Politics as Identity

Jasper Johns, White Flag, 1955. Encaustic, oil, newsprint, and charcoal on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Why We're Polarized by Ezra Klein. Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 336pp

Politics is one of the things I follow constantly, yet I almost never write directly about it. This hesitation is due partly to the polarized nature of our current moment and because politics can often seem so disheartening. Still, I am fascinated by the ways in which political change and organization connects with our individual identities and lives, which often animates my writing. This inspired me to share Ezra Klein’s new book, Why We’re Polarized. Klein, one of the founders of Vox and a host of a compelling interview podcast, proves a useful and often surprising guide to how we got to our current moment in American politics. Klein writes from a perspective of systems more than individual political actors and of statistics rather than anecdotes. Klein’s type of thinking challenges many preconceptions (at least, many of mine) but manages to yield a systemic view of why our political parties have grown so intensely opposed.

Klein’s focus on identity and how it relates to politics is a useful lens for looking at the current political moment. Identity politics, like several other conceptual tools such as intersectionality, has become synonymous with political focus on marginalized populations, yet in fact can be seen reflected in a wide range of non-marginalized identities. The strong polarization of Democrats and Republicans, in Klein’s telling, has a central origin point in the separation of the Dixiecrats, a group identified with Democrats who held an iron grip on the South for much of the twentieth century. This group continued to enforce Jim Crow Laws and was allied with Democrats, halting civil rights legislation from passing for decades. Dixiecrats only separated from the Democrats with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the aftereffects of which still reverberate.

Klein writes that we are now in a moment of “political mega-identities,” in which our political affiliation itself has become a central identity. A major source of unity for both parties, in the numerous studies Klein cites, is dislike for the other party. The political parties virtually become sports teams for many, a structuring type of social group. For many different groups now, different positions become enmeshed within political parties. Essentially, all politics is connected to identity.

The riskiest and so most interesting segments of Klein’s book discuss how social psychology plays into political decision making and alliances. It is attractive to ask “why don’t they just change view” of those from a different party, but it is not simple to alienate oneself from what is both a felt and often real community. In several studies he cites, Republican voters would support liberal policies if advocated by their own party leaders over conservative policies from Democrats (and vice versa). Klein reminds us that our beloved ‘objectivity’ may not be quite so objective.

In our amnesiac times, Klein’s book offers the rare gift of something approaching context. From Republican Ronald Regan saying in 1984 that he believed in “the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” to Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders in 2015 saying open borders would “make everybody in America poorer,” the reader is able to recognize that Democratic or Republican positions can and do change. These changes can come from shifting coalitions and social changes, among other factors. The optimism I drew from reading this book is that what our parties represent might not, in fact, remain stagnant but could change to more reflect our society and so become less polarized. The ways to shift away from polarization are finally personal as well as systemic. To start to dis-identify with national politics and identify more with the actual place you are in, Klein usefully suggests, might offer a different and beneficial way to meaningfully contribute.

Additional Reading: Within the book, Klein cites the recent How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. This collection of interviews and texts offers a contextualization of a formative and fascinating text in identity politics. Another fantastic and essential text in considering identity and politics is Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics? by Cathy J. Cohen. In thinking of the complexities of activism and legal justice, a recent collection of essays on the history of the ACLU, Fight of the Century edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman would make a strong companion. Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing would make for an appropriate follow-up.