Grass Roots Depolarization

A review of Defusing American Anger
(Author: Zachary Elwood)

Depolarization is a tough, tough subject. It’s made even tougher by smart people like Zack Beauchamp who have smart reasons why polarization is immovable, and can quote other authorities who say so, and people who aspire to do something about it are muddled or naïve. I’ve observed other academics and journalists with the same posture: “Polarization is an existential threat to the country. Sure, I wish I had a solution. But I’m certain that that solution won’t cut it.”

They all could be right. But I sure am grateful for people like Zachary Elwood, who is actually working on it instead of fretting about it or brushing it aside. (A Zack and a Zach – my apologies.)

Elwood’s new book, Defusing American Anger, is unique in this regard. His website provides a terrific list of other relevant books, many of which I’ve read myself. While they are all helpful for insight, the ones I’ve read (at least) are light on solutions. (Btw, a while ago I tried to categorize conceivable solutions.)

Elwood’s approach is rooted in his interest in human psychology. His podcast, People Who Read People, is devoted to that topic, and it includes interviews with experts on depolarization.

Political scientists differentiate between ideological polarization (wide separations on specific policy issues) and affective polarization (strong distrust/dislike of the people on the other side.) Almost all agree that, today, the latter kind is the greater problem in this country; and that, certainly, is Elwood’s focus. However, he prefers the term “us-versus-them polarization,” which is easier to understand and better captures the core dynamic: involving identity, tribalism, fear, and the psychology of group membership.

Perhaps counterintuitively, then, the center of his book is a deep analysis of a number of political issues and the partisan arguments surrounding each. He delves into some of most divisive issues: economic anxiety, abortion, conspiracies, religion, racism, transgender controversy, guns, and more.

His m.o., however, is not to rationally develop the optimal policy response on each issue. Rather, it is to scrutinize the narratives and bullshit talking points that are constantly used—sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly—in the public sphere.

I think this is exactly the right approach, for a number of reasons including:

  • At the individual level, reasoning is not separable from emotional thinking. (Jonathan Haidt’s elephant-and-rider metaphor captures this well.) We attach justifications to our tribal impulses and narratives. We (usually inaccurately) think our attitudes toward the other side are based upon reasons about issues.
  • Teaching people how to depolarize, as Elwood is striving to do, requires concrete examples. You can’t separate yourself from polarizing statements in the wild if you don’t understand what is underneath the arguments—not only those employed on the other side but also those on your own side.
  • Also, teaching people to reason about issues elevates thinking, and it generates impatience for Manichean, “they’re trying to destroy the country” rhetoric.
  • It’s not an option to try to stop polarization by reversing uncontrollable trends in media technology, geographic sorting, or the like. Any future reforms, policy responses, or initiatives will need to directly concern themselves with the content of public discourse. It’s the speech environment that has to be changed.

Having followed Elwood on Twitter, listened to some of his podcasts, and now read his book, I can’t think of anyone I’ve seen who better practices what they preach, who better lives their ideals about depolarization. His book has an earnest, vulnerable, plainspoken style which parallels his speaking style in his podcasts. He seems throughout to anticipate negative reactions from readers on both the left and the right, and urges patience. He admits to being “more on the liberal side” himself, but as he analyzes the rhetoric surrounding each issue, it’s clear that he is genuinely detached from the partisan claims and is doing his best to be evenhanded and dispassionate at all times.

I’ve also observed him as an occasional target of partisan snark on Twitter; but he’s thick-skinned, and he maintains his sense of humor and never overreacts. Of course, almost everything on Twitter is snark, and it hard to guess whether he changes any minds in that environment. But it’s an example of the kind of work that he says is required for depolarization.

* * *

One issue that Elwood is especially animated about is the left’s blindness to its own role in polarization. While both sides have culpability, and tribalist psychology is at work for both, the behavior on the two sides in many ways is not symmetric. Studies indicate that conservatives generally have a much better sense of what liberals think than vice versa. Liberal views and assumptions dominate the mass media and entertainment (except in the smaller, separate, right-wing media ecosystem.)

Elwood characterizes the liberal side’s main motive as the pursuit of civil rights and a struggle against oppression related to race, ethnicity, sexual identity, and more. In public discourse, this manifests as political correctness or, as the right now likes to call it, wokeness.

