What Jonathan Haidt and Yascha Mounk get wrong about the culture war

Last week, I listened to a podcast in which Yascha Mounk discussed the American culture war with Jonathan Haidt.  If these names are new to you, Mounk is the author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.Haidt recently penned a viral Atlantic essay called After Babel: Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.  His most recent book is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

I highly recommend anything written by either of these men.  They are thoughtful, balanced, and care deeply about this stuff.  Still, their hour-long conversation left me feeling uneasy.  Both men attach a lot of significance to the 2018 More Democracy study The Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, which paid particular attention to two groups on the fringes of American discourse.  In Haidt’s paraphrase:

The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives,” comprised 6 percent of the U.S. population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists,” comprised 8 percent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 percent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 percent.

Jothan Haidt, After Babel

The contention, in other words, is that 14% of the American population is driving 60+ percent of the popular political conversation on social media.  Because 80% of the public isn’t active in the public arena, its voice goes unheard.  Haidt and Mounk seem to regard the 80% as reasonable centrists. 

Haidt’s After Babylon essay argues that popular media sites like Facebook and, particularly, Twitter, have handed dart guns to millions of Americans and urged them to fire away.  These verbal darts aren’t likely to kill you, but they really smart and, delivered in tandem, can make life miserable.  And since a large majority of the darts are being launched by firebrands living on the shadowy margins of American life, the impression that the nation is locked in an increasingly bitter culture war is largely erroneous.

If Mounk and Haidt are correct, the solution is to amplify the voices of the 80% while dampening the volume of the 14%.

Mounk argues that the quest for a genuinely diverse democracy, a system that attempts to make room for all, is of recent origin.  In the past, he says, democracies have always been ruled by one particular class, and this by intention.  In Jim Crow America, for instance, only white Americans were considered citizens in any meaningful sense.  Prior to 1920, women weren’t allowed to vote.  And as late as the 1930s, Jews and Catholics were excluded from most regions of the public square by an intolerant Protestant majority.  Until very recently, he continues, the LGBTQ community lived in the closet.

Yascha Mounk and Jonathan Haidt

So, what happens when a country like the United States (or Canada, or Germany, or Great Britain) creates a form of democratic government which silences no one, excludes no one, and that, in theory at least, advantages no one?      

His short answer is that we don’t know.  We don’t know because what we’re attempting is audacious and unprecedented.  That’s why he calls diverse democracy, “the great experiment”.

Mounk and Haidt both realize that America’s past treatment of African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, women and sexual minorities is troubling.  They point out, however, that every social arrangement in the course of history has been even more problematic.  Because the idea that all people should be treated fairly and equally is so novel, those who regard America as a singularly iniquitous nation are displaying a shocking lack of historical perspective.  Eight percent of Americans are so taken with the nation’s past sins that they forget how much real progress we have made.  An additional six percent rejects the idea of diverse democracy altogether.  But the 80% largely embraces the idea.  And that’s good news.

Here’s what makes me uneasy.  I don’t believe anywhere near 80% of Americans are down with diverse democracy.  What Haidt and Mounk forget is that, until the last decade or two, those committed to the idea of diverse democracy in all its radical glory, had a hard time getting their message out.  Outside of the academy, “liberty and justice for all” was an empty phrase.  Preachers, politicians and pundits didn’t really believe it.  They may have used egalitarian rhetoric, but they quietly excluded most Americans from the discussion.  And, if you were numbered among the excluded, it wasn’t subtle.

Social media, for all its potential for abuse, has proven to be an excellent medium for both the affirmation and denial of diverse democracy.  The debate is usually devoid of nuanced elegance; but at issue is whether the ideal of “liberty and justice for all” should be taken in the most expansive sense of the phrase.    

Sure, a large chunk of the folks hogging the conversation on social media is so mad about the past denial of liberty and justice to most Americans that they can’t think straight.  But, contra Haidt, that doesn’t make them stupid; it means they have been drinking from a fire hose of new information.  They are exhausted, disillusioned, and overwhelmed.  People are processing the past; and there’s so much to process.

We must understand that most of the people ranting about injustice on social media just recently stumbled upon the horrors they decry.  For them, this is new information.  Stuff they didn’t learn in school.  Things they didn’t learn from watching television.  When they speak of “white supremacy” they are talking about a reality that just hit them over the head.  Having seen the truth, they can’t unsee it.  They are like new converts out to evangelize the world. 

And they’re outraged.

Neither should it surprise us that 6 percent of the online population is mad as hell about those who are mad as hell.  Those who “hate America”.  When hard right demagogues rant about CRT or “wokeness” they are reacting to the folks who have just uncovered the reality of white supremacy.  Their knee jerk response is utter rejection.  America, they say, is the greatest country on the face of the planet, a beacon of democracy in a dark world, a light to the nations.   And anyone who says otherwise can just go to hell. 

