American Politics Is Broken. Liberalism Can’t Fix It.

Ezra Klein’s new book Why We’re Polarized identifies much of what’s wrong in the gridlocked US political system. But he dismisses the role of class in cohering the movements that can finally democratize it.

The White House in Washington, DC, May 2008. AgnosticPreachersKid / Wikimedia

In his new book Why We’re Polarized, Vox founder Ezra Klein offers a model for understanding American political polarization and dysfunction through the lens of group identity. He argues that while polarization is normal (the United States is still actually less polarized than many other democracies), our political system is simply not equipped to deal with partisan polarization.

His account goes something like this: the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War set the stage for a century of autocratic one-party Democratic rule in the South. Despite bearing the Democratic moniker, the “Dixiecrats” were really a party unto their own. Northern Democrats tolerated the Dixiecrats’ white supremacism in order to maintain a viable national ruling coalition, an arrangement that precluded neat bipolar sorting along party lines.

This uneasy alliance came to an end when northern Democrats broke ranks to join the Republican minority in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the same year the right-wing Barry Goldwater snagged the Republican presidential nomination, which “cleared the way for southern conservatives to join the Republican Party and northern liberals to join the Democratic Party.” With the Dixiecrats out of the picture, the political parties were free to naturally sort themselves around ideology — and, eventually, everything else too.

In the following decades, we saw the rise of what Klein terms political “mega-identities” that subsume everything from ideology to racial and gender identities to the movies we watch, the news we consume, and the restaurants we patronize. Virtually everything about us can now signal partisan identity.

While political polarization is not inherently bad, as it allows for clearer and more meaningful choices at the ballot box, the US political system — with all of its “checks and balances” and veto points — requires compromise to function. Polarization under divided government explains the never-ending gridlock, the government shutdowns, the “constitutional hardball,” and the inability of elected majorities to actually enact their agenda.

Furthermore, the undemocratic nature of American political representation has resulted in asymmetric political polarization. Republicans can win elections by catering to a minority of overrepresented mostly white, mostly Christian rural voters who feel their demographic dominance slipping, while Democrats, in Klein’s view, must moderate their platform to appeal to a broader coalition that includes right-of-center voters.

The result: an extremist Republican Party bearing hard into white identity politics and antidemocratic policies to consolidate their minority rule, a moderate Democratic Party forced to cobble together a broad coalition of less homogenous voters often united only in their opposition to Republicans, and a cumbersome political system always on the brink of crisis and failure.

This analysis is convincing. Klein, known for his wonky attention to detail, stays grounded in material reality. Where many liberal commentators blame individual actors, Klein is focused on the incentives that drive them. The problem isn’t Mitch McConnell — it’s the undemocratic nature of the Senate and a flawed constitution that generates irresolvable legitimacy crises under divided government. The problem isn’t Trump himself — it’s a political system that allows demagogues to take power without a popular mandate.

This systemic approach gets to the heart of the problem with American politics. Gridlock and crises of inaction aren’t the result of politicians that don’t know how to compromise but rather a political system that disincentivizes bipartisan cooperation while requiring it to function.

Rethinking, Not Rescuing, Identity Politics

Why We’re Polarized, according to Klein, is focused on understanding these problems, not solving them. Nonetheless, the final chapter cautiously offers some solutions. In addition to proposing much needed democratic and regulatory reforms, which Klein elsewhere dismisses as unlikely to actually happen, he also calls for us to “depolarize ourselves.”

Political identities, he warns, are reinforced by a “massive apparatus for defining, policing, and activating them.” By practicing “identity mindfulness,” individuals can recognize propaganda and slant and better manage their own emotional response to identity-based manipulation.

While such mindfulness might help individuals lead more examined political lives, it does little to address the problems Klein identifies. Individualist solutions are no answer to intractable societal problems.

Klein is speaking mostly to a receptive left-leaning audience. Republicans voting on white identity politics aren’t listening and they have no incentive to start now. They aren’t going to turn off right-wing media in a moment of quiet self-reflection, not en masse. They aren’t going to help dismantle the undemocratic institutions that politically advantage them. And they certainly aren’t going to abandon an identitarian movement in the middle of what feels, to them, like an existential battle against opponents rallying around their own brand of identity politics.

