It took me way too long, but I finally finished Why We're Polarized by Ezra Klein. I got the book when it came out, but after making it half-way through I got distracted. I regret not finishing it sooner.
Before I go any further into the whats and the whys, I will pause to just briefly say: you should read this book. Just do it. It's a quick read (unless you take 6 months off) and it's exactly the kind of thing Ezra is famous for: good, thoughtful, explanatory writing on a nuanced and complicated topic.
A Systems Perspective on These United States
For the curious, Why We're Polarized details the story of, well why we're polarized. Specifically, Ezra explains what polarization means and why it's a problem in modern American politics, then takes us through how we got here, what polarization has done to our government (and us), and then offers some advice on how we can mitigate its more potent aspects.
Ezra brings the weight of recent social science to bear in supporting his theories and he's spent countless hours before and after the release of his book discussing the finer points in audio form. I won't go any deeper here, just read the book and listen to those episodes.
What drew me to this book the most is that, in it, Ezra looks at our politics not as the result of individuals and their actions, but through the lens of systems and their incentives. That perspective isn't just what brings me back to Ezra's work over and over again, it's exactly what makes me recommend it to friends and others who aren't interested in, or those who don't follow, politics. It's an uncommon take, but one that I, and I know many others really enjoy.
I can't say the book is terribly encouraging. It's pretty downright depressing at times, but it does clarify a lot of nuanced truths: from what motivates the push toward radicalism in the Republican Party, and yet moderation in the Democratic Party, to detailing how the supposed glory of midcentury American politics was in part due to the long shadow that slavery, racism, and the failures of Reconstruction cast over this nation. It's a real pick-me-up.
That said, I found myself even more hopeful and optimistic that these problems with our politics can be solved. Knowledge of the problem and understanding of its nuances is a huge part of the work towards finding a solution, and I for one, feel better armed in the fight after reading this book.
Ezra has said on his podcast, as well as in the book itself, that the solutions he offers at the end are mostly there for decorum. Books about the problems in politics usually end with solutions, so he does too for the sake of fitting in. But one of his suggestions has actually helped me significantly in my understanding (and coping) with the world of politics, law, and government.
"There are over five hundred thousand elected officials in the United States, only 537 of whom serve at the federal level." ... The 537 federal officials are the ones we have the least power to influence, if only because they have, on average, the most constituents. But we often don't know the names of the officials nearest to us, even though they'd be glad to meet for coffee...
[T]here's a real reward from rooting more of out political identities in the places we live.
I live in California and lately I've tried to focus more on my state and less on the national dramas. I've started following more local papers and more state news. I feel better about the world, more hopeful about the future, and more connected to the place I live. I'm not always successful (in fact I have a lot of room for improvement), but following the goings on of my City, my County, and my State have made me more optimistic, more informed, and arguably more influential. I've started emailing my City Councilmember and my State Assemblymember, and they actually respond, not with a cheap form letter, but with a real, human response! Even if it's only to take my comment and throw it on the pile, I feel like I've actually contributed, much more so than I ever would just ranting about the President or the Senate on the Internet.
I think we've all let the inter-connectedness of the Internet overshadow the communities we have at home. Community on the Web is a marvelous thing, but there is also a sense of community to be had... in our communities.1
In this time of crisis, look to your local goverments: city and county. There are thousands of people working hard and looking out for you and for your community.