Jonathan Haidt: We are on a path to ‘catastrophic failure’ of our democracy if we don’t change
An interview with the renowned social psychologist on the perils our nation faces and how we might combat them
Few have done more to raise national awareness about the potential implications of the hyperpartisan, toxically polarized spiral we are in than Jonathan Haidt, the Thomas Cooley professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Haidt’s recent essay in The Atlantic captivated the chattering class by comparing what has happened in the U.S. over the last decade to the biblical Tower of Babel — how we’ve become disoriented and “unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth” to the point of “becoming like two different countries” with divergent ideas about “the Constitution, economics, and American history.”
If an image from the Old Testament is an especially fitting metaphor for current worrisome trends, it’s not hard to see Haidt himself as filling that ancient, unpleasant role of standing up on the wall to raise some warnings that many of us hope are not prophetic.
He recently wrote, “If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown, or constitutional crisis.” Although always pointing to possible steps we might take, Haidt adds that there is “little evidence to suggest that America will return to some semblance of normalcy and stability in the next five or 10 years.”
We all love expressions of hope. But sometimes it’s refreshing to hear some plain talk about the dangers ahead. Beyond raising concerns alone, however, Haidt has also helped lead the way toward specific actions that can help.
In the short space of seven years, Haidt’s Heterodox Academy has gathered a diverse coalition of more than 5,000 professors, administrators, graduate students and staff that span every imaginable diversity. What unites them is a concern that “viewpoint diversity” and “open inquiry” is shrinking in the academy — the very place where we should be encouraging it the most.
Haidt spoke to me from his office in New York City in advance of Heterodox Academy’s upcoming conference in Denver June 12-14. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jacob Hess: Since Americans have disagreed profoundly about lots of things, all the way back to 1776, what is it about our pointed national disagreements today that seem especially perilous?
Jonathan Haidt: So, it’s certainly true that we’ve always had bitter debates and that goes back to the revolutionary and constitutional period. What’s new is two things: One is the simple acceleration of “affective polarization” since the 1990s — the tendency for partisans to dislike and distrust those from the other party. The degree to which we hate each other has gone up more or less steadily and continuously. You might just think of this as a continuation of the same polarization we’ve had before, only it’s worse. It’s more intense. And the more we hate each other, the more thrilled we are to find any story about how or why the other side is terrible (even if we would otherwise know that it was false). So, just simply the quantity of polarization is part of the story.
But what I argue in my Atlantic essay is that there is something new, which is the fear of each other. We were not afraid of the person sitting next to us in 2008. Professors were not afraid of their students in 2008. Managers were not afraid of their employees in 2008.
Social media gave everyone dart guns, and a small number of people began shooting darts like crazy. The fear of saying anything because you’ll get darted by somebody — that is new. That simply was not there before. And that has transformed our country, it transformed our institutions and has transformed higher education.
Hess: I’m curious if anything has stood out to you about the public response to your most recent warnings?
Haidt: The biggest surprise to the reaction to my Atlantic essay is that fewer than 10 people criticized it — which is pretty close to zero. Hardly any mean tweets. Instead, I’ve got more than 100 emails from ordinary people saying thank you for the essay. Because almost everyone is exhausted and hates what’s going on. So, I think there is clearly, a large majority — the middle 80% of the country — that is sick and tired of what is happening, and that could be a potent force for whichever party or movement is able to attract them.
Hess: It sounds to me that people are resonating with your cautions and taking them to heart.
Haidt: Yeah, in fact, I worried that the recent piece was too dark — and I thought about giving it a more uplifting ending. And I didn’t. It just has a slightly uplifting ending — and I thought maybe I should do more. But I was strongly advised that no, this needs to be a dark piece. People know something’s wrong. They want to hear the diagnosis. I can write a later piece with a more inspiring message, but people need and want to hear the diagnosis. Like when you go to the doctor, you know, most people actually do want to know they have cancer. They don’t want to hear, “Oh, you have cancer, but don’t worry, things tend to work out.”
But yes, the public response has been incredibly hopeful. And I’ve also been interested in the international response. I deliberately didn’t say anything about other countries. I do suspect that this is happening in other countries. We know it’s happening to kids in universities in English-speaking countries. There’s a lot of interest internationally, and what I’ve picked up is that everyone recognizes that America is particularly sick, that we’re worse off than other countries. But on the other hand, they see the signs in their own country. And so there’s a lot of interest in what’s happening in America, because it’s clear this could be a problem that many liberal democracies are going to face — or are beginning to face — in the social media age.
Hess: In reading your descriptions of a public square “governed by mob dynamics” where those who disagree get pounced on in a way that makes us more collectively “stupid,” I couldn’t help but think, “Who really wants to be a part of that? Could this become a rallying cry on and off campus, ‘No, sorry, we care about the whole truth, not only by listening deeply to our ideological rivals, but defending them from attack?’”
Haidt: Standing up and defending others is hard for most. Everyone is afraid for their reputation. Everyone hates being shamed. What we most need is for leaders of institutions to stand up. That has been the spectacular failure of the late 2010s — that leaders of universities, of The New York Times, of our knowledge-centered institutions, have failed to stand up for the mission of their institutions. I don’t expect everyone to care about the whole truth, but professors should — and any academic institution should. They have a duty to stand up for the end or purpose of their institution. And if they can be made to know that the great majority of people support them, I think they would be more likely to stand up.
