About this Issue

Americans are highly politically polarized right now, and conversation may seem impossible. Can anything be done? Cato adjunct scholar Arnold Kling suggests that the solution may begin by taking a closer look at the languages that three significant ideological blocs tend to use when they describe current events. Kling argues that progressives tend to frame events as being fundamentally about oppressors and the oppressed; conservatives tend to frame events as being about civilization and barbarism; and libertarians tend to frame events as being about state coercion and individual liberty.

Each of these frames can be persuasive, Kling argues, and each of them may also be correct. Yet when they are applied in cross-ideological political discourse, they are often used to portray political Others as indifferent at best to major social evils. In this way, the common frames we use to talk about politics can make it much more difficult for us to understand one another, an idea he developed at length in his 2013 book The Three Languages of Politics, which has recently appeared in a third edition.

Joining him in conversation this month will be Professor Nikki Usher of the University of Illinois, Professor Donald Downs of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch. Comments are open through the end of the month, and readers are invited to join the discussion.

Lead Essay

Can We Improve Political Discourse?

Seven years ago, I wrote The Three Languages of Politics because I was concerned with the state of political discourse. It struck me that both professional and amateur political commentators were expressing opinions in ways that were inflammatory and unconvincing. Subsequently, two more editions of the book have appeared, most recently this past August. Meanwhile, other observers have become interested in political polarization and tribalism, in part because the problem has gotten worse.

New analyses of polarization keep appearing, and new signs of the severity our political fault lines keep emerging. As a result, I sense that the latest edition of The Three Languages manages to be both timely and out of date. This essay will sketch some of the book’s key points, and then I will offer my current thinking, particularly concerning cultural forces that I think are behind the surge in polarization, and what we might do to try to counter those forces.

The basic problem with contemporary political discourse is that we aim to demonize rather than to persuade. In Persuasion Mode (think of a high school debate team), we treat people on the other side with respect, we listen to their presentations of facts and logic, and we try to assemble facts and logic that would influence them to change their minds. In Demonization Mode (think of Paul Krugman describing Republicans or Rush Limbaugh describing Democrats), we tell anyone who will listen that people on the other side are awful human beings.

Observe the political opinions that you see expressed on Facebook or Twitter, and you will find that nearly all are in Demonization Mode. The posts that are widely shared are not oriented to changing the mind of someone who disagrees. Instead, posts are written to appeal to people who agree, with the effect of hardening their opinions and closing their minds.

The Three-Axes Model

Consider three words: oppression, barbarism, coercion. Oppression occurs when one group in society is abused by a more powerful group. Examples include slavery in the United States and Jim Crow segregation. Barbarism occurs when people engage in engage in acts that were once common but now seem abhorrent. Examples include torture, rape, and pillage. . Coercion occurs when people do something not voluntarily but under threat of violence. Examples include paying taxes. All three words have negative connotations. We are against all of them.

But progressives, conservatives, and libertarians differ in their preferences for framing issues. Progressives often describe political life as a moral struggle against oppression, in which people with other points of view are on the side of the oppressors. Conservatives often describe political life as a moral struggle to preserve civilization, in which people with other points of view are on the side of barbarism. Libertarians often describe political life as a moral struggle to preserve liberty, in which people with other points of view are on the side of coercive government power.

These different axes can be used to frame many issues. Progressives, conservatives, and libertarians can express divergent opinions, with each convinced that other points of view are morally flawed.

For example, consider the story that emerged last year concerning professional football players who knelt during the national anthem. For progressives, the oppressor-oppressed framing suggested that since African-Americans are a historically oppressed class, those who were against the kneeling were oppressors. For conservatives, the civilization-barbarism framing suggested that since the American flag and the national anthem are symbols of our civilization, showing disrespect represented support for barbarism. For libertarians, the ritual of playing the national anthem and standing at attention amounts to state-worship, and if it went away altogether that would be for the best.

Framing an issue in terms of your preferred axis is useful for demonization, but not for persuasion. As a progressive, you can score points with other progressives by labeling others as oppressors, but that is unlikely to prove persuasive to conservatives or libertarians. Similarly with conservatives labeling others as barbarians or libertarians labeling others as statists.

Psychological Foundations for Political Tribalism

The three axes are heuristics or shortcuts for framing political issues. We use these heuristics because it takes less effort to have a closed mind than an open mind.

We seem to experience political disagreement as a threat, like seeing a snake or a tiger. We react against this threat.

One reaction is called confirmation bias. Suppose that we oppose raising the minimum wage. When we see a study that purports to show that raising the minimum wage would be socially beneficial, we search for methodological flaws in the study. If instead the study purported to show that raising the minimum wage would be harmful, we do not worry about the methods and just tout the study as providing important evidence.

