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David Blankenhorn: Can rethinking diversity unite us?

Our growing societal diversity probably contributes to polarization. But more diversity in some of our key social groupings will likely contribute to smarter thinking and less polarization.
Our growing societal diversity probably contributes to polarization. But more diversity in some of our key social groupings will likely contribute to smarter thinking and less polarization.

“Diversity,” like so much else these days, divides us. Because the term has become entangled in political correctness, liberals in good standing are expected to praise it while conservatives are expected to criticize it. Diversity divides us in another way as well. Scholars report that growing racial and religious diversity is an important cause of the extreme political polarization that now dominates us.

But let’s try to rescue diversity from the culture wars. Why? Because diversity, properly understood, might be our last best hope of repairing our broken politics and depolarizing our society. Consider three factual propositions.

Diverse groups make better decisions. If you’re an investor seeking an accurate prediction of next year’s inflation rate, should you go with your own best analysis, depend on a famous expert whose judgment you trust, or put your faith in the mathematical average of 50 predictions made by experts holding widely divergent views on inflation? Research suggests that the third strategy is consistently more likely to produce the most accurate prediction. Diverse groups are smart.

Like-minded groups make us individually dumber. I like to imagine that my political opinions come from evaluating evidence and sorting through facts, but I've learned from the research that it just ain’t so. Like you and nearly everyone, my political stances are largely shaped by ordinary human needs to belong, to maintain cherished relationships, and to protect or try to enhance my status within the groups that matter to me.

When those groups are diverse, I’m more likely to be on solid ground. But when the people in them have similar views and constantly reinforce one another in those views, the advantages of what James Suroweiki calls “the wisdom of crowds” disappear. After all, to the degree that everyone in the crowd thinks the same way, the size of the crowd might as well be one.

Moreover, like-mindedness in a group produces big problems of its own. One is an exaggeratedly negative view of adversaries. In a like-minded group, a misguided opponent with whom I have something in common soon enough becomes a malevolent enemy who might as well be an alien.

Another problem is the slide toward extremism. A like-minded group that on Monday agrees that taxes are too high, or that climate change might ruin the planet in 100 years, is very likely by Friday to agree that no tax is a good tax, or that doomsday for the planet is just around the corner. An iron law of homogenous groups is that opinion over time gravitates to the extreme.

Groups shaping our political views have become less diverse. Both of our main political parties increasingly consist of like-minded people. It’s hard today to find a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat. Our residential communities are also increasingly politically like-minded. In 1976, about one in four Americans lived in a county in which presidential candidate won by a landslide. Today that number is one in two. Increasingly, the news sources we use today tell us only what we already think. Finally, friendship circles today are increasingly politically defined, with liberals befriending other liberals and conservatives rarely inviting a liberal to lunch. (Where would they go — Cracker Barrel or Au Bon Pain?) So many of us today are nearly fully enveloped in political similarity. The main results are dumbed-down thinking and increasing polarization.

What’s the answer? Surely part of it is establishing more U.S. groups than can use diversity to make better decisions and improve the quality of their members’ thinking. In this light, a university faculty of liberals and conservatives is likely to be better at educating students than a faculty of liberals. A purple congressional district is more likely to elect a competent representative than either a red or blue one. Talking to your friends and foes will likely make you smarter than talking to your friends. A political party that’s either left-handed or right-handed, but that also has a usable second arm, is likely to have a stronger platform than a party with only one hand clapping.

In the 1830s, the brilliant French observer Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the problems of American democracy can only be solved by the uses of democracy. Perhaps it’s that way today with American diversity. Our growing societal diversity probably contributes to polarization. But more diversity in some of our key social groupings — from Facebook friends to neighborhood associations to faculty clubs to political conventions — will likely contribute to smarter thinking and less polarization.

If nothing else, it’s a deeply American solution. It fits who we are. Even our nation’s motto wisely suggests that “Pluribus,” properly valued and used, can strengthen “Unum.”

David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.