Interview: Ezra Klein

PENN POLITICAL REVIEW | Spring 2016

Ezra Klein rose to fame as a progressive political columnist and blogger for The Washington Post, where he managed the Post’s online “Wonkblog”, dedicated to the discussion of domestic policy, economics and politics. In 2014, he left the Post to found the political news site, Vox. Vox gained prominence for its interactive “card stacks” as a digestible way of breaking down complex policy issues for the everyday reader. The media site has been at the forefront of online journalistic innovation and has transformed itself into a legitimate competitor for legacy news outlets coping with the digital age. Klein is currently Editor in-Chief of Vox and continues to be one of the most well-read political commentators thanks, in part, to his savvy use of Twitter, where he has more than 1.13 million followers.

Conducted and Transcribed by Michaela Palmer

Penn Political Review: So you launched Vox in 2014. How has its trajectory been? Has it been what you expected? And what are your plans for Vox for the future?

Ezra Klein: Nothing is ever as you expect it. We’re much bigger than I expected. In February, we had more than 300 million content views, which is just a number that blows my mind a little bit. So the ability to achieve scale came about much more rapidly than I thought it would. The things that have been different than I expected relate to changes in the news business more broadly. When we launched Vox, I’d say the vision had a lot to do with rebuilding the underlying publishing technology and then using that to create contextual news products that would help people understand ongoing stories better. That’s still a big part of our vision, but there’s been this move over the past couple of years towards an off-platform world where you have some articles publishing on Facebook, you’re publishing onto Snapchat, your videos go onto YouTube. You know, there’s Google Amp… there’re all these different things where a large and increasingly large percentage of your audience is not reading or watching content published through systems that you control. And that means that your ability to innovate on top of that system is much reduced. So you have the ability to get more scale particularly if you do this stuff well, and I think we do, but you don’t have as much ability to reinvent the way the stories are told… There are certain ways that I thought we would be reinventing products and that’s been a smaller part of Vox than I expected. But taking the underlying mission and values and brand and understanding how that lead to different versions of the site on many different platforms has been a much bigger part of the project than I expected and has led to, I think, a lot more growth and a lot more reach than we would have been able to have otherwise.

PPR: So a little bit about politics now… the Republican party is somewhat fragmented and we have a self-proclaimed democratic socialist running for president right now. What do you think the implications are – if any – of this Presidential election on the two party system in the future?

KLEIN: I don’t think we know. I don’t think we’re seeing serious weakness in the two party system, in that we’re seeing the democratic socialist and Donald Trump run within the established political parties. In a way, the two party system seems stronger this year than it did, in say 1992, when there was a serious third party candidate. What I think we’re seeing is a tremendous weakness within the party establishments, and particularly within the Republican establishment. At the moment we’re talking, Clinton is well ahead in delegates and it looks like she’ll probably win the Democratic primary which is to say the Democratic Party will pick the candidate that the establishment rallied around from very early on. So it’s hard to see anything tremendously unusual happening in the Democratic Party. On the flip of that though, the Republican Party [has proven to be] very, very weak. Donald Trump is not really a Republican and is loathed by the Republican establishment. The runner-up looks to be Ted Cruz, who is also loathed by the Republican establishment. So there is a… deep and fundamental weakness in the Republican Party right now. Parties, at their core, help structure information for the voters by giving the voters signals about who to trust. What we’re seeing in the Republican Party right now is that Republican voters do not trust the signal coming from the Republican party itself. And when a party has lost the ability to do that, it’s lost its ability to carry out its most essential function in the democracy. So I think there are some really profound questions about the Republican Party. That said, this is one election. It is a weird don’t think we know yet if it’s an aberration or the new norm for the Republican party.

PPR: So what do you think the Republican party’s future is?

KLEIN: We’ll see.

PPR: What do you think the chances are of a contested Republican convention and how do you think it will turn out?

KLEIN: Higher than normal but pretty low. I mean right now we’re in a position where the vast, overwhelming majority of Republican officeholders have not endorsed anybody in the primary. That is to say there’s been no coordinated effort – at a time when coordination would not be that costly – to rally behind an anti- Trump candidate. The idea that they’re going to be able to do so at the convention, when it will be effectively taking the nomination away from Donald Trump, infuriating his supporters, potentially pushing him towards some kind of kamikaze mission against the party… it seems very unlikely to me. A party that has not been able to stop him when he was stoppable, is, I think, unlikely to try to stop him when he becomes more or less unstoppable. So I think that when they’re faced with the likely consequences of a contested convention, party leaders are going to say to themselves, “Look, Donald Trump is bad, maybe he’s not as bad at Hillary Clinton… even to Republicans. And either way he’s probably going to lose and we’ll get our party back. Better to let him lose but keep the Republican Party fundamentally intact than try to take the nomination away from him and potentially watch the party schism.”

PPR: Do you see any potential remedy for the polarization and partisan politics of Congress right now?

KLEIN: No, I don’t think there’s any remedy for it. I think that the remedy, so to speak, is not for polarization. It’s for the ways in which polarization creates gridlock and dysfunction in Congress. Polarization would be less powerful if there wasn’t a filibuster. Polarization would be less powerful if we changed certain rules like the debt ceiling. There are a lot of different ways you can make Congress work more smoothly, even amidst a polarized country. There are ways to make it easier for bear majorities to govern, there are ways to make it less costly for Congress to gridlock. I think those methods of coping with polarization are going to be really important. I don’t think there is a clear mechanism by which we can reverse polarization.

