Part two of Why We’re Polarized connects the polarizing public, the subject of part one, to our increasingly polarizing political institutions. Klein wants to show that polarization is a feedback loop: “Institutions polarize to appeal to a more polarized public, which further polarizes the public, which forces the institutions to polarize further, and so on” (136-7). Here, I’ll be a bit more comprehensive and summative than I have so far, because it’s helpful to see how the pieces of the story fit together.

Unsurprisingly, the media is the first locus of institutional polarization that Klein discusses. Also unsurprising is his focus on the fragmentation of the industry and the rise of digital media, and on the ways in which audience analytics enable providers to discern “market demand” with growing precision. The result is a media landscape that increasingly plays to partisan divisions: “For political reporting, the principle is: ‘If it outrages, it leads.’ And outrage is deeply connected to identity—we are outraged when members of other groups threaten our group and violate our values” (149). But audience analytics don’t just reveal pre-existing market preferences. Identities are “living, malleable things” that “can be activated or left dormant, strengthened or weakened, created or left in the void” (156). If this is right, then identity-oriented media content will deepen the identities it triggers and the identities it threatens. And in deepening and threatening identity, a fragmented media armed with sophisticated audience analytics will trigger the forces of identity-protective cognition.

[click to continue…]