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By Why Is This Happening?

Families are being ripped apart at the border, a Republican Congressman retweeted a Nazi sympathizer, and Trump White House officials are being protested with increasing regularity. It is feeling pretty rough out there — so just how bad is it? There have been some folks looking to the Civil War when discussing the current landscape of political polarization.

While it’s not quite that bad, just exactly where are we on a scale of "everything’s fine" to "we're on the cusp of a new civil war?" Chris Hayes and Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein have been checking in on this very question throughout the Trump administration. In this episode, they talk about unique problems of the American political project, the staying-power of political identities and what we can learn from the "X-Men" superhero, Legion.

EZRA KLEIN: Do you know anything about the "X-Men" character, Legion?

CHRIS HAYES: Uh-uh.

EZRA KLEIN: So, Legion, it's a cool show but as the "X-Men" character, it was like this mutant who had multiple identities and any of them could be called forward at any minute and then he had different powers depending, he's super powerful but very mentally unstable. I bring this up because that's actually how we all are.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why is this Happening?", with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

There's a congressman from Iowa that you may be familiar with. His name is Steve King. He's been a guest on our program. He famously said, during 2016, as a guest on our program, that basically no group has contributed as much to civilization as white people. I'm not sure if he would call himself a white nationalist, but I think it's a fair thing to call him. If you think of white nationalism as an ideology then fundamentally America constituently has to be a white majority country with white people in control, or it's not essentially America.

That's different than a vision of a country that is what people call "Creedal;" that America is a set of principals and ideas and visions of self-government. That the people from all different backgrounds and races, creeds, ethnicities, come together around this creed, we make America.

Steve King's pretty clear about what he thinks America is: it's a country that can only be America if white people are in a majority. He's pretty clear about that. I was thinking about Steve King because he had a wild, wild tweet just a day or two ago. This comes on the heels of him retweeting literal Nazi propaganda about immigration. And it comes in the midst, if you're hearing this at some point in the future, whenever you downloaded this podcast, this kind of moral crisis for the country over the family separation policy, the Trump administration's decision to intentionally separate children from their parents when they're coming to the border, largely, seeking asylum.

It's produced tremendous activism and backlash: there's been all sorts of demonstrations and mobilizations in civil society, there's been examples from the people from the Administration being heckled in a restaurant or not served in a restaurant, there's been a growing crescendo of conversation about what that means. In the midst of all this, Steve King tweets this: "America is heading in the direction of another Harpers Ferry, after that comes Fort Sumter" and he links to an article about demonstrators that have occupied the ICE Immigration Office in Portland and shut it down. Basically, non-violently barred people from going in and out by camping out on the sidewalk.

There's a lot going on in his tweet, okay? Indulge me for a moment while I break down what's happening here. So, Harpers Ferry is the site of John Brown's bridge. John Brown, a messianic abolitionist, zealous abolitionist, raids a federal armory in Harpers Ferry in 1859, in West Virginia, to get guns to start a slave revolt. That is an important historical moment. It comes before the Civil War starts, but it's interesting here. So, here Steve King is analogizing John Brown — committed abolitionist on the side against slavery — raiding Harpers Ferry with the people protesting against ICE and the current immigration policy. So, on one level it's like, "That's kind of interesting. The moral plane here is you're comparing the abolitionist on one side with the current anti-family separation protestors." Which I would, on a moral standpoint, I would say, "Yes, that is correct. Those are. That is the right way to think of it." Of course, these people are just camped out on the sidewalk, they're not engaging in violence as John Brown was and planned to.

So then you're saying that Harpers Ferry led to Fort Sumter, which makes it sound like the Civil War was essentially caused by John Brown. Everything was fine and going along peacefully but then that crazy zealot violent abolitionist tried to free the slaves, and I mean, what the heck are they going to do down in the South? I mean, they had to start the Civil War down in Fort Sumter, and what do you know, you get a civil war with six hundred thousand people dead. That's not, no. No. That's not an accurate depiction of history.

Also, are you saying you're on the Fort Sumter side? You, Steve King, are on the Confederacy side? Are you also saying if you keep doing things like protesting outside of ICE offices you're going to force us to declare war against the federal government? Us? Our people who apparently you are associating yourself with the confederacy? It's an insane, insane thing to say. Not the least of which, it's also saying that we are on the precipice ... The Civil War is the bloodiest thing that happened in this country, ever. Hundreds of thousands of people killed. Slaughter on a scale that is impossible for us to really grapple with or imagine. And Steve King is saying that's where we are in 2018 and this is not an isolated view. In fact, I find this very prevalent on the right after Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant. There's this bevy of tweets on the right about, "Get your gun. Get your gun. Get ready. Here it comes." There are right wing publications that publish, essentially civil war fan fic where they'll fantasize what it will be like when the Civil War comes.