PPR: Going off of that… what do you expect to happen with President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for Supreme Court?

KLEIN: Not much. I think the scenario in which you can imagine something happening is if Donald Trump is going down to defeat in a very big way and the Republicans decide maybe there’s someway for them to make a deal with Obama and get Garland as opposed to whomever Clinton would nominate with a more Democratic Senate. The problem is that as that calculus changes, so does Obama’s. Republicans have staked out a very principled position that the voters should be able to weigh in on this and it’s the next up president of either party who should get to decide this nomination. Walking that back will be difficult; it’s very hard for politicians to be that craven. So my expectation is just nothing happens with Garland, but my confidence level on that is not incredibly high.

PPR: As we talked about before, this year’s presidential election has just been unfolding in completely unexpected ways. What do you think the chief contributing factors are to that? Why do we have such anti-establishment politicians doing so well right now?

KLEIN: *Sigh* I’m not sure that we know. I think there are a lot of answers different people give. I think there are unique dimensions to Trump and his candidacy. His money gives him an ability to work outside the party structure most politicians wouldn’t have. His media savvy and his celebrity [status] allow him to get press coverage that other extreme candidates wouldn’t get. So there are ways in which this might be more about Trump than it is about structural dimensions of politics, but at the same time I think you can see structural factors underneath the cracks. So I think that a core power the parties hold is to control the flow of information. They control it by to some degree controlling who gets money because money buys the ability to present information to voters. They control it by influencing the elite validators who help the press make decisions and help voters make decisions about who to take seriously. They control it by the fact that the people who end up getting a lot of coverage in the media are the people who within the sort of party establishment are thought to be very relevant. I think what Trump has shown to some degree is that the party control over information is diminishing. I think that’s true for a lot of reasons. I mean one is the internet. It is very easy to see, as somebody who runs a news publication, that stories about Donald Trump and to some degree Bernie Sanders, outperform other kinds of stories. And so those candidates get more attention, particularly early on, than they would have if you were just going by polls and by, you know a sense of the political landscape. Trump certainly, on social media… his ability to get his message out in very, very big ways. He’s got, whatever it is, 7 million Twitter follows, 15 million Instagram followers. That gives him an ability to end-run the media that most candidates don’t have. So I think that there is a new equilibrium we’re seeing in terms of who controls information. The candidates have a lot more ability to control it themselves and their followers, particularly when they have intense followers, have a lot more ability to drive the media’s priorities because the media is conscious of the analytics on its stories in a way that it wasn’t twenty years ago when it had no idea who read what in the paper. So I think those things are making it easier for non-establishment candidates who have a very intensely interesting message to break through.

PPR: How do you, as a political journalist, make really detailed or wonky policy debates accessible to common readers? It seems like that’s one of the goals of Vox, but how you go about breaking it down?

KLEIN: You make them clear. There’s nothing that’s important that you can’t make interesting. The problem is people often don’t do the work, they don’t understand the thing well enough for it to be comprehensible or they don’t work hard enough to find the points in it that are interesting, but I don’t ever start out from the view that this wonky topic is not going to be interesting to readers. It’s interesting to me, and if it’s interesting to me, it’s interesting to other people. I just have to find what part of it is interesting and that has to be authentic to me and it has to be authentic to the issue. I think that something I’m good at and something that Vox is good at more broadly, is working through these issues until we find the core of them. Until we find the part in which if you understand it then the whole thing makes sense. That feeling of an issue making sense is a really… profoundly pleasurable feeling. I mean one of the reasons we talk a lot about explanation is that that’s the core emotional transfer. There’s an old line from a philosopher that the feeling of a good explanation is like a key turning in a lock and when you’re sort of asking yourself what is the feeling you can give a reader that’s gonna make them want to read stories like this. It’s a feeling of “Oh, I get that now. Oh, that makes sense to me now.” That’s work we have to do ourselves cause we have to get to that place in order to write about it clearly and then we have to take the reader there too, but I don’t think the secret is anything more complex than that. I don’t think these stories are boring. I don’t think they are a hard sell. I think that you just have to, as a writer or video maker or whatever find the point in the story that you’re interested in that turns the lock for you and then you have to very clearly help your audience do the same thing. When you can do that, there’s a really big audience for that. People really do want to understand the world around them. They really do want to understand these things that are important and that affect them. Oftentimes they’re not getting enough opportunities to do so. There’s a lot of frustration for people that want to know why things are happening, but are being given coverage that doesn’t really explain that to them. I think at our best, we serve that market. We help people get at the “why” of what’s happening, not just the “what.”

PPR: What do you think the media’s responsibility is when it comes to reporting on racist or dangerous campaign proposals. In some ways the news kind of acts as a bullhorn for these sensationalist candidates so do you think there should be any self-censorship by the media?

KLEIN: No, I don’t. I think that’s really dangerous because you quickly get into the question of what’s racist or sexist or a xenophobic proposal. I think the media has a responsibility — and I think at Vox we try very hard — to be clear about whether things add up, whether politicians are being honest. In my view, and I part with some of my colleagues here, to say, do “we think this is a good idea?” I have no problem, and I’ve written this about Donald Trump many times, this kinda thing, saying whether or not I think something is a fundamentally good idea. The idea that what we should do is not cover something… to meet it with censorship as opposed to speech and analysis makes me profoundly uncomfortable. I’m willing to say to someone, here’s what Donald Trump is proposing and here’s why I think it’s a bad idea. I’m not willing to keep the knowledge that he’s proposing from them.