Another reaction is called Asymmetric Insight. We claim to know the true motives of our opponents better than they know themselves. Moreover, those motives are bad. (“They just want to serve big corporations.” “They just want to tear down America.” “They just want more power to direct our lives.”)

If we treat those with whom we disagree as having bad motives, then that saves us the trouble of having to pay attention to the substance of what they are saying. What I call Demonization Mode usually serves this purpose.

In addition to individual psychology, social psychology also impels us toward demonization. Our prehistoric ancestors feared being excommunicated from the tribe and being left in the wilderness to die. On the other hand, they were rewarded for acts of tribal loyalty. If you are a Republican who finds yourself in a group of associates consisting of Democrats, you will be inclined to mute your own views in their presence, rather than risk excommunication. But if you find yourself among fellow Republicans, your inclination will be to state your hatred of Democrats in extreme terms, because doing so has some upside and little downside.

Political Tribalism Driven by Recent Cultural Trends

The psychological impetus for political tribalism is always present. To explain why the problem seems to have gotten worse in recent years, we need find some other factors. Two trends that I suspect are important are cultural sorting and social media.

Cultural sorting is the phenomenon in which we associate less with people of different backgrounds, especially with respect to education. Today people with college degrees interact professionally and socially with people without college degrees much less than they used to. General Motors had a large cadre of workers who were not college educated. Google does not. Fifty years ago middle managers worked with secretaries. Today they do not. Fifty years ago recent college graduates befriended neighbors without college educations. Today they live in separate enclaves.

Prior to the 2018 congressional elections, the Wall Street Journal reported on a poll showing that white women with a college degree differed sharply from white men without a college degree.[1] The mutual dislike between these two demographic groups is illustrated by democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s joke that a man who believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman “just marry one woman…assuming you can find one.”[2]

Indeed, American literature and movies have long treated the subject of the sexual tension between the highbrow woman and the rough-hewn man. The classic Bogart-Hepburn film The African Queen comes to mind as one example. More recently, Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest collection of short stories included a tale of a fraught sexual encounter between a feminist academic and the Trump-supporting driver who takes her from the airport to the hotel where she is participating in a conference.[3]

One consequence of what Bill Bishop termed The Big Sort is that in many congressional districts an incumbent is more vulnerable to being unseated by a primary challenger than by a member of the opposite party. This reinforces polarization.

The other major factor that I believe has worsened political discourse is social media. People process social media in a rapid-fire, emotional way. Facebook and Twitter are not conducive to reflective, nuanced thinking.

Both traditional media and social media face incentives to maximize consumer engagement, which in practice means stoking outrage. This favors Demonization Mode, not Persuasion Mode.

I recall that during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, public opinion gradually shifted as the stories developed and were reported in the media. Today, the media lack the credibility to create a major shift in public opinion, and instead the major outlets just act to harden opinions on their respective sides. This can be seen in the current impeachment controversy, in which there appear to be two completely incompatible narratives, with left-leaning media saying that the president’s behavior with respect to Ukraine “crossed the line” and right-leaning media muttering about an “endless attempted coup.”

As a result of these trends, the perceived psychological stakes in politics have gone up dramatically, even though polarization on substantive issues has not increased nearly as much. In The Three Languages, I cite the work of political scientist Lilliana Mason. She found that although Democrats and Republicans have moved only slightly farther apart on policy questions in recent decades, but hostile feelings toward the other party have risen dramatically.

Populism: Is There a Fourth Axis?

I am not sure what to make of populism, a worldwide phenomenon that is represented in the United States by the election of President Trump. In the latest edition of The Three Languages, I suggest that we might need a fourth axis, one of cosmopolitan elites on one side and their opponents on the other.

But on further reflection, I doubt that the elite/anti-elite divide is comparable to the three axes of my original model. For one thing, we can agree that oppression, barbarism, and coercion are all bad. But there is no consensus that it is bad to be elite or that it is bad to be anti-elitist.

Another difficulty with putting populism on an axis is that populism is not very coherent. As Martin Gurri points out in The Revolt of the Public, populists express what they are against with great fervor, but they are far from clear on what they are for.

As libertarians, we might be happy with a movement that is highly critical of the politically powerful. Indeed, if populist anger could be directed toward supporting checks and balances along with constitutional limits on government, we would welcome it. But if the history of Latin America is any guide, populism will instead be channeled into support for a charismatic demagogue.

President Trump: A Negative Role Model

Regarding the Trump Presidency, I am one of the few people I know who is ambivalent. Everyone else seems to be either much more favorable or much more unfavorable.

But in terms of political discourse, I see President Trump as a negative role model. He personalizes politics, and he tries to demean his opponents.