In the introduction to the book, Klein attempts to “rescue” identity politics from those who have weaponized the term against historically marginalized groups. White Republicans wield their (waning) demographic majority to present their concerns as “just good, old-fashioned politics” while dismissing the concerns of minorities as self-interested, niche identity politics. “With a quick sleight of hand,” Klein writes, “identity becomes something that only marginalized groups have.”

Klein isn’t wrong here. The dominance of identity politics across the political spectrum can make organizing around class and universalist policies seem hopeless or like a strategic error. It is neither. The Left has paid a great price for organizing mostly around minority identity politics, often to the exclusion of class politics entirely. The Democratic base comprises a hodgepodge of minority groups and white liberals. The glue holding that coalition together is often little more than dislike of Republicans. This is not enough to build a viable political movement.

A party in which both Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders can make a credible play for the nomination is inherently unstable.

Moreover, organizing the Left around a coalition of marginalized identities, as most liberals and even many leftists now do, cedes political debate to the preferred venue of the identitarian right. They want to argue over divisive cultural issues. The culture wars are also the preferred battlefield of right-wing ideologues who would rather political debate stay focused on identity issues than on enacting universal social programs, addressing inequality through wealth redistribution, or challenging the power and influence of capital.

We have gone so far down the left identitarian rabbit hole that, as Klein points out, in a “bizarre, worst-of-both-worlds compromise,” candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination began rebranding popular universalist policies in the language of identity politics. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren billed an earned income tax credit and universal childcare, respectively, as reparations for slavery. “These were universalist programs—programs that would help people of all races—being pitched in particularist ways,” Klein writes.

There’s no better way to hobble a popular agenda than to mislabel it as something divisive and unpopular. We’re doing the Right’s work for it here.

Worse, identity-based political organizing causes the Left to actually abandon its core mission of building a just, equitable society, shifting battles from broad struggles for the redistribution of wealth and resources to a fight for more seats at the table. The problem becomes not the unjust system itself but rather the lack of minority representation within it. In this way, the identity politics that Klein hopes to rescue, no matter how well intentioned such movements may be, end up reinforcing the neoliberal status quo.

Class Is More Than an Identity

Despite repeatedly emphasizing that our identities are pluralistic, Klein gives little attention to class in the book. This seems curious given that class cuts across racial divides and the geographic divisions that warp representation in the American political system. After all, Donald Trump would not be in the White House, nor would Republicans enjoy such an unassailable demographic advantage in the Senate, without having picked off so many white workers in the Midwest and elsewhere.

During a book tour Q&A session, Klein clarified that he doesn’t see class as a powerful identity in American politics. He notes that the Left line that “conservatives vote against their own interests” is a misunderstanding that arises from narrowly defining interests in terms of material resources. In Klein’s view, American politics is a fight over group identity and status, and policy debates are merely proxy wars in the struggle for group dominance. Voters are voting on identity, and the Left has mostly failed to create a class identity that speaks to the American public.

It’s true that the broader liberal left has largely abandoned class politics and that the rising democratic-socialist left must work harder to build class identity, but the implication that class is just another identity equal to others is inaccurate. Class consciousness may get activated like any other identity, but it functions very differently in practice. Whereas “identity politics” (as practiced by both the Left and the Right) divide the country into factions at war for group status, class consciousness cuts across racial, geographic, and cultural divides. Organizing around class puts most voters on the same side.

I’m under no illusion that white workers will unanimously join a class-oriented, multiracial, egalitarian movement — the pull of fascism and nativist nationalism is strong — but organizing around universalist policies at least provides material reasons to do so.

The Bernie Sanders campaign’s strength, once again, reveals the power in organizing around the commonality of class. Rather than trying to disguise universalist policies in the language of identity politics, Sanders consistently responds to the Democratic establishment’s pandering identity fetishization by underscoring how his policies — such as Medicare for All and a federal jobs guarantee — benefit everyone, marginalized groups most of all, in material ways that chanting vague platitudes like “X minority’s rights are human rights” does not.

It’s not enough to simply acknowledge injustice — we have to actually do something about it.

If the Democratic Party and the broader left want voters to vote on material interests, they need to make improving material conditions a priority and market it as such. Of course, much of the Democratic establishment has no interest in challenging the neoliberal order and is happy to spin its wheels arguing endlessly over whether our oppressors are diverse enough.

