Have modern politics become irredeemably tribal? In September, Thomas Friedman decried the “virus of tribalism” infecting the United States and other democracies. “Politics in the United States continues to feel increasingly tribal and divisive,” noted CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2018. If there’s one thing pundits have agreed on over the last few years — particularly in the Trump era — it’s that tribalism in politics is on the rise, and that’s a problem.
Or maybe it’s not that new — and the underlying problem lies inside us.
For my recent book, I spent months in conversation with a handful of thinkers who wrestle with the big questions driving populist politics today. One of them was Jonathan Haidt, whose 2013 book, Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, astutely presaged the current conversation about tribal politics. He puts the blame not at the feet of Facebook or either party, but on humans’ basic need to define teams and camps, and belong to one of them. Throughout the history of the world, elaborate Hero-versus-Villain narratives have regularly been spun to glorify one political camp and demonize another. Who’s in charge never really matters.
Haidt, a social psychologist, suggested in his book — and still believes — this inclination might have an evolutionary background: Clans and villages that were bad at cooperating were often conquered by their less divided neighbors. This might have wired us to appreciate tribal kinship. It also may have wired us to prefer defending our reputations rather than defending the truth — another aspect of politics that infuriates journalists and pundits but appears to be built into the system. (Haidt reveals in his book that his eureka moment, in this respect, occurred when his wife asked why he had failed to do the dishes. Only afterwards did he grasp that his mind automatically invented an elaborate, and false, defense story that even he believed at first).
But he also thinks the problem has gotten far worse in the past decade, with social media creating a kind of outrage machine that feeds on, even amplifies these tendencies.
So the real challenge isn’t how to get tribalism out of politics. It’s how to design a system that pays heed to our inherent shortcomings. In a recent interview with Haidt, he zeroed in on two critical ingredients: political reform and social media reform. “The worst number of political parties to have in a country is one,” he says. “But the second worst number is two.”
Two political tribes, equally convinced they possess the moral high-ground, might seek to rule through open confrontation with the aim to subjugate. On the other hand, three political tribes or more can be more incentivized to seek alliances. But with the country’s two-party system unlikely to go anywhere any time soon, Haidt suggests steps to rein in the power of the extremes on both sides.
One idea: requiring open primaries for all elections so people don’t have to be a member of a certain party to vote. Another is detoxifying the public square through a serious social media overhaul, an idea gaining more currency after the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In just about every way that counts, we are living during the most prosperous era ever. Yet, paradoxically, numerous politicians and voters are fighting tooth and nail while seemingly set on identifying mainly problems and differences. It is easy to see that, while the intellectual debate is so sensitive, it must be a very challenging climate not least for a social psychologist. Then again, from an analytical perspective, is it also an especially fascinating time?
Oh yes. This is the best time to be a social scientist since the 1960s or the 1930s. Those are the three great times of political, social and moral upheaval. There are a number of cycles in history. Cultures go up such as for example ancient Greece or during the days of Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century. Then follows a period of decay and dissolution before going up again. I think Peter Turchin correctly predicted, back in 2010, that we were due for a cycle change around 2020. He got that exactly right. So this is a time of enormous change which necessarily feels like decay and destruction. If history is a guide, this period will last several more years. We could experience a substantial rise in violence. But in five or 10 years, probably, things will begin to get better and more stable. We will have a new equilibrium with a variety of new society settings.
I also find it intriguing that when people have been tribal and angry before, during say the past five decades, there has usually been a clear for-or-against issue. Such as the Vietnam war, the battle for civil rights, the battle for or against Reaganesque deregulation or for or against the Iraq War. Today, however, many are emotional and tribal even though it is actually really hard, often, to say over what specifically. So my question is this: When grown-up politicians are now offering little more than emotional school ground mudslinging, is the functional purpose — at least partly — to conceal that policy differences might not be so large after all?
I would say that we are in a fundamentally new era — since 2012 — which makes it difficult to use history as a guide. As I see it as there is a before time, which is before 2009, and there is an after time, which is after 2012. What changed in between those years is that Facebook added the like button and Twitter added the retweet button. Thereby social media became far more engaging. Millions of people flooded on. All journalists flooded on to Twitter. I talk in my book about how societies create a Moral Matrix. Between 2009 and 2012 social media essentially knocked over the Tower of Babel. In the biblical story of Babel, God thinks humans are getting too powerful. So he says “Let us go down and confound their language so that they may not understand one another.” That is what happened to us between 2009 and 2012. Before 2009 there was some semblance of sanity, there was some vague connection between the Moral Matrix and some underlying physical reality. By 2012-2013, that connection had been severed. So now any set of beliefs can be fostered in a community completely separate from any objective reality. This is especially happening to the extremes. The far-right has always had conspiracy theories — that it is very clear in the United States at least — but never before have we had one that drew in the majority of Republicans. Crazy conspiracy theories that draw in most of the two major parties. On the far left we have a woke ideology which has an unbroken track record of failure and destruction when entering institutions. Yet institutions keep adopting it. So, while I pointed to cycles of history before, this one really could be different because the means of knowledge production are now broken. It is not clear how we fix them.
