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Why We're Polarized

a book by Ezra Klein

(our site's book review)

Ezra Klein Reveals How Our Political System Is Polarizing Us—and How We Are Polarizing It—with Disastrous Results

The Amazon blurb says that The New York Times Bestseller

The Wall Street Journal Bestseller

“Few books are as well-matched to the moment of their publication as Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized.” —Dan Hopkins, The Washington Post

“It is likely to become the political book of the year....Powerful [and] intelligent.” —Fareed Zakaria, CNN

“Superbly researched and written..." —Francis Fukuyama, The Washington Post

Why We’re Polarized was superbly researched and written—it shows that the system is polarizing us and we are polarizing it—with disastrous results
Why We’re Polarized was superbly researched and written—it shows that the system is polarizing us and we are polarizing it—with disastrous results

America’s political system isn’t broken. The truth is scarier: it’s working exactly as designed. In this book, journalist Ezra Klein reveals how that system is polarizing us—and how we are polarizing it—with disastrous results.

“The American political system—which includes everyone from voters to journalists to the president—is full of rational actors making rational decisions given the incentives they face,” writes political analyst Ezra Klein. “We are a collection of functional parts whose efforts combine into a dysfunctional whole.”

In Why We’re Polarized, Klein reveals the structural and psychological forces behind America’s descent into division and dysfunction. Neither a polemic nor a lament, this book offers a clear framework for understanding everything from Trump’s rise to the Democratic Party’s leftward shift to the politicization of everyday culture.


America Is Polarized, First and Foremost, by Identity Politics

America is polarized, first and foremost, by identity. Everyone engaged in American politics is engaged, at some level, in identity politics. Over the past fifty years in America, our partisan identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. These merged identities have attained a weight that is breaking much in our politics and tearing at the bonds that hold this country together.

Klein shows how and why American politics polarized around identity in the twentieth century, and what that polarization did to the way we see the world and one another. And he traces the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that are driving our system toward crisis.

Klein traces the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that are driving our system toward a cliff
Klein traces the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that are driving our system toward a cliff

This is a revelatory book that will change how you look at politics, and perhaps at yourself.


America's Cross-Cutting Identities Are Degenerating into Troublesome Mega Identities

"So how has our nation - or any nation - ever held together? Klein’s answer is cross-cutting identities. He defines identities broadly - ethnicity and gender, of course; economic and social class too, but also religion, politics, age, urban/rural, sports-team fandom, etc. And he shows how powerful some of these can be. We can disagree on politics, but if we share, say, religious and sports identities, it’s hard to hate each other. Klein even has data on how these cross-cutting identities reduce the chances of civil war. The problem comes when these identities start merging into mega identities. It’s happening now as conservatives, religious, older-white, and rural identities all align and merge into a single mega identity which then sees itself in opposition to another mega identity: the left, secular, multi-ethnic and urban. That’s the key finding about why we’re in trouble, but there’s much more to it. . . . But if you want to understand how those forces are playing out in this election year, and what we can do about it, it's not here. For that, have a look at Ripped Apart: How to Fight Polarization." (Source: The Science and Politics Behind Polarization, Sandra N., Amazon reviewer)

Chief Justice John Roberts presides over the impeachment trial of Donald Trump
Chief Justice John Roberts presides over the impeachment trial of Donald Trump

Trump's Impeachment Was a Case Study of Polarization

“The story of this impeachment is the story of American politics today: polarization. It affects almost every aspect of American political life and has been studied by scholars from many different angles, with dozens of good historical and experimental approaches. Wouldn’t it be great if someone would digest all these studies, synthesize them and produce a readable book that makes sense of it all? Ezra Klein has done just that with his compelling new work, Why We’re Polarized. It is likely to become the political book of the year. . . . Powerful [and] intelligent.” —Fareed Zakaria, CNN

“Few books are as well-matched to the moment of their publication as Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. . . . Klein’s careful book explains how different groups of Americans can see politics through such different lenses, examining how various psychological mechanisms allow committed partisans to rationalize almost anything their party does. . . . This book fully displays the attributes that have made Klein’s journalism so successful.” —Dan Hopkins, Washington Post

