- Interview by
- Bhaskar Sunkara
What I really love about Why We’re Polarized is that it’s a 2020 political book that isn’t just narrowly focused on Donald Trump. It’s about far deeper, underlying trends, and about the structure of the American political system.
Yeah, absolutely. One of the moves I tried to make in the book, and that I try to make in my journalism more broadly, is to get people to stop reducing politics to a narrative about individuals.
The master story right now of American politics, to me, is certain identities becoming more firmly entrenched, locking people much more firmly into a sense of political place than, say, fifty years ago, and a large gap between the parties.
That creates opportunities and problems. On the Republican side, that’s one reason why a candidate as unusual and confrontational as Donald Trump could consolidate Republican support so well. Something like 60 percent of Republicans said in polling that they were primarily voting against Hillary Clinton, as opposed to for Trump, in 2016.
That’s also part of what made Bernie Sanders an interesting candidate in the Democratic Party. At another time, running a democratic socialist as a Democrat would have had a real chance of fracturing the party. But in this era, if Sanders had won in 2020, he would have consolidated the Democratic base.
I think it changes the way you look at politics, once you recognize that it’s much harder to persuade across party lines — but that as parties weaken and polarization hardens, it’s perhaps easier to change things internally within parties.
It’s one reason why I think it was, and still is, wrong for some Democrats to expect a Republican revolt against Trump. In power, after all, many of Trump’s key achievements would have been done by any mainstream Republican.
I think that’s right. Although the thing with Trump — and this is maybe a place where I fall out of my “ignore individuals” form of analysis — is that he’s very lazy as an ideologist and as an institution builder. If Donald Trump had wanted to come in and enforce a more populist right on the Republican Party, would he have been able to do that? That’s a really interesting question to me.
If he had been thoughtful about stacking the government with people who agreed with him — so you don’t just have Stephen Miller here, but you have tons of Stephen Millers everywhere — does his presidency look different?
The thing about Trump is that he doesn’t really care about most issues. He’s very much in it for Donald Trump. Whereas, if the Republican Party had elected Tucker Carlson — who is channeling Trump’s appeal from 2016, combining some level of compromise on economic issues with a much more hard-edged form of “demographic warfare,” to put it gently — would he have been more successful in transforming the Republican Party? Or would it actually have revealed that you can’t cross those lines in the party, and created civil war within it?
One question is, does a figure like Trump, if he did want to go the Steve Bannon route, actually have enough cadre to fill the state, in the way that a political revolution of that type would need?
I would imagine that they would have enough people to run the top of departments reasonably well, but, as you imply, there is that “deep state” issue where managing anything is hard. Managing bureaucracies is hard, and if you don’t win people over, it can be very hard to run them. So, if you’ve not done that work, it can be very, very difficult to stock a government.
Bernie Sanders would have had the same challenge.
That’s definitely true of Bernie’s ability to deal with hostile Democratic Party political leaders. But I think we may underestimate how pliable the “experts” are. They aren’t really autonomous actors. As your book argues, though, the bigger problem of making change in today’s environment is overcoming the bottlenecks the American political system creates.
It’s not that you can’t find the people to imagine what you want to do. The problem is how to move the power centers to do what you want to do. Some of the story of the book is about how polarization paralyzes American political institutions.
So, yes, one of the arguments I make is that when you have a system that creates this many veto points, you do not, as in a parliamentary system, just win an election and that means you automatically have the power of a governing majority. We could very well have had a Bernie Sanders presidency with a Mitch McConnell Senate majority. And you would have the filibuster on top of that — you have all kinds of veto points throughout the system.
In our system, as you lose the ability to build bipartisan coalitions because of party polarization, you lose the ability to govern. And that has wider ramifications — voters keep asking politicians to help solve their problems, and their problems keep not getting solved.
One point you make in Why We’re Polarized is that, by a world standard, we’re not really that polarized in the United States. We just have a system that can’t cope with normal levels of polarization.
