Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein will virtually present “What We Can Do About Toxic Polarization” Tuesday, Feb. 8.

NYT Columnist Ezra Klein: Politics Shouldn’t Solely Be About Amplifying Arguments

Klein, a New York Times opinion columnist and Vox founder, discusses toxic polarization and offers fixes for American politics as he delivers the 2022 Kenner lecture.

Story by

Stephen Gross

If people tell Ezra Klein they shop at Whole Foods or live in an urban versus rural area, he probably can tell which political candidates they voted for.

It hasn’t always been that way. But today he said, the country’s political landscape has become increasingly polarizing, and social identities, ideologies, religion and geography give Klein much more predictive power over one’s political preferences than it did 50 years ago.

Klein, a New York Times opinion columnist and Vox founder, discussed polarization and issues with American politics Tuesday night as he virtually delivered the 25th Kenner Lecture on Cultural Understanding, “What We Can Do About Toxic Polarization,” to over 600 attendees.

The author of Why We’re Polarized, a bestseller about America’s political system, and podcast host of the self-titled “Ezra Klein Show” spoke for nearly 35 minutes, defining polarization and toxic polarization in politics and proposing ways to fix what politics is supposed to do: give people a venue in which to work out their argument. The evening ended with a 20-minute question-and-answer session moderated by Anthony DiMaggio, associate professor of political science.

Too often, people confuse polarization with bitterness and anger, said Klein, who defined polarization, a term for magnets, as “splitting around two poles.” The question in relation to politics, Klein said, is ‘How are you polarized?’ Currently, he said, we are splitting into either the Democratic or Republican party, polarized by ideology.

“It didn't used to be true that cities were Democratic and rural areas Republican,” Klein said. “The South was Republican and the North was Democratic.”

But Klein argued that polarization can be good, if it is creating healthy disagreement and allowing societal problems to be worked out. And, he said, the opposite of polarization–when two sides disagree on topics—is often suppression, which is much worse. He said the mid-20th century, a time in which party polarization was at its lowest point in Congress, was “a time of terrible fracture in America, particularly over race.”

A large number of southern, racist Dixiecrats were in the Democratic Party, Klein said, while the Republican Party was made up of northern liberals as the parties tried to suppress arguments about race. The Democrats used their power on the committees and the filibuster in the Senate, to prevent passage of laws that addressed lynching, voting rights and civil rights. 

“That is not better,” Klein said.

“How do I define toxic polarization?” he asked. “Toxic polarization, I think, is division that drives division, not resolution.” He said he doesn’t believe politics shouldn’t solely be about intensifying or amplifying arguments, even though that’s largely what it has become in America.

Next, Klein explained how politics is supposed to work in theory.

He said there are two mechanisms used to solve arguments: elections and policy. Policy is implemented and judged by people on whether it resolves arguments. Elections then resolve the argument of who has the power to make policy.

How do I define toxic polarization? Toxic polarization, I think, is division that drives division, not resolution.

Ezra Klein

“It's how we tell kids politics works and how my sons will learn it worked in elementary school,” Klein said. “You have elections, somebody wins, they implement their agenda, the public judges them, they have to get more power to implement more agenda or they get kicked out and the other party gets a term. I think it’s a pretty good system.”

Klein said that’s not how it actually works, though. In America, it’s possible for both parties to win power, which is not true in most governments. For example, the president could be from one party and the Speaker of the House and/or the Senate Majority Leader could be from the other party. Even if one party controls all three of those leadership positions, the filibuster, a number of veto points and the Supreme Court all make it difficult to pass and enact policy. He used the current government makeup—President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, all Democrats—as an example of the latter.

“We have a very unusually difficult system in which to get anything done,” Klein said.

And he said the public, who is judging each party’s performance, doesn’t closely monitor filibusters, compromises and budget reconciliation, so they don’t have a full sense of what is happening and why some things didn’t happen when it comes time to vote. They only see that promises were made and not fulfilled.

Even if the public isn’t happy, the party in power doesn’t automatically get voted out. Klein mentioned the effect the Electoral College and gerrymandering—which Klein described as a “fun game we play in America where the politicians can choose their voters as opposed to the voters choosing their politicians”—has on elections.

“If the governing party does lose power, the other party gets a term to disappoint the country for the same reasons,” Klein said. “And so over time, the country's frustration builds, people get angry, they keep shifting back and forth between the parties, which is what we're seeing now. We've never had a period in American politics, where party control of the government was so unstable and went back and forth so often. This is unique. And I think it's because people are frustrated. They keep trying to elect somebody who's going to solve the problems and it keeps not quite working.”

