In a society roiled by division, how can we find common ground again with those who don’t share our views?
A Q&A with Arthur Brooks
In this series, the Gazette asks Harvard experts for concrete solutions to complex problems. Arthur Brooks, William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, is a social scientist who studies and teaches about love and happiness. He writes the “How to Build a Life” column for The Atlantic and authored the 2019 bestseller “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.” Before coming to Harvard, Brooks was president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., from 2009 to 2019.
GAZETTE: It feels like the political rifts have deepened and seeped into areas of society we haven’t seen before, like public health and professional sports. Where are we right now? Are we at a low point?
BROOKS: I think it’s actually better now than it was a year ago. But you’re right that in general this era is worse than it’s been in a long time. Social scientists have measured bitter polarization, and it’s more bitter than it’s been in many decades. The way to measure that is through motive attribution asymmetry, which is the disposition of people who are implacably opposed to each other. Both sides believe that they’re motivated by love, but the other side is motivated by hatred. That’s what drives couples apart and to divorce court. The people who study this are pretty persuaded that the level of motivation asymmetry [in the U.S.] is as bad as it is between the Palestinians and Israelis. It was already bad in 2014, and it is worse now.
The second question is: Why? The facile political answer is: Trump, right? In truth, [Donald] Trump is a symptom, not a cause. There’s a very interesting set of papers on this by social scientists who have looked at what happens in the 10 to 15 years after a financial crisis. What happens is that 80 percent of wealth flows to the top 20 percent of the income distribution for a long time after a financial crisis.
That asymmetry of recovery leads to political populism and political populism leads to polarization. Populism basically says, “Somebody’s got your stuff, and I’m going to get it back.” Populism is almost always a fear-based ideology. It’s not a unity, love-based ideology. Data on 800 elections over 120 years in 20 advanced economies clearly shows that this kind of circumstance economically leads to something like a 30 percent increase in the voter share for populist parties and candidates. That’s what we’ve seen in both parties over the past five years, by the numbers. Politicians will respond to those conditions of bitterness and fear by giving voice to it. And then what happens is that you have a coercive political culture of bullying and people start dividing up [into] teams, led by bullies. The paradox is that we actually hate it: 93 percent of Americans say they hate how divided we’ve become as a country. One in six Americans are not talking to close friends or family members because of politics.
GAZETTE: Are politics solely to blame for this division or are there other forces at work?
BROOKS: It’s sort of a perfect cultural storm. So, for example, a lot of people who probably would be involved in religious activity but have been less and less so over the past four decades have gotten a lot more energy from seeing their moral sense exemplified and expressed through the political process. So declining religious participation means increasing moral-political participation. That’s number one.
Number two is the way the media works today. It’s excessively federalized our attention on national politics, making it into kind of a quasi-religious entertainment industry. Now, people will substitute actual work in their communities for awareness and outrage about national politics, over which they have no control. To get mad about politics and post something on Facebook about [Joe] Biden or Trump is not actually the definition of good citizenship. It’s not citizenship at all. It’s just expressing yourself. People actually think that they’re engaged in society by being really mad about politics all the time. That’s part of how media has torqued the political conversation.
Third, there’s the filter bubbles that have come with social media. Social media has made it virtually impossible not to have more of what you think come to you. And with social media controlling so much of the message, it’s changed the major media. So there’s an unholy convergence of the economic circumstances going back to the Great Recession, the decline in religious affiliation and civic participation, entertainment politics, the new media models, and the bitter polarization that comes naturally through the election cycle. All together, millions of people have become quite addicted to the outrage. The whole cycle is similar to drug addiction. It just feeds on itself again and again and again. We get into this deeply suboptimal equilibrium, and it gets worse until people finally get fed up and clip the cycle. The good news is that we can reverse it. We can have a virtuous upward cycle of love that leads to warmheartedness and tolerance and community and unity and more love and more confidence and less fear and up and up and up. And that’s what we need to get into again.
GAZETTE: Politicians stir up social divisions because it is so reliably effective. But today, more people have fused their political views with their social identity. There’s a strident, zero-sum quality to it, as well. It’s not enough to support a candidate. You must advocate in a certain way and must also be against her or his opponent. How damaging is this all-or-nothing attitude we see from and within both parties?