What Klein adds especially to is our understanding of how we got here—why Trump is more a vessel for our division than the cause, and why his departure will not provide any magical cure; Here he is wanting us to respect his authoritah
What Klein adds especially to is our understanding of how we got here—why Trump is more a vessel for our division than the cause, and why his departure will not provide any magical cure; Here he is wanting us to respect his authoritah

"Why We’re Polarized delivers. . . . What Klein adds especially to our understanding of how we got here—why Trump is more a vessel for our division than the cause, and why his departure will not provide any magical cure. . . . A thoughtful, clear and persuasive analysis.” —Norman Ornstein, New York Times Book Review

"Superbly researched and written . . . Why We’re Polarized provides a highly useful guide to this most central of political puzzles, digesting mountains of social science research and presenting it in an engaging form. . . . An overall outstanding volume." —Francis Fukuyama, The Washington Post

"Brilliant and wide-ranging. A book about what just might be our central, perhaps fatal problem. This is the kind of book you find yourself arguing with out loud as you read it and will stick in your head long after you've finished. Absolutely crucial for understanding this perilous moment." —Chris Hayes, host of “All In with Chris Hayes” on MSNBC and author of A Colony in a Nation

“Eye-opening . . . Klein’s brilliant diagnosis and prescription provide a path to understanding—and healing.” —O Magazine

“A fascinating book, rich in politics, history, psychology and more.” —David Leonhardt, New York Times

“Well worth reading.” —Andrew Sullivan, New York magazine

“Even at his most wonky, a deep strain of humanism runs through [Klein’s] journalism and that infuses his new book, Why We’re Polarized.” —Krista Tippett, On Being

Polarization
Polarization

Can America Bear Up Under the Weight of Our Polarization?

"In this thoughtful exploration of American politics, Ezra Klein challenges the conventional wisdom about why and how recently we've come apart, and suggests that the fantasy of some unified American middle is perhaps at odds with the ongoing fight for truly representational politics. Why We’re Polarized makes the compelling case that the centuries-long battle to perfect our union means we were built to be split; Klein's provocative question is whether America's democratic systems and institutions can bear up under the weight of our divides." —Rebecca Traister, New York Times bestselling author of Good and Mad

Every few years, a new crop of politicians emerges promising to put country over party, to govern on behalf of the people rather than the powerful, to listen to the better angels of our nature rather than the howling of our factions: lke Bernie Sanders
Every few years, a new crop of politicians emerges promising to put country over party, to govern on behalf of the people rather than the powerful, to listen to the better angels of our nature rather than the howling of our factions: lke Bernie Sanders

Klein says "Every few years, a new crop of politicians emerges promising to put country over party, to govern on behalf of the people rather than the powerful, to listen to the better angels of our nature rather than the howling of our factions. And then the clock ticks forward, the insurgents become the establishment, public disillusionment sets in, the electorate swings a bit to the other side, and we start again. This cycle is a tributary feeding into the country's political rage—it is maddening to keep trying to fix a problem that only seems to get worse. My intention in this book is to zoom out from the individuals to better see interlocking systems that surround them."

Mitch McConnell 2016 official photo (cropped)
Mitch McConnell 2016 official photo

Klein goes on "American politics is broken, and the problem is money, political correctness, social media, political consultants, or Mitch McConnell. Fix the part, these analyses promise, and you fix the whole. The reality, Dekker says, is that complex systems often fail the public even as they're succeeding by their own logic. If you discover the screw that failed or the maintenance shift that was missed, you might think you've found the broken part. But if you miss the way the stock market was rewarding the company for cutting costs on maintenance, you've missed the cause of the crisis, and failed to prevent its recurrence. Systems thinking, he writes, 'is about understanding how accidents can happen when no parts are broken, or no parts are seen as broken.' That may not sound like American politics to you. It is, at this point, cliche to call it broken. But that is our mistake."