If I were teaching students to engage in Persuasion Mode, I would tell them not to personalize class discussions. Once an idea is raised , let it float away from the individual who raised it. Do not judge the idea based on the person who proposed it, and do not judge an individual based on the idea that the person proposed. Treating ideas as impersonal helps to encourage rational discussion and to attenuate emotional reactions.

Suppose that a student makes an offensive statement. I would invite the student to explain and clarify his or her remarks. My assumption is that the offensive statement is an attempt to test the teacher or cause trouble. By asking the student for clarification, I would be showing the student that I expect participation to be thoughtful and constructive.

When ideas are de-personalized, people tend to moderate their expression of opinions. Group discussions, even concerning difficult issues, usually can proceed respectfully.

President Trump does not de-personalize. . He frames political arguments not as abstract disagreements but as conflicts between himself and his opponents. He doesn’t think of you as having a position on an issue. Instead, you are either with him or against him.

Another point that I would make to students is that the object of a political discussion is not to defeat or humiliate those who disagree with you. The object should be to understand those who disagree with you, to get inside their heads and see where they are coming from. I would say that the winner of a classroom discussion is the person who can best articulate the point of view of those with whom that person disagrees.

I understand that in the real world, politics is not as gentle as that. But in the past, the President tried to be somewhat “above the fray.” Presidents usually spoke in Persuasion Mode, and they left demonization to their surrogates. Instead, President Trump regularly insults and belittles those with whom he disagrees.

College Administrators as Negative Role Models

If any institution in America ought to be a model for Persuasion Mode, it should be the university. Colleges should be a bastion of Persuasion Mode, and Demonization Mode should be treated as intellectually inferior and educationally inappropriate.

Instead, we have seen the success of ideological suppression of free speech and free inquiry. When Lawrence Summers suggested fifteen years ago that the phenomenon of male-dominated math departments might reflect the statistical distribution of ability, he may or may not have made a convincing case. But he was certainly speaking in Persuasion Mode, and he was ousted in Demonization Mode. That has become a trend on campuses throughout the country, and few college administrators have the clarity of purpose or the strength of character to resist.

Students are being shown that demonization works, and that persuasion is neither necessary nor sufficient to participate in disputes. As I see it, the college administrator is currently the most damaging negative role model in America today.

Those Who Know Better Must Do Better

The current state of political discourse is not good. We observe too much demonization and not enough persuasion. Incentives are strong for politicians and pundits to take one-sided, closed-minded stances.

It is hard to come up with a straightforward way to get from where we are now to a state in which Persuasion Mode plays a larger role in political discourse. The best I can offer is a slogan: Those who know better must do better.

Are you one of those people who takes to Twitter or Facebook to read about or comment on politics? Stop. Just stop.

Are you convinced that the other side is so evil that you cannot associate with them in any way? If you think that the problem with political discourse is caused entirely by the other side, then look in the mirror instead.

Do you avoid people who have different political viewpoints? Find an activity that you enjoy in which they would be likely to participate. Get involved in that activity. Get to like those other people. Appreciate that their human qualities transcend your political differences.

Are you involved with a college as a parent, active alumnus, professor, or administrator? Take a stand for intellectual rigor at that college.

You care about the sorry state of political discourse. Other people care as well. I suspect that there are many people who long to see less Demonization Mode and more Persuasion Mode. If the people who know better will do better, perhaps we can achieve a transformation.


[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-yawning-divide-that-explains-american-politics-1540910719

[2] https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/10/politics/warren-jokes-at-lgbtq-town-hall/index.html

[3] Curtis Sittenfeld, “Gender Studies” in You Think it, I’ll Say it: Stories.

Response Essays

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.

When Cosmopolitanism Isn’t All It Seems

At a park in Culver City, California, about a mile from the Sony Studios, two old friends and I debated whether President Donald Trump would be reelected. As members of the self-described “donor class,” they wanted me to weigh in on which Democrat I thought had the best chance. I answered that I didn’t see any good choice and pointed to some recent opinion polling to back me up, but they were adamant that a Democrat would win in 2020. The future will tell, of course, but the point is this: we were having a civil conversation, neither demonizing nor persuasive, but were simply speaking past each other.

There was little I could do to persuade these Democratic donors of my significantly more dismal outlook, one formed in part due to my newly vested credentials as a resident of America’s heartland in Central Illinois and in part due to my scholarship, which focuses on political communication, journalism, and new technology. It struck me that their optimism was both perhaps ill-founded but also extremely provincial, a product of Democratic donor class groupthink, and that it lacked any sort of reckoning with other understandings of geography, culture, and information environments.

