“What Ezra did for news coverage of policy was unprecedented. His work made complicated policy nuances accessible to lay readers.”
Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics at UCLA
When The Washington Post hired Ezra Klein ’05 at age 25, many described the emerging journalist as a wunderkind. Since then, he has co-founded the multimedia website Vox, where he’s now editor at large; launched his eponymous podcast, The Ezra Klein Show; and become executive producer of the Netflix docuseries Explained. Adding to that list of accomplishments, Klein has just published his debut book, Why We’re Polarized, which looks at why the American political system has become so divided.
You had a book deal back in 2012. Was that for what eventually became Why We’re Polarized?
No, the concept changed quite dramatically. I sold a book to Simon & Schuster in 2012, and it was about the structures and hidden institutions that shaped policymaking and outcomes in Washington, D.C. That was a book trying to explain the outcomes and occurrences [during] the Obama era. But then I started Vox, and I put that project down. In the Trump era, very different questions need to be explained: Why is politics like this? What has happened here? How did we go from Barack Obama to Donald Trump? And that’s much more how you get [to] Why We’re Polarized.
What can resolve a polarized system?
I don’t believe that there’s some set of policies that would resolve polarization. In many ways, polarization is the natural state of political systems. Most political systems that have political parties across the world do become highly polarized. What’s quite unusual about the American political system is its presidential system, which [is something that] doesn’t really exist for long periods of time anywhere else. And the reason is [that], in presidential systems, you end up with irresolvable conflicts between branches of government that have independent democratic legitimacy.
But that raises the question of “Well, how did it work in America for a long time?” America was very distinct in that it had these internally mixed political parties — the parties were demographically very mixed. They had different kinds of people in them. That mixed system was a result of deformities that racial politics had imposed on American politics.
What you had was a system where you had political parties, but those political parties had an enormous amount of internal disagreement. And that allowed them to build unusual coalitions to be quite compromise oriented in the way they approached governance. The master political story of the back half of the 20th century is [that] the parties sorted — they sorted by ideology, so you no longer have liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. They sorted much more racially, so the Democratic party is very multiethnic, and the Republican party is very homogenously white. They sorted geographically so the density of a place is very predictive of how it votes — there’s no density in America that votes Republican, for instance. They sorted religiously — both parties used to be overwhelmingly Christian; now Republicans are overwhelmingly Christian, and in the Democratic party, the most common religious affiliation is no affiliation at all. As the parties kind of stacked ideologies and identities on top of one another, they became much more different. Their differences became much harder to resolve. The cross-party consensus and coalitions that our system needs to work deteriorated, and that’s at least in part how we got to where we are today.
In your tweets about the book, you say, “There’ll be a lot to argue with in it.” How do you deal with contentious comments?
I try to challenge people to a duel on the scales of honor as quickly as possible. (Laughs.) I think the book is going to challenge a lot of people’s preconceptions. I think I put forward an idea of identity politics and how it functions that is true, but it’s quite a challenge to the way that term usually operates in American politics. An argument I make in the book is that polarization is natural and even a good thing. Oftentimes the alternative to polarization is suppression of certain kinds of viewpoints. One reason American politics wasn’t polarized was because there was a lot of suppression of racial justice issues.
On my podcast and in my work, I like having conversations with people who disagree with me. I learn a lot from them. This book, in certain ways, is very informed by those kinds of conversations, and many of them are quoted in it. If I wrote a book that nobody disagreed with, it would either mean I hadn’t said anything interesting or nobody had read it. And I would prefer to say something interesting and have people read it.
What was especially challenging in writing your first book?
Just in terms of process, the book was an incredibly intellectually rich and rewarding experience. And an incredibly difficult process. I learned a lot from it. It forced me to see a lot of things in my own model of politics and my own argument that — when I laid them out on the page — were not nearly as fleshed out as I thought they were. Or maybe they actually didn’t stand up to the facts. There were things that I would like to have [included] in the book because I think they are true, but I couldn’t substantiate them. I couldn’t actually make the case that they’re true. And so that’s a very humbling and a very generative experience.
With all your other projects, how did you manage to find the time to write a book?
I didn’t take time off really to [write the book], which was a mistake. There was one period where I went on sort of a half book leave for 10 weeks, but I still did my podcast, I still did executive producing of the Netflix show [Explained], [and] I had a son during this period. I think that if I ever were to write a book again, I would only do it on the condition that I take six months off to just do the book well. And I think this book came out well — I hope it did — but it meant that the amount of time I spent working on nights and weekends, and the constant flinging between trying to get ahead on the book and then being behind on my work, or being not as present a father and husband as I wanted to be, versus being more ahead on my work and being behind on the book … the choices were too stark. I would have enjoyed a quiet and meditative process, but I did not set that up for myself.
Your body of work uses audio, television, websites and social media. What’s your favorite medium?
For me, I love doing reportage writing. And I really enjoy the podcast. And those two things are the things I draw the most nourishment from. What I like about journalism is learning. The things where I’m forced to understand things that I didn’t understand in the world before, that’s deeply pleasurable for me and deeply fulfilling.
And things where I’m drafting off what I already know or responding and reacting to whatever’s happening in the moment — while I’m not saying that work isn’t important or can’t reach an audience … in some cases that reaches the biggest audience — it’s not fulfilling in the same way for me.
Vox will celebrate its six-year anniversary in April. Where do you see its future?
There’s a set of organizational needs and approaches that we’re doing right. We have pretty rich text, audio and video departments. And we’re launching new television shows and new podcasts and new text projects. So it’s just the day-to-day work of getting better at journalism.