I don't think America is on the precipice of war, I think that’s a historical insanity. What I do think, though, is that people feel like the country's politics are in a really bad place. The level of polarization and conflict is extremely high and there's this kind of sense in which everyone's sort of checking in all the time, like, "How bad is it? How bad is it?"

"How bad is it," is a conversation I have with my friend Ezra Klein, all the time. These conversations are probably twice a year, where literally the topic is just, I went on his podcast, he came on my podcast, we'd go out to dinner and the conversation is, "Where are we at?" The reason that I like to talk to Ezra about this is because it's something he really has been thinking about in a pretty systemic and rigorous way. He's writing a book right now about polarization, about the structural nature of the ways in which our politics function in this moment that make it possible that, in the words of Donald Trump, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and people would still support him. Because, plainly, that's what's going on in their politics.

I had this conversation with Ezra, I gotta be clear, before the intense moral crisis in the country over family separation, before the latest round of civility chin stroking. Those are specific examples of policies that are happening in the country that grow out of some of the political ramifications and who is valued and who has power and how certain sides in American life, I think, particularly, one side of American life can convince itself to justify anything. We had this conversation before all that and it's a conversation about this sort of deep question that I think gets to the core and the heart of our politics and it's a theme that runs through this podcast.

It's a conversation I keep having in different kinds of iterations. I had it with Brittany Cooper, I had a version of it with Amy Chua, who have very different views on this. And then I checked in with Ezra Klein about what is going on in this deep elemental sense with the politics of conflict and polarization between the two big major coalitions in American life, basically, the center left and center right. In what feels like a zero some game sometimes, a race to the bottom, oftentimes asymmetric in terms of what one group is going to do and what the other group is going to do and what it's leading towards. What is this all headed towards? I think there's a sense in which, even as we engage in the day to day politics, we watch the news stories and people mobilize or they write to their members of congress or call them or they march or they watch All In or listen to this podcast, there is a sense of dread that people have and I think this is actually shared across a variety of political ideologies. A sense of dread about where this is all headed.

So I wanted to check in with Ezra about where he feels this is heading, having immersed himself in the last past few months on book leave just reading about the basic dynamics undergird, our political conversation, and try to get to the bottom of "How bad is it?"

CHRIS HAYES: We talked, I think we had a conversation about a year ago, on your podcast and-

EZRA KLEIN: Great podcast.

CHRIS HAYES:It was, well I enjoyed it. You know it's basically, like, how bad are things? Where are we? I feel this sense of vertigo all the time where I'm constantly trying to get my bearings because I will pendulate between feeling like things are really bad or I'm just freaking out and being ridiculous about how things are really bad. It can be really hard to orient yourself, in this moment, about where we are, particularly because there's this relentless what Cory Robin, who've we've had on the podcast, called Presentism. There's this sense, always, that history half-started like nine minutes ago.

EZRA KLEIN: Yup.

CHRIS HAYES: So, where are we? How bad is it?

EZRA KLEIN: I just wrote a piece trying to work my way through this question too.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

EZRA KLEIN: I'm becoming obsessed with the same issue. I think there are a couple things worth saying here. One is that it isn't that we've a Presentism but we've an intuitive sense that the right point of comparison is mid-20th century America. That's because you and I know now are getting older but when we were coming up, right, the political elders, they had all grown up in the politics of the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, you know?

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

EZRA KLEIN: Now, you start getting people whose frame of reference is the 90s but mid-20th century America was politically really weird. It's the low-ebb of political polarization in the entirety of American history. It is this period when the parties are unsorted in a way that did not happen before that and has not happened since then. The main thing happening in mid-20th century America and American politics is that race has constructed a strange blockage between the parties. Where you have the Southern Democratic Party is an ideological conservative institution but it is Democratic. It's Democratic for reasons that are historical, right? Republicans invaded the South.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

EZRA KLEIN: It's Democratic also for reasons of exercising raw political power, the Democratic Party, actually Congress and no matter who controlled it at that point, seniority was what mattered. The South had basically one party authoritarian Democratic rule, there's a great book by Robert Mickey called, Paths Out of Dixie, on this. The South had this incredible power, within Democratic Party, that allowed them to make sure that the way they constructed their world, right? The racial hierarchy that they were determined to protect would not be challenged by the country as a whole. So, you have this weird thing happening where politics becomes very depolarized because you have a lot of conservatives in the Democratic Party, for related reasons you have a lot of liberals in the Republican Party.

I just read this great book by Sam Rosenfeld called, The Polarizers. He has this just amazing quotes from Richard Nixon, and RFK and all these politicians back then saying, "You know, it would just be a terrible thing if the Republican and Democratic Parties became liberal and conservative parties. We have enough division in society, we don't need ideological division between the parties on top of that."

