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Polarization, Covid-19, and Social Media: An Interview with Ezra Klein

Photo credit: Lucas Foglia

Ezra Klein is a New York Times opinion columnist and host of the podcast The Ezra Klein Show. Before moving to The Times, Klein co-founded the news site Vox, where he served as editor-in-chief. He is also the author of the book Why We’re Polarized, which examines the rise of political polarization in the United States.

TW: I’ve seen a lot of people say, “All of this polarization we have now is because of Trump, and once he’s gone, we’ll go back to normal.” In your book Why We’re Polarized, you push back against this idea.  How would you respond to the idea that polarization is gone in a post-Trump America?

EK: There’s an old Larry Summers paper that is sort of famous in the economics profession because it questions the idea of the rational economic agent. Its first line, famously, is “there are idiots. Look around,” and I would say, “there is polarization, look around.” Look at Covid, look how that is split. 

I think that if anything, I underestimated the power of polarization. When I was writing my book, I would have said that a virus that kills at this point nearly a million Americans would be the kind of thing that is so directly relevant to people’s lives that political polarization is not going to have much of an impact. It’s one thing to be polarized about abstract questions of policy that you don’t really understand: what’s gonna happen with climate change, or should China be branded a currency manipulator. But an illness that could get you sick and kill you, or your family members, or your neighbors, or your friends? I would have thought that the incentive to get good information and act on it would’ve been pretty high, and I have been surprised by that.

TW: How did the pre-existing polarization in the US impact people’s perceptions of the pandemic?

EK: I think a lot about a counterfactual Covid-19. Imagine that in 2012, Mitt Romney won the election. And in 2016, he won re-­election. So when Covid-19 comes, he is towards the end of his second term with a Republican president who is an empirical, conscientious, mask-wearing type of guy, no matter what you think of his positions on taxes and entitlements. Does Covid-19 polarize the way it did? Does it polarize equally but differently than it did? Do you have more of a liberal reaction against things like vaccines? 

Go back a couple of years in the vaccine debate, and the view is that it’s weirdos in California who won’t get their kids vaccinated for measles who are putting everybody at risk. I remember covering that for a bit. That obviously isn’t what the central driver turns out to be during Covid-19 over vaccine skepticism. So it’s very hard for me to know how much of what we’ve seen reflects idiosyncratic dimensions of Donald Trump’s response and public persona and personal tendencies, as opposed to some kind of inevitable interplay of political coalitions and psychologies.

TW: On the topic of Trump, how do you think his rather extreme brand of polarization affected the response to the pandemic?

EK: So one fun, constant question about Trump is, “is he a symptom or a cause?” And he’s obviously both. But one trend behind polarization that he reflects and accelerates is the clustering of conspiratorial, low-trust people in the Republican Party, and Donald Trump himself is one of these people. He is a guy who, way before his political career, was constantly trafficking in conspiracy theories and all sorts of weird stuff. He is clearly not a person who trusts institutions or believes in their value. He is authentic to the Republican Party that is emerging, so when he runs, he resonates with so many Republican voters, but when he becomes the nominee, more low-trust people join the Republican Party. 

And I bring that up to say that a Republican Party that has become structurally mistrustful of institutions—full of people who will disbelieve something the media says because it is the media that said it—is a party that is not well set up for Covid-19 and similar situations. At certain, critical moments, you do need to believe things that you take on faith from people who’ve run experiments in labs. And the fact that the United States polarized around conspiratorial thinking did not set us up well for a Covid response.

OBP: A lot of that conspiratorial thinking seems to be spreading over social media. How do you think social media intersects with polarization? If you had the power to do so, how would you adjust social media platforms to help decrease polarization?

EK: It’s worth saying the enormous bulk of the rise in polarization long predates social media. Polarization is not a social media phenomenon, though I think social media is making it worse. But social media, too, is responding to a long structural change in American political life.

I would re-tune the algorithms to have a circuit break-like tendency as things begin to go viral. One of the ways social media is changing politics is by ratcheting up the emotional tenor. It supplies you with content to feel strongly about. In some areas, that means the content is funny. In politics, it means the content makes you very angry.

And we get a lot of it. Instead of social media hungrily searching out things that will go viral, I would like it to not do that. I don’t think it’s good to live our lives with this level of hyperstimulation. I think this is true in areas outside of politics, too. But within politics, it would be better if the algorithms preferred things that were getting a modest response from the people who read them. Rather than preferring everything that was getting a super strong response. 

OBP: Given how social media exploits the personal side of politics, what spaces do you prefer for talking about issues that are important to you, such as veganism or reproductive rights?

EK: I primarily talk about both of the things you’re mentioning in podcasting. I almost never talk about those issues on social media. 

I don’t think abortion is something to debate. I personally don’t think I’m likely to make the world better by talking about abortion, or the death penalty, or veganism on Twitter. I don’t think I’m going to create a constructive space of reconsideration. On my podcast, I think I’m able to build a relationship with the audience over long periods of time. When I say something that’s a little unusual or that’s outside the way they naturally view the world, they might be willing to venture with me there.

I value places where you can be a more whole person—podcasting being one of them, but not the only one—or places that lend themselves to a healthier form of politics. I think if you can see me in my deeper humanity, you might be more willing to listen to what I’m saying. And if you feel that I’m seeing you, you might be more willing to tell me what you’re truly thinking. That’s a precondition for any kind of persuasion in either direction.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.