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Thursday, May 23, 2024
Ezra Klein, left, and Greg Nemet, right, discuss polarization in a Q&A at Monona Terrace on Tuesday, April 16 at 7:00 p.m.

Ezra Klein unpacks the roots of American polarization in La Follette School talk

Progressive journalist Ezra Klein explored the roots and impacts of political polarization in America during a talk organized by the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the Monona Terrace.

Political commentator and New York Times columnist Ezra Klein discussed his bestselling book on American polarization, “Why We’re Polarized,” in remarks Tuesday at the Monona Terrace.

During the event — hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs — Klein dissected the divides behind rising political polarization, including a sense of exclusion and resentment from rural Americans who feel left behind by establishment figures and institutions.

“We are more organized in our disagreement than we were in the past,” Klein said. “There is not a single city of significant density in America that votes Republican now… The politics of Madison are like the politics of San Francisco… and the politics of rural Wisconsin are quite like the politics of interior rural California.”

Klein, the La Follette School’s spring 2024 Public Affairs Journalist in Residence, is known for his progressive politics and conversational podcasts. He is also the co-founder, former editor-in-chief and editor-at-large of Vox Media.

“We're trying to encourage civic dialogue, bring people together, convene [and] bring out evidence-based research to inform policy,” said Greg Nemet, interim director of the La Follete school, in an interview with The Daily Cardinal. “We're not making policy or advocating particular policy decisions. But we do a lot of looking at policies.” 

After opening remarks from La Follette students and Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jill Karofsky, Klein discussed changes in American political polarization over time.

He said America's founding fathers misjudged the future political landscape because they believed regional and state identities would be more influential in politics rather than party identity. In his view, recent divides are not over specific policies, such as Obamacare, but rather over democracy.

This shift has led to more competitive and crucial elections, particularly in battleground states like Wisconsin, Klein said.

"We trade the house back and forth now like it's go fetch,” Klein said. “There are razor thin elections right now, and there are fewer swing voters than ever, so they are more important than ever.”

Klein also discussed educational polarization, a topic he felt was underexplored. In his view, the educational divide is becoming less about race as non-college-educated Hispanic and Black voters are gradually leaning toward the Republican Party.

Instead, Klein identified identity politics as the dividing factor. He said this presents vulnerabilities for both political parties — particularly Democrats — as party coalitions split by educational attainment.  

“The Democratic Party is now winning college-educated voters while the Republican Party is winning non-college-educated voters,” he said. 

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Klein said candidates who tailor their appeal to voters rather than posturing for fellow partisans fare better at navigating the divide. He cited Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin as an example.    

“[The politicians] that keep winning on the Democratic side are not angry politicians,” Klein said. “They're politicians who are able to convey [the] sense that [they] think pretty highly of the people they represent, even the people who didn't vote for them, and whether you like them or not, they're the kind [of politicians] to get down to work day after day"

After the talk, Klein answered questions from audience members. In response to a question about his advice for the younger generation in navigating a highly polarized environment, he encouraged students to embrace an independent approach to learning.

“Read books on paper, on your own. They’re the best technology for thinking. What many in society don't want you to do is to learn to think for yourself. But that's exactly what you should be doing. The world is trying to think for you; books are a great way to start thinking for yourself,” Klein said. 

Sooyoung Kim contributed reporting to this story.

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Noe Goldhaber

Noe Goldhaber is the college news editor and former copy chief for the Daily Cardinal. She is a statistics major and has reported on a wide range of campus issues. Follow her on Twitter at @noegoldhaber.

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