Twenty-five years ago as a college freshman I recall an older guy I would meet in the cafeteria lunch room made a comment about the state of political discourse in the post-Cold War early 1990s. His worry was that the two party system, as he put it, had been hijacked by radicals and reactionaries.
Jonathan Haidt arrives as a sort of corresponding set of observations, though he takes time to get there.
Why do we hate and fear each other so much more than we used to as recently as the early 1990s? The political scientist Sam Abrams and I wrote an essay in 2015, listing ten causes. I won’t describe them all, but I’ll give you a unifying idea, another metaphor from physics: keep your eye on the balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Imagine three kids making a human chain with their arms, and one kid has his free hand wrapped around a pole. The kids start running around in a circle, around the pole, faster and faster. The centrifugal force increases. That’s the force pulling outward as the human centrifuge speeds up. But at the same time, the kids strengthen their grip. That’s the centripetal force, pulling them inward along the chain of their arms. Eventually the centrifugal force exceeds the centripetal force and their hands slip. The chain breaks. This, I believe, is what is happening to our country. I’ll briefly mention five of the trends that Abrams and I identified, all of which can be seen as increasing centrifugal forces or weakening centripetal forces.
External enemies: Fighting and winning two world wars, followed by the Cold War, had an enormous unifying effect. The Vietnam War was different, but in general, war is the strongest known centripetal force. Since 1989, we have had no unifying common enemy.
Now this is an interesting proposal, pedestrian though it is by itself but it may have been that the Cold War was, as a more explicitly ideological battle, better for creating unity than shooting wars were. Ellul's musing in Propaganda about half a century ago was that it was not yet clear how things would play out if the two parties in the United States decided to make use of propagandist techniques within their own cultural and national idiom. To try to keep a dense book summarized in the shortest possible terms, Ellul's proposal was that propaganda during wartime was normal and expected but that the post-World War II scene and technological societies in general introduced two elements that were new. The first was that every modern state had to use propaganda and the more pressing concern was that in the context of the wars of the twentieth century propaganda was constantly being used on the citizens as well as enemies. In Ellul's diffuse taxonomy of propagandas state education played one of the more important preliminary roles. I would venture to guess that your average American educator believes his or her role to be educating children so as to not be susceptible to propaganda, which would, unfortunately, probably be the opposite of what any state-backed educational system is supposed to do.
In the absence of easily identifiable external enemies prior to the War on Terror and Gulf War 2 what may have been happening, which Haidt kinda gets to, was that the partisans within American politics and ideological conflicts began to regard each other as the new enemies and the battle, whether the respective sides would admit this or not, is what kind of world-dominating empire the United States was supposed to be. The inherently dominant role of the United States was not really in question in the last twenty years.
But with the end of the Cold War the ad hoc coalitions of the blue and red, or if you will the left and right, in the United States began to fracture. Darryl Hart's From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin seems like a quick read of how the traditional conservatives, anti-communists and libertarians that were temporarily held together in the Reagan coalition began to break apart. A comparable blue state coalition of socially progressive religious believers, New Dealers, and Democratic hawks might have been a comparable coalition that began to fragment in the wake of the Cold War. Catholics who might have been progressive on most economic and racial issues but may have been conservative on abortion may have migrated to the conservative wing a little here and there. The general idea I'm proposing is that ad hoc coalitions within the red and blue scenes in the United States began to fragment and balkanize at the same time.
That's why I have my doubts that Haidt's right about the next point the way he formulates it.
The media: Newspapers in the early days of the republic were partisan and often quite nasty. But with the advent of television in the mid-twentieth century, America experienced something unusual: the media was a gigantic centripetal force. Americans got much of their news from three television networks, which were regulated and required to show political balance. That couldn’t last, and it began to change in the 1980s with the advent of cable TV and narrowcasting, followed by the Internet in the 1990s, and social media in the 2000s. Now we are drowning in outrage stories, very high-quality outrage stories, often supported by horrifying video clips. Social media is turning out to be a gigantic centrifugal force.
This gets back to Ellul and propaganda, and I would propose that as the previously described ad hoc coalitions fragmented away from each other they began to balkanize internally. Mass media as a whole, not merely social media, played a role in cementing this shift. If we bring in Ellul's term "sociological propaganda" (i.e. arts and entertainment) then the quasi-religious narratives at play in novels and films and so on were hardening these respective in-groups even before social media. What social media provided was a more exponentially potent feedback loop. If there's a case to be made for the value of traditional criticism and analysis it is, on paper, that this mediating role allowed some insulation or procedural slowing of the rate at which "idea makers" could get ideas across that could permeate an activist element in the public.