Those who are truly invested in improving material conditions will still find themselves pushing up against the gridlock inherent to our broken and undemocratic political system, but at least they’ll be able to credibly and honestly make the case that they are working to make things better, for everyone.

Democratization Is Not Optional

A popular platform will not spare the Left from contending with the constraints of the American political system described in Why We’re Polarized. Enacting policies, no matter how popular, requires political power. Unfortunately, malapportionment — which overwhelmingly benefits the Republican Party — prevents electoral majorities from translating into governing majorities that control political institutions. Furthermore, “checks and balances” prevent even governing majorities from enacting their campaign agenda.

Given that an excess of veto points favors neoliberal politics, this is particularly problematic for the Left when trying to create public programs and social policies. We won’t get to democratic socialism without democratic governance.

Under the current system, the American public is powerless to hold politicians accountable for policy failures and broken promises. Voters often don’t even know whom to blame. Divided government in the presidential system, a bicameral legislature, and judicial review create competing claims to democratic legitimacy that, as Klein points out, the American political system has no way to resolve. This is why Americans have such disdain for Washington. Legislators can’t legislate. The administration can’t govern. One party gets blamed for the other’s obstructionism and sabotage. Nothing changes no matter who wins elections, and voters are left demoralized. Ultimately, political disputes get decided by unelected federal judges, if they are addressed at all.

Klein is absolutely correct, as he argues in the book, that American democracy would work better if governing coalitions were elected by popular will and able to enact their campaign agenda. The public could then decide whether or not they did a good job and vote accordingly in the next election. This is the popular conception of democracy. It’s also not at all how the American political system works.

Why We’re Polarized offers a number of strategies for democratizing the political system, including fighting voter suppression, bypassing the Electoral College with an interstate popular vote pact, replacing gerrymandered single-member House districts with multimember districts decided by ranked-choice voting, scrapping the Senate filibuster, expanding congressional representation to Puerto Rico and DC to rebalance power in the Senate, and changing the composition of the Supreme Court.

None of these solutions need to clear the almost impossible hurdle of constitutional amendment. Some are procedural reforms. Others can be enacted with simple majorities in Congress once the filibuster is removed. Admittance of new states into the union isn’t even subject to presidential veto. Klein makes these suggestions precisely because he sees them as most achievable. More foundational constitutional reforms, like the abolition or democratization of the Senate, are deemed impossible.

He’s not alone. In his 2001 book, How Democratic Is the American Constitution?, the late constitutional scholar Robert Dahl voiced a similar pessimism. He found the most ambitious and meaningful democratic reforms the least achievable and put the odds of democratizing the Senate at “virtually zero.” More recently, political scientist David Faris put forward a plan to democratize the Constitution in It’s Time to Fight Dirty. Here, too, the reader is offered a familiar combination of policy reforms and messy constitutional workarounds that paper over the structural problems of broken institutions.

There is an understandable pragmatism at play here. The American constitution is hard to amend. Republicans will resist any democratic reforms that threaten their advantage. Constitutional workarounds seem like the obvious answer. Admitting new states into the union so that Senate malapportionment breaks more evenly over current partisan coalitions seems more achievable than abolishing the Senate. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact seems easier than doing away with the Electoral College.

But is this really true? These reforms haven’t happened for a reason. Republicans’ outsized power in political institutions is self-reinforcing. Any constitutional workarounds have to survive the undemocratic political institutions they seek to reform, a problem Klein acknowledges. Bills have to make it through both chambers of Congress and avoid presidential veto to become law. Even then, they can be struck down by conservative-packed courts.

Crudely rebalancing malapportionment without directly addressing the way votes are counted and weighted could also backfire. Republicans can pack courts and “gerrymander” state lines too. In fact, they’re better positioned to do so.

Weaponizing flaws in the political system to score political points, suppress votes, and subvert democracy are already a primary way political battles are waged in this country. Major escalation in such tactics is only going to further delegitimize the constitutional system — but that might actually be the best argument for pursuing them. An undemocratic political system that works to suppress popular will should be deemed illegitimate and, ultimately, dismantled.

This is what Klein and other liberals know but are unwilling to say.