Arnold Kling suggests in The Three Languages of Politics that there are two essential modes of discourse, persuasion and demonization, and he argues that the problem with today’s discourse is that it focuses far more on demonization than persuasion. To Kling, contemporary political discourse amid the looming spectres of hyper partisanship and toxic social media has meant the loss of listening to the other sides’ “presentations of facts and logic,” and therefore, a dearth of ability to “assemble facts and logic that would influence [others]to change their minds.”

In trying to grapple with this breakdown in public discourse, Kling reconsiders his three axes for framing political discussion: oppression, barbarism, and coercion, and asks whether we might need to add populism as a fourth axis to explain discourse along an elite/anti-elite divide, but he rejects this for a lack of normative clarity. In that park in Culver City, California, in range of Sony Studios, a professor and two donor-class Democratic Angelenos politely disagreeing but also refusing to modify their positions could hardly be described as elite/anti-elite discourse, but it still resulted in an unresolvable standoff over contemporary politics.

Kling should be less willing to reject his populism axis, but he might want to recast it as one that separates cosmopolitans and locals. Yet I am not speaking about the material, geographic divide between beltway and heartland, Hollywood and heartland, or the urban/rural divides that so often become reliable rhetorical tropes for demonization. The specific geography itself is not deterministic—but rather, it’s how people position themselves relative to the places they are in—as part of a bigger world, or one that is consumed by self-contained, self-interested questions. In 1957, sociologist Robert Merton conducted a study of how mass media functions via interpersonal influence within a small town. He juxtaposed “locals” to “cosmopolitans”; “locals” were parochial and fundamentally self-interested to the exclusion of the nation and society around them, while cosmopolitans were “ecumenical,” seeing themselves as connected to the problems in society at large, looking outward.[1] This framing has become somewhat muddled in later research, with scholars preferring to consider perceptions of similarities and differences from the perspective of an “in-group” and an “out-group”; however, thinking about cosmopolitanism as a form of open-mindedness is a way to consider people’s orientation toward learning about others beyond demographic definitions such as race, class, partisanship, or whether one lives in a big, cosmopolitan city.

Many of the problems that exist in contemporary discourse have less to do with our modes of persuasion and more to do with the inability to move past pre-existing identities or beliefs, which Kling discusses as stemming from confirmation bias and asymmetric insight. My sense is that we are stuck in this battle between cosmopolitanism and localism/parochialism because those who identify as the most cosmopolitan are often the most likely to be narrow-minded and judgmental. To wit, the much-pilloried progressive avocado toast-eaters living in large cities have a wide vantage from which to understand the world—good educations, the ability to travel, access to a range of information—but they are hamstrung by localism. Group think that demonizes those who do not have these experiences, or worse, one that patronizes those who do not share these values, becomes deeply problematic if the goal is improving public discourse.

Journalists need to be particularly on guard for localism, for many of the reasons that Kling expresses, including their lack of credibility. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Rich, White, and Blue: What the Decline of Journalism Means for America (Columbia), journalists in big cities can be tremendously parochial despite living in a cosmopolitan locale if they are unable to see beyond their own perspectives and consider the perspectives of those unlike them. Consider the worst example: the post-2016 “Trump Safari” wherein national journalists visited rural, white America to figure out how populism and nationalism surged. This was best exposed in the case of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which Politico profiled a year after the election, quoting a resident who used a racial slur to refer to NFL players and portraying residents as as delusional for believing the president’s promises about bringing back mining and manufacturing.[2]

Politico, the most beltway of the beltway publications, had taken a very, very narrow view on the archetypal Trump voter, and it took the Pittsburgh City Paper to point this out, noting in a response that Hillary Clinton actually won by a sliver—1 percent—in the larger Cambria County of which it is part. And contrary to this national narrative pushed by Politico and other news outlets, wealthy suburbs in the area were more Trumptown than Johnstown.[3] Outside of Pittsburgh, in Adams Township, also home to good restaurants and country clubs, Trump won by a 39 percent margin. How tremendously parochial of national journalists, some of the best and brightest journalists in the country, to demonize a set of voters that arguably was far less representative of Trump’s actual base.

As journalism declines, it is local journalism that is most threatened. Without economies of scale in a digital marketplace that values ever-growing audiences or highly concentrated, wealthy ones, local newspapers are particularly vulnerable. This does not mean that some sort of authentic localism is in danger, but it does mean that national news outlets are best positioned for survival in today’s topsy turvy world for media economics. The national journalists who by and large still play the primary role in original content generation (e.g. reporting) for our larger public conversation are the ones that will be left to do the work of communicating across differences not just in geography but also across cultural differences and perspectives.