Ellul warned that under the long-term influence of propaganda that we'd get citizens who swore they were upholding the tenets of democratic society while behaving like storm troopers. That is what we get in contemporary social media usage. There's an additional challenge in the separation and balkanization mass media can involve that may be related to the next point Haidt gets at. If social media tends to balkanize and calcify subgroups then these respective groups entrench when they could interact. I.e. as immigration continues and diversity is alternately seen as praiseworthy or a threat to the social fabric in the form of those who are considered insufficiently interested in or acceptable to assimilation this can get circulated in the aforementioned mass and social media.
Immigration and diversity: This one is complicated and politically fraught. Let me be clear that I think immigration and diversity are good things, overall. The economists seem to agree that immigration brings large economic benefits. The complete dominance of America in Nobel prizes, music, and the arts, and now the technology sector, would not have happened if we had not been open to immigrants. But as a social psychologist, I must point out that immigration and diversity have many sociological effects, some of which are negative. The main one is that they reduce social capital—the bonds of trust that exist between individuals. The political scientist Robert Putnam found this in a paper titled “E Pluribus Unum,” in which he followed his data to a conclusion he clearly did not relish: “In the short run, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”
He goes on to essentially propose that diversity pursued as an end unto itself as distinct from a variety that is possible within the bounds of a common heritage does not promote social cohesion. Haidt is going to get at what I would regard as the two sides of one coin, the aforementioned separation and balkanization effects of propagandistic techniques employed within subcultures.
In short, despite its other benefits, diversity is a centrifugal force, something the Founders were well aware of. In Federalist 2, John Jay wrote that we should count it as a blessing that America possessed “one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, the same language, professing the same religion.” I repeat that diversity has many good effects too, and I am grateful that America took in my grandparents from Russia and Poland, and my wife’s parents from Korea. But Putnam’s findings make it clear that those who want more diversity should be even more attentive to strengthening centripetal forces.
The final two causes I will mention are likely to arouse the most disagreement, because these are the two where I blame specific parties, specific sides. They are: the Republicans in Washington, and the Left on campus. Both have strengthened the centrifugal forces that are now tearing us apart.
This is the part where Haidt gets at the Republican side of what my old college associate said was the process through which the two party system became hijacked by reactionaries and radicals respectively:
The more radical Republican Party: When the Democrats ran the House of Representatives for almost all of six decades, before 1995, they did not treat the Republican minority particularly well. So I can understand Newt Gingrich’s desire for revenge when he took over as Speaker of the House in 1995. But many of the changes he made polarized the Congress, made bipartisan cooperation more difficult, and took us into a new era of outrage and conflict in Washington. One change stands out to me, speaking as a social psychologist: he changed the legislative calendar so that all business was done Tuesday through Thursday, and he encouraged his incoming freshmen not to move to the District. He did not want them to develop personal friendships with Democrats. He did not want their spouses to serve on the same charitable boards. But personal relationships among legislators and their families in Washington had long been a massive centripetal force. Gingrich deliberately weakened it.
And this all happened along with the rise of Fox News. Many political scientists have noted that Fox News and the right-wing media ecosystem had an effect on the Republican Party that is unlike anything that happened on the left. It rewards more extreme statements, more grandstanding, more outrage. Many people will point out that the media leans left overall, and that the Democrats did some polarizing things, too. Fair enough. But it is clear that Gingrich set out to create a more partisan, zero-sum Congress, and he succeeded. This more combative culture then filtered up to the Senate, and out to the rest of the Republican Party.
As noted in other posts here, Jacques Ellul's book on propaganda more than hinted that this kind of thing might be a risk. But, of course, the balkanization was not "just" happening on the right side. What may have made the right side somewhat unique was the avenues and media through which the balkanization took place, possibly a matter as simple as what preferred modes of mass media propaganda were preferred by respective propagandistic constituencies. It may have been that conservative/Republican types preferred talk radio and chain emails and php forums and so on whereas the liberal side preferred more mainstream mass media and academia decades ago. Haidt gets to the "left" soon enough, though I would propose that we not ignore that the mainstream blue/neoliberal/Clintonian "center" is just as apt to traffic in identity politics as the more "extreme" left and right wings Haidt has been discussing.