CHRIS HAYES: That's amazing.

EZRA KLEIN: It's unbelievable.

CHRIS HAYES: It's amazing to think about that.

EZRA KLEIN: As long as that's going on, what you end up having is I think pretty weird because you have a society that I think, if you look back at it, is much more fractured and violent and illiberal than ours is now. For all that we feel things are crazy, the string of political assignations, of urban riots, of violence against people marching for voting rights, I mean, of Kent State protestors being killed, what's happening in American life in that period, that is a society that just from afar, is cracking up. You have this political systems that is absorbing that fracture and turning it into consensus. So, a political system that is calming down what is happening around it. By the way, sometimes doing that, by allowing unbelievable injustice to persist, the filibuster is used in this period, very rarely, but almost entirely to stop anti-lynching laws, right? So there's a horror at the center of that consensus but still, it creates some consensus.

Now, I feel like you have the opposite. I mean there are real fractures in our society, but I think if you look at most indicators they're not really flashing red in the way that they have been at other times. The political system is absorbing relatively low levels of conflict and turning it into very high levels of conflict. Just go back to the Obama era, you have fights over low differences in taxation that almost lead to a Debt Ceiling breach.

My big thought experiment keeps being, what if you pasted this political system onto that era's social fracture? Would we have survived that? That is the place where I get scared. We're saying that this era may not be as bad as past, yeah, but, our institutions are worse and so, what does that mean?

CHRIS HAYES: In some ways the answer to that thought experiment take today's ideological and partisan divisions and the sort of social fracture of that era and map them a top each other, right? So they all neatly align, you get the Civil War, quite literally, right? I mean you get the nation's politics and fractured and polarized in such a way, which is essentially, there's one central division and it stacks up against all the other ones and becomes, fundamentally, not just a political but a spiritual identity, a cultural identity, a tribal identity, a geographical identity, it is everything which side of that divide you're on.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. I think that I am not, I want to be careful saying that if you stack these on top of each other you get another Civil War because I think that there were conditions and also what we were actually fighting over than was so foundational to the nature of the country.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Totally.

EZRA KLEIN: That whether we collapse into violence now, I don't know and I certainly hope not. Here's the part of my work, right now, that I struggle with, I feel ... You know that line, I think it's a Nietzsche line, "You stare into the abyss long enough and the abyss stares back into you?" This is how I feel. I am knee deep in the literature of the tribal condition. What happens when people begin thinking of themselves as part of a group? What happens to the way that they process information, what happens to the way that they look at other people? We see this a ton with partisan.

There's a great study, a series of studies, a guy, a political scientist out at Stanford, I'm forgetting his name, but anyway, what he did was he gave Republicans and Democrats different versions of an article describing a welfare proposal. Some of the versions would say this welfare proposal was a Republican proposal and some would say it's a Democratic proposal but the details of the proposal would not change. Then he would say, "Well, what do you think about it?" and they would take whatever their party's position was. You know if a Republican got the sort of pro-welfare proposal with a Republican identification to it, they would come up with reasons why it was a Republican proposal. To me the architectural example to this, the way you know this is not an experiment that only happens in a lab, is go look at the Individual Mandate. That was a Republican idea, Mitt Romney pass it in Massachusetts.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

EZRA KLEIN: It became the center of liberal unconstitutional government overreach. I mean it was perfectly clear that it was partisan signaling. On one hand, it's individual responsibility and on the other, it's government encroachment. The hard part about this and here where the abyss stares back into me, we've known each other a long time, my work, my life's work, is I try to make policy clear and comprehensible so people can make good decisions about it. What if that's not how anybody's making decisions at all? What if what's going on, in a lot of it, is that people are just waiting for the signal and then they're reasoning backwards from the signal? Then we're all smart creatures, the mind is a powerful thing, you can come up with a reason to almost anything but the fundamental thing is that people have attached to a group.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

EZRA KLEIN: Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad and they want their group to win.

CHRIS HAYES: So, when you think about this process, right? About, how are people making decisions? If it's all you know, use the Jerry Seinfeld joke about rooting for sports or rooting for laundry, right? He says, "You love a guy and then he gets traded and you hate him, the only difference is the uniform. You're rooting for laundry." If the signal is the only thing that matters, I think about labor organizing and community organizing, particularly, because that's a process by which, if you are doing it correctly, you are actively creating group identity, you're also, actively polarizing.