While Republicans like to tar mainstream media as “liberal elites,” ironically, according to Kling’s understanding, it may be that journalists are actually acting more like conservatives when they paint those unlike themselves as barbaric. Kling notes that conservatives often view political life as a “moral struggle to preserve civilization, in which people with other points of view are on the side of barbarism.” Many journalists today are more likely to consider barbarians those unlike them, but the reality is that most journalists working in New York and Washington are less like most Americans—and other journalists—than ever before. There are also more journalists working in big metropolitan areas than ever before, but that does not make them cosmopolitans, and in fact, these media bubbles may reinforce their parochialism.[4]

In Washington, journalists are ten times more concentrated than journalists in other areas, and they also make far more than most journalists, about $100,000 per year versus the $44,000 per year journalists make on average elsewhere in the United States.[5] Over 90 percent of journalists have college educations, while only 25 percent of Americans overall do,[6] and the perverse logics of the intern economy make it easier for those with privilege to take advantage of journalism internships. Elite journalists are elites, though not all journalists are elites, and this means that to do their job well, they must be cosmopolitan thinkers rather than provincial ones.

Kling blames traditional media’s current incentive structures, which prioritize outrage over deliberation, for the state of public discourse today, arguing, “Today, the media lack the credibility to create a major shift in public opinion, and instead the major outlets just act to harden opinions on their respective sides.” National journalists need to acknowledge their differences from most people in the United States and need to own up to them as news becomes a national rather than local industry.

To be able to ever hope for credibility or a shared public conversation, journalists need to be aware of their provincialism, and either lean into this as a desired perspective or compensate for it by turning toward others with more cosmopolitan views outside the standard understanding of cosmopolitanism.My “cosmopolitan” friends living in Los Angeles couldn’t see beyond the bright, shiny studio lights of their parochialism, but their limitations are fairly inconsequential for the rest of U.S. public discourse. Not so for journalists, who must seek out the views of provincials without demonizing them if they wish to retain credibility and influence; neither is a given in light of partisanship, social media, and the current state of media economics.


[1] Robert K. Merton, “Local and Cosmopolitan Influentials,” in Perspectives on the American Community, ed.Ronald L.Warren (Chicago:Rand McNally, 1966), 251-265.

[2] Michael Kruse, “Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway.”Politico, Nov. 11, 2017,https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/11/08/donald-trump-johnstown-pennsylvania-supporters-215800

[3] Ryan Deto, “Johnstown’s Progressives Are Sick of National Media Painting Them Solely as Trump Country,” Pittsburgh City Paper, Nov. 10, 2017, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/Blogh/archives/2017/11/10/johnstown-progressives-are-sick-of-national-media-painting-them-solely-as-trump-country

[4] Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty, “The Media Bubbles is Real and Worse than You Think,” Politico, April 4, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/25/media-bubble-real-journalism-jobs-east-coast-215048

[5] https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes273022.htm#st

[6] Heather Bryant, “Talking About Journalism’s Class Problem,” Medium, Oct. 27, 2017, https://medium.com/@HBCompass/talking-about-journalisms-class-problem-c962659cee37

Civil Discourse, Civility, and Due Doubt

Arnold Kling’s illuminating critique of the status of civil discourse and the nefarious effects of demonization and tribalism in America raises concerns that matter to all thoughtful Americans. I support Kling’s basic thesis and have some thoughts that complement and somewhat complicate his piece for Cato Unbound. Let me begin by elaborating upon his empirical analysis before turning to the important normative questions at stake.

Empirical Aspects of the Decline of Civil Discourse

Each of us knows of examples of incivility and demonization in public life, the sphere with which Kling is most concerned. He cites examples on both the right and the left, including the hegemonic reaction to Lawrence Summers’s thought experiment on gender, genetics, and aptitudes for math, and President Trump’s endless streams of divisive rhetoric. (In many cases, the Resistance to Trump hasn’t behaved much better.) Alas, the problem also takes place in the shadows of the public realm. Growing numbers of citizens are now targeted by anonymous online and social media intimidation and threats for things they say in politics, public and private discussions, classrooms, and other domains, leading to a reluctance of many people to honestly speak their minds.

Just last week, several women Members of Parliament announced that they would not stand for reelection in the upcoming British election due to personalized intimidations and threats inflicted on them via social media because of their positions on Brexit. Why labor at persuasion when all you have to do is threaten opponents via anonymous emails?

Like the “spirit of faction,” which James Madison claimed is “sown in the nature of man,” demonization and tribalism are woven into human nature, as Kling wisely acknowledges. Such realism teaches us that factious and vitriolic rhetoric has always been a part of interpersonal life and politics. There is no perfect Golden Age. Like so many complex things, we are talking about a matter of degree across a continuum. Have we crossed a rhetorical Rubicon, creating a qualitative difference?

