The Flywheel of Identity
Reviewing Ezra Klein's new book: Why We're Polarized
Ranjan here. With our fancy new Substack bylines, maybe we no longer need to identify which one of us is writing! This week, I’ll be trying something new: a book review.
Ezra Klein was kind enough to send the Margins a copy of his new book, Why We're Polarized (coming out Jan 28th). I strongly recommend it but will also note, it left me terrified.
It painted the clearest picture I’ve seen of just how integral a part in our daily lives identity and political polarization now play, and how many powerful forces have vested interests in keeping it that way. It left me far more confident in my understanding of the historical context for how America ended up in this partisan nightmare. And it made me completely rethink a few steadfast assumptions about how politics works.
With the onslaught of caucuses, primaries, the election, and the impeachment, I am more fearful than ever of where 2020 might take us in the identity wars.
The scariest part for me was realizing just how powerful the flywheel of identity is. I've dabbled on the topic of identity in past pieces (it's the low-hanging fruit for marketing!), but the book makes a compelling case for how traditional media, social platforms, political parties, campaign fundraising, and corporate marketing all feed off of each other to further entrench and activate our various identities.
INTERESTED VS. UNINTERESTED
First off, a confession: I was a high school policy debater. This meant in high school spending summers researching things like the SALT II treaty or the limitations of Bill Clinton's political capital. Needless to say, I didn’t find a date for junior prom. In college, I was a poli-sci major (double-majoring in econ) and that love of acquiring esoteric policy knowledge continued. During the Bush vs. Gore case, I remember one friend and I would skip class to obsessively watch the trial on CNN (when David Boies was the good guy!). I highlight "one friend" because no one else was interested.
Fast forward to 2019 and suddenly everyone has a strong opinion on the outcome of the French Presidential Election, Chinese Currency Manipulation, Framer's Original Intent, Domestic British Politics, Brazilian political corruption, etc. etc. In 2000, there was an almost-nihilism about Bush and Gore were the same candidate (spoiler: they weren’t). The average person wasn't engaged. It barely registered in conversation.
And here's where I learned: This was all part of the damn plan. Looking back, I see it clearly by juxtaposing Bush's 2000 “compassionate conservative” and “uniter, not a divider” campaign, versus the Swiftboating, gay marriage-fighting, culture warrior campaign that was his 2004 vintage. As Matthew Dowd, Bush’s chief campaign strategist explained:
Dowd realized, looking at his chart, that presidential campaigns were conceptualizing elections all wrong. They had imagined the bulk of the electorate as open to persuasion and had been "putting 80 percent of our resources into persuasion and 20 percent into base motivation." In reality, though, almost all voters now had their minds made up. You didn't need to persuade them of whom to vote for-indeed, you couldn't persuade them of whom to vote for. What you needed to do was excite the group of them who, if they were going to vote, were going to vote for you.
Political campaigns used to put the majority of their resources into persuading the undecideds. 80% of resources into persuasion, 20% into base motivation. But that strategy reversed, gradually, then suddenly. Thanks to the confluence of factors I’m addressing here, the number of undecideds is approaching zero. Concurrently, campaigns are focusing on the vast majority of resources on mobilizing the most ardent supporters.
I’ll never forget this 2004 ad against Howard Dean. There were always dirty ads, but this was so over the top in identity.
We all still talk about those few undecideds in swing states, but in reality, the entire game has become one on the ground. You’re no longer ‘persuading’ undecideds to come over to your side. You are making sure your supporters actually make it to the polls and cast their votes. And you are trying to dampen enthusiasm for the other side so some people get lazy and don’t vote.
We talk a lot about the left-right polarization in the political news. We don't talk enough about the divide that precedes it: the chasm separating the interested from the uninterested.
So the central goal of a campaign is now about making and keeping people very, very interested. That widespread conversion of the uninterested to the interested feels like a powerful explanation for everything that's happening. You see it all around you. The push notifications. People glued to cable news. Social feeds clogged with politics. Your group chats sharing Trump tweets. Everyone’s in on it and it’s working.
TRANSACTIONAL VS. IDENTITY
So what’s the easiest way to keep people intensely interested? Identity!
