How Diverse Should Viewpoint Diversity Be?
with Jonathan Haidt
My recent conversation with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt highlights an interesting problem. On the one hand, the country’s increasing political polarization has created a situation in which “structural stupidity,” as Jon calls it, has taken hold in certain institutions in American life. Jon names the Republican Party on the right and “epistemic” institutions, like journalism and academia, on the left. These institutions, Jon argues, suffer from a lack of viewpoint diversity so severe that they have, in some sense, gone insane.
I see what Jon means. When an organization can no longer tolerate dissent from the party line, that organization is in trouble. But on the other hand, while viewpoint diversity is important, there are some positions that we could plausibly call “better” than others. Some solutions to agreed-upon problems are simply going to make more sense and work better than others. If we find those solutions, are we then obliged to continue entertaining ideas we have reason to believe will fail?
As Jon says later in our conversation, paraphrasing John Stuart Mill, we need these other viewpoints in order to test our own presuppositions. Without having our positions tested, we may fall into error or remain ignorant of arguments from the other side that we may ultimately find convincing. In the main, I agree, which is one of the reasons I sit on the advisory council of Heterodox Academy, the organization Jon co-founded to promote viewpoint diversity.
But we are in the midst of social upheaval we have not seen for many decades in this country. We cannot shut down public debate, but neither can we afford to engage in it endlessly. How we choose to balance these twin imperatives—to remain open to debate and to maintain the integrity of our society—may well determine how some of our most pressing questions, including that of the status of our democracy itself, get answered in the coming years.
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GLENN LOURY: I certainly endorse the idea that if you're seeing behavior very widespread, the idea that it's rooted in personal character traits is not a plausible hypothesis. Something systemic must be going on. It doesn't follow from that that courageous acts of heroism and courage couldn't be disruptive, in a way, so as to restore. I mean, I'm reminded of this old argument. I'm sure you're familiar with Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann, the political scientist.
JONATHAN HAIDT: I love that essay. I just read it a few months ago. Yes.
The spiral of silence, where where everybody keeps quiet because they don't know that their opinion, which is held by many others as well, but because the others are not speaking, they don't know it and they stay quiet as well. And, of course, that situation is rife for radical disruption in the sense that it can unravel. And once a few people start expressing an idea that is being suppressed by others because they think no one else holds it, it can sweep into play.
Can you address my question about, you say the president of Yale is a coward. You said Robert Zimmer at the University of Chicago, he stands out. Where are the alumni? Where are the donors, the various other stakeholders that are at play? And isn't there a political corrective bound to come into action if you don't get leadership? That is, demagogues. Demagogues on the right. People like Donald Trump can rise to tremendous power just by tapping into the sense that, you know, the institutions are failing us and the loss of trust that people have, because everyone is fearful about saying the emperor has no clothes.
Yeah, that's right. So yes, we should be on the lookout for backfire effects and for pyrrhic victories. So a pyrrhic victory, of course, is one where you win the battle but the cost is so devastating that you end up losing the war. And the analysis I offer in my essay is, let's look at each side separately, and let's see what's happening.
So let's start with the right. On the right, the Republican Party, I believe, has become structurally stupid. It is the insane party, much more so than the Democrats. What I mean by that—forget about policy issues. People can be upset about policy issues. As long as you have a debate where you can take a moderate position, you can take a more far right position. Do you have a debate between those? And on the Republican side, the answer is no. If you're a moderate, you're gone. You're already gone. There are no moderates left.
So the Republicans shot their moderates. If you shoot your moderates, then you become structurally stupid, by definition. And so [someone] like Donald Trump can egregiously promise to steal the election beforehand, and then he loses and he does these things and the Congress covers for him. So the Republican Party is the structurally stupid party. If we had a true market, if we had an effective market, then they would be losing elections.
But now let's turn to the Democrats. The Democratic Party is not structurally stupid. You may disagree with the things they say, but they've got moderates. They've got extremists. Joe Manchin can hold everything up. So there is debate within the party. The problem on the left, I believe, is that the left dominates almost all of our epistemic and cultural institutions. “Epistemic” means those that generate knowledge. So journalism, the media, universities, the arts, all of these things have leaned left for a long, long time, which is not necessarily a problem.
