Updated: Jun 30
Of the many attempts to try to make sense of our current political environment, the book “Why We’re Polarized” by Ezra Klein does a masterful job of taking us from the interwar period up to the present, documenting from multiple research sources what changed and why. I would recommend it to anyone who loves our country and wants it to start functioning rationally again.
It’s impossible to summarize this book in a few hundred words, but a few things stood out for me.
Klein cites a 1990 paper titled ‘The Perils of Presidentialism’ by the Spanish social scientist Juan Linz that compares the history of two types of democracy: Parliamentary democracy, where whoever wins legislative power also wins executive power (think countries with a Prime Minister); and presidential democracy, where the executive is elected separately from the legislative and can often be at odds with it. (We call this separation of powers.) Linz documents a disturbing fact: Presidential democracy has failed everywhere it has been tried – except for the United States. Investigating the reasons for failure, he showed that when the legislative and executive were controlled by competing factions, it created a crisis of legitimacy: “Who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies?” In theory, systems like this are supposed to encourage compromise, which is true when the competing coalitions are open to compromise. “But this system can also encourage crisis – crisis where, in other countries, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power.” Klein explains this is why there are no longstanding presidential democracies save for the United States, and why America does not impose its form of government on others. The nations we defeated in World War II, who developed their forms of government under direction of American military leaders, all chose parliamentary democracies.
Linz noted, “The American case seems to be the exception; the development of modern political parties, particularly in socially and ideologically polarized countries, generally exacerbates, rather than moderates, conflicts between the legislative and executive.” He admitted that he couldn’t fully answer why America was different, but suspected that “the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties… has something to do with it.” (If that last sentence seems confusing, remember this was 1990. Read on.) Klein documents elsewhere in the book that up to the early ‘90’s, there was significant diversity within both the Democratic and Republican parties, meaning that much of the back-and-forth compromise required in a presidential democracy happened within the parties rather than between them. (Senator Romney’s father George was considered a liberal Republican, as was his son until he ran for President.)
Klein’s book cites many reasons for the increasing political polarization between the parties. Probably the most significant was President Johnson’s push for civil rights, which pushed the ‘Dixiecrats’ into the arms of the GOP.
So, the two parties in 2020 are polarized. Tell me something I didn’t know already! But that’s only part of the story.
It bears repeating: Diversity within the Democratic and Republican parties during most of the 20th Century was the reason that a presidential democracy worked here when it failed elsewhere. Within the Democratic Party, that diversity still exists. As Ezra Klein points out, “Democrats are a coalition of college-educated liberal whites, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians… liberal and non-white conservative Christians, Jews, Muslims, New Agers, atheists (and) Buddhists” plus organized labor. He adds, “As a result, appealing to Democrats requires appealing to a lot of different kinds of people with different interests. It means winning liberal whites in New Hampshire and traditionalist blacks in South Carolina. It means talking to Irish Catholics in Boston and the karmically curious in California. Democrats need to go broad to win over their party.” Not only that, but because the Senate and Electoral College are severely undemocratic in favor of rural voters (a voter in Wyoming has forty-four times more power than a California voter in the Senate), Democrats need to appeal to center-right voters to win elections. (Example: Ben McAdams.)
Contrast this with the Republican party. Remember the soul-searching after the 2012 loss to Obama, when a high-level task force recommended the GOP needed to become more friendly to Hispanics, African Americans and women (in other words, more diverse)? Whatever else his faults, Donald Trump correctly read the mood of the Republican rank-and-file. His birther conspiracy theory was a clever test to confirm what he suspected: said rank-and-file was vehemently not interested in diversity.
Here we get into one of the main epiphanies of Ezra Klein’s book: Due to several mutually supporting reasons, the Republican Party is no longer about values or ideology. It’s about identity; their ‘tribe’ against everybody else. Their tribe, of course, consists of older, largely non-college educated, culturally conservative white people. This epiphany explains so much: Their support of Trump despite his abandonment of long-held conservative principles. The ability of the religious right and otherwise good people to overlook his lying and lack of moral character. The rise of media whose only purpose is to reinforce the identity of the tribe. The dismissal of science, professional expertise and 'elites'. (The Republican Party I supported during the Reagan era celebrated individual achievement.) Above all, the hatred and anger toward those who are not members of their tribe. Think the word ‘hatred’ is an overstatement? Find a gaggle of red-hatted MAGA true believers and utter the words “Nancy Pelosi” – and be ready to run.
Please listen closely to what Donald Trump says and believe him. The Trump Party is not about good policy vs. bad policy, or even good versus evil. It's about us versus them, and about 'us' winning and 'them' losing'. If the Merrick Garland episode still troubles you (especially now that McConnell has admitted he'd approve a new Supreme Court justice in a heartbeat this year), know that in the current Republican Party, McConnell's actions are completely rational.
Interestingly, Ezra Klein leans liberal, but is cheering for a recovery of the Republican Party. “Make no mistake, a different, more broadly competitive Republican Party is possible. As of the second quarter of 2019, the two most popular governors in the country – Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker and Maryland’s Larry Hogan – were Republicans in blue states. There is absolutely a GOP message that can command true majorities.”
Let us return to the title of this piece: How Utah Republicans can save America. How can we restore the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan, Jake Garn, Norm Bangerter, and the early (not recent) Orrin Hatch, and back away from the truly existential abyss our country faces? The Never-Trump Republicans, who are the true patriots, have the answer: Trump must be defeated; not by a little, but soundly rejected. Only then can the GOP be saved. Know what would send the loudest shout? If the so-called ‘reddest state in the nation’, Utah, gave its Electoral College votes to Joe Biden, and also sent packing many of his Republican sycophant elected officials in the state. It would be an event for the history books, one for which our grandchildren would be proud. If you're concerned about electing a Democratic president, recall the dire predictions of disaster if Obama were elected in 2008. Were things really that bad for you and your family during the Obama era? Be honest with yourself. Wouldn't a few years of Joe Biden, by most accounts a decent man, be worth saving the Republican Party and the nation? Demographic trends will force that reckoning anyway; the GOP cannot survive long term as the Trump tribe. Why not heal the wound now?
If you’re a Utahn who supports the traditional values of the Republican Party and you want the party of Reagan back, here’s your chance. Your party, and America itself, demands Donald Trump be sent to the dustbin of history.