Jonathan Haidt explains America’s out-of-control polarization

Summary: Political polarization is rising in America. While a familiar problem, this time it is causing unusually severe difficulties. This could have ugly consequences if it continues to grow worse. Here Professor Haidt discusses its causes and effects.

Political polarization in America

Excerpt from “The Age Of Outrage

By Jonathan Haidt, Professor Of Ethical Leadership, NYU School Of Business.
An edited version of his speech to the Manhattan Institute on 15 November 2017.
Provided by City Journal. My notes are inserted.

“What is happening to our country, and our universities? It sometimes seems that  everything is coming apart. To understand why, I have found it helpful to think about an idea from cosmology called ‘the fine-tuned universe.’ There are around 20 fundamental constants in physics — things like the speed of light, Newton’s gravitational constant, and the charge of an electron. In the weird world of cosmology, these are constants throughout our universe, but it is thought that some of them could be set to different values in other universes. As physicists have begun to understand our universe, they have noticed that many of these physical constants seem to be set just right to allow matter to condense and life to get started.

A Brief History of TIme
Available at Amazon.

“For a few of these constants, if they were just one or two percent higher or lower, matter would have never condensed after the big bang. There would have been no stars, no planets, no life. As Stephen Hawking put it, ‘the remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.’ {From A Brief History of Time.} …

“I want to lift your attention up into the cosmos and put you into a mindset that is awestruck at our improbability. And …then I’d like you to take that same mindset and apply it to the existence of our improbable country. …

“We can live in many different ways, from egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups of 50 individuals to feudal hierarchies binding together millions. And in the last two centuries, a lot of us have lived in large, multi-ethnic secular liberal democracies. So clearly that is possible. But how much margin of error do we have in such societies?

“Here is the fine-tuned liberal democracy hypothesis: as tribal primates, human beings are unsuited for life in large, diverse secular democracies, unless you get certain settings finely adjusted to make possible the development of stable political life.”

This is an important insight. We have to work to maintain America because our system is not natural. Entropy — a return to the mean of human societies — will destroy it without our ceaseless effort.

“This seems to be what the Founding Fathers believed. …Thankfully, our Founders were good psychologists. They knew that we are not angels; they knew that we are tribal creatures. As Madison wrote in Federalist 10: “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” Our Founders were also good historians; they were well aware of Plato’s belief that democracy is the second worst form of government because it inevitably decays into tyranny. Madison wrote in Federalist 10 about pure or direct democracies, which he said are quickly consumed by the passions of the majority.

“…such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention …and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. …They were creating a new kind of republic, which would demand far more maturity from its citizens than was needed in nations ruled by a king or other Leviathan.”

Is this is true? He gives no evidence of this. I remember the Federalist Papers assuming that Americans were the kind of people capable of running a Republic, but nothing saying that the Republic required more from its citizens than did other political regimes.

The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools
Available at Amazon.

“Here is the education expert E.D. Hirsch, on the founding of our nation —

‘The history of tribal and racial hatred is the history and prehistory of humankind. . . . The American experiment, which now seems so natural to us, is a thoroughly artificial device designed to counterbalance the natural impulses of group suspicions and hatreds. …

‘This vast, artificial, trans-tribal construct is what our Founders aimed to achieve. And they understood that it can be achieved effectively only by intelligent schooling.’ (From The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools.)

“Thomas Jefferson wrote, in 1789, that ‘wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government;’ he backed up that claim by founding the University of Virginia, about which he wrote, in 1820: ‘This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error as long as reason is left free to combat it.’

Whatever our problem today, I doubt it is a lack of education. Also, I doubt our schools do a much poorer job than those of 1800. “More/different education” has become the generic recommended solution of Left and Right to America’s problem.

“So, how are we doing, as the inheritors of the clock? Are we maintaining it well? If Madison visited Washington, D.C. today, he’d find that our government is divided into two all-consuming factions ….”

“Factions are nothing new to America. The Founders quickly fragmented into two factions led by Jefferson and Adams (who hated one another, reconciling only in their last years). This pattern has repeated throughout our history. After the Civil War entrenched party lines by geography, the factions no longer followed party lines — until the parties realigned after Johnson signed the Civil Rights bills.

“Polarization rises and ebbs in America. It was high during most of the Founders’ era (the First Party System) during the Jacksonian era (the Second Party System), during the decade before the Civil War, and was off-and-on during decades after Reconstruction. It became open warfare during the New Deal, as it was during the fiery social conflicts of the 1964-74 era. And so forth.