I tell the story in the book of a political sociologist by the name of Juan Linz, who did amazing work on comparative politics in the twentieth century. He had lived in a lot of failing states, so he had seen systems collapse and turn to authoritarianism, but he had also seen them thrive. One of the puzzles he was trying to unravel in his work is why America’s political system didn’t work anywhere else.
There’s no other country that has a political system like ours with a long history of constitutional continuity. Not only that, but when America invades other countries, we don’t give them our system.
For all our veneration of the American Constitution, we never copy and paste it over to anybody else. The reason is that this kind of system is inherently unstable, because you have different political factions with simultaneous democratic legitimacy and no actual way to resolve a conflict between them.
The question that naturally occurs then is why America has, relative to other political systems, actually been very successful. We certainly were in the twentieth century. Linz’s answer is that America had this very aberrant period of mixed political parties. We were functionally a four-party system posing as a two-party system, with Democrats, as we think about them now, and conservative Southern Dixiecrats — who basically entered into a power-sharing agreement with the national Democratic Party. Then you had more liberal Republicans, as well as conservative Republicans.
Because the parties were internally mixed and the divisions were internal to the parties, that created a lot of compromise and, on other issues, suppression. There’s a lot of suppression, say, of anti-lynching laws and civil rights laws for much of the early twentieth century — so it’s not a moral or just story we’re telling here.
What we’re seeing today is a return of a party system that, in most parts of the world, would be quite normal — but it’s mixed with a political system that, in most parts of the world, is very abnormal and hasn’t worked. I think if you look at it without too much American mythology clouding your view, it’s not working here right now all that well, either.
So, you see some of the causes of the current crisis as a positive development — as in, it’s good that the realignment of the Democratic Party happened and the Dixiecrats were driven out and that there are oppressed people with more voice and representation in the political system.
I titled the book “Why We’re Polarized,” and something I didn’t anticipate well enough is that “polarization” had been so coded in American politics as bad. That when you say we’re polarized, what you mean is that things are bad, and we shouldn’t be polarized, and isn’t it sad that everybody’s so mean to each other and people can’t agree. And what we really need is for Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill to go have drinks together and cut a new deal on Social Security.
That’s very much the dominant view of how politics should work, and it has pervaded politics for years. When I came into journalism, the people who ran the institutions wanted to just cover that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill deal. That was their baseline for how American politics is. One of my efforts in this book is to change the way we think about that baseline — to say, as you note, that that was an abhorrent period for a lot of people in the United States.
One of the things I say in the book is that the alternative to polarization in political systems often isn’t agreement or compromise or civility — it’s suppression. It’s suppression of the things the political system doesn’t want to face because if it did face them, it would break apart coalitions and polarize them.
I’m sure if we were starting from scratch, we’d both prefer a parliamentary system. But we don’t live in that system. So what are some immediate steps that can be taken?
Let’s say you think, as most of Jacobin’s audience would, that if you really give voters a choice, they would prefer Bernie Sanders–style social democracy to Kevin McCarthy–style movement conservatism or Trump-style right populism. Then you can’t stop there, what you need to say is, “Okay, but can popular majorities express these preferences into power right now?”
Most of the time, they cannot. Our system doesn’t always allow a party that’s won big majorities to actually govern. Hillary Clinton won more votes for president. Democrats have won more votes in the Senate over the last three cycles. And yet they still don’t have the White House, the Senate, or — because of that — the Supreme Court. Even if a figure like Bernie Sanders did win an office, it would be very difficult to win a large enough majority to govern. It can be incredibly demobilizing for a political movement to feel like it has scored this difficult, impossible victory, and then to see that amount to so much less change than they were promised.
What about the viability of pushing for political reforms to deal with that?
