As far back as 1950, political researchers published a study warning about the dangerous ideological gap between Republicans and Democrats. That research concluded that the two parties’ platforms weren’t different enough. On this week’s Ezra Klein Show, University of Maryland professor Lilliana Mason talks about what’s changed in the 68 years since that study was published.
Mason’s new book, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, looks at the ways in which political party identity has become increasingly polarized and tribal. She cites research that illustrates how identity and ideology are inextricably linked, that a strong group identity leads to distrust and resentment toward other groups, and that spending time with people ideologically similar to yourself leads to intolerance. Ezra called it “one of the most important books published this year.”
The books that Mason recommends at the end of the podcast don’t have much in common, though they all broadly relate to issues of identity. They span genres, subjects, and tones and only one of them is a “nerdy” academic text. The other two are novels because, according to Mason, “reading fiction can help us get into the mindset of other people in a way that we are completely incapable of doing in our regular, average life.”
The aforementioned nerdy book recommendation is Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James A. Stimson. The book explains the contradictions in ideology that defines the America political system. According to Mason, “they kind of explain this whole idea of having an identity that’s ideological versus issue positions ... better than anything I’ve ever seen.” It’s on the reading list for every class she teaches.
Mason’s second recommendation is the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It tells the story of two sisters, born in 18th-century Ghana, whose lives followed drastically different paths. One is kidnapped and shipped off to America to be a slave while the other lives a comfortable life in Ghana married to a British slave trader. The book tracks these two women’s legacies and the enduring impact of slavery for several generations. Mason admits that she didn’t really understand the extent of structural racism until she read this book.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power was one of Barack Obama’s favorite reads of 2017, though Mason swears that’s not why she picked it. The science fiction novel is set in a future world in which women have developed the ability to shoot electrical energy out of their fingers. More importantly, Mason says “it explains how society changes once that happens, essentially when women are more physically powerful than men. It makes it so clear that physical strength infects everything, including things that are not about physical strength.”
You can listen to the full conversation with Lilliana Mason on The Ezra Klein Show by subscribing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, or by streaming the episode here: