Just Read: Why We’re Polarized – Ezra Klein

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there has been a lot of things happening recently. Like, a lot. Almost too many things, honestly. I have a terrible habit of doomscrolling, that is, endlessly refreshing my various social media pages to see what else is happening, desperate for in the moment updates on the latest national and/or international tragedy. I also have a habit of collecting books that are very much in the category of current events. This, I know, is not healthy. While there is certainly a lot to be said for remaining informed, I think there’s also an argument that social media creates a constant pressure to have opinions, even when you don’t necessarily want to. With opinions comes a responsibility to have those opinions be informed, lest you stray into the territory of believing JFK Jr is posting to 4Chan to provide secrets and a “plan.”

During the last 4 years, I have collected myriad books about the Trump administration, or the UK equivalent of Brexit, and various thoughts and theories as to how it came to be, and how we “got where we are.”  Why We’re Polarized was actually a library loan though, and I’m glad I did it. Having that three-week countdown before the book had to go back helped me to be disciplined in making sure I read it, rather than leaving it abandoned on my shelf because I just couldn’t face reading yet more about the various horrors we were facing.

As I’ve said over and over again, writing these pieces is supposed to be more of a personal journal than a review, more of a collection of imprints that the book has left upon me. For Christmas this year I received a new Kindle, a much-needed update to my 2011 model that now includes a touchscreen and a light so that I can read in the dark. This touch screen has made it delightfully easy to highlight interesting passages of the books I read, and for Why We’re Polarized there were many. This was also my first experience of using Goodreads to track my progress and it was a delightful way to gamify the whole process, seeing my progress bar go up and up and knowing that when it reached the end, I would have one number taken away from my “to read” pile and one added to my “read” pile. As someone who currently has 122 books in his “to-read” pile, that is a nice feeling.

So, what about the book itself? Why We’re Polarized walked a nice balance between current events and political theory, I think. It took overarching arguments, historical narratives, and contextualized them in our current situation. It starts off by arguing that actually, the Trump presidency isn’t the outlying surprise that we’ve convinced ourselves it is, and that maybe writing a book called What Happened? wasn’t the best move by Hillary Clinton (although it, too, is on my to-read shelf). Instead, Klein argues, polarization has been a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the personal has truly become the political, and politicians have capitalized upon that. Identity politics, after all, is only used a slur when that identity isn’t white and middle class.

It was interesting to read this book during a time when thousands of QAnon-believing, Trump-flag flying insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol to prevent the certification of a free and fair election. A very interesting New York Times article released the following week unpacked the iconography of that event. The Pepe the Frog flags, the inverted OK symbol of white supremacy. This was all identity politics on display.

I could go on and on, and unpack every argument laid out, but again, this isn’t what this is really all about. Instead, I want to try and outline my three key takeaways from this book:

  1. Fear is an increasingly powerful political motivator, and we tend to be motivated more by what we perceive the other side will take from us than we are motivated by what our side will do for us.
  2. The Republican Party more ably wields raw power. This is because they can, and do, only appeal to a narrow base of whiter, older voters. The voting systems in place across both the House and Senate allow this to happen. I note this not as an anti-Republican viewpoint, but as a thought I want to retain as I am currently on a voyage of discovery on the interplay between power and justice.
  3. Reading this book has made me introspective on my own identities. I carry a water bottle. On that water bottle is a sticker from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that says “drink water and don’t be racist.” This sticker says a lot about my politics, and how I want them to be perceived. So to does the fact that my water bottle is stainless steel and vacuum sealed. This says I want to be perceived as environmentally conscious. The water bottle is 40oz. This says I take my hydration seriously. Taking my hydration seriously says that I have taken the time to understand that drinking water is positive for my health. I suppose somewhere I have always been aware of the self-image I try and portray (I mean, I am literally attempting to write up every single book I read), but this book has made me more cognitive of how influenced I am by attempting to pass various liberal purity tests, and how in turn my own viewpoints and purchasing habits can increase the strength of those purity tests.

I liked this book. A lot. I found myself telling everybody I was reading it. I referenced it in numerous conversations about the events at the Capitol. I found it actively shaping my own interpretations of events around me. I likely bored a lot of people.

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