Madison also knew that it is the task of civil order to restrain these forces and to sublimate our darker passions into the virtue of constructive conflict—but in a manner that does not undermine liberty. Civil order encompasses the institutions, private and local associations, manners, and other subtle “forms of liberty” that Tocqueville wrote about. It also includes liberal and civic education, which appear to be endangered species today for a host of reasons. The problem now is that social media, coupled with the weakening of civil institutions and other phenomena Kling stresses, provides a plethora of new opportunities for the venting of the human, all too human, inner forces of tribalism and demonization, liberating these passions from the technological limits and cultural restraints that once held them more at bay.

Kling also points an accusing finger at what Bill Bishop calls the “big sort,” which entails people limiting their intercourse to like-minded others, even to the extent of influencing where they choose to live. The less actual contact we have with those with whom we disagree, the more likely we are to demonize them. My former Madison political science colleague Diana Mutz has found that citizens without college degrees are more likely to associate with people with whom they disagree than are college graduates. Mutz’s finding does not exactly bolster higher education’s classic claim that it exists to expand the minds of its recipients.

As for most major social problems, the causes of demonization are complex, defying perfect comprehension. I bring just one more cause to our attention, a factor that complicates the analysis: the rise of what social theorist Frank Furedi labeled “emotional correctness” in his book What’s Happened to the University? Furedi maintains that a governing purpose of higher education today is to protect the emotional comfort of students and others, regardless of how subjective and unreasonable the claim for comfort might be. The ubiquity of campus identity politics helps to fuel this process. If one feels offended or harassed, that is sufficient to justify the claim and to seek remedial action regardless of any contrary reasoned external judgment. Furedi’s concept is a recent variant of what Philip Rieff christened “the triumph of the therapeutic” in his classic 1966 book of that name.

Paired with the way in which the traditional distinction between speech and action has been blurred in recent times, emotional correctness provides a rationale for improper censorship and the demonization of speech that lies outside one’s comfort zone. Because the therapeutic ethic accentuates personal psychology, its rise contributes to the problem of personalizing disagreement. (Recall the 1960’s refrain: “the personal is the political.”)

The Title IX case brought against Northwestern’s Laura Kipnis, in which she was accused of harassment for simply publishing an op-ed on campus sexual paranoia, is but one prominent example of this speech-stifling trend.

So, we are confronted with a tension. On the one hand, as seen above, the fruition of civil discourse is dependent upon practicing due concern for the personhood and well-being of others. On the other hand, Furedi’s understanding raises a counter problem: how too much concern for sensitivity and emotional comfort can also harm discourse. As Jonathan Rauch demonstrated so well in Kindly Inquisitors, the pursuit of truth suffocates if we are afraid to offend at all costs.

Emotional correctness can even engender another form of demonization: of free speech and the First Amendment. During a heated campus-wide debate over free speech policy at Williams College last year, for example, a leading activist group essentially accused free speech of attempted murder, claiming that “absolute free speech is killing us.”

Civility, Chutzpah, Due Doubt, and Democratic Character

A few years ago, the UW-Madison dean of students office and I published a primer for students that discussed the essentiality of academic free speech and the importance of fostering the qualities of character needed to sustain and further this freedom. In addition to stressing the crucial need to depersonalize disagreement except in extreme cases—our language echoed that of Professor Kling—the primer emphasized such character attributes as the personal strength to handle the rigors of vibrant and challenging discourse; the willingness and courage to speak one’s truths despite pressures to conform (a form of chutzpah, if you will); due tolerance of disagreement; and what I now term “due doubt” about the ultimate merit of one’s own positions.

Note that the list of personal attributes is nuanced and even paradoxical in a way that reflects the tensions that naturally exist in a free society that honors individual rights and the differences that naturally attend cultural and political pluralism. Political theorist Isaiah Berlin termed such tensions “discontinuities” of human nature and political life. He maintained that properly honoring discontinuity is necessary for political wisdom and good policy.

Harboring chutzpah and due doubt is not easy—a truth that also means that sustaining liberal democracy is not easy. But the ability to do so lies at the heart of what Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes called our “experiment” in democracy in his classic First Amendment dissent in Abrams v. U.S., the 1919 opinion that planted the seeds that would become modern First Amendment jurisprudence a half-century later. Holmes championed the right to speak one’s mind with passion and courage but also warned of the danger of allowing one’s “fighting faith” to blind one to the rights of others and to the fact that one could be wrong. In a meaningful sense, Holmes sought to wed our moral passions to thoughtfulness—to tame what Aeschylus called the “moral furies.” He sought to honor both chutzpah and due doubt. Protecting what Holmes in another case termed “the speech we hate” is the tribute that moralism must pay to thoughtfulness, freedom, and equal rights.