“I’ve been studying political polarization since 2007. Data from Gallup and Pew show steadily rising polarization since the 1990s, whether you ask people how much they dislike the other side, how much they think the other side is a threat to the country, or how upset they’d be if their child married someone from the other side.

“Why do we hate and fear each other so much more than we used to as recently as the early 1990s? The political scientist Sam Abrams and I wrote an essay in 2015, listing ten causes. I won’t describe them all, but I’ll give you a unifying idea, another metaphor from physics: keep your eye on the balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Imagine three kids making a human chain with their arms, and one kid has his free hand wrapped around a pole. The kids start running around in a circle, around the pole, faster and faster. The centrifugal force increases. That’s the force pulling outward as the human centrifuge speeds up. But at the same time, the kids strengthen their grip. That’s the centripetal force, pulling them inward along the chain of their arms. Eventually the centrifugal force exceeds the centripetal force and their hands slip. The chain breaks.

“This, I believe, is what is happening to our country. I’ll briefly mention five of the trends that Abrams and I identified, all of which can be seen as increasing centrifugal forces or weakening centripetal forces.

“External enemies …The media …the Republicans in Washington, and the Left on campus. … {and}

Immigration and diversity.

“This one is complicated and politically fraught. Let me be clear that I think immigration and diversity are good things, overall. The economists seem to agree that immigration brings large economic benefits. …But as a social psychologist, I must point out that immigration and diversity have many sociological effects, some of which are negative. The main one is that they reduce social capital — the bonds of trust that exist between individuals. The political scientist Robert Putnam found this in a paper titled “E Pluribus Unum,” in which he followed his data to a conclusion he clearly did not relish —

‘In the short run, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to “hunker down.” Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.’

“In short, despite its other benefits, diversity is a centrifugal force, something the Founders were well aware of. In Federalist 2, John Jay wrote that we should count it as a blessing that America possessed “one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, the same language, professing the same religion.” I repeat that diversity has many good effects too, and I am grateful that America took in my grandparents from Russia and Poland, and my wife’s parents from Korea. But Putnam’s findings make it clear that those who want more diversity should be even more attentive to strengthening centripetal forces.

From “The top 10 reasons American politics are so broken.
From Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches.

Haidt-Abrams: immigration and polarization graph

“The nation greatly reduced immigration in the years before and after World War I. In the decades that followed, the percentage of immigrants living in the United States plummeted, as shown by the red dots on the chart. The blue line shows the degree of polarization in the House, which rose along with the increasing percentage of the foreign-born population when the country reopened its borders beginning in the 1960s.”

“…So please do not despair. Be alarmed — the situation is truly alarming. But most Americans are decent, thoughtful people who don’t want to give up on their country or its universities. There are many things we can do to reduce tribalism, strengthen our kids, and repair our universities. We — the baby boomers and gen-Xers who fill this room — we have made a mess of the clock. Left and Right, Republicans and Democrats. But we can make up for it if we can come together, admit that we messed up, and change what we are doing to kids, and to college students. We just might be able to raise a generation of kids who can care for the clock after all.”

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For More Information

Ideas! For ideas about using your Holiday cash, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see inequality and social mobility, about political polarization, about ways to reform America’s politics, and especially these…

  1. Polarization and hot rhetoric conceal two similar political parties. Will we ever notice?
  2. Our fears are unwarranted. America is in fact well-governed,
  3. The good news: America’s politics are neither polarized nor dysfunctional. That’s also the bad news.
  4. The secret reason for America’s white-hot political rhetoric.

Two good books about our situation.

American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony
Available at Amazon.
Political Polarization in American Politics
Available at Amazon.

7 thoughts on “Jonathan Haidt explains America’s out-of-control polarization

  1. We are in the midst of a grand new experiment. The Republicans engineered their position as a minority party into national control through a well thought out grass roots plan that allowed them to take control of the majority of state houses and the process of redistricting following the last census. They were able to do this in part with good organization, in part with money and in part because the Democrats had become corrupt at many local levels.

