America’s uncivil war on democracy

America’s uncivil war on democracy, by Paul Kelly.

Making his first visit to Australia, American social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership Jonathan Haidt warns that the liberal, multicultural, secular model of Western politics is not a natural phenomenon for human beings and believes there is a “very good chance” that US democracy will fail in the next 30 years.

“I am alarmed, as much as I would be if my hair was on fire. I am extremely concerned.” …

Haidt’s analysis and empirical research over years shows a culture war between progressives and conservatives, both possessed by a moral righteousness with a growing inability to understand and accept each other. The upshot is the capacity for compromise — essential for any polity — is dying. He says the left and right are now akin “to different cultures”.

“We just don’t know what a democracy looks like when you drain all the trust out of the system,” Haidt says. “Although we do have examples of such democracies in Latin America, and the result is generally not pretty.

We have been warning of what happens when a previous high trust society turns low trust due to immigration. And what happens when a set of political fantasies about how the world works, enforced by political correctness, rubs against reality. The gulf between reality and the PC world is pretty wide now, and getting wider.

“So I don’t know what this future will look like. It may just be a continual decline in trust and efficacy such that everything is contested, everything is fought.

“The current political civil war is between two groups of educated white people with radically different views about what the country is, what morality is and what we need to do to move forward.

“Most Americans are non-political but in the age of social media they have become like dark matter. In a sense they don’t matter, they don’t exist. The modern civil war is being fought by the extremes.” …

The transformative technology is social media with “its disastrous consequences for our most important and specialised institutions”, and the cultural eruption is the arrival of Generation Z, born in 1996 and afterwards, which embraces the new divisive identity politics with the consequence that between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of an entire generation is potentially at risk, with anxiety, mental health and suicide on the rise. …

The banishment of tribalism was one of the greatest achievements of western politics. Now it is returning:

Haidt’s starting point is the evolutionary story of human nature. He says “the human mind is prepared for tribalism” and that “our minds were devised for groupish righteousness” because “we are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive strategic reasoning”. This means our political systems are far more fragile than we appreciate because, from the time of Plato onwards, the task was to devise political systems where tribal passions could be contained, disciplined and controlled. Now we are reverting.

He calls the creation of liberal, secular, multicultural, tolerant democracy a “miracle”. Our great delusion is to think it is the natural order for humanity. It isn’t. …

Haidt agrees that “tolerant liberal democracy is not a naturally occurring phenomenon” and warns that any nation that wants to sustain this model must work “very hard to turn down tribal identities and inter-group conflicts”. But the US and the West are heading in the opposite direction.

Calling social media “one of the central problems of the age”, Haidt says: “The rise of social media shreds any shared network of social understandings or meanings. It is worthwhile to look back at the story of the Tower of Babel — human beings were getting so powerful that God said he would confound us by shredding our common understandings by dividing us by language. I believe social media is doing that today.

“Social media is putting us all into the state of humanity after the Tower of Babel. A democracy is predicated on the ability of groups to compete but also to co-operate. You must have compromise in a democracy. And that is becoming increasingly difficult. When people believe the ends justify the means they are much more likely to resort to violence. So far there still has been little political violence in the US but I expect that will rise. …

Activists in the US now refer to the “Great Awokening” — meaning the rising awareness of the oppression committed against minority victim groups by privileged elites. This is invoked by the younger generation empowered by social media. …

This generates not just an “us versus them” culture but a destructive morality: life is a battle between good and bad people. Once this moral view takes hold, co-operation is shot.

For Haidt this goes to the essence of the crisis. The conflict between progressives and conservatives is assuming, particularly in the mind of progressives, a conflict between good and bad people.

Referring to the evolution of human nature Haidt and Lukianoff wrote in The Coddling of the American Mind: “Tribalism is our evolutionary endowment for banding together to prepare for inter-group conflict. When the tribal switch is activated, we bind ourselves more tightly to the group, we embrace and defend the group’s moral matrix and we stop thinking for ourselves. In tribal mode, we seem to go blind to arguments and information that challenge our team’s narrative. Merging with the group in this way is deeply pleasurable.” ..

The great risk America faces leaps from the pages of The Righteous Mind — it is that people cannot disagree with civility because they are governed by rival moralities. Haidt’s message is that “morality binds” but it also “blinds” — it binds people into “ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle”. Unless checked, this is the path to ruin. …

“Social media has put everyone in touch with everyone else and that knocks down the walls that segregated different practices,” Haidt says. “Doctors should have different norms from engineers and dentists and psychiatrists. But on social media everyone can yell at everyone and everyone can hold others to account. This has disastrous consequences for our most important and specialised institutions. A university is not the public square. It must have different norms from the public square.