We have heard much talk in recent times about the need to reestablish “civility.” But our understanding of civility has been watered down in our age of emotional correctness in a manner that threatens to harm the freedom side of ordered liberty. Campus “civility” codes have even become tools for censorship. We should resurrect a more traditional conception of civility that disavows the personalization of intellectual conflict—as Professor Kling propitiously advocates—while also underscoring the toughness of character that is necessary to sustain the often-painful pursuit of truth and self-knowledge.

Deriving from the Old French civilite and Latin civilitas, the older conception of civility pertained to attributes of citizens who share a common concern for the polity despite their differences, and who relate with each other from the vantage of their demanding roles and duties as citizens, not as individuals defined by their emotional needs. In assuming the role of “citizen,” one assumes a persona, or mask, that protects one from feeling personally assaulted by others, thereby enabling the interactional conflict and “verbal cacophony” that the Supreme Court has held to be a cornerstone of free speech in a constitutional republic. Think of how members of Congress go after one another after first addressing each other by reference to their political personas, as “the Senator from X,” or “the Congresswoman from Y.”

Getting to this point is a task for liberal and civic education. Are we up to the task?

The Conversation

Some Replies on Institutions, Journalists, and Higher Education

It’s the Stupid Institutions

Jonathan Rauch writes, “It’s the institutions, stupid.” He points to a need for civic institutions, and he sees social media platforms as institutions in need of reform. Let me add my thoughts:

1. Rauch writes, “an effective way to reduce intergroup hostility is to put the groups to work on a common mission”

Recently I gave a talk at a Rotary Club in Houston. The audience proved Rauch’s point. Club members differ considerably in their politics, but joining together for a common charitable purpose helps them see the other side as human.

But how are we going to interest younger people in Rotary Clubs or some equivalent?

2. Rauch is more positive than I am toward the idea of Google or Facebook curating content. I think that is a hopeless cause. Consider Twitter’s ambition to ban political advertising. Does that mean that opponents of Planned Parenthood are not allowed to advertise, because that involves political opinion? But then does that mean that Planned Parenthood itself is not allowed to advertise? I think that centralized curation of content is a morass for Internet platforms.

The problem with the Internet platforms is not that bad people put really bad content on them. The problem is what good people think of as putting good content on them. Otherwise well-credentialed, intelligent people are proud of their Twitter put-downs and Facebook proclamations. Seeing people talk politics on social media gives me the same feeling that I get from watching the anger that breaks out following a confrontation in an intersection between a bicyclist who won’t slow down and motorist who fails to yield.

I would advise everyone who wants to use the Internet to say something about current events to put at least a 3-day delay on their posts. If you think in terms of a delay, that increases the chances that your reason will kick in before your emotions get carried away.

But I don’t think that there is an easy solution to the problems that the Internet poses for discourse.

The Sociology of Journalism

Nikki Usher refers to Robert Merton’s distinction between cosmopolitans and locals; I would add that a more recent book by David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere, draws the same distinction, using the terms “anywheres” and “somewheres.”

She points out the irony that the cosmopolitans are narrow-minded in their contempt for the locals. She says that cosmopolitans view the locals as barbaric. I would quibble and say that the cosmopolitans view the locals as backward. The epithets that they toss around most frequently (e.g., racist) are more along the oppressor-oppressed axis.

A monoculture may exist within individual media outlets, but I am not sure I would characterize journalism as a whole that way.There are conservative journalists. And there are journalists who seem to empathize with locals. And as an economist I would expect that regardless of the cosmopolitan bias in schools of journalism, the fact that locals constitute a significant market is likely to sustain media outlets that serve that market.

The problem is that the antipathy between cosmopolitans and locals, along with the fragmented media environment, means that we will not experience a common narrative. This is a difficult problem, and I cannot see a solution.

Emotional Correctness and Higher Education

Donald Downs refers to another troubled institution, higher education. He pinpoints the problem of “emotional correctness.” I agree with Downs, and with Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff as well as with Anthony Kronman, that colleges and universities ought to recommit to the values of rigor and open inquiry.

Unfortunately, we are seeing on campus a form of reductionist progressivism that actually does take the oppressor-oppressed axis as the sole basis for framing issues. The campus justice activists are not only subject to the psychology that inclines us away from Persuasion Mode and toward Demonization Mode. Their very ideology justifies Demonization of dead (and living) white males while treating the values of free speech and open inquiry as tools of oppression.

Moreover, the situation on campus is tied in with the inability of colleges to make African-Americans and women feel secure and confident there. If attempting to uphold standards of rigor gets labeled as “racist” or “the patriarchy,” then faculty and administrators will be reticent about advocating those standards.

