Improving Our Political Culture

Arnold Kling packs a lot of ideas into a short space, and I agree with most of them, so this response is in the nature of a friendly amendment. Here’s the takeaway: many of us (and I don’t exclude myself) tend think of political polarization and toxic discourse as problems in the realm of individual behavior, which, of course, they are; but we will get more traction by thinking of them as problems of social incentives and system design. In other words, it’s the institutions, stupid.

“Those who know better must do better,” is Kling’s prescription. He wants folks to dial back their social-media arguing, make an effort to humanize rather than demonize those they disagree with, connect socially across political lines, press universities to put inquiry ahead of ideology. By taking such steps, he hopes, we can move more conversations out of “Demonization Mode,” where we engage in displays of tribal animosity, and into “Persuasion Mode,” where we try to listen and learn.

I agree with Kling that geographic and political sorting and the rise of social media have been polarizing, but I think a third factor is at least important: the weakening of civic institutions—churches, civic clubs, charitable groups, unions, participatory political parties, and more—which intermediate between individuals and families, on the one hand, and distant bureaucracies like government and big corporations, on the other. “Middle ring” institutions (as Marc J. Dunkelman has called them) or “little platoons” (per Edmund Burke) help people feel, and be, connected, supported, and efficacious; their weakening fuels social fragmentation and anomie. In particular, the decline of mainline Protestant churches and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated—the “nones”—seems (as Jody Bottum has argued) to have rechanneled religious zeal into politics, which is not a good place for moral absolutism, good-versus-evil narratives, and apocalyptic prophesy.

Kling writes, “The perceived psychological stakes in politics have gone up dramatically, even though polarization on substantive issues has not increased as much.” Just so. Tractable differences become intractable when salvation and redemption, not compromise and bargaining, become the coin of politics. When people derive their identity from politics, what might otherwise be a fact-driven conversation about, say, climate change or tax policy becomes an existential battle between opposing crusades. Politics becomes about tribal solidarity and identity defense, not persuading or problem solving. Even truth becomes fractured as partisans retreat to separate realities.

Scholars distinguish ideological polarization, which is characterized by disagreement about issues, from affective polarization, which is characterized by the belief that the other side is not just wrong but hostile, sinister, and dangerous. Just the other day, I happened across a manifesto which nicely, if unintentionally, demonstrates the concept. “A Great Awakening to the Fight Is Upon Us,” the headline blares. “No more compromise, no more calls for bipartisanship,” writes the author, a conservative English professor. “If a political opponent won’t listen to you, if he considers your politics inexplicable, it isn’t so big a leap to judging you indecent, repugnant, deplorable. From there, yes, it’s war.” Compromise—in other words, politics—is a sucker’s game; the other side will stop at nothing and so must be eliminated as a political force.

The substitution of tribal spear-shaking for political engagement is a downward spiral. More leads to even more. In response, Kling wants individuals to be more conscious of the trap they’re in and to push back against their own tribal instincts. I agree.

Unfortunately, the people who most need his advice—polarized partisans in Demonization Mode—are least able to follow it, because depolarizing would threaten their personal identity and their group loyalty. As Kling points out, the social costs of tribal disloyalty, real or perceived, are steep. A Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders supporter who went around saying the other side might have a point, and that maybe everyone should have a beer together, would soon find herself without many friends.

And so, although it is well and good to ask individuals to employ Persuasion Mode more often, and although some noble few can succeed in that effort, individuals are not well positioned to turn things around. The more promising approach lies in the direction of—sorry, libertarians—social engineering. By which I mean, adjusting institutional design and social incentives in ways which inflect group dynamics.

Thinking about social depolarization is in its infancy, and I don’t pretend to have well developed answers. Still, we are not without a clue. I see at least three promising approaches, and all three are already getting some traction.

