Jonathan Haidt Speaks on the Polarization of American Politics in Conclusion to Symposia

Last Tuesday, prominent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examined the sources of severe partisan divides in American politics in his talk, “Our Righteous Nation: Why America Is So Polarized and What We Can Do About It.” The evening marked the conclusion of the Institute for the Liberal Art’s symposia on his book, The Righteous Mind.

Haidt’s speech posited that Democrats and Republicans must find reasons to care about and understand the perspective of the other.

Barry Schwartz, Dorwin P. Wartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action, introduced Haidt. Schwartz explained why Haidt’s work was chosen for discussion at Swarthmore, saying, “The Institute for the Liberal Arts intended to find opportunities to bring people together who are interested in or [are] an expert in a wide variety of different disciplines to discuss matters of consequence.”

Haidt is a social psychologist and the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at the NYU Stern School of Business. His research considers politics from the perspective of social and moral psychology.

Haidt set-up the premise of his talk on bridging a divide by addressing the audience directly: “I’ve got some bad news and I’ve got some good news. Which would you like to hear first?”

Haidt showed the “good news” with graphs of world wealth rising with end of extreme poverty on the horizon saying, “If you care about humanity, this is the biggest thing that has ever happened!”

He also spoke to the rise of democracy, the end of nuclear war threat, and the fall of genocide, rape, and murder.

“So why aren’t we all out dancing in the streets?” he then asked before sharing the “bad news”.

The “bad news” was presented in a graph charting polarization between Democrats and Republicans in America. The current spike in polarization is only rivaled by the late 19th century: “In the Civil War era, it was as bad as it was today…we now really dislike each other.”

“The biggest part of the story is the realignment of the parties,” Haidt said. “The key day in the story of polarization is the day that Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.”

Haidt used a map to demonstrate how the blue and red areas of the map flipped in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law: southern Democrats became Republicans and northeastern Republicans became Democrats.

He claimed that generational changes and shifts in the climate of Washington D.C. also cause polarization, noting that politicians are far less social and civil with one another than they were ten years ago.

While Haidt did not suggest that polarization could be reversed, he felt that improvements could be made.

“[There’s] no reason why we are at Civil War levels.” Haidt said. “If we could get back to the bitterness of the ’90s, that would be great.”

He then presented different groups that propose fundamental institution reforms to government structure such as No Labels, and shared his own website, which promotes increasing political civility.

Haidt also explained how an understanding of moral psychology can be used to overcome the danger of the “incredible ability we have to confirm whatever it is we believe.” The main principles of moral psychology state that intuition comes first and strategic reasoning second, that morality is more than harm and fairness, and that morality binds and blinds.

According to Haidt’s research, Democrats and Republicans have evolved to care about different aspects of morality and this divergence creates a dynamic where the two sides demonize one another and look past opposing perspectives.

“If you ignore psychology, you can’t tell the whole story.” Haidt said and suggested that the best way to avoid demonization is to be humble and not expect to be able to persuade anyone, to instead to change your intuition and the intuitions of others by discussing issues positively.

He described the power of building relationships between people with opposing views, of giving people a reason to care what the other side thinks. With this belief in mind, Haidt has created a project called the Asteroids Club that aims to bring people together to talk about the threats that they perceive.  The goal of the project is discussion not agreement.

In the question and answer following Haidt’s talk, students and community members asked about specific methods of easing tension between political parties.

Haidt reaffirmed his point that shifting circumstances, and positive and civil attitude can make a huge difference.

“Change the elephant and change the path. Don’t focus on the rider,” he said.

 


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