Factoring into the equation of how politics works is the fact that arguments are polarizing, while policy, once implemented at least, often isn’t, Klein said.

Klein used the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, as an example. Citing Kaiser Family Foundation polling that began long before the legislation was passed, continued through 2014 just before it was implemented and ran well into 2020, Klein showed how public perception of the bill changed. Early on, during the arguments, which included all Republicans vowing to repeal the law and the Supreme Court cases, opposition was fairly high.

As soon as people began to experience the effects of the law—such as a Republican whose older child could now be on their insurance or a family member who lost a job, became self-employed and received insurance through the Affordable Care Act—support grew for the law and opposition declined.

“There's a lot of things I don't like about Obamacare and a lot of ways that I would like to change that bill, but nevertheless, for all of its flaws, for all the ways that it had to be a … compromised down thing because of the way it had to pass, it still, as a real policy, ended up resolving the debate over itself,” Klein said.

Klein listed numerous other examples including the Bush Tax Cuts, Medicare prescription drug benefit and the Dodd-Frank Act. He provided similar polling data for the Bush Tax Cuts, showing they were originally very controversial and public opinion was evenly split on whether they were a good idea. Since they were passed by budget reconciliation, they were set to expire after 10 years, when a Democratic president was then in charge. Instead of simply letting them expire, the Democrats reached a compromise with Republicans to keep the cuts for all but the wealthiest people after originally promising to completely repeal them. That’s because after experiencing the tax cuts for a decade, 40% of people thought all the tax cuts should remain in place and 44% thought they should only end for wealthy Americans.

Klein offered constructive ways to improve politics in the country. He noted his suggestions were not originally his ideas, but ones he has gathered from others. His eight proposals included getting rid of the filibuster and the Electoral College, expanding the House of Representatives from 435 to 1,000 members, adding Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico (if they choose) to the Senate, term limits on the Supreme Court and party balancing on the Supreme Court.

In the question-and-answer session, Klein was asked about a number of topics, ranging from social media and polarization to the role a university such as Lehigh has in reducing polarization.

We are not at civil-war levels of violence. We're not close to it. We don't look, to me, to be on that path.

Ezra Klein

As for social media, Klein said he doesn’t think it’s helping and can be a driving force, but it wasn’t the cause of today’s polarization. The runup to the current polarization began in the ’80’s and ’90’s, prior to the creation of social media.

What Lehigh can do, he said, is give people a great education. He doesn’t believe polarization or toxic polarization necessarily needs to be reduced, but he does think it’s important to educate people and learn about other perspectives and ideas.

“I think it is worth hearing from people who are worth hearing from and that is a curational responsibility on the part of the university,” Klein said. “But it's also not an excuse for not being exposed to lots of views.”

Klein was also asked how today’s polarization compares with the U.S. Civil War.

The United States, according to Klein, is in much better shape today than it was leading up to the Civil War. Currently, he has seen some polls about violence, but prior to the Civil War, he said, there weren’t polls, just a lot of violence. That violence, he said, was not just confined to the states, either. While much of the violence was against slaves, there was also violence within Congress between elected officials.

“We are not at civil-war levels of violence,” Klein said. “We're not close to it. We don't look, to me, to be on that path.”

Klein also said the way polarization is geographically set up today makes it harder for a Civil War to begin. In the 1860’s, the war broke out between the North and South but today’s polarization would pit areas such as upstate New York and New York City or Miami and exurban Florida against each other.

“I agree that we are on a path where we could see an increase in political violence, but I think more about the kinds of things we saw in the ’60s and ’70s: political assassinations, protests that turn very violent,” Klein said. “I worry about things, of course, like what we saw in the Jan. 6 takeover of the Capitol. But I do think there's been some kind of, what I would call a little irresponsible talk about civil war, and that's, at least not for now, where I see things headed.”

Hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Kenner Lecture Series was endowed by Jeffrey L. Kenner ’65 ’66 and established in 1997. Kenner, who studied industrial engineering and business administration at Lehigh, became involved in private equity and venture capital after a career as a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers (then Price Waterhouse & Co.). In 1986, Kenner formed his own firm, Kenner & Company. Inc. He served as a university trustee from 1995 to 2002 and was an early sponsor of the IBE [Integrated Business and Engineering] Honors Program. Kenner has long been a member of the university's Asa Packer and Tower Societies and was inducted into Leadership Plaza in October 2000.

Story by

Stephen Gross

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