Do you also think that the populist camps and the establishment camps are mutually dependent when locking horns? What I mean is, do the most tribal angry populists need liberal wokery to have something tangible to protest against? Whereas the tribal liberals might need the shoutiness of many key populists in order to come across as more balanced even when they take things too far?
Absolutely. The major dynamic here is called the polarization cycle. Not all conflicts are polarization cycles, but you get such cycles when you have two groups at either extremes, groups that each believe they are in an existential struggle for survival. Especially when you also have a media environment that feeds the worst statements and actions of the other side instead of the average statements and actions. So each side is then driven towards more and more passion by all the anecdotes and stories that supposedly confirm the radicalism of the other side. Both sides also believe the end justifies the means so neither side will care about due process and law. Victory must be had at all cost. Then, yes, you get a polarization cycle that can easily lead to violence. In America we are absolutely experiencing a polarization cycle.
In Europe as well.
I would say ours is worse because we have two parties. The worst number of political parties to have in a country is one. But the second worst number is two.
Are we in public debate, collectively, attaching too much weight to the angry and loud people? Since the angry people will almost per definition be ever present and stir things up for example on social media? Whereas the real moderates — including the real grown-ups — might stay away from all such destructive engagements? You argue in your book that we, going forward, should stress similarities much more. By stressing similarities rather than differences, do we bring out the better side of angry people while also making it easier for the less aggressive voter and politicians to step forward? Including perhaps those shyer and calmer?
It has always been the case that the extremes are louder. What happened between 2009 and 2012 is that American tech companies created an outrage machine. This outrage machine greatly amplified the power of the extremes. The extremes got nastier and nastier so that people in the middle — the middle make up about 80 or 90 percent — now feel so intimidated they largely keep quiet. That, again, is why I say everything changed between 2009 or 2012. The social dynamic now is really different from anything that ever existed before 2009. So all of our understanding of society and politics before 2009 must be questioned. Some previous findings are still valid, and some are not. We do not know which parts are still valid.
Like no one else you also describe in your book that morality binds and blinds. You argue that liberals often insist on looking upon conservatives as relics from the past whereas conservatives often insist on looking upon liberals as obsessed with tearing down the very fabric that holds society together. Then again, you also suggest that it does not have to be like this if we acknowledge the much underdiscussed similarities and also that liberals and conservatives — when they do differ — also often complement one another. What can we do, in practice, to encourage the live-and-let live approach? Stop voting until at least somebody starts offering real bipartisanship rather than empty promises of such bipartisanship? Or something else?
It is almost impossible to change society. You have to look institution by institution. In the U.S. Congress there is so much we could do. If we simply eliminated closed party primaries and required all states and all elections to have open primaries, then elections would not be decided just by extremes. So that is one of the most important things, that is one of the big factors explaining why Congress became so polarized in the 1990s. There are all kinds of rule changes in the U.S. Congress that would incentivize those working within to work together rather than do everything they can to make the other side fail. So in Congress there really is a lot we could do by changing voting practices and rules.
Also on social media there is a lot we could do. What I would like most is add two dials. I would like Facebook and Twitter to give me two dials. One allows me to set a filter — a minimum bar for integrated complexity or nuance. So I can filter out people who never show integrated complexity or nuance. They disappear from my social world and I disappear from theirs. They cannot see me, I cannot see them. With the other dial I want to be able to set a maximum level of aggression. I could very easily code people. The point is that content moderation is hopeless. It can never work well. User ratings on the other hand would have a gigantic impact and is easy to do. So if we simply had those two dials on social media it would greatly dampen the power of the extremes. Since people would know that the consequences would be negative, personally, if out of line. Right now people are instead trained or reinforced to say outrageous, angry and disruptive things. The platforms really do reinforce such behavior. If we change the reinforcement pattern — so that the more disruptive you are the fewer people you reach — then Twitter will change in a month. So we have to look institution by institution, company by company, platform by platform — and distinguish between what is empowering the extremes and what is giving voice to the majority in the middle.
You are also arguing in The Righteous Mind that we need to work more proactively to turn into star listeners. We need to learn how to listen to what the other side is really saying — instead of simply trying to make the other side adopt our outlook. How do we go about this?
It is very hard to do directly. What I now think about, that I did not talk about in The Righteous Mind, is that the human mind has two basic patterns: Approach and Avoid. Approach circuits are located at the front left of the brain and these deal with positive emotions. Avoid is at the front right cortex and deal mostly with negative emotions. When people are in explore mode, they see opportunity and are curious and want to learn. When people are in defend mode, they see only threats and are not open to learning. They cling to their team and want to defeat the other team. You cannot just make people listen unless [you] first put them in explore mode. This is very hard to do in the public square. But if you again go institution by institution, we might be able to make a difference. Take the university. Right now in American universities, we are reinforcing the idea that everything is racist, sexist and homophobic. We also encourage students to identify themselves as marginalized. Even though we are talking about the most anti-racist and pro-gay institutions in the world. By still putting our students in defend mode they become angry activists. They do not listen much and they do not learn much. What we should have in university are policies that as much as possible seek to put everyone in explore mode. People would then be more curious and also listen more. As a social psychologist I usually recommend indirect approaches or social approaches. These are the powerful levers. Trying to directly convince people to do something or think differently is very difficult.