EZRA KLEIN: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: The point of the labor song, what side are you on? Is about specifically coming in and taking a group that's un-polarized and polarizing it, right? Around a certain group identity. It's also a kind of interesting dynamic process where, if it's done well, right? Organizing that's done well should not be this kind of Vanguardist thing where a bunch of people come in and they tell you which team to root for. That there's a kind of dynamic give and take that's happening where people are talking about their grievances and what's bad about their workplace. People that are organizers are sort of reflecting that back and cohering that in a kind of loop. That's how you get some sort of political identity that can then do something like give you the eight hour day or you know the benefits that we saw in the UAW. It's the same process there.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Right? That's the same process there.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: That's the same process, the one that we're describing that I think makes people hinky.

EZRA KLEIN: You could say that, I mean, on some level, what we're saying here is that human nature can in all kinds of ways be harnessed for good or harnessed for ill.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

EZRA KLEIN: I mean, to use a different example that is constant in our politics, like, selfishness, right? Selfishness can be a great way of people incentivizing themselves and their neighbors to go and create more and get more, it can become materialistic, it can become greedy, it can become uncaring. I mean, to say human beings are flawed and often sub-rational creatures, I think, I think it's true. I think that any politics not based on a realistic idea of how human beings act is a politics that will likely fail but, I think that one thing that is tricky about this is that these ideas interact with our political values in very difficult ways.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

EZRA KLEIN: So to give just a to go back to using an example I was using before, a huge amount of what I do as a journalist, what you do as a journalist, is trying to take people's arguments, both a voter when we got to a political rally, or a politician when we interview them in their office, at face value, generously, right? If somebody tells me they are voting for Donald Trump because Democrats have done a terrible job on the economy.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

EZRA KLEIN: I don't want to say, "No, that's not why you're doing, you're reasoning backwards, your income is above the median, blah, blah, blah."

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

EZRA KLEIN: Although, then you start looking at the data and you're like, wait? How come none of this looks the way you'd expect it does if it's really just economic anxiety. I know that's a charged example so if that one doesn't do it for you, use really any of them. I have sat with so many politicians who say, as they have explained to me, how they have rationally, and sensibly and wisely changed their opinion to be the one their party now needed them to have. I am often struck, well is what I do here, go and turn around to my readers and say, "Well, you heard him, this is, they're making a good argument here." Or, if I recognize that a lot of arguments are working out of a backwards rationalization, do I say, "Well clearly what happened is the underlying incentive shifted and now you're getting an argument that is the reverse of the one you got before?" The whole world's sand shifts under you and one thing I want to say it's me too, right?

CHRIS HAYES:Yeah of course.

EZRA KLEIN: It's not, this is not a thing where I'm looking out. One of the scariest parts of this research is we have this sort of Deweyian idea of American democracy where the more educate and informed people get, the better decisions they make. You look at this research, the more educated and informed people get, the more they get like this.

CHRIS HAYES: They get better at motivated reason.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. You are informed because you are very tribal. Otherwise, you would do something else with your time.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

EZRA KLEIN: You are here because you care.

CHRIS HAYES: You know this is a conversation I've had a conversation, Brittney Cooper sat here and we talked about sort of, you know, the person of being political and political identity. Amy Chua wrote a book on political tribalism, has been here and we've talked about political tribalism and I feel like these terms get very slippery, right?

EZRA KLEIN: Sure.

CHRIS HAYES: There's so many things happening. What you say a group, a group can be so many things. To me the critique that I hear from you and the thing that I'm concerned about is that the problem is right now all of the different identities are being stacked on one of two sides. There's all these identities that are flourishing out there. People are gamers, or they're ... But increasingly the way that either media works or the way that our politics works or our culture works, something is happening so that if you're a this thing then you are on this side of this one big line in the culture war, and that's the kind of wording thing.

EZRA KLEIN: So a couple things: One is I don't think identities are ... identities are easy to construct but hard to change. It is very hard to make somebody no longer a liberal or no longer ... Once an identity's constructed, you are still a Cubs fan, despite the fact that you no longer live in Chicago, so one thing is identities hold in place for a very long time.

The way I would put, I think, part of the argument you're making. I guess it's on an FX show too, but do you know anything about the X-Men character Legion? So Legion, it's a cool show, but as the X-Men character it was this mutant who had multiple identities, and any of them could be called forward at any minute, and then he had different powers depending ... It's super powerful but very mentally unstable. I bring this up because that's actually how we all are. You can call forward in me a lot of different identities. I'm Jewish. I'm Californian. I'm someone who likes to think of myself as fair-minded. I'm somebody who cares about dogs. I'm a vegan. There's a lot going on in my head. And political scientists will talk about this as availability. One thing that you see in the past couple of elections is what happens when the availability changes. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and John McCain tacitly but nevertheless quite importantly decided not to explicitly activate racial identities. You remember McCain saying, "No, no, no, ma'am, he was born here. He's a good man. He's a Christian." There was a decision between them--it was not an explicit one--but Obama actually talked about race a lot less than other politicians did, Democratic politicians did.

