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Defusing political conflicts: A Q&A with Jonathan Haidt about how liberals and conservatives can band together

JohnathanHaidt-Q&A

In the final days of 2012, as Congress worked to hammer out a last-minute deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, it was difficult to turn on any American news source and not see political finger-pointing. Words like “extremist,” “angry” and “sharply divided” floated in the ether.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has long been interested in how political choices are made — at TED2008, he delved into “the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.” So he seemed like the perfect speaker to invite to our New York office to tackle the question: can’t we all just get along?

His answer in short: yes. But the key is to understand that all of us are facing the same looming dangers, and make some critical changes in Congress that will allow us to work together on them.

Haidt begins today’s talk with an unsettling statement: A pack of giant asteroids are headed for the United States, and they will hit within 50 years. These, of course, are metaphorical asteroids. Says Haidt, “I’m talking about threats that are headed our way that are wrapped in a special energy field that polarizes us, and therefore paralyzes us.”

These asteroids are: (1) global climate change that could sink many of our major cities; (2) the federal debt rising to the point where social welfare programs run out of money; (3) a growing rise in inequality that is making us deeply distrustful of each other; and (4) the breakdown of marriage, which only feeds disparity. The problem, says Haidt, is that the current American political climate makes it very difficult to see all four of these things as critical issues. Liberals tend to see asteroids number 1 and 3, while conservatives are more likely to see 2 and 4.

“Our problem — and our tragedy — is that in these hyper-partisan times, the mere fact that one side says, ‘Hey look! There’s an asteroid,’ means that the other side says ‘Huh? What? I’m not even going to look up,’” says Haidt. In this talk, he looks at the social psychology that leads us into this mess. “One of the most important principles of morality is that it binds and blinds: It binds us into teams that circle around sacred values but thereby makes us go blind to objective reality.”

In today’s must-see talk, Haidt gives powerful suggestions for how politicians and everyday Joes can get past the rhetoric and see that the other side usually has a point. His challenge to each and every one of us: to see all four asteroids.

After digesting Haidt’s talk, we still had many questions. So we called Haidt in his office to chat more on this issue.

Your talk got me thinking — on a personal level, what should I be doing and saying and thinking every day to defuse these tensions and break through a party lens?

Great question! I think the key is for us to all think about the word “demonization,” and do what we can to tone it down. That doesn’t mean that we all have to become centrists. My ideal is that we all have more constructive disagreement. So when you hear someone criticize a policy on the other side, that’s fine. But when you start hearing motive-mongering and demonization, stand up to it just as you would if it were something that was racist or sexist. If we avoid the demonization, disagreements can be positive.

Are there other key terms that you would love to see disappear from our political vocabulary?

“Extremist” is an easy one, because extremist just means somebody on the other side. Overall, we do need to watch our language — but it’s not so much specific words. It’s the claims that people on the other side are motivated by evil motives. The key to toning down demonization is to actually get to know some people on the other side and to build relationships with them. If your friend tells you something, you don’t demonize, you listen. But if your opponent does it, you jump right into lawyer mode and say, “Here are 10 reasons why you’re wrong.”

There was so much tension in Congress over the fiscal cliff. Do you think the kind of stalemate that we’ve been seeing is the natural product of a two-party system?

I don’t. A two-party system can work beautifully if there are other conditions that pull for moderation. But not if you systematically remove those conditions — like privacy to negotiate in secret. Now that we have C-SPAN and everything is televised, there is essentially no deliberation done on the floor of either chamber. So I think the two-party system as we presently have it is completely dysfunctional.

What do you think are the big differences between compromising on economic issues and compromising on social issues? Or have they both been so moralized that there’s no difference?

Economic issues are just as much moral issues as social issues. With the economic issues, however, such unbelievably vast amounts of money are at stake that unbelievably vaster amounts of money are spent on lobbying. Research shows that whatever political preferences the wealthiest few percent of the citizens have tends to be enacted into law.

So if social issues are not about money, where does that moral might come from?

If you assume that democracy is somehow supposed to reflect the will of the majority, then you would be interested in looking at the ways that reality diverges from that. On social issues, it diverges because it’s not the will of the majority — it’s the will of the most vocal. So on issues like gun control and abortion rights, it’s a question of: Who is most angry? Who is most energized?

Speaking of gun control, what do you think will happen on that issue? Do you see the right and the left uniting around the issue of gun violence anytime soon? It feels like, following the national horror of the Newtown massacre, there could be some consensus on this.

I see no sign that there will be any left-right agreement on this. If it was clear that gun control would greatly reduce the frequency of these atrocities, then I think we might see some movement. But it’s not clear. We did in fact have an assault weapons ban in the ’90s and it apparently didn’t do very much. As long as there’s any ambiguity, people are going to find evidence for whatever they want to believe.

For me, I find gun control to be the absolute number one social issue that I have the most difficulty seeing the other side of. What is the primary moral value that plays into being against stricter gun control?

Conservatives tend to see the world more in terms of good-versus-evil and, for some of them, the nightmare is a disarmed citizenry that can be preyed upon by criminals. They know that having a gun in the house would increase the risk of an accident for a member of their family, but they’re willing to take that risk.