If you want change to be possible, if you want your theory of politics to work in practice, the absolute first thing you need to do is democratize US politics. That means front-loading those types of reforms. The filibuster is one that you could do relatively easily, but there are others that you could do if you had the will — including things that we should do anyway, like making the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico states, because the people who live there deserve political representation.
These things aren’t going to make the system small-d democratic, but they would help. If you don’t do them, first, what’s going to happen is that people are going to come into office, they’re going to try to pass a huge bill like Medicare for All, and they’re going to fail. Then the political movement behind them is going to be furious and splintered and feel that politics has nothing for them. It’s very hard to get people to think about process first, but if you don’t get the process right, then you can’t get the political change right.
Some Democrats, even Bernie Sanders at times, said they feared abolishing the filibuster because it would help the Republican legislative agenda in the short term.
It drives me crazy the way so many people in politics — on all sides — have this view that they would prefer the problems of paralysis, inaction, and unclear accountability to the possible problems of actual governance.
The feedback loop of, first, the public voting some coalition into power; second, that coalition governing in the way they promised and the public getting to ask whether they like what happened; and then, finally, deciding whether they want to return that coalition to power or not — it’s so much clearer and more straightforward than what we do now. Now, the public votes some coalition into power, and maybe that coalition does or does not get power despite the vote. And even if it does, they’re only able to get done 15 percent of what they promised. And then there’s an endless argument over who’s to blame. Is it that Larry Summers didn’t pass a memo to Barack Obama with enough stimulus, or is it that there were Republicans in the Senate who wouldn’t pass it, or should he have just used budget reconciliation?
It’s crazy! You have to be a congressional reporter to actually understand why things didn’t happen.
What I hear from liberals sometimes is that “if there was no filibuster when Republicans tried to repeal Obamacare,” we’d be in trouble. It’s the craziest argument. First of all, they did budget reconciliation, so there was no filibuster when they tried to repeal Obamacare, and Senate Republicans couldn’t get fifty-one votes. And number two, either health care is important to people’s politics or it isn’t — but if it is, people are going to notice if you take it away from 20 million people, and it’s going to affect how they vote in the future.
You might have had a different, more popular Obamacare without the filibuster, too.
Very different. It would have been a much better bill.
Obviously, I believe in really sweeping institutional change. This is a magazine whose second issue ran an article entitled “Burn the Constitution”! But I’m worried about foregrounding the fact that we want to radically change the structures of the US political system.
We have a fairly popular program, and let’s say we’re elected with a mandate to get things like Medicare for All passed — wouldn’t it make more sense to say, “We’re going to try to get our program, even if it takes getting rid of the filibuster or packing the courts,” rather than foregrounding something that doesn’t feel very tangible and that might seem a little scary to people?
I’m not a political consultant. A good thing about being a journalist is that I get to say what I think is true, not what I think will win me votes. That said, the only thing I’m arguing here is that if you want to do something like Medicare for All, you’ll have to do some set of these things first.
That’s also true if you want to do something even as modest as a public option for health care. It’s also true if you want to do any kind of Green New Deal.
I am simply saying that I think it’s true that you have to order things this way, and I think that the Left, as I understand it, has developed a theory of class mobilization politics — which, unless it is more married to a realpolitik theory of political institutions and institutional reform, will fail.
Why We’re Polarized is not a good political handbook for anybody. It’s just a way of describing how the system is working now, and one of the main arguments that comes out of that model is that the zone of the possible is much more limited than anybody who thinks we have big problems should want it to be.
So, if you want to change what is possible, you’re going to have to change the political system itself.
I do think that much of the Left adopted a very populist mode of thinking during the Sanders campaign. “Populist” in the sense that we argued that there are these corrupt institutions, but we are virtuous, and our movement is virtuous, and our leader is virtuous, and we’re going to elect our leader and then we’ll be able to cut through all the red tape and bureaucracy and make change.
I mean, I believe that, on some level. And I believe that we could have made important changes with Sanders in power — but that understanding of politics and social change is much more populist than it is Marxist.