Romney and Obama decided to run a race where the primary identities being activated were manager or worker. They ran this kind of Bain Capital versus factory worker race. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ran a race, particularly Trump but also Clinton to some degree, where they activated racial and gendered identities much more explicitly. Trump was just constantly telling you to think about yourself as ... Telling you if you were in his audience, which was overwhelmingly white, to think of yourself as a white person in a country that was being overrun by immigrants, in a time where African Americans were kneeling on the football field, and there had been a President who maybe wasn't born in this country. And one way to look at this is that we've just had ... Demagogues have always existed in American politics. We've always been afraid of them. I think sometimes we can talk as if we invented demagoguery in America in 2016, but go read some Founders. They knew this stuff could work.

But when I'm taking the pessimistic view here, here's the way I take it. We are in a period of unbelievable fast demographic change in this country, so in 2013, according to the Census, it was the first year in American history where a majority of infants under three were non-white. By 2045 according to projections it'll be a majority-minority country. We just had the first African American President, who by the way, in 2012 won a smaller percentage of the white vote than Michael Dukakis won in 1988. Having an African American President it wasn't possible under that kind of coalition just a couple decades ago. This is part of Amy Chua's point, but you have a racial majority in this country that has stably held political power for a very long time and feels that power under threat. That makes that identity, and there's a lot of research on this, much more available, and it creates a kind of political context in which groups are making claims that force a lot more attention to that identity. Black Lives Matter is a good example on this. You just wrote a book in fact, and who knows if that would have been the book you wrote 30 years ago in a culmination where you're looking very seriously at issues of racialized policing.

So we are in an era that, for structural reasons, is going to call forward some of our identities that in American histories have been the identities that have been most prone to conflict.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, so what you're pointing to, and I think it's true, is this sort of groove in which we're calling forth and having these very intense conversations that we obviously as a country need to have, and conflicts over power and hierarchy that we need to have.

EZRA KLEIN: And maybe it's an optimistic thing. That, I think, could go back to how bad is it. Some of this, actually, you want to read optimistically. We are-

CHRIS HAYES: And on the path to equality, you have to have those fights. You have to.

EZRA KLEIN: Stability can be more unjust, but it's calmer.

CHRIS HAYES: That's exactly right.

EZRA KLEIN:There's a famous story about Lyndon Johnson. He signs the Civil Rights Bill. He's bed that night, he's always talking to aides in bed. He's a weird dude. Bill Moyers is there-

CHRIS HAYES: Or at the urinal.

EZRA KLEIN: Right, and Johnson says, "I think we've just lost the South for a generation." They did not lose the South for a generation. The South remained Democratic for a generation. It basically stopped being Democratic in the '90s, and there's been a lot of studying on this, and what happened? The Democrats died.

CHRIS HAYES: The identity was so intense.

EZRA KLEIN: The identity was so intense it actually had to be replaced by people who did not have the intenseness of that identity.

CHRIS HAYES: And then after that they lost it forever.

EZRA KLEIN: And then they lost it forever, and now the idea the South'd be Democratic, it's ridiculous to us. So one, it's hard to change identity. To me, I've done a lot of thinking on, "Okay, what would derail this?" And some of the ideas I come up with scare me more than the thing itself, so it's like, "Let's imagine we ended up in a war with China." I think all of a sudden a lot of Americans would think their identity is American. I actually don't think it's a total accident that some of the periods in which we have had a more inclusive identity, and I want to be careful with this, because there's good counter-arguments here, but I think that we've done a lot of integration around World War 2, I think that the threat of the Soviet Union often acted as a spur towards certain kinds of racial progress, although also towards certain kinds of racial repression. We don't have a unifying external threat right now, and we also don't have in the way we did in 2008 or 2012 a total financial meltdown that is creating space for of these conversations and conflicts to happen.

CHRIS HAYES: And also, there's the role that war and violence play, which is that it's a crucible for identity formation, and one of the things that comes through, and again, I'm very obsessed with sort of Civil War and Reconstruction literature and have been for the last year and a half is-

EZRA KLEIN: What happened in that year and a half that got you thinking about these issues?

CHRIS HAYES: And this is ... Du Bois is really clear about this, and Frederick Douglass are clear about this. Black men fought on battlefields and they died and killed together with white men, and there are accounts of racist white soldiers who literally have a conversion experience.

EZRA KLEIN: It's a story of how Jews become white, of how Italians become white too.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, right, exactly, that is a crucible of any kind of identity, fighting together and warring together and this, and you see it sometimes in the most kind of, the glossiest celebrations of, when we talk about the greatest generation, when Glenn Beck, the name for his march? The name for the Glenn Beck march when the apex of ... I'm looking at the other people in the room to see if they remember too.