The first strategy is direct social action: community organizing against polarization. Across America, dozens of groups have sprung up to encourage social connection across partisan and tribal lines. They have names like Bridge the Divide and Bridge USA, the Listen First Project and the Better Arguments Project, Village Square and Living Room Conversations. Each has its own model and constituency, but they all seek to rekindle interpersonal connections and draw people out of their tribal bubbles. I am on the board of one such group, Better Angels, a national grassroots depolarization movement, and I have been amazed and encouraged by how fast the movement has grown. (I have written about it here.)

How much difference such efforts eventually make is an open question, but they are backed by some sound psychology: an effective way to reduce intergroup hostility is to put the groups to work on a common mission—and the mission can be to reduce intergroup hostility. In other words, the downward spiral can, in principle, be reversed. If the explosion of activism is any guide, a lot of people want to try.

A second strategy is indirect social action: strengthening the social intermediaries and institutions which help people feel more efficacious and connected and therefore less fearful and angry. Here again some good work is being done, including in libertarian and conservative circles. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is running an innovative project on social capital. The center-right R Street Institute is doing fresh thinking about modernizing unions. The American Enterprise Institute has opened a new division focused on rebuilding civic culture and institutions, and the leader of that effort, Yuval Levin, is bringing out a seminal book on the same subject. The Aspen Institute is host to Weave, a network of groups and activists seeking to renew civil society. Their common goal—though stated in my way, not in theirs—is to ameliorate the anomie and tribalism which put a one-man institutional wrecking crew into the White House.

Finally, a third pathway is to rewire the social network. Because it is ad-supported, the digital ecology was designed to addict, surveil, and manipulate its users, but many of the resulting design flaws are remediable. The sociopathy of internet culture has stimulated thinking about adjusting the incentives which encourage online behaviors like flaming and lying and canceling—behaviors we see much less often offline, where the incentives are less skewed. Facebook and Google have already taken meaningful steps toward privileging truth over falsehood, and real-time, automated fact-checking may be on the horizon. Adjusting rules which exempt internet platforms from content liability is getting robust and (I believe) overdue discussion, including at the Cato Institute. The same is true of measures giving users property rights to data they generate. Even seemingly simple tweaks, such as giving social media users the option of a delay before posting, could help encourage civility. A cottage industry of think tanks and research centers is looking at social architecture in the digital realm, and digital companies are realizing that sociopathy is not a sustainable business model.

I am not claiming that re-socialization strategies will (or will not) work. We’ll see. What I can say is that they are collectively barking up the right tree. After years in which conservatives, progressives, and libertarians all saw society more in terms of individuals and consumers than institutions and communities, social intermediaries are coming back into focus. Just noticing and thinking about them, instead of looking right through them, is a welcome change.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Arnold Kling has devoted years to observing and participating in American political discourse. Such as it is. He writes that all too often, Americans seek to demonize those with whom they disagree, rather than trying first to understand what they are saying in their own terms. Social media does not help us to do better, he argues, but one thing that could is surprisingly simple: “If you think that the problem with political discourse is caused entirely by the other side,” he writes, “then look in the mirror instead.”

Response Essays

  • Jonathan Rauch offers a “friendly amendment” to Arnold Kling’s argument: We must amend our weakening civic institutions. He recommends direct social action, including but not limited to various organizations that seek to start conversation across political divides; strengthening institutions that don’t line up neatly with partisan politics, but that serve good purposes anyway; and—perhaps controversially—re-engineering our social media environment.

  • Nikki Usher turns her attention to American journalism, which often sets the tone for our political conversations. She finds that with the decline of local journalism, journalists have an increasingly cohesive and uniform view—one that sees itself as cosmopolitan, but that is really parochial to Washington, DC. Journalists nowadays often stumble in covering other areas of the country, which increases the importance of Arnold Kling’s populist/cosmopolitan divide.

  • Donald Downs considers that free speech requires a concern for the personhood and well-being of others—and the concern to avoid offense can also be stifling. He characterizes this as a tension between chutzpah and “due doubt” of one’s own beliefs, and he argues for the importance of civility understood in a special way: Civility is not mere politeness in politics, he argues; it is a key part of the role that we must all play as citizens, regardless of political disagreements.