At Heterodox Academy, we are devotees of John Stuart Mill. We believe that “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” So, we believe that a morally or politically homogenous group simply cannot find the truth. And now that I’ve written this essay, I now see structural stupidity all over the place.
Hess: You’ve been trying very hard in our hyperpartisan atmosphere to send a message that fostering viewpoint diversity is not a partisan issue. Yet it’s still easy for critics to pretend this is somehow an effort to just defend the political right — especially since former President Donald Trump became so vocal about free speech on campus. How do you respond to that concern?
Haidt: Well, President Trump has certainly made our work harder. But we are not pro-right or pro-left, we’re pro-university. And if you’re pro-university, then you must have viewpoint diversity and open inquiry. Unfortunately, we are doing our advocacy in the midst of a culture war, in which the “friend of my enemy is my enemy.” So, if we say we need more conservatives, many people on the left will assume we are therefore allies of conservatives — and therefore we are the enemy. I am a centrist, and if you remember your elementary school geometry class, that means I am right-adjacent. So, yes, it’s hard to do this in a culture war, but if there wasn’t a culture war, we wouldn’t have to do this.
Hess: Like you, I’ve had many friends with very different social-political views who have enriched my life. But this seems a rarity, no doubt due to many of the dynamics you’ve been highlighting. Do you think that could be one practical place people (and organizations) could start — turning away from the online centrifuge and proactively reaching out to people who have different views, to forge new and more vibrant relationships?
Haidt: Oh yeah — if that’s your desire, there’s all kinds of organizations that can help with that and magnify your desire into impact. One that I co-founded with Caroline Mehl is OpenMind. If you run or are a member of any kind of group — a classroom, a soccer team, a nonprofit, a company — try OpenMind as a group. This platform actually teaches you the skills of understanding others, appreciating why we often can’t understand others, and how to talk across divides. I’m also on the board of Braver Angels, a group that brings people on the left and right together in towns around America. Because away from the coasts, away from the elite circles, most people are pretty reasonable and moderate and willing to talk with each other.
Hess: Given the goodness that clearly still exists on both sides of the political spectrum, do you think we could find in our moral imagination a future vision of left- and right-leaning virtues not only coexisting, but thriving together in something new?
Haidt: The mind easily goes to the binary. So, it’s been very hard in America to have a third party. All previous efforts have failed, although I guess actually the Republican Party was a third party at one point. But Andrew Yang is now trying to form the Forward Party. Ten years ago, I would have said that’s hopeless, but now I think perhaps the time has come. If it’s true the middle 80% is horrified by the extremes and the nastiness, I do think that there is room now and a need for a third party, if we have “final five voting,” which means an open primary in which the top five finishers move on to a general election determined by ranked choice voting. With that system, a third party isn’t a spoiler. So that’s one reason it’s so important to get electoral reform that incentives politicians to appeal to moderates, rather than picking a side and trying to make it angry.
Hess: How about on a community level? If a political party isn’t possible, what more can we do in our own spaces to move beyond the partisan ruts?
Haidt: If you just want to get people together to talk, I think that would be awkward. But if you get people together to achieve something in the town, and then you deliberately achieve political diversity, then I think it’s extremely powerful. That’s what has so impressed me about the Village Square and Liz Joyner’s efforts. They were originally very focused on Tallahassee, which as the state capital means you have a lot of people who want to solve problems. So, then, if you get together, it’s not just “Hey, let’s talk,” it’s like “You know, let’s fix this problem, what do we do?” — while drawing on the benefits of viewpoint diversity.
And the thing is, it works — it works really well in Tallahassee. I do think it’s hard to scale. Everybody thinks we want, like an app or a platform that can then be rolled out to millions. But I think what Liz has found is that it takes a lot of hours, a lot of hard work, from a lot of people. So, she and I both think it can scale, but it can only scale slowly.
Hess: So many of us are in the “exhausted majority” you describe and tired of the partisan hostilities. What do you do when you get exhausted with all this?
Haidt: I’m very stoic about it. But yes, I am also extremely alarmed at the trajectory we are on. We are on a path to catastrophic failure of our democracy if we don’t change things. Let me be clear — I’m not saying we are going to fail. I’m saying if we don’t make big changes, then I believe we will fail. But in the bottom of my heart, I don’t feel depressed. I feel like it’s dark times. But actually I feel very engaged with life these days.
Hess: As a parent of young children myself, I’m curious in what ways your own approach to parenting may have changed since writing “The Coddling of the American Mind”?
Haidt: In a number of ways. Meeting Lenore Skenazy (the author of “Free-Range Kids”) really changed my family. We encouraged our kids to go out to the store earlier. We live in Manhattan, which until recently was extremely safe. We also had them walk to school younger than almost anybody else in our neighborhood. And we’ve kept them off social media until high school. My son is now a sophomore, and he opened an Instagram account when he joined the track team because they all were on the platform. And I said that’s fine, because he had earned my trust. He’s been very responsible. But we told both kids in sixth grade, you’re not getting an Instagram account until at least high school. So, basically, more free range, less social media. That’s the bulk of it. Lenore and I cofounded an organization to help families give their children healthier childhoods; I hope your readers will visit LetGrow.org.
Heterodox Academy’s June 12-14 conference in Denver is sold out, but interested persons can join a waiting list here.
Jacob Hess served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation and has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since his book with Phil Neisser, “You’re Not As Crazy As I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong).” His most recent book with Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, is “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”