Jonathan Haidt on the fragility of liberal democracy

He said,

Here is the fine-tuned liberal democracy hypothesis: as tribal primates, human beings are unsuited for life in large, diverse secular democracies, unless you get certain settings finely adjusted to make possible the development of stable political life. This seems to be what the Founding Fathers believed. Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of those eighteenth-century deists clearly did think that designing a constitution was like designing a giant clock, a clock that might run forever if they chose the right springs and gears.

Do read the whole thing. My comments:

1. This lecture could have fit in perfectly with the theme of American Exceptionalism.

2. The belief in the fragility of civilization (or, in this case, liberal democracy) is very conservative. It gets you to the civilization vs. barbarism axis. Haidt must be aware of this, as he has read The Three Languages of Politics and told me he is a fan.

3. Haidt sees a rise of extremism within two institutions: the Republican Party, which he sees as having moved hard right; and the college campus, which he sees as moving hard left.

From the where I and most of my readers sit, blaming all of the polarization in Washington on Republicans seems wrong. We probably are more inclined to recall examples of Republican weakness than Republican recalcitrance.

I recall once bitterly accusing President Obama of taking his political views from the faculty lounge of the sociology department. In other words, I saw the Democratic leader as a creature of the campus left. Granted, that was uncharitable as a blanket statement, but to the extent that there is truth in it, you have to admit that some of the radicalism in Washington has been on the Democratic side.

But let us not pursue that argument. Rather than dismiss Haidt’s view here, let us assume that we are too far to the right to be objective.

4. Haidt is optimistic that his Heterodox Academy project and other efforts will restore reason, free speech, and political diversity to college campuses. We shall see. My fear is that we will see Haidt get more and more invitations to reach conservative audiences (we saw him speak with Jordan Peterson, and this speech was given at the Manhattan Institute). But he will get fewer and fewer invitations to speak on college campuses, where the views expressed in the paragraph I quoted will make him unwelcome.

This entry was posted in Three-Axes Model. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Jonathan Haidt on the fragility of liberal democracy

  1. Slocum says:

    I think #4 will prove to be true, which will be evidence that he’s wrong about #3 — that is, Haidt will discover that heterodox views are considerably more welcome among Republicans than Democrats.

    With respect to #2, I really don’t agree. If we look around the world, there is currently a fairly wide range of combinations of gears and springs that can support stable liberal democracies. I find the current polarization tiresome but am not worried that it threatens democracy in the U.S. I’m paying less and less attention to the outrages du jour and feel pretty safe in doing so.

    Also, with respect to #3, my opinion is that Democrats in general (not just campus radicals) have moved sharply to the left since the 1990s. In fact, my experience is that campus radicals haven’t moved much at all — I’ve been living in a college town for decades, and in my experience they’ve always been quasi-marxists. But the center of the Democratic party has moved a long way from where it was in the 1990s (think of the difference between the Paul Krugman of that era and today’s version). Can anyone imagine a leading Democrat now declaring that “the era of big government is over”? Or the NY Times running an editorial arguing for a $0 minimum wage?

    • Weir says:

      So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

      And by “reasonable creature” I mean Democrat. The more left-wing the Democrat, the more reasonable, the more objective, the more reality-based.

  2. andrewknorr says:

    The Ivy League is now so small that employers can surely do all their recruiting outside the elite schools and not suffer a drop in quality. The solution is not to reform the top schools (they are too far gone) but to create a counter-elite outside the CHYMPS schools. Surely there’s got to be an opening for the second tier schools to appeal to parents and say “you won’t be paying for four years of SJW indoctrination at our school.”

  3. collin says:

    Sorry, I find Jonathan Haidt sort of smug conservative and simplifying down two institutions seems to simplistic in my view. (Does he read history books on the war Vietnam protests?) In general I don’t blame the Republican Party as much as the conservative media and I still think 90% of college are looking for a career. In terms of bitter politics I still come down towards:

    1) We dont have unifying enemy anymore after the victory of WW2 and the Soviet Union.

    2) Generations have not adjusted to being on line and that will improve over the years. (Sort of a mini-urbanization but most societies get a crime wave next generation.)

    3) We did finish a period of slow economic Recession growth. Compare the 2008 – 2015 years to the Great Depression or the 1970s when growth stalled for 7 – 10 years.

