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  • -Welcome back to the show. -Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

  • So, uh, this is a very simple title on the book--

  • Why We're Polarized.

  • Donald Trump, right? No? Yes? Maybe?

  • No, Donald Trump is symptom, not cause.

  • So Donald Trump comes as part of a long period

  • where you lose the ability to actually have parties act

  • in a way that hold themselves accountable.

  • So back in the day, if you nominated somebody

  • like Donald Trump, what would happen is one of two things.

  • -One, they don't get to a party convention. -Right.

  • That's back when parties actually

  • control who they nominate. But later on,

  • or even both before and after that for some period,

  • if you nominate somebody who's out of the norms,

  • what will happen is, people will switch over to the other party.

  • It happened at Barry Goldwater,

  • -happened at George McGovern. -Right.

  • But as the parties become much more different

  • ideologically, demographically, you get locked in place

  • by what's called "negative partisanship."

  • So the fear of the other side winning becomes big enough

  • that you will accept anything your side does.

  • So a majority of Donald Trump voters say

  • they were actually voting against Hillary Clinton.

  • And so Donald Trump can only win in American politics

  • in a time of super-high polarization, which is why

  • I think it's actually important to go before him

  • to try to understand what's gonna come after him.

  • It's interesting that you say that,

  • because the conversation in America for a while has been,

  • you know, if we can just get rid of Donald Trump, you know,

  • then we can go back to the way things were.

  • You know, a time when Republicans and Democrats

  • could speak to one another.

  • A time when people could handle opposing views.

  • Was there such a time, and when was it?

  • So, there was, but it wasn't as good

  • as people now like to pretend.

  • So, Joe Biden speaks about the time

  • when he could work with segregationists.

  • There was actually a lot packed into that anecdote.

  • Because we did have a depolarized political system

  • for some time.

  • What you had were basically four parties

  • in the 20th century: the Democrats;

  • Southern Dixiecrats, which were a conservative,

  • very racist party;

  • Liberal Republicans; and Conservative Republicans.

  • And in that world,

  • where you had conservatives in the Democratic Party, liberals,

  • liberals in the Republican Party, conservatives,

  • you had a lot of cross-party coalitions,

  • people working together, but all that was built

  • on this legacy of the Civil War,

  • where the liberal party of this country

  • had this rump conservative wing,

  • and that actually was built on a compromise around segregation.

  • But the fact that it's hard to get compromise in that system,

  • it's rational, because the parties are much further apart.

  • They disagree much more deeply.

  • But-but is that something that's unique to America

  • because of the two-party system?

  • Was it always going to be this way, because, as you said,

  • there was a time when it was essentially four parties.

  • -Now it's gone down to two. -Mm-hmm.

  • And so one thing I've always noticed is:

  • if there are two, then you always have to choose the one.

  • Which seems like a dumb thing to say, but unfortunately,

  • it locks you into a, like, a fixed polarization.

  • You can't... you can't move between ideas.

  • Is this something that can be fixed in America,

  • or is this just where the two-party system

  • -takes the country? -You could fix it in part.

  • So here's, I think, one of the keys.

  • I don't think polarization itself

  • is necessarily a bad thing, and we see it in other countries,

  • both in two-party systems and in multi-party systems.

  • There's an argument that multi-party democracy is better.

  • I more or less buy that argument.

  • But you don't have to have what we have,

  • which is a system where, when you actually win power,

  • it does not mean you win the power to govern.

  • The American system is internationally quite unique.

  • We're the only system like ours

  • that has not collapsed into total chaos.

  • -Because the way we elect people... -It hasn't?

  • Eh, fair enough. You can elect a president,

  • and then a majority leader in the Senate,

  • -Right. -say, of the other party,

  • and there's no way to actually resolve that difference.

  • So in other systems, when you get elected,

  • even if you're polarized, you have the power to govern.

  • So the problem really isn't that we have parties that disagree.

  • The problem is that when parties win elections in this system,

  • they need bipartisanship that the other party

  • does not want to provide.

  • I think we should have a system where public majorities,

  • popular majorities, actually take power and then can govern.

  • It's of note about our system.

  • White House is run by the guy who won fewer votes.

  • The Senate is run by the party that won fewer votes.

  • The Supreme Court, because of that,

  • is run by the party that won fewer votes

  • -in the relevant nominating elections. -Right.

  • We are not in any way a democracy,

  • and that means one party actually has a path to power

  • with minority rule.

  • It's not a great incentive structure.

  • Here's a question, though. Some may argue, you know,

  • many conservatives might say, "Of course you would say that,

  • "Ezra, you lean, uh, liberal, you know, as a cofounder of Vox;

  • "of course you would want this to change,

  • because you want liberals to have more of a voice."

  • I've seen... I've seen this, um, you know, idea shared

  • amongst many people-- online, on TV-- where people say:

  • That's why the Founders created this system.

  • That's why it was created this way.

  • To make sure that the liberal elites on the coast

  • couldn't dictate how the country was run by those who grew up

  • in the middle of America and on the farms.

  • The Founders were very concerned about California.

  • They did not like those liberal California elites.

  • -(laughter) -Two things.

  • One, the Founders did not create this system,

  • or, really, anything like it.

  • They wanted a system that did not have political parties.

  • The other point you bring up, which is totally fair

  • and people do bring it up, is, this idea that democracy,

  • the idea that we should run the country

  • -based on who represents the people, -Mm-hmm.

  • has now become associated with liberalism.

  • It wasn't always that way, it doesn't need to be that way,

  • and it's very dangerous for it to become that way.

  • Like, there were times in this country

  • when the Republican Party rapidly expanded the franchise.

  • The Civil Rights Act itself had a higher proportion

  • of Republicans voting for it in Congress than Democrats.

  • The idea that one party now sees its future in democracy

  • and the other party has become committed

  • to a version of minority rule

  • that requires restricting the franchise,

  • that's very dangerous for a political system.

  • If you actually opened it up--

  • and, by the way, I don't think we're going to,

  • so this is a somewhat pessimistic analysis--

  • but if you actually opened it up,

  • it's not like Republicans couldn't compete--

  • you have Republican governors in blue states

  • who are very popular.

  • The point is, if you don't open it up, they don't have to.

  • People don't have to compete,

  • and if they don't have to compete,

  • then they're not serving the constituents in the areas

  • who didn't vote for them, essentially.

  • Exactly. Or even the people who would need to vote for them.

  • Look, it would be a better...

  • If we had had an election in 2016,

  • and the Republican Party had lost it in a winnable election

  • because Donald Trump got three million fewer votes

  • than Hillary Clinton, the people who had been fighting

  • in the Republican Party to open it up,

  • to make it more inclusive, to reach out to people

  • who don't already vote for it, they would have been empowered,

  • and the Trumpist wing of the party

  • -would have been discredited. -Right.

  • Instead we got the opposite

  • because of the weird deformations of the system.

  • So... what you're saying is, America's screwed?

  • (laughter)

  • What I am saying is,

  • the political system does not function under these conditions.