Things were far worse in the “golden age” of the 1950s and ‘60s than they are today. We often think of midcentury as a time of civility and compromise in our politics, but it was also an era when lynchings were common, Freedom Riders were brutally beaten, urban riots ripped across the country, and political assassinations were frequent. Things today are bad — and we should try to fix them — but nostalgia for our recent past is deeply misguided.
This is one of many topics I will touch on during the Why We’re Polarized book tour, which kicked off this week with a wonderful event at Sixth & I in Washington, DC. My conversation partner for this one was New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie.
Our interview was great, and then the audience questions were so good we had to keep them in as well. We discussed everything from why the ’50s and ’60s were terrible to how polarization makes bipartisanship irrational to why demographic change is the core cleavage of American politics today.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation, which we released this week on The Ezra Klein Show.
Ezra, when I see books with these kinds of titles, my immediate thought is, “Oh, come on.” We’re not that polarized. It’s not that big of a deal. Things have been worse in American history — the 1850s, the 1930s, even the 1960s. So if we are uniquely polarized in the present moment, what makes it unique?
You’re completely right — when you use the word polarized, you get an immediate intuition from the audience that what you’re doing is lamenting how bitter everything is today. And, as you say, things have been much, much worse. The thing that I think is very unintuitive here is that polarization is not necessarily a bad thing and it is not necessarily a synonym for disagreement or bitterness or extremism.
I think the fascinating thing about the mid-20th century is it was a time of much more foundational political fracture than what we’re in right now. You had the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the antiwar movement, the indigenous rights movement. You had national guardsmen killing protesters at Kent State. You had urban riots, you had Richard Nixon and Watergate, you had political assassination after political assassination.
What is different now is not faction or fracture. It is the way the different fractures align on top of each other. The way we’ve become polarized by party means that political identity has linked to a lot of other identities and a lot of other fractures in American politics.
In the book, you begin talking about how American politics got polarized and the way it is now. The Civil Rights Act essentially realigns the liberal and conservative factions in both parties. Liberal Republicans become Democrats; conservative Democrats become Republicans. You described this earlier as not necessarily being a bad thing. I want to hear you talk about why it wasn’t a bad thing, even if the consequences have not necessarily been great for the political system.
I think implicitly, people often believe the alternative to polarization is agreement, compromise, civility, comity. But the alternative — depolarization — is often suppression. Often, the reason a political system is not “polarized” is the disagreements that you would polarize over are being suppressed. In the American political system, they were suppressed by a two-party system collapsing into a four-party system in a way that made it unable to surface disagreement over race.
There were people looking at this and saying there is something wrong with this system. The American Political Science Association releases its infamous report in 1950 which says that the problem in American politics is that the parties aren’t “responsible.” And what they mean by responsible is that they are not putting forward separate, clear, defined agendas so that people can make a choice between them. Instead, you have a Democrat in South Carolina voting for Strom Thurmond, a very conservative senator; and a Democrat in Minnesota voting for Hubert Humphrey [a liberal Democrat]. So you have this period where American politics in many ways functions well on the things that it functions upon. But the cost of that is a compromise to allow racial white supremacy to exist in the South.
So one of the arguments I make throughout the book is that the problem is not polarization per se. Polarization is often another word we have for disagreements that need to come to the surface. The problem in our system is that it is built so that in conditions of polarization, there is not a way to resolve disagreement. This system gridlocks into forms of paralysis or just unending conflict. But that is a political system design problem, not a polarization problem.
So far in this conversation, we’ve been talking about polarization essentially moving of its own accord: Some events happen in the ’60s, and the parties begin to realign. But in all of this, there are political actors making choices about how to best attain an advantage and win an election. And their choices end up feeding into polarization.
I don’t want to say that individual behavior has no effect at all on politics. That would clearly be untrue. Of course, if Donald Trump had not run in 2016, American political history would be different. If Barack Obama had not run in 2008, American political history would be different.
But I don’t think the underlying trends would be all that different over the long run. Individual behavior has a lot less range of choice in politics than we think it does. Political journalism narrativizes the story of American politics through individuals in a way that I think is unhelpful for understanding what really happened and is happening.
I think we see this with Mitch McConnell. I think the polarization story gets overly personalized to him, but he’s doing, in some ways, what any Republican leader of the Senate would do. I have an argument in the book, which I think a lot of liberal readers will find somewhat tough to read, which is that it is very hard to pinpoint what Mitch McConnell did wrong with Merrick Garland.
He used his constitutional power to not allow a vote on someone who he and his party did not want to be on the Supreme Court in what was, without doubt, the single most ideologically important vote anybody in the Senate would take that cycle — a swing seat on the Supreme Court with a lifetime appointment. He didn’t invent a new power. He didn’t get armed looters in the streets. He just said no. And he had the power to say no. And then his team won the next election. And that isn’t to say what Mitch McConnell did was good. It’s to say that in perfectly, straightforwardly following the incentives, rules, and power structure of American politics, he set up a precedent that could completely destroy the Supreme Court.