I couldn’t have said that better myself.
There’s a caveat, because I think that the rational part of the strategy is that there is this latent force out there — of working-class nonvoters and irregular voters — that has a shared objective interest in redistribution and these social programs, and that seems to broadly support them. And those people could have been mobilized in a general election behind a Berniecrat agenda.
In other words, politics in the United States is very polarized in a partisan direction, but we could create a different polarization, in a much more straightforwardly class-oriented direction. And if we had this overarching identity to try to subsume some of the other identities, we’d have the numbers for real change.
We were pursuing the populist shortcut to get to that point because, in the United States today, class organization and class identity have been completely shattered. We needed the shortcut of a campaign, and actual power, to bring these people in.
I think that’s the argument for Bernie Sanders, for sure. I’m so glad we got to this, because I think what’s in the book is of distinct relevance to the Left. One of the mistakes I think socialists make is taking on an overly materialistic view of how people express their politics. As if what everybody is doing is running a calculator on how much the taxes are going to go up for them and how much the benefits are going to come back for them. And that then, if the calculator comes out correctly for them, they’re going to vote for whoever you want.
There’s overwhelming evidence that people are participating in politics to express who they are in the world and what they believe about the world, to express their identity in a deep way.
This is true even for Bernie Sanders himself. Bernie Sanders is a millionaire who will pay higher taxes under the Bernie Sanders plan. He is deeply committed to things like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, because that’s who he is. Interests are not just so narrowly about our bank account.
There are a few things to unpack there. But I think there is a tendency among Democrats to see their party as a coalition of discrete interest groups.
The advantage of the more straight-forwardly class-based appeals of figures like Bernie Sanders is that they are obviously concerned about different forms of oppression, but they try to ground politics in majoritarian demands.
To some degree, yes, there is a portion of the Left that just says people have this objective interest and if they’re not acting it out, then they’re suffering from false consciousness. I think that’s a recipe for a very pessimistic and condescending politics. But I do think, at the very least, that most people are not going to vote for a candidate if they think it’ll harm their most direct material interests.
What’s most worrying to me is the tendency among some liberals now who are more concerned with talking about privilege than with making broad-based appeals. They are basically saying to white Americans that racial progress is going to come at their expense — that they need to kill the colonist in their head and read White Fragility.
Our message, however, is much simpler, and even though we’re the crazy socialists, I think it’s far less fringe: we’re going to build a program to uplift every working-class and poor person. Unlike many liberals, we don’t preemptively write off 60 percent of the country.
I agree that there’s a portion of the liberal left that uses a frame that sees fighting sexism and racism as a form of almost zero-sum rebalancing of the system, in ways that alienate potential allies. But your more economic-oriented left does something that parallels that a little bit.
It seems to me that some champions of the new class politics want a zero-sum rebalancing of the system, as opposed to an expression of values about how to make a better world. That’s particularly true in the way some socialists lately have been attacking the “professional-managerial class” (PMC) in sharp terms.
They’re saying that if you have a good office job or you are a low-level supervisor somewhere, you’re not part of our coalition, and you even have something to fear from us, because we’re going to start making you into the bad guy. That’s a very dangerous form of politics, in particular, because of how much power the PMC already wield in politics.
In the same way that you don’t want to alienate people you can get behind your program on race, gender, or other lines, you also don’t want to do it on class lines. You need economic politics to be an identity that people can see themselves in, even if they’re not going to be a direct beneficiary of most of it.
If you’re talking about low-level supervisors or foremen, you have a point. But a lot of things in class politics are actually zero-sum. Questions of power and autonomy on the shop floor are zero-sum. If a boss is making a worker work fifty-hour weeks, and then a law is passed so that you have a shorter workweek or longer vacations, that’s legislation that enhances the freedom of workers but restricts the freedom of capitalists to manage their firms.
Income and wealth creation may not be a zero-sum game. But these issues are filled with them.