EZRA KLEIN: I do not remember. I remember this march very vividly.

CHRIS HAYES: The Glenn Beck, the apex of Glenn-Beckism was he had this march on the Lincoln Memorial I think in 2010. It was called the 9/12 March, which is such a bizarre thing to be like, "Remember the day after the worse mass murder in American history? Can't we just get back to that? Can't we all just feel like we felt the day after the most atrocious and horrifying thing to happen on American soil happen in our lifetime?" But his point, explicitly, was that that experience made us feel together. So he's saying, and he's making a legitimate point about identity formation, that in that moment, I remember being in New York City feeling a crazy kind of new solidarity with my fellow Americans across all kinds of ways in the wake of that. I 100% viscerally emotionally felt that thing.

EZRA KLEIN: So let me make an argument that can go in two ways here. The snapback of this stuff is very powerful, but I think you can read it from a couple different directions. So one thing I was about to say when I was hearing that was that a much less powerful version of this than war is leadership, or at least a less dangerous version of it than war is leadership, and I was saying earlier, Obama and Romney called forward different identities. Look, I don't think you have to spend too much time imagining an alternative universe where Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, where the Republicans united in a different way earlier to nuke Donald Trump in the primary, maybe it actually worked and so Marco Rubio didn't then get defenestrated by Chris Christie in New Hampshire. We live in a different world, and so you had a Hispanic young Republican running against Hillary Clinton, and whatever happened, I actually think in that scenario, you would have possibly seen a slightly larger Republican win, but even so what you end up with there is a moment that does not feel as brittle and as conflictual.

But what's weird about this, and what I do think shows the power of these identities, the 2016 election in its voting outcomes, just looks exactly like 2012 and looks exactly like 2008, and if Marco Rubio had been the Republican candidate, possibly Republicans would have won by plus three percentage points in the popular vote too, or maybe he would have lost by a little bit more, different things can happen. But it's within a five percentage-point range. And the thing that is very tricky about this now is that it has become so strong, and this is part of how everything's stacked on top of our parties. That is why it's so strong. When one identity begins to encompass everything and every cleavage down to, "How do you feel about ethics in video game journalism?" Then it becomes very very hard to escape and people don't change their minds, even in reaction to profound events.

Another version of this I was thinking about was Obamacare. Nobody for years from the moment that thing was about to pass to years into its implementation, it just had the exact same poll numbers. Nothing that happened ever changed it in anybody's mind. And that to me is why this is hard. The 9/12 thing, the theory of 9/12 is, "What if we could just recapture that?" And the reason we can't, the reason we don't hold to those moments, the reasons these things go away, is that the identities that are reinforced by our entire history and then the lives we always live around us, they come back. The reason war is different is you pull people out of their context entirely, you give them a whole new context that reinforces an entirely different story every second they are awake, and frankly every second they are asleep. But as long as we just wandering around, going about our business, we have structured a polity, a culture, a world ... Watch Super Bowl commercials now. It is constantly telling you and reinforcing your own story of who you are and who is on your side and who is not on your side, and changing any one variable in that, the presidential candidate, the President, whatever, it's a lot. It's a lot to overcome.

CHRIS HAYES: So I try to think about what the antidotes to this are, and what I keep coming back to is, is the realm of the public. First of all, one thing that I think it always important to say here is that a genuinely multi-ethnic, multi-racial pluralistic egalitarian democracy has never been brought forth on this Earth ever. So the project that is being pursued here, the thing we're trying to build, literally there's no model for it. It just doesn't exist.

EZRA KLEIN: Which I often think of as optimistic.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I agree.

EZRA KLEIN: I wish people said this more, because I think sometimes you have people, it's like, "Well all the great challenges have been accomplished." It's like the fought the Nazis back in the day and the Civil Rights movement already happened, and, "No no, look around. The American political project, the thing we are trying to prove is possible right now, if it is possible, what an unbelievably inspiring, world-historic thing to prove is possible," but we don't talk about it like that. We don't talk about clearly like that. We like to pretend we've always had it and we didn't. And nobody else does either.

CHRIS HAYES: I totally agree with that, and I think that it's ... Yeah. We're trying to build the pyramids, in its own way, and the thing that I think is necessary to think about as tools for that, there's, first of all, the first necessary condition is justice. What you actually have to have, before you have anything, is actual justice, actual equality… before you have anything is actual justice, actual equality. That is a key part, and that's a non-compromisable part. So you can't come up with a vision in which ... Your point about that mid century consensus where you say, "Well, we just incarcerate black people at eight times the level as white people for marijuana," but that's the consensus and we're just gonna keep that so that we don't mess up the other stuff.