One passage in the book flipped an almost religious assumption of mine: that a more engaged population is intrinsically good for democracy. But I had never questioned exactly what that population was engaging with:
These findings led the researchers to an interesting conclusion: "In forming an opinion, the question for the unengaged citizen is: what will this policy do for me? Among the engaged, however, expressively reactions to economic issues are better understood as motivated signals of identity. The question for the engaged citizen is: what does support for this policy position say about me?
This one made sense. When you're not paying attention, you only care about the immediate, tangible impact of something. But if you’re paying a lot of attention, your position becomes more a reflection of who you are. And the more politics becomes about “who we are” versus policy outcomes, the more charged things get:
When we participate in politics to solve a problem, we're participating transactionally. But when we participate in politics to express who we are, that's a signal that politics has become an identity. And that's when our relationship to politics, and to each other, changes.
Everything then has a visceral emotion tied to it. Klein talks a lot about sports teams and tribalism, and as an avid (rabid?) Boston sports fan, I get it. I’ll be watching next week’s Superbowl in an almost transactional manner. I’ll eat and drink while enjoying what I hope is a close and exciting game. But if the Patriots were involved, my identity as a fan would kick in, and the entire affair becomes much heavier. In a way, not having ‘my team’ in it makes it much more relaxing.
The easiest way to convert the uninterested to the psychotically interested? Unleash identity!
SO MUCH NEWS
Just as political campaigns began shifting towards a base mobilization strategy, something else happened: the business model underpinning 20th-century media began collapsing. While I'm certainly longing for the days of local media monopolies, Klein makes the point that when a newspaper’s core business objective was to run advertisements to get people to the local department store, their goal was to avoid alienating people. They played the center. Often to a fault. Things changed dramatically in our modern era:
"Trump received 78 percent of all coverage on CNN between Aug. 24 and Sept. 4, 2015," and by November 2015, "Trump had received more evening network news coverage-234 minutes-than the entire Democratic field. By contrast, Ted Cruz had received seven minutes.
Cable news is almost too obvious a target, but they still need to be a target. They needed to fill 24 hours, so we get 24 hours, and its a cable news 24 hours (which feels like 96 hours?). But now, observing how the NY Times did their presidential endorsement reality TV show, and the entire emergency podcast economy built on what Trump did yesterday, that flywheel starts to become clearer. The business of media has become to make everyone interested, but I hadn't previously connected how it directly feeds the mobilization strategies of political parties.
THE NATIONALIZATION OF EVERYTHING
As that business model disruption has decimated local and regional news media, we’ve seen the steady growth in the nationalization of media. The NYTimes and Washington Post are national newspapers. Cable news channels crush local news stations. I won’t oversimplify the numerous causes for this, but the end result is the nationalization of political affiliation as well. Suddenly, a special election in Alabama has us on the edge of our seats. A Senate race in Texas has us cursing at our phone. Nationalized politics is an incredibly compelling story for national media. One study Klein cites:
Hopkins finds, tellingly, that the share of Americans who can name their governor has been declining, even as the share that can name the vice president has held steady. He also finds that when asked to name the politician they hate most, only 15 percent name someone in their own state.
And when the entire system becomes nationalized, identity becomes the fuel running both the political and media engines. It’s clean and simple. Even though we’re all far more affected on a day-to-day basis by state and local politics, they don’t hold our attention in the same way.
One area where nationalized politics should be better than the alternative is in fundraising. It seems logical that having thousands of small-donors from around the country is better than a few, big-pocketed donors shaping their local politics to their advantage. When you get fundraising emails about helping turn a House seat in some far-off state to help your party, it still feels noble, right?
But one argument Klein raised about small-donor fundraising shook me. He was working on the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, and brought up how Dean leveraged the internet to revolutionize fundraising with small donors:
But we didn't see the dark side clearly. Dean, the little-known governor of Vermont, electrified the campaign by being willing to say what too many leading Democrats wouldn't: the Iraq war was a mistake and Bush's presidency was a disaster. He was right. Subsequent candidates would, like Dean, find that you could raise tremendous amounts of money and excite huge crowds of people by saying the things that millions of Americans wanted said, even if the parties didn't want their leading figures saying them. There is real value here. But it's a channel through which racist lies and xenophobic demagoguery can travel as easily as overdue truths. The overthrow of everything, indeed.