    4) All the Parties are overboard in the rhetoric, most of the battles are really between the 40 year lines. Obama signs a healthcare plan devised by Heritage and he is socialist. Trump’s tax plan with no huge changes is Positively Dickens evil. Or background checks on purchasing guns gets NRA hate. In reality these small changes but people to exaggerate its reality to get heard.

    5) Finally partisian politics sells! Since the election of Trump WaPo and NYT earn more. And why is Fox News not the MSM either? They have more effect on the population than either WaPo or NYT.

    • collin says:

      Sometimes I rationalize the Trump as sort of national freakout which was a lot more controlled than our national decade long 1970s freakout.

    • lliamander says:

      I think I’ve tried to have this conversation before, but how is Haidt a conservative?

      He doesn’t think of himself as a conservative, and (as much as I and others on the Right respect him) we certainly don’t think he’s a conservative.

      He isn’t conservative on any issue that I am aware of except a vague “hey guys, conservatives are people too” sort of way.

      • collin says:

        Isn’t Jonathan Haidt big complaint about the dominance of liberals in colleges? He is the leading voice on how terrible SJWs are on campus. And he appears to be a small c conservative/centrist with interest of in liberal politics. Not unlike say David Brooks, Rod Dreher or Ross Douthat on the opposite end. I find his writing sort of a ‘moral’ version of Thomas Freidman is on foreign policy.

    • Weir says:

      Fox gets a lot of viewers because it has zero competition. There is no other station competing with Fox. It’s just Fox on the right, and then every other station on the left. That’s their entire business model. As simple as that.

      Whereas the business model at NBC and ABC and ESPN is to ignore every second pair of eyeballs in America. To just write off half the country as hopelessly deplorable. That’s why they’re called “mainstream.” Because half the country is excluded. That’s what “mainstream” means.

      • collin says:

        But there are plenty of other conservative radio and websites out there. In fact, I think Fox News took advantage of the market of the talk radio and made a network. And they have more impact on their viewers/readers than WaPo and NYT so that hits me as mainstream in their views. And it does appears as Trump Presidency hit the WaPo & NYT have had an increase in business much like Fox News boomed during Obama or Limbaugh boomed in the Clinton years.

  4. Butler T. Reynolds says:

    I see the Republican Party being more of a confused hot mess rather than moving harder in the conservative civilization-barbarian direction.

    It seems to me that the Democrats are the ones who are becoming more consistently radical along their oppressor-oppressed axis.

    I wonder if what we’re seeing is the country continuing to move more along the oppressor-oppressed axis politically, with anxious conservatives acting out because of it.

    Haidt sees the cornered animal lashing out and concludes that it’s the one being more extreme.

  5. charlies says:

    “he will get fewer and fewer invitations to speak on college campuses, where the views expressed in the paragraph I quoted will make him unwelcome”

    This is the key point. My impression of the current state of the “campus left” (broadly construed ) is not that they mistakenly confuse unbiased analyses like those of Haidt with conservative ideology. They know he is not actually a republican.

    Instead, the idea of being a rationalist who lacks political loyalties is itself considered reactionary and unwelcome.

  6. Chuck E. says:

    After reading Haidt’s essay, I am wondering if service in the armed forces during WW2 was a forced “melting pot” of ethnicities & races. This fostered a united spirit in America. Since we have not had a unifying cause in the last few decades, we find ourselves in positions of less trust towards our fellow men.

    • collin says:

      In terms of the post-WW2, we have to remember that the population was elated by surviving the Depression and defeating Hilter, all the while facing a new enemy the Soviet Union. Of course, it was very unifying and there would not have been a Civil Rights movement as strong without it.

  7. Handle says:

    “And most importantly, we’ve created the OpemMind app. …”

    When I go the and click on “OpemMind App” and then “Try out the OpemMind demo!” I get “Password Protected”

    Not ready for prime time yet, I guess. The “five steps” do seem to work via the library.

    Still, I must say, while I am completely supporting of the effort, the recent attempts to defend free speech and tolerance of viewpoint diversity (e.g. Sam Altman’s blog post about PC and China that Tyler Cowen uncharitably criticized) all seem to crash on the same predictable rocks in a way that is quite wearying and demoralizing.