I take it this is why you have also stressed many times that it is impossible to hate and learn at the same time. You have also said you are a centrist of sorts and are not really choosing between liberalism and conservatism. But you still highlight that we betray our student generations when exposing them mainly to the liberal outlook. By now many others within the academic sphere appear to think so as well as evident by the Heterodox Academy which now, according to the website, links together around 5,000 people. Do you feel that your battle for more opinion diversity is finally gaining momentum?
Well, yes, the viewpoint for opinion diversity is gaining momentum. However, the insanity, the wokeness, the authoritarianism, the craziness is also accelerating faster. So things are getting worse and so are the opposing forces. In 2015, when I started Heterodox Academy, most professors said: “Come on, you are exaggerating, these are just a few anecdotes, a few random stories from university. This is not a real thing.” By 2017 very few were saying that. By 2017 most professors had seen it. Now everybody sees it not just in universities but in companies, in high schools, in the media. There is a madness, there is a stupidity — and certainly also a fear — that is growing and spreading.
So if connecting what you just said with your outlook going forward; are we reaching a point when people are tiring of both liberals if constantly woke and of populists if constantly angry? Since the academic sphere is a wokery stronghold, perhaps it is not so representative of the rest of society?
The polling shows that the majority of almost every group — Black, white, liberal, conservative — dislikes political correctness. I do not know what the polling says about the right-wing extremity; I think that depends on what the Republicans think so I do not know what people think about the far right. But a fundamental law of our times is that the average does not matter. So even if 80 percent of people are fed up, it does not matter since after 2012 the dynamics are different. In the old times 80 percent was bigger than the 20 percent — or at least as big as 20 percent. Now 80 percent is not nearly as big as the 20 percent. So, yes, most people are fed up but it does not mean things will change.
Final question. If you would suddenly transform into the president of the United States, what would be the first one or two things you would do to depolarize society?
I would convene a panel of political leaders and constitutional lawyers to do whatever we could to change voting processes and congressional rules. To depolarize the U.S. Congress and also the state legislatures. We have to get our government working. Right now we have what we call a deliberative democracy and yet we have no deliberation and only minimal democracy. So we cannot expect young people to believe that democracy is great when they have never seen it work. So political reform is the first thing I would do. The second thing I would do is to reform social media. No, actually, that is maybe the first thing I would do since, because of the shape of social media since 2012, you really cannot do anything. So the very first thing I would do is to realize social media reform. In the United States, the First Amendment places restrictions on what government can do regarding speech but I think there is a compelling national interest to detoxify the public square. If Twitter and Facebook are now key parts of the public square — and they are dangerous, dirty places that make citizens afraid to speak — I think there really is a compelling national interest to make these sites less toxic. It can easily be done. During experiments they have done it themselves, but while also reducing engagement they do not make it happen for real. So these are the two things. If you get social media reform and congressional reform right then we are still in bad shape but, crucially, at least it becomes possible to start doing something about it. Right now we really cannot do anything.
Just one other thing. You said something about centrism. I am a centrist but my centrism is all about process. It is not about categorically avoiding the extremes. Truth is a process and because of our flaws, our confirmation bias and our social motives, we are not well designed to find the truth. In the physical world we are good at finding the fastest way to get from point A to point B; but we are not able to identify the truth about social and political matters that affect our identity or our teams. The amazing discovery in Europe, in the 1600s, was the development of communities of men who gathered in coffee shops and talked about ideas and findings. This was the beginning of the scientific revolution. The process was key, not suddenly smarter scientists. A community was created in which people with different ideas checked each other. This was crucial since we cannot overcome our confirmation bias ourselves. As a consequence we need people to check us. So, my sense is not that we all need to be centrists, that would not work. My centrism is based on the notion that we are all flawed, we are all irrational but amazing things happen in the right way given norms that promote engagement rather than attack. So if you have the U.S. Congress, or the Houses of Parliament, or a jury, or a classroom — and people who feel they will be together for a long time and need to accomplish things together and moreover will not be rewarded for attacking and destroying — then you have the means by which the truth can emerge from imperfect non-truth seeking individuals. So that is my centrism and that is why I created the Heterodox Academy and Open Mind. Because I see us losing it in universities.
I am sure 95 percent of people would appreciate if their environments were to function in exactly that way. Even if this means continuously coming across people with different opinions.
That is right and right now 95 is not larger than 5, but once we get social media reform I think 95 really can be larger than 5.
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