He dives into a number of examples of how negative partisanship (hating the other side) and strong identity-driven campaigns are critical in driving small-donor fundraising. After yelling "you lie" at Obama, Joe Wilson became a fundraising powerhouse, for both his own and other Republican campaigns. Beto O'Rourke raised a ton of money just on how much we all hate Ted Cruz.
My instinct clearly tells me candidates building up large numbers of small donors are more honorable than those just going after a few billionaires. But the more I thought about this (especially as a marketer), converting huge swathes of the uninterested into being so interested they give you money, is no easy task. The most effective way to do it is by going deep on identity.
While the debate has been about small-donor vs. big-money, this was a reminder that the real problem is simply money in politics. While a small-donor strategy might be a better alternative, in some ways, it exacerbates the identity problem. Klein gives us the very tweetable phrase:
Institutional donors are corrupting, small donors are polarizing.
I’m certainly not advocating for a return to campaigns dominated by only big-ticket donors (or #TomSteyerMoney), but the idea that a small-donor strategy is, by its very nature, polarizing, was one I had never previously thought about. It felt a bit like the whole social media giving a voice to the previously unheard angle. Yes, it's an honorable thing. But when the underlying business model is advertising, there remains an almost inherent corruption.
Oh yeah, speaking of social media, platforms certainly play a massive role in this entire flywheel. In a way, they both stand alone as hyper-efficient activators of identity, while also helping charge all the other individual elements (like traditional media, political fundraising, etc).
I’ve previously written on identity and social media, and especially after reading a wonderful piece, The Internet of Beefs, I think I’ll dedicate an entire newsletter next week on how social feeds encourage identity warfare.
I started this newsletter by saying the book left me terrified for 2020, but Klein did provide some possible solutions (with the disclaimer that there are no easy answers).
Two of them stuck.
The first is to engage more locally. I brought up the nationalization of everything as a major contributor to our current predicament, and Klein made the point:
People have far more power to influence their mayor, state senator, or governor than they have to influence the president. People should be most engaged in the tangible stakes of the politics nearest to their experience, not the more abstract collisions of the national scene. But under an identity model of political engagement, where people participate to express who they are, who they support, and who they loathe, it makes perfect sense.
The last one is kind of a fun one, and I encourage every reader to try this out.
Identify your identities. Most of us identify as either conservative or liberal, but there are so many identities that pepper our daily interactions. When you engage, or when you feel a slight tinge of your lizard brain kicking in, take a deep breath and try to lay out what identities did you just activate.
For something as stupid as this:
Paul Graham @paulgOne novel consequence of the new paywall model of journalism is that only your subscribers even see your articles. It used to be that when an important article was published in a national newspaper, everyone concerned had read it. Now only subscribers have.
I knee-jerk tweeted this. It’s some weird combination of my journalism-is-important identity, with my obsessed-with-media-business-models identity, with my cant-stand-VC-twitter identity. Maybe it’s also my NYC-versus-Silicon-Valley identity.
Or this tweet:
For some reason this really irked me. It hit the recovering-neoliberal-who-once-dreamed-of-going-to-Davos identity. It hit the hates-corporate-greenwashing identity. And if you watch exactly at 0:18, it hit the everyone-stop-saying-stakeholder-capitalism identity.
I’m going to be more conscious about this. In fact, I deleted a few tweets before sending them today.
There are days when I feel the best thing to do is disconnect from politics. I made a point of not watching the first few Democratic debates, which was hard for a politics junkie. I’m not sure how we break collectively free from the flywheel as there are so many powerful forces that depend on it spinning. But in the meantime, I just signed up for the newsletter of my House Rep and City Council rep. So that’s a start.
I absolutely loved this passage. It’s not really relevant to this newsletter, but I wanted to include it anyway because it has that “feels like it explains everything” quality.
A useful rule of thumb is that political power runs a decade behind demographics, with older, whiter, more Christian voters turning out at higher rates. "The ballot box acts like a time machine," Robert Jones told me, "taking us back 10 years in race and religion.
But cultural power runs a decade or more ahead of demography, with brands and television networks chasing younger, more urban, more diverse consumers.