It’s true, as Haidt and Mounk assert, that most Americans are neither woke nor MAGA.  The fact remains, however, that we have only two viable parties in these United States; and that one is dancing to the ideological rhythms of wokeness while the other is in thrall to MAGA.  Sure, I wish those on the left showed more historical perspective.  But here’s the thing: they’re telling the truth.  Maybe not the whole truth; but what they are saying about America’s historic dedication to the principles of white supremacy, patriarchy and the rest is beyond dispute.  They’re facts are legit.

Alternatively, the MAGA folk are wrong.  Dead wrong.  About just about everything.

The American left (particularly those under 30) can be compared to a woman who just discovered that her husband has been cheating on her for years with a variety of mistresses.  All along, she had believed that this guy was as committed to their relationship as she was.  They exchanged solemn vows.  She meant it.  He didn’t.  Don’t ask this woman to be reasonable, to settle down, to express herself more reasonably.  She needs to rant and rave.  She needs to give vent to the vulgar regions of her vocabulary.  This isn’t going to be pretty.  How long it will take for her to come to terms with this shocking new reality, no one knows.  But its something she needs to work through, in her own time and in her own way.

The MAGA people can be likened to the offending husband.  Sure, he says, I haven’t always been perfect.  But I’ve brought home the bacon, haven’t I?  I’ve kept a roof over your head.  I’ve put clothes on your back and a chicken in your pot.  And what thanks do I get?  None.  I just get this constant bitching about my supposed shortcomings.  You knew who I was when you married me.  So, if you think I’m so terrible, you can find another sugar daddy.  I’m done.

Can this marriage be saved?  Maybe.  Maybe not. 

Haidt and Mounk are white academics who misjudge the folks on the extremes of the American culture war.  Even worse, they haven’t reckoned with the historical ignorance, and the moral apathy, lurking within the 80% of Americans they characterize as the moderate middle.  Some of these people are fully aware of both Americas debt to the disenfranchised and the comparative glory of our national ideals.  But far too many know next to nothing about the past, or the present, and they don’t care to learn.  Which is why, given a binary choice on election day, a solid majority of white Americans voted for Donald Trump.

Let me put this bluntly.  No one who voted for Trump is worthy of the word “moderate”.  More to the point, Trump voters care little for diverse democracy. That’s the point. These people may be kind to their children.  They may have a soft place in their hearts for puppies and kittens.  They may be gracious to their own kind.  But, their worldview is hopelessly deficient and lopsided.

Here’s the problem: most Americans don’t regard diverse democracy as a shared ideal.  Some, including a lot of Democrats, have mixed feelings about the idea.  Some are unalterably opposed to the concept.  They fear that, if proponents of genuine liberty and justice for all are given sufficient time and control over the classroom, the pulpit, cable news, social media and the entertainment industry, all will be lost. 

Haidt and Mounk seem to believe that the “extremists” on the right and the left have, in equal and opposite ways, given up on diverse democracy.  They also seem to believe that the moderate 80% are, for the most part, dedicated to that ideal.  They are wrong on both counts.      

2 thoughts on “What Jonathan Haidt and Yascha Mounk get wrong about the culture war

  1. You have thought a little further on this. I read Haidt’s article in the Atlantic and listened to the podcast. I felt that there were a lot of good ideas, and I felt a little more encouraged than I have been.

    True, the shape of the curve for the 80% is probably more like a V than a U (with a possible flattened bottom of some small percentage). I think the discussion between Haidt and Mounk reflected some trepidation and pessimism, but it is true they made it sound like the middle is fairly flat. I don’t expect the flatlands to be a very large percentage,

    A couple of proposals that were at least intriguing. … The first was to tie a name to an account. Of course, Elon Musk can be a jerk with his Twitter account even with the identity clear, and there was that far worse guy where we had four years of the plague and then COVID. So granted, “identity” alone doesn’t regulate some people. The second proposal was to apply some kind of scoring. So someone who examines various views in their discussion (basically what I learned as an argumentative essay) has a better score than someone who just spouts his/her opinion. Other scores might relate to things like the tendency to use abusive language. A scoring function could somewhat help in “noise suppression” by forcing the extremists to temper their clamor to be heard. I am a little skeptical of algorithms, as we have seen how “well” they “work” on these platforms. Nevertheless, perhaps Haidt has a point that forcing people at the extremes to moderate their behavior could do something to improve the signal-to-noise ratio (where mostly now, it is noise).

  2. Please understand that I do not like Trump on a personal and personality level but I think you judge MAGA folks too harshly. Our three children, two sons and a daughter, all college educated, all above 65 years of age, none religious in the traditional sense, but all socially liberal and politically conservative. They treat other people well. They could be called MAGA because they hate the fact that, through political management, our manufacturing base has been severely eroded.

Comments are closed.