In a conversation titled, “How Does U.S. Politics Work?,” New York Times journalist Ezra Klein and philosophy professor Agnes Callard discussed the benefits and challenges of political polarization. The event, part of the Night Owls series of late-night chats hosted by the philosophy department, was broadcasted through Crowdcast on Wednesday, February 16.
Callard began by questioning why people seem to doubt the functionality of American politics. “When you say, ‘How does American politics work,’ what is lurking behind the word ‘work’ is a value judgement of what it means for it to work,” Klein responded. “My book, Why We’re Polarized, is a book about how American politics functions. At the same time, it’s a book about why it doesn’t work. Like many other people, I think the point of American politics is to solve problems in a representative and thoughtful and accountable way, and I think that it has been doing that less and less well in recent decades.”
Referencing Klein’s book, Callard cited his views on polarization. “There’s a vicious cycle of polarization. To appeal to a more polarized public, political institutions and political actors behave more polarized. As they do that, they polarize the public,” Callard read. Klein expanded on his written argument by saying that “a disorder in American politics is that party polarization is natural, and we have a political structure that does not work well under conditions to party polarization.”
As the duo discussed, philosophy professor Tyler Zimmer, who moderated the interactive portion of the talk, posted a poll question: “Do you think polarization is a bad thing?” 56 viewers voted yes and 17 no.
Klein then pivoted to discussing the relationship between density and partisanship. Narrowing in on fellow New York Times contributor Will Wilkinson’s report “The Density Divide,” Klein explores the development from a nonexistent correlation between population density and political leaning to modern urban centers voting exclusively for the Democratic Party.
Specifically, Klein spotlighted a 2003 political ad against Howard Dean to demonstrate the ways in which certain characteristics and political leanings have become associated. “The parties in completely weird ways are getting better and better and better at appealing across an entire spectrum of lifestyle preference, even when what they’re appealing on is not a policy issue or what we’d even understand is a political question, and, so, like, that is part of our polarization now,” Klein said.
Presenting a potential connection between war and polarization, Callard dissected the role of a common foreign enemy in promoting unity and reducing polarization. On the thread of conflict, the duo then considered the intersection of arguments over science and polarization.
“We don’t want the debate to be resolved. We want to make sure it isn’t resolved, we want to keep arguing about it because the debate exists in order to organize people into camps,” Callard said. “So we can’t let it depend on something empirical or else it can be resolved.”
Klein held a differing view. “I think that we’re constantly trying to push debates into empirical grounds that they can’t really hold,” he said. “The lie of politics is that there’s some piece of empirical data that will decide the issue. In the counterfactual world that can prove it, how many minds would it actually change?”
Referencing immigration, Klein explained that the debate focuses not on labor concerns but rather on how “comfortable people are with foreigners moving into their country.” For such an emotion-driven consideration, facts cannot provide a clear resolution.
He continued to hypothesize what would happen if concrete data could present a solution. “It is safe ground to move it onto empirics, as if science can decide it, so people do it all the time,” Klein said. “Science can’t tell you what your values are. Science can’t resolve the question, but we wish it could because then we wouldn’t have to fight about it, or if it solved our side [of the argument], then everyone else would have to shut up about it.”