Klein tells us about the polarization cycle. To appeal to a more polarized public, institutions behave in more polarized ways. The same goes for politicians. All this further polarizes the voters. The cycle is endless—with institutions, voters, and politicians acting in an ugly feedback loop to increase the polarization of one another. Below let us look at where unlimited polarization can lead, and why we must prevent this for survival.

Victim-based identity groups are so desperate for meaning and purpose that they destroy monuments and statues that remind them that the white male Founders weren't as PC as they are, so that makes them 'evil'
Victim-based identity groups are so desperate for meaning and purpose that they destroy monuments and statues that remind them that the white male Founders weren't as PC as they are, so that makes them 'evil'

Many mainly liberal voters were so turned off with the left's embrace of identity politics and political correctness that they voted for Trump or stayed home. These same voters are likely to purposely vote for Trump in 2020 to do their part to help the country avoid the curse of identity politics and political correctness. They hate PC nonsense more than they dislike the un-PC lying demagogue in the White House. (Amen.) See Political correctness is becoming wildly unpopular on all fronts


The Crisis America Faces Is Between Two Incompatible Visions of the Future, and a Nation Sharply Divided Between Them—It's Leading Toward Civil War

Of course, there are limits. Polarized politicians will eventually imply that the opposition are not real humans and are not even fit to live. Hitler's treatment of Jews is an example of polarized speech from a polarized politician leading to polarized institutions following the lead of a polarized politician leading to dehumanization and violence and eventually atrocities. We're a long way from the Third Reich, but there are already people predicting a civil war. See The Coming Civil War.

The crisis America faces is between two incompatible visions of the future, and a nation sharply divided between them—it's leading toward civil war
The crisis America faces is between two incompatible visions of the future, and a nation sharply divided between them—it's leading toward civil war

Here is an idea: let us find a way to coexist peacefully. Why should we come to blows just because Joe and Sam have polar opposite visions of the future? Shooting someone doesn't make your vision more accurate than his. Hitler killing Jews did not make his vision more correct. Even the Civil War is debatable. One would be hard-pressed to make the case for slavery today. All humans deserve respect, fairness, opportunity, and justice. But even though the Civil War was the only way to keep the United States united in the long run, another option was the Divided States of America, where each state decides its own laws about race.

Sometime in the 20th century the plantation owners would have seen that the slaveless states were so much happier in their race relationships, and so much more humane in giving blacks respect, fairness, opportunity, and justice, so they'd have figured out that freeing slaves but then offering blacks jobs at fair wages was a better way to go. Eventually, the Divided States of America would have reverted back to the United States of America, and without war. Of course, when the runaway slaves would keep running to slaveless states and the slaveowners would show up to retrieve their property, the citizens would hide the runaways and the violence, posses, gangs and lynchings would be on, including border wars. Lincoln probably foresaw this likelihood and decided that war to settle the matter once and for all was a better strategy. And he was right—and wrong. It took a century of Democrat-centered Jim Crow, denied rights, more lynchings, and KKK riders before this "settled" matter really got settled by civil rights ushered in by LBJ and MLK, and racism was no longer institutionalized in the U.S.

Lyndon Johnson signing Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964
Lyndon Johnson signing Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964

It takes a long time for people's values to change, regardless of the words they speak or pretend to believe. Few racists today believe we should enslave anyone. But, slavery had been an important aspect of civilization since B.C. times, so the USA deciding it was bad in the early to mid 1800s went against an awful lot of global precedence. There is still a lot of slavery of various types in the world in the 21st century, including in the U.S.


"Send Them Back"

Cotton plantation
Cotton plantation

So if racists don't push for enslaving, what do they want? Some of Trump's polarization-increasing, alt-right pleasing mantras give us a clue. "Send them back." No lynching or enslaving, merely banish, deport, or use ethnic cleansing or internment camps, like the U.S. did to our Japanese citizens in WWII. Japanese internment camps were established during World War II by President Franklin Roosevelt through his Executive Order 9066. From 1942 to 1945, it was the policy of the U.S. government that people of Japanese descent would be interred in isolated camps. Even though racist extremists may prefer some of these "solutions" like internment camps or segregation to the black problem, it's just a pipe dream. Blacks are citizens with full rights and so are legal browns (Latinos). But there is plenty of friction over how to handle illegal aliens. Trump says "Send them back" and tens of millions of citizens agree. His policies say it too.