There are strong demands for purity on the progressive left, and hostility towards any “false equivalence” between the shortcomings of the left and the right. Their militant ethos often sees any attempt at depolarization as simply playing into the hands of the “fascists,” “racists,” or “authoritarians” of the other side. The right (for many of them) is so horrible that it must not be negotiated with; rather, it must simply be vanquished.

That’s not to say that there aren’t similarly passionate feelings on the right. But the right is mostly reacting to the left’s political correctness.

I think very few progressives are capable of providing a sensible explanation for why political correctness so enrages those on the right. Not that there is any simple answer. But surely the right’s reaction includes: a backlash against rapid changes in matters of gender and sexuality; fears about the loss of traditional (including religious) values; and, not least, a recognition of the strong condescension exuded by progressives towards them.

Guy Burgess, a conflict resolution specialist that Elwood earlier interviewed on his show, provided what I thought was a pretty good way to explain the conservative perspective on this to liberals. Burgess pointed out how elaborate legal structures have emerged to protect people in certain racial, sexual, and other categories; for example, sexual harassment under Title IX in education is legally actionable.

Beyond that, even, in many liberal-leaning spaces and organizations it is common to expect people to ascribe to a specific set of values and beliefs such as antiracism or other social justice views. There can be reasonable questions and disagreements concerning such beliefs, but the pressure to conform is strong.

Burgess asks liberals to imagine an alternative world which was predominantly ruled by traditional Christian values. He elaborated:

…And when you applied for a job, you had to write an essay that says how much you support traditional Christian views on issues like sex and morality and family structure, or that when you went to publish a book, you had to put your manuscript through sensitivity readers that would review it and see if there was anything that traditional Christians found objectionable.

But the truth is that there are similar institutions enforcing progressive views on these issues and that’s what makes the right mad. And had that situation been reversed, had there been conservative leaning institutions enforcing things in the same sort of way, that would’ve inspired a similar response on the left.

In summary, many on the right feel they are being compelled to conform, against their will. If liberals could take a moment to look at it through their eyes, perhaps it could influence them to change their approach towards conservatives.

* * *

Elwood points out the self-perpetuating nature of polarization: that expressions of animosity help create the very things we are fearful and angry about. Public shaming tends to simply make the opponent stronger: it brings the people on the other side closer together and emboldens them.

Partisans ought to recognize that reducing polarization is a necessary step towards achieving their own goals; and, conversely, that increasing polarization will make it less likely that their goals will be achieved.

* * *

From the standpoint of national governance, extreme polarization is a big problem. Conflict in any society is of course inevitable, and vigorous debate is desirable. But the high and growing level of affective polarization in this country prevents Congress from doing its job. Elwood states:

Our growing inability to effectively govern ourselves is one reason so many smart people believe that us-versus-them polarization is our biggest problem. The threats of civil war and authoritarian overreach are more often talked about, because they’re more exciting. But leaving those threats aside entirely, it’s possible to view our growing impotence as an existential threat— one that could destroy us, especially as new, dangerous threats arise.

I think it could have been helpful for Elwood to elaborate on this point more than he did, because persuading more people to depolarize themselves is easier when they can clearly see (1) the causal link between polarization and government impotence and (2) what specific threats might destroy us if government action doesn’t happen. Without this understanding, it is easiest for people to shrug and assume that the country will muddle through.

I don’t know how I’d rank them, but I do think there are very real and dangerous threats. Civil war seems unlikely to me, but domestic terrorism could easily escalate. Climate inaction will not hurt the US very much in the short term, but each passing decade of increasing fossil fuel burning irreversibly increases the magnitude of long-term global effects. Continuing failure of the US to “get our economic house in order” will lead to reduced competitiveness and a decreasingly harmonious society.

Unfortunately, polarization serves the interests of partisan media, social media, propagandists, and the radical extremes on both sides. A way must be found to reduce their destructive influences.

The solution lies in an improved speech environment. I believe the ideal approach would combine top-down actions and initiatives with bottom-up, grass roots action. I think Zachary Elwood has provided a good blueprint for the latter: (1) an incisive yet understandable description of polarization psychology, and (2), via analysis of issue talking points on both sides, a method of teaching people the difference between rational discussion and tribal propaganda. A greater understanding of why the other side says the things they do can serve to reduce anger and bring the temperature down.

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