Liberals are more prone to utopianism. For example, some liberals proposed that we should have gun-free communities, and we should put signs on them saying, “This is a gun-free community” — which of course conservatives made fun of, because you’re basically saying, “Come in and rob us! Don’t worry about getting shot!” Liberals are horrified by violence, and especially violence against children. So they demand a policy response. And while I want a policy response too, I think we have to make the response be based in the research on what will actually work.

We’ve talked about the left-right divide in politics, and I’m curious about what you’ve seen as a professor in the academic world. How similar or different is that dynamic?

In the academic world, most fields have gone from being predominantly liberal to being overwhelmingly liberal. It’s been a part of this general polarization of our society since the 1970s. There used to be liberal Republicans and there used to be conservative Democrats, but beginning in the ’60s — once Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act — we got the moral purification of the two parties. So the change first happens in Congress, and then once the two parties become purified, it’s like this giant electromagnet cranks up and starts ripping apart everything else. My own field of social psychology has always leaned to the left, but in the last 20 or 30 years the minority of conservatives has shrunk to be undetectable. And this is a problem for scholarship, I believe.

What do you think can be done about that?

Fortunately, we are the world’s experts in how to promote diversity. People are beginning to recognize that we need to be more careful about the things we say — about the things that might inadvertently create a hostile climate. But the larger picture is that polarization emanates from the elites. Congress and the media have become so amazingly polarized in the last 20 or 30 years; this then drives polarization in so many other realms of society.

In the House of Representatives, most districts are gerrymandered to some extent, and that means that there is very little payoff to a representative to be a centrist or a moderate. We can’t change the social trends that have contributed to polarization, but there are a lot of institutional changes that could be made: we can change the filibuster, we can change the way elections are run so that there are more open primaries, we can change the role of party leadership. At present, party leaders have so much power that they can enforce conformity by punishing any member who thinks for himself. The group NoLabels.org has a set of policy changes that could be adopted within the next few months.

I don’t blame the senators and representatives. Congress is full of good, decent, smart people who have devoted their lives to public service. They have come to Washington to try to make things better, and they are all frustrated as hell because they can’t do it. The system forces them to play this eternal game of blue team versus red team — country be damned.

What about the media? How should we deal with the partisan influence of our news sources, and what would a better source look like?

This is very hard because, in a free market, anger and conflict sells, and calm, reasoned analysis is dull. The First Amendment does many good things for us, but it means that there’s very little that we can do in terms of regulating the media. The best idea that I’ve heard comes from Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania, who is arguing that there is a legal warrant for us to hold television stations and cable stations liable for truth in advertising. When they air a political ad which is full of lies, it should be just as if they advertised for some kind of snake oil that claims to cure cancer. That’s one of the only ideas I’ve encountered. The media is one of the most difficult areas to change.

In your talk, you mentioned four asteroids. Are there any smaller asteroids that you didn’t get the chance to mention that we should be looking out for?

The idea of an asteroid is something that, if not attended to, will become even worse. Think about plastics and chemicals in our food supply. The FDA and the EPA are so limited in what they’re allowed to do, and we’re all exposed to massive amounts of chemicals. The left sees this and wants regulation — and the right says no.

Now, one that the right sees: declining national greatness. America was the greatest nation of the 20th century. It was a force for good in the world, and it is losing that. I do think that the right is concerned about declining national greatness, and I think they’re right to be.

Tell me about The Asteroids Club. What is it, and what kind of future do you see for it?

I was invited to give this TEDx talk on civility at TEDxMidAtlantic, and I developed the metaphor of asteroids coming at us. Just on a whim, I bought the website name AsteroidsClub.org. I had recently formed a working relationship with Liz Joyner and Steve Seibert, who run ToTheVillageSquare.org, and they had some ideas for how we could make this an actual club that brings people together. So we’re giving it a try.

Rather than looking for common ground, we’re just trying to get people to see multiple threats. This might be easier because you don’t have to say that you’re wrong about anything. A successful evening will be one in which the people on the other side can begin to see your asteroids and you can, perhaps for the first time, see theirs.

Something that you wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times last year really stuck with me. You said, “When your opponent is the devil, bargaining and compromise are themselves forms of sacrilege.” That is a really powerful statement. How, then, can we ever get people to listen to issues that they find so fundamentally threatening?

The first step is relationships. As our society gets more and more segregated by lifestyle — as the blue districts get bluer and the red districts get redder, as the Internet allows us to segregate into gated moral communities — we have to make the effort. I am hopeful that my book The Righteous Mind should give people at least some things to talk about. If you can, start off any conversation with praise, saying, “You and I may disagree on many things, but one thing I read about your side that I thought was interesting was that you folks believe X. Tell me more about that?” That is a completely different way of starting a conversation than with a challenge.

Most of us don’t get to meet people on the other side that often, and when you do, take a chance. If you’re the sort of person who comes to TED, who loves new ideas, well — the biggest single repository of new ideas that you’ve not been exposed to is probably going to be found on the other side of the political aisle.

Watch Watch Haidt talk about the Asteroids Club on MSNBC’s The Cycle >>