Even though racist extremists may prefer some of these 'solutions' to the black problem—like internment camps or segregation, it's just a pipe dream; they're just letting off steam
Even though racist extremists may prefer some of these 'solutions' to the black problem—like internment camps or segregation, it's just a pipe dream; they're just letting off steam

What about "Send them back" as a solution for the slavery problem in the mid-1800s? It is quite logical for the slaves that were captured (kidnapped). Kidnapped people are always sent back to their families once they are rescued, and Lincoln could have tried this option. For the slaves who were sold to slavers in Africa and then resold at the slave auctions in the U.S. in the 1700s and 1800s, Lincoln could have used the "Send them back" strategy, reimbursing the slaveowners whatever they'd paid for them. The trouble with these tactics is that the North may have eagerly agreed but the South would have violently rebelled, so we'd get a Civil War anyway.

The pushmi-pullyu from Dr. Dolittle is a perfect example or metaphor for our partisan gridlock, polarization, and hopeless debates about everything, leading to radicalism, Antifa, KKK increases, alt-right rallies, witch-hunts, impeachment, and political paralysis
The pushmi-pullyu from Dr. Dolittle is a perfect example or metaphor for our partisan gridlock, polarization, and hopeless debates about everything, leading to radicalism, Antifa, KKK increases, alt-right rallies, witch-hunts, impeachment, and political paralysis

So the Divided States of America, deportation, or use of ethnic cleansing or internment camps, or even a return to segregation, will not lead to peaceful, just, fair results to satisfy the polarization problem which feels to many like it will end in a civil war. What is left? To head off a Civil War, what can we do? Racism may indeed be only one aspect of polarization—there are plenty of others. But it feels to many like a core issue since it was in the Civil War.


"Politically correct" teachers are teaching our young in schools that blacks are victims and whites are evil victimizers and the slaveowning Founders are "evil white men" who deserve no respect—and neither does the Constitution

"Politically correct" teachers are teaching our young in schools that blacks are victims and whites are evil victimizers and the slaveowning Founders are "evil white men" who deserve no respect—and neither does the Constitution. Smarter students see how this radical extremist leftist dogmatism is foolish and wrongheaded and they don't buy it, but many students, unfortunately, soak this racist hogwash up like a sponge. The students are not taught critical thinking or to think for themselves, which is tragic. They are taught to simply sit back passively and be indoctrinated. Universities are churches of political correctness, and speakers with non-PC ideas are not only not welcome—if they come, they are harrassed, assaulted, humiliated, shouted down, and sent away. Colleges are supposed to open student's minds and teach them to think, but instead, they close their minds and teach them the ugly tenets of the liberal narrative. See The Closing of the American Mind.

Universities are churches of political correctness, and speakers with non-PC ideas are not only not welcome—if they come, they are harrassed, assaulted, humiliated, shouted down, and sent away. Colleges are supposed to open student's minds and teach them to think, but instead, they close their minds and teach them the tenets of the liberal narrative
Universities are churches of political correctness, and speakers with non-PC ideas are not only not welcome—if they come, they are harrassed, assaulted, humiliated, shouted down, and sent away. Colleges are supposed to open student's minds and teach them to think, but instead, they close their minds and teach them the tenets of the liberal narrative

The Left See Human Migration as the Wedge by Which They Can Disrupt Democratic Balances and Seize Control

Morality, responsibility, identity and liberty are the four core values that used to unite us, but now they have been corrupted. Various sides are planning to take control to "remake and redefine America." Resentment-based grievance politics is calculated to take the left to the top where they will rule. Tom Kawczynski tells us "Nationalism isn’t dead, [but] this idea it can be all things to all people is [dead], and good riddance." He also says that "The welfare state is only a means to an end for today’s socialist and would-be communist. They see human migration as the wedge by which they can disrupt democratic balances and seize permanent and actionable majorities to enable full state control of the economy." They want caravans of Others to come into our nation and rebalance the demographics so the electoral college will lose its red sheen and start glowing bluely.