    It’s always the same, tiresome script. “We need to be open to new ideas, innovation, and the possibility that we are wrong about something.” – “Are you saying that hate and bigotry are ok with you!?” – “Oh, um, dear me, no, of course not, that stuff is completely wrong, no doubt about it, it’s just, you know, we have to allow people to say it, or else we’ll suppress some good, legitimate stuff too.” – “That makes no sense. We can allow regular speech, and just ban the hate speech. Are you saying that you can’t tell the obvious difference between regular speech and hate speech? Are you affiliating yourself with hateful bigots instead of respectable, right-thinking people? Why isn’t it obviously crystal clear that we don’t need to tolerate racism and homophobia and so on? Are you really a closet racist?” – “Um, heh, [pulls collar] is it getting warm in here, [wipes forehead] ah, um, slippery slopes maybe, or protecting the ability to work things out on the arguable margin …” – “Same sex marriage was on the margin a few years ago, and all right-thinking people know today that there is no rational basis for opposition, it’s all just superstition and bigotry, and tolerating it at the time probably delayed the eventual legal recognition of an obviously fundamental human right – why are you against human rights? Hate speech is emotional harmful at best and akin to violence otherwise and always has negative social value; there’s no good argument why it should come under the protections of “free speech”, and you haven’t presented one.” – “Um, ah, well, maybe you could please allow me to ‘clarify’ somewhat …”

    All of which is to say that mild skimishes on the fringes while still trying to retain a respectable reputation and remain within the evoling Overton window simply cannot work, and there is just zero sense avoiding the fundamentals here since conceding those points leads right away to giving away the whole game.

    • asdf says:

      Right. I own a copy of the Righteous Mind and liked it, but as has been written many times its not that hard to summarize the book as:

      “Liberals are right about everything but its not conservatives fault because they were “born that way” with incomplete moral pillars/moral sentiments useful in a more primitive time but obsolete today. So don’t be too hard on them for being wrong, they can’t help it.”

      That’s certainly the way a lot of liberals read the book. Which is in a weird way worse then believing that conservatives can be educated into correct opinions, now its just biologically impossible for them to be correctly civilized.

      You either win the culture war or you lose it. Either you admit racism and homophobia have powerful logical arguments backing them or you are left with a bunch of unqualified exceptions that people are going to push you on and your eventually going to have to fold because all the good arguments for the point your trying to make lie outside the Overton Window (hint, that is the whole point of the Overton Window, to forbid arguments that would demolish your own).

      • lliamander says:

        Yeah, it seems that meta-level issues don’t really adapt well to the culture wars. Perhaps we can only really fight about object-level issues.

        I think a lot of the “old left” are really baffled by this because they thought free speech and open discourse were object-level issues (of which they were in favor).

        Regarding your summary of the Righteous Mind, I found that an interesting interpretation. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen others (liberal and conservative) who saw the book as saying that liberals had an incomplete moral framework (as they only emphasized two of the five pillars) and that therefore they were operating without a clear picture. The liberals who took that view obviously dismissed the book altogether.

        I imagine Haidt was probably trying to be a bit more nuanced than either interpretation. But that’s the risk when you try to psychoanalyze beliefs: it’s too easy for people to use it to pathologize the other side.

        There can be value in the psychoanalysis, but only if you use it to reflect on your own biases, or if it actually makes you better at convincing people to adopt beliefs contrary to their psychological predisposition.

        • asdf says:

          “My enemies are psychologically deficient” would be a somewhat uncharitable or reductionist view of Haidt’s entire body of work, but its certainly a common interpretation of The Righteous Mind taken in isolation.

  8. Lord says:

    Democrats had chased the center so long, Republicans fled before them as the only way to distinguish themselves. I expect they have learned from them, they must not turn off their own supporters, and if we have a problem with deficits, it is that they have been too small. They must learn from what voters do, not what they say.

    It isn’t about free speech but about forcing others to listen. Anyone can listen to anything they want over the internet, it is that people can only take so much BS before they stop listening.

  9. The Other Mark says:

    A couple of data points. The Pew Center has been asking the same questions of liberals and conservatives since 1994. If you scroll down at the link you’ll see that liberals have moved more left, and in a more monolithic way, than conservatives who have more variation in their viewpoints.

    This is reinforced by looking at the 1996 and 2016 Democratic Party platforms. The ’96 platform is one that Donald Trump could easily have run on (with the exception of trade), though his rhetoric was certainly more fiery than Bill Clinton’s. It’s optimistic and growth oriented. The 2016 platform is crabbed, pessimistic, with much talk of redistribution but none about economic growth, and it’s main focus is on which groups will get to take revenge against which other groups.