Once again, I find it easier to describe the problem than to offer a promising solution.

It’s Hard to Do Worse Than Today’s Social Media

Thanks to Arnold Kling for his reply. I think, though, he is much too fatalistic about improving online sociability. Today’s internet was optimized to instantly propagate impulsively or algorithmically created content which goes viral by attracting outrage, thereby generating attention, data, and revenue for advertisers. Designing a worse system for human interaction would be difficult. That leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Pace Kling, I don’t think “centralized curation of content” and content restrictions are most of what will happen as digital media grapple with antisocial behavior, though we’ll certainly see some of those (and have, and should). More important, and more successful, will be human-machine partnerships and platform redesigns which identify toxic behavior and content and help users avoid them. Facebook doesn’t ban fake news items, but it does demote them in news feeds and refer users to better information (reducing fake posts’ share velocity by 80 percent, Facebook says). Google gives preferred placement in search results to fact-checked items and has built a special search engine to make fact-checks easier to find—among many other initiatives. In a recent interview with Sam Harris, Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey discusses a host of design changes Twitter is considering to improve users’ experience and behavior. He argues that coping with antisocial behavior will rely more on product design than policy design: that is, on changing how the platforms function to make them more pro-social, rather than regulating users and chasing transgressors. That sounds right to me.

I could go on, but here’s the point: far too many of us have accepted social media’s design flaws as inevitable. That is like accepting Libya and Venezuela as models for our government and economy. Today’s digital infrastructure has barely begun building the institutional guardrails and behavioral incentives that we take for granted in other social forums, and the problem has only just begun to get serious attention. No one says the problem is easy, but fatalism is self-defeating.

On another subject, if this conversation had a “like” button, I’d be jabbing it to endorse Don Downs’s witty and very apt phrase “emotional correctness.” Don, did you come up with that? Cuz it’s brilliant. To be sure, political ideology remains an important driver of campus attacks on free speech, but recent years have seen a shift toward what a political scientist I know calls therapeutic progressivism: a notion of social justice based on assuring self-esteem and emotional safety to historically disadvantaged minorities. “Emotional correctness,” indeed.

Fact Checking Is Not Enough

A post can be factually correct but still serve no purpose other than to stir up anger. That is one reason I don’t think that curating content for accuracy is going to be of any real help.

Rather than focus on fake news, I would emphasize other characteristics of social media, including that it is “optimized to instantly propagate impulsively” as Jonathan puts it. It is not obvious how to fix that. I have argued for starting new social media services with a business model that does not involve advertising, in the hope that this might produce better behavior. But lately I am more pessimistic about whether that would work.

Are Social Media Platforms Ready?

First, a response to Jonathan Rauch’s compliment about my use of the term “emotional correctness.” Alas, Jonathan, I first encountered the term reading Frank Furedi’s book What’s Happened to the University?, so I cannot claim originality here. I can say that I immediately adopted the term for my own use because it so poignantly captured my longstanding concern about the trend the term captures. Other insightful writers have chronicled the ways in which the “therapeutic ethic” has affected public discourse and citizenship, going back to Philip Rieff (1966), Richard Sennett (1974), Christopher Lasch (1976), Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn (2001), and even Hannah Arendt in the 1950s. This is not a knock on therapy’s utility within its proper sphere, but rather a critique of its expansion into other domains of the polity, where it can be counterproductive or worse. Among other things, this aggrandizement reflects the blurring of the boundary between public and private life that once served as a linchpin of liberal freedom. Social media has exacerbated this blurring its own special way.

I first witnessed the contemporary deployment of emotional correctness back in 2000, when a UW-Madison student responded to a talk by Dinesh D’Souza during the question and answer session by declaring that D’Souza’s talk had traumatized him so much that he wouldn’t be able to study for at least a week, or even perform his normal functions. The audience was rather stunned by this remark, but I perceived it as a harbinger of things to come. I wish that my cultural antenna had been wrong.

Second, this trend adds some weight to the pessimism that Arnold Kling expresses in his reply to Jonathan regarding social media’s ability to fix itself. Fact checking and checking for harmful vitriol in this domain become more difficult when a culture’s consensus over what constitutes “harm” breaks down.[1] The concept of “harm” continues to expand, as Nadine Strossen shows regarding hate speech in her recent book, Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. In iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us, social psychologist Jean Twenge found that 28% of a national survey of young adults believed a professor should be fired for making just one “insensitive” remark in class.

Given what we could call the “new politics of harm,” how can we fairly trust social media organizations so replete with young adults to consistently distinguish in a proper manner?

Are social media institutions properly equipped to understand this problem, and then to monitor appropriately?


[1] See Bernard E. Harcourt, “The Collapse of the Harm Principle,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Volume 90 (1990).