Liberals want caravans of Others to come into our nation and rebalance the demographics so the electoral college will lose its red sheen and start glowing bluely—but the 2016 blue glow in the popular vote didn't keep Trump out of the White House
Liberals want caravans of Others to come into our nation and rebalance the demographics so the electoral college will lose its red sheen and start glowing bluely—but the 2016 blue glow in the popular vote didn't keep Trump out of the White House

There is a way to get politics and government working again so it is not just a phony clown show of Culture War screaming and prevaricating politicians keeping the gridlock going to please the Oligarchy which wants no political progress or boat-rocking since this involves change which they hate very much since right now they're in the best power position they've ever been in and change translates into less power, since they couldn't have more.

There is a way to get politics and government working again so it is not just a phony clown show: devolution
There is a way to get politics and government working again so it is not just a phony clown show: devolution

To get politics and government working again we must have: Devolution—i.e., the transfer of power from a central government to subnational authorities. If the USA devolved from one to three countries (sort of like the devolution of the USSR), each of the three countries could agree on all the basics and merely debate details. (The three countries are East Liberal-Land, West Liberal-Land, and Bubba-Land, and it fits the voting patterns of red states and blue states, with any liberals in New Mexico and Colorado moving out of Bubba-Land—going to East Liberal-Land or West Liberal-Land—and the bubbas stay behind after which these two states are in Bubba-land too. If Cracker-Land or Redneck-Land is preferred to Bubba-Land, that's fine.)

Before we get civil war or interstate violence or assassinations, don't we need a peaceful solution? Got a better idea? Write to us!


We’ve Cocooned Ourselves into Only Hearing Information That Tells Us How Right We Are, and That’s Making Us More Extreme and Polarized.

Many people worry that modern media generates polarization by locking us into echo chambers. We’ve cocooned ourselves into only hearing information that tells us how right we are, and that’s making us more extreme and polarized.
Many people worry that modern media generates polarization by locking us into echo chambers. We’ve cocooned ourselves into only hearing information that tells us how right we are, and that’s making us more extreme and polarized.

"Most political media isn’t even designed for persuasion. For all the reasons we’ve discussed, the bulk of opinionated political media is written for the side that already agrees with the author, and most partisan elected officials are tweeting to their supporters, who follow them and fundraise for them, rather than to their critics, who don’t. . . . Politicians are increasingly addicted to Twitter, with the president being only the most prominent example. Fox News has whipped the Republican Party into a number of government shutdowns, and much of Trump’s most offensive rhetoric comes on a direct conveyor belt from conservative media feeding him conspiracies that he transforms into presidential proclamations." (Source: Why the media is so polarized — and how it polarizes us, Ezra Klein, Vox)

Much of Trump’s most offensive rhetoric comes on a direct conveyor belt from conservative media feeding him conspiracies that he transforms into presidential proclamations—here Trump calls Fox's Hannity (nightly) to get the latest conspiracy
Much of Trump’s most offensive rhetoric comes on a direct conveyor belt from conservative media feeding him conspiracies that he transforms into presidential proclamations—here Trump calls Fox's Hannity (nightly) to get the latest conspiracy


Donald Trump Victory Tour at Hershey PA on December 15th 2016 16
Donald Trump Victory Tour—Trump routinely gets cable networks to air his rallies live by lying flagrantly, lobbing racist and sexist insults, and generally behaving outrageously