But then Vox is also a very mission-driven organization. And one of the things that we are discussing internally is, “How has our mission changed? How [have] the problems that we want to address changed? How has the industry in which we operate changed?” The mixture of a hypercompetitive environment and the algorithmic incentive to social media have driven the news a little crazy and pushed us to be reactive in ways that aren’t great. [It has] pushed us to the kinds of journalism that help you stand out, but cumulatively turn the volume up on everything too loud and oftentimes don’t shed enough light. We’re doing a lot of thinking about how [to] make sure we’re navigating these currents well. But it’s very hard to do. We’re subject to the same incentives and forces as everybody else. This question of “How do you stay true to a mission while still constructing a viable business in a very, very, very difficult economic time for media?” is a constant tension.
Vox has a reputation for making things easy to understand. Its mission is to explain the news. What’s key to achieving this?
It’s extremely straightforward. To explain something simply, you need to understand it extremely well. Clarity comes from comprehension. So good explanatory journalism is when you’ve done the work — the reporting, the research, the thinking, the processing — to [be able to] convey your understanding to your audience. Bad explanatory journalism is when we didn’t do the work to truly understand something. Then either we don’t understand the explanation, we can’t communicate it clearly [or] we don’t even know what the right question is. And, of course, not everything can be explained, but if I can just tell you, “This is the path through, but, at some point, the path runs out,” that’s terrific. The problem is when I’ve not done the work to even build the path.
This book is very much an act of explanatory journalism. And like a lot of really good explanatory journalism, it begins with my own confusion. How did this happen? Why are we here? Why does politics feel like this? Work like this? And what I’m really doing in this book is taking people on the exact same arduous journey I traveled to try to develop a model, an explanation, that made sense. A model of how politics works in which what’s happening now fits. And I’m sure parts of it are not ultimately going to prove exactly right, and I certainly don’t have everything figured out, but this book really comes from a place of curiosity. It’s much more about diagnosis than prescription. I don’t think I know how to fix this. I don’t even think there is a clear fix to this. But I do think there are clear causes. I do think there’s a clear set of trends and forces that got us here. And I can tell you what they are.
What was one of the most important things you learned at UCLA?
In some deep way, what I learned is that I don’t do that well in school. I really liked being at UCLA, but I had trouble finding the threads that worked for me. All through school, I never felt like I quite fit, either educationally or socially. It’s an irony to me that this book is very deeply inflected by political science, and some of the political scientists that it draws on in a significant way are at UCLA, like [Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics] Lynn Vavreck. But when I was there, I was not able to find the parts of political science that really connected to me. I couldn’t see the relevance. It was only later, as a journalist — when I could construct the through line myself — that I almost sort of put together my own education of political science.
Did you always want to be a journalist?
No, I never wanted to be a journalist. I ended up in journalism completely accidentally. I thought I’d work in politics. When I went to work on campaigns — I worked on the Howard Dean campaign for a little while as an intern — I realized I hated working on campaigns. And that is when I realized that being in politics wouldn’t work. But people in journalism liked and read my blog. The people in my life saw earlier than I did that I was moving toward journalism. I thought, “Oh, no. Absolutely not.” I didn’t travel a linear path. And if there hadn’t been blogging at the exact moment there was, I wouldn’t be a journalist.
How do you view the idea of objective journalism?
My view is that there’s no such thing as objective journalism. There is such a thing as a formulism people apply to journalistic products that makes them look more neutral. And there’s such a thing — and I think this is often valuable — as a process people use to produce journalism that is more neutral. But every step in the journalistic process is diffused with perspectives and decision-making that are biased. I mean, just the choice of what story to do on a given day: Do you choose to write a story about Trump’s impeachment, which will make him look bad? Or do you choose to do a story about how the unemployment rate is doing, which will make him look good? Both of those are news. You could write either of them in an objective way. The act of choosing between them is a deep infusion of perspective.
My old line on the news is that in traditional outlets, they make it too hard on the news side to tell the truth and too easy for the opinion side to lie. The point is not that being opinionated lets you off the hook for all the really important processes and procedures that quote-unquote objective journalism uses. I think the problem is that we put strictures on news journalists, where they’ve done all this work and they can’t tell us what they’ve actually found. And then we lift them all on the opinion journalists, where we don’t make them do any work.
That said, having done a lot of journalism myself and run a journalistic organization, this stuff is hard. I have quite a bit of media criticism and media reflection in [Why We’re Polarized]. And it’s not like I have somehow figured out an answer to the problems of journalism. It’s much easier to criticize everything that is wrong than figure out a way that doesn’t affect you, too.
What has most surprised you about the Trump presidency?
That he has so little interest in so many topics. I would have never told you Donald Trump was a deep policy wonk, but he has a lot of strong opinions. He seems to care about immigration, trade and himself — not in that order. (Laughs.) The Trump presidency is a weird coalition or compromise between Trump’s personalization of the presidency, his interest in his own narrative story, the few issues on which he has a relatively strong view — like trade or immigration — and then the congressional Republicans’ traditional agenda. And that’s a weird mixture.
Are you optimistic about the future of this country?
To the extent I’m optimistic about the future is because I think our past, including our recent past, was much worse and much more unjust than we typically commit ourselves to remember. If we can do a little bit better than we’re doing now, we’ll be doing a lot better than we have at any other time. But it’s also possible we’ll do worse … things do backslide and they do deteriorate. I try to be realistic about the baseline — there’s not some utopia that we found and lost. The fact that the past was bad isn’t some guarantee that the future will be better. It’s also a reminder that the future can be bad. I think that you want to try to chart as much as you can, like a clear-eyed path, but attaching too much feeling to it is just hard. America is such a vague, complex country.
Do you have any predictions for the 2020 election?
I have learned not to make predictions.