    • Lord says:

      Not quite right. Only on poor, black, and immigrants has the left moved more than the right. The left has been more gradual but directional, while the right has been increasingly erratic and political. The center is no more. This however is the public, not officials, so the loss tells you, not that the officials didn’t cater enough to the middle, but didn’t cater enough to the left to get out the vote, while they catered well to the right on the right.

      • chedolf says:

        2008 Democrats: Marriage is between a man and a woman.
        2016 Democrats: Bruce Jenner is a woman.

      • Slocum says:

        Look at that survey page again. Democrats moved farther than Republicans since 1994 on every single question but the last one. And, more significantly. Republicans actually moved leftward on 5 of the 10 questions, while Democrats moved rightward on 0 of 10. In fact, on two of the questions (“Homosexuality should be discouraged” and “Immigrants are a burden”), Republicans are now to the left of where Democrats were in ’94. What’s more, this doesn’t include any questions about free-trade where, unfortunately, Republicans have also moved left (toward favoring protectionism). And here’s another issue where Republicans have moved left. A majority now support pot legalization (up 9 points in just a year):

        Is there any issue — any at all — where Democrats have moved right since the mid 90’s?

        I really don’t see any other way to read the survey data but that the growing divide has been driven mostly by Democrats going further left while Republicans haven’t moved much at all (trending right on some issues and left on others).

        • Handle says:

          Slocum is obviously correct about this, and Haidt is obviously wrong. He can’t support his point empirically at all and so in desperation has to concoct this “Gingrich as key villain” fable. This is one of those “sudden and jarring drops of rigor” I wrote about earlier that is a Straussian signal that the writer is merely paying the necessary lip-service to the brain-dead requirements of the age. But no serious person can possible take that nonsense at face value, and must merely sigh in resignation that we live under such inane social pressures.

          The use of the shifting modifiers “hard”, “far”, “extreme” before “right” has become completely Orwellian – really only mean to evoke emotional reflexes to ‘Nazi’ and ‘Fascist’ – and the fact that no one is willing to aritculate these boo-words with the specificity required to hold them accountable for their silly claims reveals the fundamental lack of intellectual seriousness invested into those assertions, and shows them to be nothing more than slimy rhetoric at root.

          A good way for Libertarians to grasp this would be to make similar claims about their public intellectuals “becoming more extreme and uncompromising” and show how challenging and futile it would be to try to and rebut those lies.

  10. Dan W. says:

    Here’s an anecdote: The ending of Net Neutrality seemed to have triggered much more outrage from the political left than did the ending of the individual health insurance mandate. This suggests to me the political left is energized much more by the desire to control institutions than to control personal choice. The cynic in me says this is so because it knows if it controls institutions than individuals won’t have much choice other than the one they design the institutions to offer.

    The Republicans don’t want to control institutions but they want to preserve them. Consequently, the mainstream GOP demonstrates again and again that it would rather institutions accommodate Liberalism than be diminished and eliminated as the Libertarian / far right aspires.

  11. Weir says:

    The Martin Hollis line was “liberalism for the liberals, cannibalism for the cannibals.”

    And if by “cannibalism” we mean rape and murder, I disagree. Which puts me at odds with a lot of politicians and police chiefs who are specifically referring to rape and murder whenever they urge “caution” and “calm” or “respect for the concerns of our vibrant multicultural community.” There are leftists (not actually liberals) who have convinced themselves that rape and murder are second- or third-order problems. It depends entirely on who commits them. I’m thinking of Britain’s speech police. Or the Australian police commissioners who will go as far as to say that violent Sudanese gangs are “overwhelmingly male.”

    But if by “cannibalism” we mean insufficiently left-wing, then once again I’m at odds with our colonial masters. Because the attitude of our left-wing colonial masters is that the natives are cannibals, hopelessly backwards, savage, incapable of enlightenment, racist, sexist deplorables. Within the Democratic party or the Labour party or among the most woke leftists, the vast majority of people are cannibals who worship strange Gods and eat unclean things. The cannibals are the common people in the bad school districts and the bad clothes. They can’t be persuaded by any kind of rational argument. They can only be made to obey.

Comments are closed.