But what we documented at Heterodox Academy is that, beginning in the '90s, that left lean, it used to be two or three-to-one left to right in this country. Professors. It moved from two or three-to-one to five or six-to-one over about 15 years. By 2011, it was five or six-to-one. And that includes like the agriculture school and the engineering school. If you look at the central academic departments, like psychology or economics there, it's more like ten or twenty-to-one. So you lose your viewpoint diversity. And then this cultural war comes in and then this woke ideology comes in. I think what I'm learning is that a part of it was nurtured on Tumblr. There were certain ideas that young women were getting on Tumblr around 2012, 2013 about microaggressions and safe spaces and trigger warnings. And so this stuff comes into the university around 2013, 2014.
My point is just that, on the left, it's not that the Democratic Party is stupid. It's that morally homogeneous or politically homogeneous organizations were ripe for the Noelle-Neumann spiral of silence, where if you're center-left, as I always used to be, if you’re center-left suddenly you're now right-adjacent, is what I've been called. “You're right-adjacent!” And so, if all the moderates get shot and silenced and shamed, before you know it, the consensus is so far left that you get them doing stupid, stupid things, policies that are so easy for Fox News to make fun of. And this is the case—
Let me push back a bit. This is just devil's advocate or something like that. I don't doubt that there are problems in the Republican Party of the sort that you describe, and Donald Trump's influence is clearly a part of the problem. But given a choice between capitalism, that is markets, that is private property and the rule of law, that is a relatively free economy with a relatively small central government, necessary services being provided to people, but the greatest scope possible being given to initiative, liberty, and whatnot and what AOC—I'm sorry, just to be concrete, I don't mean any disrespect, you know what I'm trying to say—would impose on us is very clear in my mind.
I'm not asking you to be a Republican. I'm declaring my own view and saying that it's not crazy. It's not crazy. It's not crazy to resist the avant-garde cultural revolutionists who are redefining ways of life amongst American people [with] norms that have not been vetted by any democratic process but rather are being imposed upon us by a sanctimonious and self-righteous elite. I could give concrete examples, but you see the general thing that I'm talking about.
It is not crazy to want a border on the country, to be concerned about the indiscriminate and unregulated entry into the country of people without authorization. That's a real issue, Jon. It's not crazy. Now, the party that embodies defense of capitalism, the party that gives voice to the concerns of tens of millions of Americans about cultural revolution, the party that asks the question, “Can we have control over who enters our country?” is the Republican Party. I'm sorry about Donald Trump. I regret, I understand, and I agree with you about the primary structure and whatnot. But you can't refute the questions. Are we gonna have a border on the country? Who's in control of the culture? And how do you run the political economy? You can't refute that with a social-psychological process that labels people as crazy.
So first, I just noticed something about you. When your voice goes up, your voice sort of breaks, that's when they're like, “Wow, he's on a roll.” And I actually don't wanna stop you, because I love your rants. You said, “Sanctimonious.” There's that word. “Sanctimonious.” He's on.
But I actually don't want us to go down the road of policy. I understand all of your points about why you would vote Republican, because of the policies. And I said, let's not talk about policies. I understand differences. The point I want to make is, the Republican Party has shot its moderates in Congress. I don't know about the states, but at least in Congress, the Republican Party is not capable of doing its constitutional duty of holding Donald Trump to account. They're not capable of it because they are structurally stupid. They are broken.
Now you'd think, then, that people should then vote for the other party. But no, for the reasons that you say. Because it's not that the Democratic Party is doing all these terrible things. Now, fine, AOC, if she had her way, maybe she would do things that you would hate. But the Democratic Party is still a center-left party overall, headed by Joe Biden, who recently said, “No, fund the police.” Fund the police. I'm just saying, the Democratic Party is not the crazy party.
But all the things you're talking about are the things that the woke left wants to do. And those are the things that make people vote for the Republican Party, even for Donald Trump, even when they hold their nose. And a lot of smart conservatives understood Donald Trump's flaws, but they said, “I have to vote for him because ...” and they would point to exactly the trends you're pointing to.
So that's the situation we face, is that the left and the right, we have this far right, which is not conservative or liberal, they're illiberal. We have a far left which is not liberal, it's illiberal. We have two parties. We used to have a center-left, center-right party. Now we don't quite have that anymore. So it's a complete mess. We're in a culture war in which, exactly as the founding fathers warned us, Madison said something like, “Because of the spirit of partisanship, people are more inclined to vex and oppress each other than to work together for the common welfare.” And that's the situation that we're in.