    Now thanks in part to Mr. Trump and in part thanks to Republican hubris and corruption, there is a likelihood that the pendulum will swing far to the left starting in 2018. If Fabius is right, the money quotient of this equation already knows which way the wind is blowing and has plans in place to control the new team. https://tinyurl.com/y8x5ouhj

    1. John,

      “The Republicans engineered their position as a minority party into national control through a well thought out grass roots plan”

      That’s only sorta true. The plans were crafted by the 1% to rollback the New Deal — Make America Great for the Plutocracy, Again. Putting the GOP back into power is only part of it. Converting the Dems into neoliberals — loving Wall Street, for example — is another part. They developed long-term plants, spent the money to build political infrastructure, and executed well — all the things that Nature’s God rewards. Now they’re collecting their winnings.

      For details about their plans — all quite public, but still little known – see Why the 1% is winning and we are not.

      “there is a likelihood that the pendulum will swing far to the left starting in 2018.”

      I see little evidence of that, let alone enough evidence to say such a swing is “likely.”

  2. Creating disharmony between factions is a growth industry. To the new insurrectionists, harmony is anathema. Who profits in conditions of harmony? Traders, businesspersons, commercial interests, and the collectives that feed off such enterprises which create wealth.

    A rapid and substantial growth of neo-insurrectionists has taken place in academia, across a wide swathe of media, and deep inside government bureaucracies — all of which stand to profit from disharmony of various types. Several international parties of different classes also stand to profit from domestic discord inside the US.

    Cui bono? Not just in terms of incomes or windfall profits, but also in terms of influence and power? Trying to focus on one political party would be missing what is going on entirely. Predator, prey, parasites, symbiotes, the natural degenerative effects of age and pathological infestations — all play their roles in human societies as in biology.

    1. alfin,

      “Cui bono? Not just in terms of incomes or windfall profits, but also in terms of influence and power?”

      That’s an easy question to answer: tribal leaders. It is difficult to become a leader in America. Promoting factionalism is the fast track to success in times like ours.

      Understanding why that is so — why we have become so gullible, so easily fragmented in to tribes — is more difficult. It’s far over my pay grade.

  3. That is quite a lot of theory supported, at least in this blog, just by two troughs vaguely lining up. I would be curious to see other tests of the theory, with some kind of control group; knowing it’s often hard to test sweeping theories.

    What comes to mind is comparing the 48 continental states: are the ones with more immigrants struggling with lower social capital? And, is house polarization really a good measure — this shows the Vietnam War era as being one of the moments of America’s greatest non-polarization.

    Personally, I’m still more inclined to think that other causes are worth looking at: media cohesion would fit the same pattern as here, with the era of “yellow journalism” giving way to the big-three networks giving way to cable and internet silos. And the specific political decision to fight a Culture War instead of stick to “all politics is local.”

    Personally, I think we are still feeling the impact of Culture Wars that were chosen, a decision that didn’t need to be made, during the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, which happened during a period of low immigration, and that has dominated politics and primaries ever since. Some political cultures would have seen something like Birtherism stomped out by people of honor on the same side of the political spectrum, and in ours party-patriotism was held as more important than nation-patriotism. Changing that political culture seems vital to me. In my experience, recent immigrants are often more patriotic than almost anyone, if treated with respect and allowed to be.

    1. Stephen,

      (1) There is a lot of research being done on polarization. Unfortunately we do not have good data from the past, so we can’t reliably compare today with past periods of political polarization. Much of the research looks at party polarization, nearly useless since between 1865-1965 the party’s did not cleanly divide by ideology.

      (2) “What comes to mind is comparing the 48 continental states: are the ones with more immigrants struggling with lower social capital? ”

      Immigrants are no a unitary entity. That assumption lies at the heart of the pro-immigrant propaganda — conflating highly educated immigrants from India with illiterate refugees from failed states. More sophisticated analysis is needed; otherwise is it GIGO.

      (3) “media cohesion would fit the same pattern as here, ”

      That’s a common theory. Haidt believes it plays a role. I’m skeptical. The news media tells the stories we want to hear. I doubt they have much ability to shape large-scale trends such as political polarization. A polarized people will subscribe to polarized media — news, website, etc — that tell the stories they want to hear. That cheer the good people and boo the evil ones.

      (4) “And the specific political decision to fight a Culture War instead of stick to “all politics is local.”

      Again, I suspect that confuses cause and effect. The culture war began as a grassroots phenomenon in the 1960s with the civil rights movement and the hippies. It has rippled outward from those beginnings to other areas of society. Politics and media have inevitably responded.

  4. Personally social media is the driver because it allows the disinterested, entitled, arrogant, and plain dumb to communicate and interact. But, I wouldn’t want it any different. Yeah, it stinks but at least it’s free – now.

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