The new identity politics of the Left: Jonathan Rauch offers a simple definition of identity politics: a “political mobilization organized around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interest.” Rauch then adds: “In America, this sort of mobilization is not new, unusual, unAmerican, illegitimate, nefarious, or particularly leftwing.” This definition makes it easy for us to identify two kinds of identity politics: the good kind is that which, in the long run, is a centripetal force. The bad kind is that which, in the long run, is a centrifugal force.
Injustice is centrifugal. It destroys trust and causes righteous anger. Institutionalized racism bakes injustice into the system and plants the seeds of an eventual explosion. When slavery was written into the Constitution, it set us up for the greatest explosion of our history. It was a necessary explosion, but we didn’t manage the healing process well in the Reconstruction era. When Jim Crow was written into Southern laws, it led to another period of necessary explosions, in the 1960s.
The civil rights struggle was indeed identity politics, but it was an effort to fix a mistake, to make us better and stronger as a nation. Martin Luther King’s rhetoric made it clear that this was a campaign to create conditions that would allow national reconciliation. He drew on the moral resources of the American civil religion to activate our shared identity and values: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note.” And: “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Of course, some people saw the civil rights movement as divisive, or centrifugal. But King’s speech is among the most famous in American history precisely because it framed our greatest moral failing as an opportunity for centripetal redemption. This is what I’m calling the good kind of identity politics.
There's more but I don't feel like going through the whole thing.
So, obviously, my thoughts about Haidt's presentation is that cumulatively our cultural levels of using mass media have played a substantial role in the separation and balkanization of identitarian groups. This wasn't a hard view to arrive at. Leonard B. Meyer proposed it decades ago as a probable future in Music, the Arts and Ideas.
MUSIC, THE ARTS, AND IDEAS
Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
As each subculture creates its own past--magnifying its virtues, glorying in its victories, sharpening its grievances, and savoring its animosities--it defines its individuality. In so doing, it intensifies and specifies its differences from other subcultures. The search for past roots leads to the isolation of subcultures, an isolation "rationalized" by ideology. That is, the valuing of ethnic identity and community can in part be understood as a very late manifestation of Romanticism in which national cohesion is depreciated as a conventional, arbitrary creation, whereas ethnic relationships are prized as a result of natural, quasi-biological constraints.
Subcultural, and especially ethnic, isolation is heightened by a vision of the future characterized by uncertainty and hazard. Put the other way around: belief in inherent historical progress diretcs attention to common cultural goals; and when goals are shared (as they are, for instance, in combat or in team sports) ethnic differences become irrelevant. In the absence of shared goals ground in a vision of a better future, differences are heightened and the result is interpersonal insecurity and tension. We become uncertain how to behave, or, more precisely, about how others will respond to our behavioral norms. And so we seek the security of our own kind, of ethnic commonality. ...
The isolation of subcultures from one another is exacerbated not only by the vast increase in specialization, characteristic of late twentieth century culture, but by an overabundance of information in each area of specialization. ...
It's not surprising if in the last few decades that in the face of such an overwhelming sea of information and a need to cope with the existence of such information that cultures and subcultures would embrace interpreting all of this information through the lens of an ethnic mythos or a demographic mythos.
Thus there could be a New Left history or an alt right history or whatever history with associated historical tools you might want. Within the propagandistic dynamic available in any given subgroup "their" story may be a myth while "our" story relies upon solid research. If in the wake of postmodernist approaches history is reduced to the power plays of a variety of groups then whoever manages to control the canonical narrative options gets power. Whether or not those varioisu positions don't themselves have a capacity to reflect power plays might seem moot but for people within their enclaves that might not be a given.
Meyer's comment opened on this subject with "creates its own past". The self-assigned task of creating a mythology and history robust enough to maintain social identity and cohesion has been with us for a while now.
Which is another way of saying that when Francis Schaeffer claimed that the Romantic era optimism and interest was expired in the 1960s he couldn't, really, have been more wrong. As a formative contributor to the creation of a useful past or the quest for a useful past, to paraphrasingly invoke D. .G. Hart's description of what men like Schaeffer and Barton were doing in reverse-engineering a suitably "evangelical" or "conservative" history of the United States, Schaeffer was in some key respects one of the key perpetrators of a kind of mythic fabrication of the sort Meyer described in more general terms in the passage quoted above.
One of the persistent troubles with the kinds of mythologies and histories we create for ourselves is the propensity within them to build narratives that exonerate us rather than implicate us. But I don't feel like writing ten thousand words about that topic this weekend. It's enough to merely allude on that topic for now. Better writers and thinkers than me could spend lifetimes doing a better job exploring that.