep to reflect on.
I don’t know if that’s really a political question, but I think, in some of these questions of how do we understand other people’s politics, given that — given how much more similar I think we are to kids than to the rational super-agents of economic models or, in some cases, even philosophical models …
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] And that we pretend to be …
Mr. Klein: … that I think there’s some relevance of that to politics — to recognizing that people’s politics may not be as much a choice for them as we often think they are.
[music: “Summer Colour” by I Am Robot and Proud]
Ms. Tippett: Ezra Klein is the co-founder and editor-at-large of Vox Media, and a host of two podcasts: The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show. His book is Why We’re Polarized.
[music: “Summer Colour” by I Am Robot and Proud]
Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Marie Sambilay, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Nicole Finn, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, and Julie Siple.
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