So in my own world that's a first order non-negotiable. But then when you think about those identities, or you think about how do we create a world in which people aren't constantly calling forth some sense, particularly in a country that is still gonna have a lot of white people. The idea that ... We talk about this demographic shift. That there's some day, and that all of a sudden it tips over. There's tons of white people, and you know what also? It's all very unevenly distributed in a country that has geographic representation.

So if you don't have a message to go tell white people then you're not gonna have anything to do in Nebraska. And then you're screwed, because there's two senators from Nebraska. So the political project has to have something for everyone, and has to speak to some identity, particularly for white people if it's going to be the political force that I would like to see.

And then finally I think about how do we create shared public life, civics based institutions. The thing that I think of, as a New Yorker, always is the subway, which is right now a total disaster. But the subway is a little like ... The subway in New York is a little like the NHS in England, which is that it really is used by everyone. It is a public thing that people commute to their Wall Street jobs in, and they commute to their nursing jobs in, and their teaching jobs in, and their janitorial jobs in, and homeless people use it, and it is a genuine shared public entity of which we have so few in American life.

I don't know if the research says that that helps, but my instinct is that you just have to start building counter institutions that have some sort of inclusive publicness to them otherwise there's no way out of the doom loop.

EZRA KLEIN: Well, and here's a different question. Helps what? We've had this whole conversation about how terrible all this is. That is been the implication of all conversation. It's unstable. It's fracturing. What problem are we trying to solve? Is it problem that Donald Trump is president, but if just any other republican had won we wouldn't be having this conversation at all, even though the divisions would look the same, and the voting outcomes would look the same. So one problem might be that what's happening is leading to a sense of threat on the part of whites that people like Donald Trump could be president.

And there are different ways of thinking about solving that, but one thing that I often think about, and it relates to how bad is right now really, we live in a much more small-d democratic system. 50 years ago Donald Trump can't become president. Not because nobody wants to vote for somebody like Donald Trump we had, this is something that the authors of How Democracies Die make the point of saying we have plenty of demagogues back then. Henry Ford was a perfectly reasonable presidential candidate, but he could have never gotten it through a republican nominating convention.

So we had a lot more checks on small-d democratic rule, which I think make us today uncomfortable, and properly so, but it may be that one of the costs of having a more democratic system is that sometimes you roll the dice and it comes up Donald Trump. So is that what we're trying to solve? Is what we're trying to solve the sorting of the party? So we are gonna have these views, but it would just be good if they weren't so stacked on top of each other? Are we trying to make governance better? Are we ... Is the issue that we're just a very big country and it's hard to govern?

I wanna make the point, because I actually don't even feel like I know the answer. What is the thing we are trying to solve exactly? What is the thing ... Building better national identity is good, but to what end? Because I think depending on that you end up with different things you wanna prioritize.

CHRIS HAYES: So I think I have a political aim and a substantive aim. The substantive aim as a society that is as egalitarian as practicable, in a theory of justice Rawls-ian sense. That is which all sorts of hierarchies are upended and people are not ... we don't have massive disparities along lines of race, along gender. We do not have massive equalities between rich and poor. A flourishing, pluralistic, a egalitarian society as is practicable, that's the sort of substantive goal of the vision, the world view that I'm looking for, because I think that would lead to the maximum amount of human flourishing and happiness and justice.

In a much more specific political sense it's what comes after Donald Trump. It's not just Donald Trump. It is a world in which white people increasingly view themselves, as voting for a group to defend the boarders of their tribal identity and power, and will countenance anything to do that. And we have already seen what that looks like. It's what southern politics look like. As you said, one party, authoritarian states that are constructed by the redeemers, post reconstruction from basically the 1890s through Jim Crow, and they are horrifying landscapes. That is the thing that I am trying to avoid.

They worry when you say we all these problems, what's the things you're trying to solve? That to me is the thing I'm trying to say.

EZRA KLEIN: I think if that's what you're looking at, and then given how difficult changing entrenched identities is, I think then the question you are asking is a question primarily about young white men. When we look at these numbers we are going through ... Every year we go through people high out of the political system, and new people come into the political system because they become 18, and we're going through this wrenching demographic change. And long term health of country, I don't mean just how do things feel like 2018 or 2020, but where are we in 2035, or 2040? It's gonna be what happens to this rising generation of young white men?

In Alabama, in the Doug Jones election. I don't know the numbers for white men, but young white voters were overwhelmingly for Doug Jones. Now there are a lot of reasons for that. I'm rolling more with a particularity noxious candidate, but I think one of the things that I am trying to watch, and that I have the most concern about is, are we watching the political radicalization of young white men? I've been clashing with some of ... I really do not wanna use the terminology that's emerged of the intellectual dark web, but had this big debate with Sam Harris recently, and today explained our daily podcast at Vox they just did a very fascinating interview, and a contentious interview with Jordan Peterson.