Anti-billionaire rhetoric is something that I totally get as a political framing. That’s a tried-and-true form of politics. The reason people draw that battle line is that it’s a class war that is potentially winnable. This is why I’m a little bit tougher on this rise of anti-PMC politics, which is a form of purity politics. It’s almost a nostalgic form. It’s an importation of a twentieth-century idea of what were virtuous and valuable forms of occupation into twenty-first-century politics, when a lot of those people actually have to be part of your coalition.
I think the “PMC” concept is not completely coherent. Professionals are not neatly part of the same class in the same way that workers and capitalists are. Teachers, professors, nurses with lots of supervisory functions, sure — and they’re becoming ever more proletarianized anyway. But higher-level managers and those with quite a bit of autonomy and income? I don’t think they’re part of your coalition.
Overall, though, I agree that there’s a tendency in this discourse for things to devolve into a kind of culture-war framing — in the UK, there was a big thing about how tea was more authentically “working class” and coffee was for the cosmopolitan professionals. It reduces class to affect.
But I think the useful part of this impulse is that it calls into question who should be leading the movement. There is no doubt that many of these salaried professionals need to be in the broad tent of democratic-socialist politics. There are simply not enough votes, in an electoral sense, from the manual working class anyway. But who should be running working-class parties?
To me, democratic-socialist politics needs to be less about a set of policy preferences than about creating a program that could benefit the vast majority, through feats of organizing — galvanizing a working-class base, and then struggling against those who would oppose the program. Because Bernie Sanders broadly embodied a type of politics, it wouldn’t have even mattered to me if Elizabeth Warren was better on policy points — though, in fact, she wasn’t.
Yeah, that always strikes me as a very complicated form of politics. Jacobin, for example, is a popular intellectual space. It’s read by a lot of people who are understood not to be the correct representatives of its movement, the future mass working-class movement.
One of the things that Bernie Sanders, in particular, does very well is that his politics are almost purely value-forward. He talks about millionaires and billionaires — he doesn’t talk about wonky details. His is a politics of arguing for a broad-based vision of justice that a lot of people can see themselves in.
I think there are two questions that people should always ask about the identities we are constructing: What is that identity saying about me, aspirationally, if I support it? And then, what is the identity saying to the people who might support it? A question that is not asked enough in politics is whether people feel like this candidate or this movement likes them. We think so much about who the public likes, but one of the questions the public asks intuitively is, “Do these people like me?” That’s why coastal-versus-heartland politics are very powerful, as well as elite-versus-non-elite politics. If a politics feels like the people running it don’t respect you, then it almost doesn’t matter how you feel about them. I’d think about that with the PMC debate.
What are some of the immediate barriers to mass politics that you see?
What’s striking to me is that we’ve really seen a reduction in the mediating institutions and the civil society of American politics — unions on the Left, churches on the Right, that kind of thing. Some of that role is being played by social media, but social media is very different and, by nature, obviously very factional.
One question that I have about politics is: Do new outlets arise that help people participate politically in spaces that are otherwise often nonpolitical? A lot of people don’t want to be primarily involved in politics. Among other things, politics is constantly riven with conflict, and most people don’t enjoy conflict.
I think that’s something you hear from thoughtful people on both the Left and the Right — the need to rebuild civil society.
I’m more pessimistic than others that we’re going to be able to rebuild the institutions that were dominant in the twentieth century. I think we’re going to have to find new ones or find new forms of them that work in the twenty-first century, but I don’t think anybody’s quite figured that out yet.
To the extent that I can draw some hope, it’s by looking at history. When I think about the early days of the workers’ movements that brought much of the world social democracy, these are movements that started off with a social base made up disproportionately of artisans and intellectuals, then were later able to become true parties of the working class.
People who were racist and sexist and had all sorts of contradictions were able to come together and build institutions that broadly expressed their class interest, and they did that through a combination of creating an identity around it but also having a baseline commonality in class that is actually real.
