An open letter to Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Liz Joyner, Steve McIntosh, David Blankenhorn (via IAV “contact” page), and David Brooks,
In The War On Partisanship by Rebecca Nelson, Steve McIntosh is quoted as saying “We’d like David Brooks to be able to say, ‘Here’s this interesting idea about a future left and a future right that’s a fresh way of thinking about the problem of polarization.’”
I humbly propose that the central idea McIntosh is looking for is the one I’ve been writing about ever since I reviewed the manuscript of The Righteous Mind for Jon Haidt before it was published.
A draft summary of my idea follows, a link to a longer version and the rest of my writing is below. I hope you’ll be able to take the time to investigate both:
Jon, you recently said that your nephews and I convinced you that the problem “starts before students arrive on campus – in elementary school and at home.” It is for that reason that I believe efforts like No Labels – while I applaud and encourage them because The War on Partisanship is a multi-front war that should be engaged on all sides – to a large degree are efforts to close the barn door after the horse is gone, and further, seem to address symptoms and effects rather than root causes. If the problem really does begin in elementary school then that’s where the root causes, and therefore the solution, are to be found.
Many of the factors that contribute to partisanship are natural and inevitable consequences of fundamental human nature, as Jon describes it in The Righteous Mind. But one very important factor is not. That factor is that The Social Animal has a very poor understanding of itself. It is essentially unaware of Haidt’s three principles of moral psychology, the moral foundations, the Rider and the Elephant, The Argumentative Theory, etc. Liberals think morality starts and ends with care, and conservatives think there’s more to it than that but they’re not quite sure what the “more” is and they have difficulty articulating it. And both sides are stuck in their own version of some variation of The Rationalist Delusion or emotional reasoning or naïve realism; we basically fail at critical thinking. As a result, many of the presumptions and assumptions we believe about ourselves and about each other – which is to say, about human nature itself – that underlie practically all political debate, are myths. We characterize each other as something we’re not, and then we vilify each other for being that something, which we’re not. We even go so far as to attach entirely different, and in some cases mutually exclusive, meanings to words like liberty, equality, fairness, and justice, and then we’re baffled when the other side comes to different conclusions about how to achieve those things. We talk past each other. We think the other side “doesn’t get it.” Our mutual ignorance about ourselves and about each other exacerbates partisanship; it worsens the naturally selected innate “groupishness” Jon describes in The Righteous Mind.
The solution, therefore, is to bust the myths. Use the education system to furnish our future leaders on both sides of the political aisle with the common ground of a mutual and accurate understanding of human nature and therefore of each other; of why we think, talk, and act the way we do in the social realm. It would not require a massive overhaul of the education system. It would require only a module here, a module there, inserted into the current curricula of K-12 (and beyond) education in America. I explain this more fully in my more complete thesis, linked below.
There will always be liberalism and conservatism. I think mother nature, or natural selection, has seen to it that the compulsion toward compassion and the compulsion to preserve social capital will always exist, and therefore so too will some amount of antagonism always exist between the two sides. And that’s a good thing. We help each other see the planks in our own eyes. We “check and balance” each other. It’s how evolution wired us to operate.
But there’s no reason in the world that both of those compulsions cannot be equipped with a full and accurate grasp of fundamental human nature and an understanding of why it can be so difficult for humans of differing moralities to “all get along” (Jon quotes Rodney King in the opening of The Righteous Mind) rather than with the myths which are to blame for so much of the partisanship and rancor we see today. That mutual understanding could then be the common ground upon which we all agree, and thus the platform from which our political debates and plank finding can ensue.
This is where, in my opinion, efforts like No Labels fall short. They seem to try to set issue-oriented goals and agendas seemingly without considering the underlying root causes for why people of different political persuasions see issues, agendas, and goals so differently; and why they talk past each other. They seem to ignore the real root causes of partisanship – that left and right operate on different ground truths – almost in a John Lennon-esque “Imagine there’s no countries, and no religions too” sort of way. They seem to think the lion and the lamb will lie down together and partisanship will be ameliorated simply because reason tells them they should. I think this approach, if it’s really what’s happening, sets itself up for failure because when push comes to shove people inevitably return to type, and end up mired in throwing the same arguments back and forth at each other that we’ve heard for decades, if not centuries. Reason does not rule the passions. The passions rule reason.
This is why my recommendation is, as Jon Haidt would say, to “talk to the elephant first,” or as Chip and Dan Heath would say, to “shape the path” through the education system. I think a more accurate and mutual grasp of human nature on both sides of the political aisle would, as Jon Haidt says in The Righteous Mind, “drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity. “ (p. xviii). In a way, what I’m recommending is to initiate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, of sorts, right from the starting gun.
As The War On Partisanship suggests, my idea won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. But I believe that my idea identifies and addresses the real root causes of the problem of partisanship more directly and more effectively than most of the other efforts, save one. I’ve had some conversations with Liz Joyner about all of this. I think The Village Square comes closest to this idea, and might be its most natural home. If I understand that effort correctly, I’d paraphrase its goal as that of teaching the human social animal about itself so that it can look with more empathy and understanding at the world it creates for itself and the other people who inhabit it.
I also think there’s more than enough material, evidence, science, behind my idea to develop it into a book, but I can’t do it alone.
With a more accurate grasp of human nature liberalism and conservatism as we currently know them will be forced to morph into precisely the “future left and future right that’s a fresh way of thinking” that Steve McIntosh would like to see David Brooks write about. They’ll necessarily look very different from the way they look today.
I am confident that if our children had a more realistic understanding of how our righteous minds influence the way we think and how we relate with one another in the social world then future generations would have a deeper grasp of human nature and would thus be better equipped to get along, and the leaders who emerge would make better decisions and devise better social policies by virtue of an increased empathy for how The Social Animal and human civil society actually operate.
One thing’s certain: We cannot possibly expect future generations to get along unless we “shape the path” in a way that gives them a truer grasp of why getting along can be so hard to do.
The Independent Whig
More complete thesis here: https://theindependentwhig.com/thesis-of-the-independent-whig/
Thesis has gradually evolved during more than four years writing anonymously on related topics at www.theindependentwhig.com