"Political commentators in the 1950s and ’60s denounced Republicans and Democrats as 'tweedledum and tweedledee.' With liberals and conservatives in both parties, they complained, voters lacked a true choice. . . . Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many white Southern Democrats became Republicans, and the parties turned consistently liberal and conservative. Given a 'true choice,' Klein maintains, voters discarded ideology in favor of 'identity politics.' Americans, like all humans, cherish their 'tribe' and distrust outsiders. Identity was once a preoccupation of minorities, but it has recently attracted white activists and poisoned the national discourse." (Source: Why We're Polarized, Ezra Klein, Kirkus Reviews)

Tennieldumdee
Political commentators in the 1950s and ’60s denounced Republicans and Democrats as “tweedledum and tweedledee.” With liberals and conservatives in both parties, they complained, voters lacked a true choice

"Ezra Klein is a gifted political analyst, a hyperproductive and witty blogger, a fluent podcaster and television commentator, and the co-founder of Vox, the popular left-liberal “explanatory” news website. Mr. Klein is a lot of things. What he isn’t is humble." (Source: ‘Why We’re Polarized’ Review: Going to Extremes, Barton Swaim, WSJ)

"Klein’s book starts with the psychological underpinnings of polarization, and then looks at ways that today’s media landscape and political institutions generate feedback loops that amplify it. In this view, polarization is self-reinforcing. Political elites divide over a question, and then citizens, picking up on those divisions, follow the natural grooves of human psychology by dividing themselves into increasingly meaningful groups. Those emerging divisions, in turn, heighten politicians’ incentives to accentuate their divisions. Thick with insight, the book is especially compelling on how today's media environment fosters identity-infused content. . . . Klein’s general characterization of polarization as a feedback loop is surely right." (Source: ‘Why We’re Polarized’ shows how media, emotion, politicians and more are dividing Americans, Dan Hopkins, Washington Post)

In Klein’s feedback loop, political elites divide over a question, and then citizens, picking up on those divisions, follow the natural grooves of human psychology by dividing themselves into increasingly meaningful groups, and those emerging divisions, in turn, heighten politicians’ incentives to accentuate their divisions
In Klein’s feedback loop, political elites divide over a question, and then citizens, picking up on those divisions, follow the natural grooves of human psychology by dividing themselves into increasingly meaningful groups, and those emerging divisions, in turn, heighten politicians’ incentives to accentuate their divisions

"The core story of the book is that over the past 50 years, the country’s dominant political coalitions have sorted by ideology, race, religion, geography, psychology, consumer behavior, and cultural preferences. This has, in turn, kicked off a series of feedback loops in which political institutions (the media, Congress) and actors (candidates, individual journalists) adopt more polarized strategies to both respond and appeal to a more polarized audience, which further polarizes the audience, which further polarizes the institutions, which further polarizes the audience, and so on." (Source: Why Are We Polarized? Don't Blame Social Media, Says Ezra Klein, Nicholas Thompson and Ezra Klein, Wired)

Since bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich convinced the Republicans to go to war with the Democrats and never compromise with them—beginning in the mid-1990s—the polarization has become absolute
Since bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich convinced the Republicans to go to war with the Democrats and never compromise with them—beginning in the mid-1990s—the polarization has become absolute

The Founders designed the USA's government so the political players would need a lot of compromise and/or consensus to get anything done. Before the extreme polarization of the 21st century, Congress could and would get exactly that and they would get things done. But since bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich convinced the Republicans to go to war with the Democrats and never compromise with them—beginning in the mid-1990s—the polarization has become absolute. Each side hates the other side and has no intention of working with them to get things dome. In a democracy, the parties must learn to work together for the common good. But neither party is working for the common good anymore, regardless of their rhetoric to the contrary. They each work for their own good—citizens be damned. They work for the big donors and oligarchs and special interests who pay for their campaigns. The Founders predicted the corrupting influence of money, so they installed checks and balances. But both parties weasel around these and they have installed loopholes in legislation and rules just so checks and balances wouldn't interfere with the profits of the corporatocracy.

The Founders predicted the corrupting influence of money, so they installed checks and balances, but both parties weasel around these
The Founders predicted the corrupting influence of money, so they installed checks and balances, but both parties weasel around these