The potential that I saw in Sanders was the return of some of this spirit. It’s still a make-believe thing; we’re far from actually having it. But as a goal, it seems far more viable a route to progressive politics than just saying we’re going to keep the Right out of power through coalitions of discretely operating identity groups.
I think there’s a lot to that. But one thing I’m trying to do in the book is rescue identity from the way we’ve come to think of identity politics more broadly.
You mean, pejoratively, as “tribalism”?
I mean that identity is something that not only marginalized groups have. In politics, when people say “identity politics,” they tend to be saying, “Well, black voters are rallying around Black Lives Matter, and that’s identity politics because it comes from this particularistic experience. But Donald Trump running to build a wall, that’s just normal politics.” All these things have identities attached to them.
If you can appeal to somebody’s identity, sometimes you can flip them around on a policy, so long as they still feel that their identity and their group is intact. Identities tend to activate under threat. This is one reason why the most popular move in this conversation, which I think is wrong, is always “Well, what if we just created a civic identity?”
One reason that American identity was very powerful in the twentieth century was the real or perceived foreign threats people were experiencing. The American identity was constantly under threat, first from Nazi Germany, then later on, for a longer period of time, from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It didn’t solve every political problem we had, but it did create a creed of identity that could be activated.
One thing about racial identities is that they are activated constantly. If you’re moving through the world as an African American or as a Mexican immigrant, you routinely feel threat, often physically, as in encounters with the police. What Donald Trump represents, in another way, is a lot of older white people who feel political power slipping away from them, who feel like they are spoken about in a way that they don’t like, and it’s beginning to activate a more threatened white identity, as they perceive demographic and cultural danger to the position they’ve traditionally held in America.
I have a fair amount of research on that in the book from a political scientist named Ashley Jardina, but that said, the hardest thing about class identity is that it doesn’t come under threat as often, or as explicitly. The reason that I think populist-right parties have done better in this era across Europe than their social-democratic enemies, for instance, is that those identities are under perceived threat, and they’re activated in a constant, continuous way.
It just hasn’t been the case in Europe that answering a populist-right identity with an economically left identity has proven to be a consistently usable answer. It’s going to have to be much more of a philosophical and justice-oriented identity.
You talked about progressive politics not being just a collection of group identities. I think Obama was very good at tying those identities to inclusive values. He didn’t go around talking to the party as a collection of groups. He said, roughly, “You are a growing, young, diverse America that is changing this place and that is connected in a very deep way to a historical arc and journey that we’ve been traversing for a long time.” A lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds could see themselves in that.
If you’re building off of an identity that you think has a material rooting interest in working-class politics at its core — for example, people need health care, and they don’t have it — you also need to attach it to these values that can expand it much more. People need to feel that they’re really fighting for it in an aspirational way, not just in a self-interested way. Aspiration is super important in politics.
It might come back to haunt you if you keep giving your socialist detractors useful advice.
I think the conditions are much better right now for somebody engaged in your brand of politics. We’re in this era of what Julia Azari, the political scientist, calls “weak parties, strong partisanship.” It’s the ability to take over a party by being a well-organized ideological faction within it, and then to use that takeover of the party to make your ideological agenda the party’s agenda — and it’s much more plausible now than it would have been twenty years ago, with the kinds of media gatekeepers you had, and the kind of power that parties had to keep control internally.
I know you want an independent labor party. But if your political project was taking over the Democratic Party and making it into more of a social-democratic party, I think there’s a lot in these trends that is actually working in your favor.
And yet, the lesson of the book is that, even if you’re able to somehow do that and win an election, you’ll have a near-impossible time of carrying out a program due to the structures of the political system.
Well, that’s where it gets more pessimistic. What the book is actually trying to do, more than anything, is give people a well-rounded description of how the system actually works — not how we wish it worked, and not how politicians often tell us it works, but how it actually works.