If you look at what this cleavage is, you have people there you support single payer. You have Ben Shapiro. You have a lining series of alliances between folks with very different opinions on economics and very different opinions even on who should be president, but they have a shared fear and recoiling and frustration and, in some cases, even contempt for what they would call politically correct culture. But there's a real deep feeling of threat, and it is very, very popular. It feels to me like this generation's version of Rush Limbaugh, like conservative talk radio among white men is always been a big thing. It's moving into the podcasting realm, and I think you're seeing it take on a different cleavage there.

It's not about what you think about taxes. It's about how do you feel about these social justice warriors telling you what you can and can't say. What happens when you hear a group of young African American folks say, "You know what? The way you've been talking about me for a long time, I haven't had quite had the power to say it before, but it's not been okay. The way I've been policed it not been okay." Do you listen now? Do you think that's ridiculous? That's identity politics? You don't know what you're talking about? Or do you hear that and say, "Okay. Maybe there's something I'm missing here."

This is a big cleavage, and I think the question of how it turns out for America is a lot about what happens to young white men, again, because this doesn't seem to be as salient among young white women from the polling I've seen, who are between 16 and 34 now. I don't know of a real political project around that, but I think that is the question that you end up needing to ask.

CHRIS HAYES: I really agree with that. It brings me back, and maybe a good place to finish this is Brittany Copper and I had this conversation. We talked about this, and I talked about the ability I have to ... I don't viscerally feel that, "Why are you attacking me," political correct, but I'm close enough to it. I'm a straight white man with quite a bit of privilege and like it when people listen to me. So it's near enough in my head that I can call that I can call that idea forth, or I can feel it in my head a little bit, and we talked about what's going on with that voice and why is that voice arising in you.

and I agree that there's a real divergent set of paths about how identity gets formed among what would form the cadre of the most threatening reactionary group in future generations of Trumpian politics. That is a real fork in the road for American democracy right now at this moment.

EZRA KLEIN: I think that's right. I will just say, for me, I don't feel like I have answer here. Right now I think there is something that we're starting to see it's emergence. We are starting to see its shape. I am trying to build a theory of it for myself that makes sense. It helps me cover it as a journalist, and I'm trying to explore it. That's why I've been doing debates. I'm trying to map this thing, or just understand it better myself, but I think that something we sometimes need to realize ourselves is that we are in ... It can sometimes feel like history's a thing that happened before us. The things that were tumultuous and difficult, they happened before us. But look around. Look at Donald Trump. Look at what we've been through with the financial system. Look at Brexit. Look at what we're seeing the emergent ideological currents.

We are living through a period of intense change. One thing it should require of us is humility about knowing what's going on it. I really do not feel like I have a sure-footed sense of all of, but another thing I know this trite, but I do think one of the problems, one of the places, a worse version of the identity gets called up, and this is something where I do criticize some of the left for, that we do not have good structures right now for listening to things generously, and hearing when somebody is afraid if we don't already like them.

A lot of times when people are afraid you wanna dismiss it, particularly be if you feel like they are the one ... There is something here. There is a lot of ... You've talked before on my podcast about how powerful a political motion shame is. I've been thinking a lot about how powerful an emotion fear is and it sounds like your conversation with Cooper touched on this, we are gonna have to figure out ways, particularly in social media platforms, that do not allow for a lot of nuance of navigating each other's fear a lot better but I don't know what they are.

CHRIS HAYES: My final point, which is my one point plan to cure America's ails, which is that universal access to high quality therapy for everyone, which I think would just be a massive net improvement in everyone's life.

EZRA KLEIN: I thought you were gonna say explainer journalism.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, yeah. That's a close number two. Ezra Klein who is ... What's your official title now?

EZRA KLEIN: Editor at Large.

CHRIS HAYES: Ezra Klein is the editor-at-large at Vox. He is the host of the "Ezra Klein Show," which is a podcast which you can—

EZRA KLEIN: You can see a lot of great Chris Hayes episodes on.

CHRIS HAYES: There are some Chris Hayes content over there if that's what you're in to. That's available wherever you get your podcast, and by the time that you are listening to this podcast in your ears ... I didn't say ear holes because Tiffany Champion hates it when I do. By the time you're listening to this in your ears the new Vox Netflix show "Explained" will be available for streaming on any Netflix account that you can get your hands on.

Ezra Klein, thanks so much man.

EZRA KLEIN: Thank you.

CHRIS HAYES: Why is this Happening is presented by MSNBC and NBC New, produced by the All In team, and music by Eddie Copper.

You can get more from "Why is this Happening" by visiting nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.