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Phone Home January 2, 2020  |  By Steve Paikin, and Arthur Brooks, David Brooks, Anne Snyder
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In early December, as the second decade of the 21st century closed, Cardus hosted a panel discussion in Toronto hosted by TV Ontario’s Steve Paikin and featuring New York Times columnist David Brooks, Anne Snyder, editor of Convivium’s sister publication Comment, and Arthur Brooks, founder of the American Enterprise Institute and now an academic at Harvard. 

The panel convened the morning after the semi-annual Munk Debate at which 45 per cent of the audience agreed capitalism has failed and needs to be replaced. Originally, the Cardus discussion was designed to extend the Munk debate, but host Paikin and the three panellists decided on a more compelling topic: the political polarization that is splintering American and Canadian life. 

What followed was a galvanizing display of cerebral improv, which we’ve presented (slightly edited for brevity) to Convivium readers over four days this week. 

Today: Questions and Answers

Steve Paikin: Okay. Your turn. We'd like to take some questions from the floor. I know it is a typical trait of a Canadian audience that no one wants to go first. So, do we have any Americans here who want to ask the first question? Thank you, sir, for getting us started. 

Questioner: I'm actually not American, but I will get this party started. Both David and Anne have touched on the role of place in polarization. Primarily, and David especially talked about this, was the divide that we have between rural and urban America. Could you talk more about how the intersection between the place where people live and the polarization that they experience, as well as the roots of their resentment as they've watched essentially their farms emptied out by agribusiness, their towns emptied out by offshoring, and then their lives emptied out by pharmaceuticals. Is there some resentment on their part of both left and right, of those who live in the urban centers that they see as having essentially eviscerated their way of life, and religion being essentially all they have left?

David Brooks: I was in a small town called Wilkesboro, which is an hour outside Winston-Salem (North Carolina). Wilkesboro was home of Lowe's hardware, which is a big hardware chain. It was the place where NASCAR was invented. It was the place where Holly Farms was invented. And all those three companies have left. Wilkesboro went through its opioid crisis in the '90s and there was no place for people in that town to gather. There was a bowling alley, but it burned down. Teenagers had to drive an hour to Winston-Salem to find a coffee shop. That's what a lot of rural America is like. Yet what's inspiring to me is how well they're building back.

There are now coffee shops. There are now health clubs. They love their place. They're not moving out. My original impulse was, "Get the heck out of here. Go to Phoenix." But their roots are in Wilkesboro. I met a guy who started a local brewery, Moonshine, which is their speciality. You find these people in small towns... I was in Nebraska in a similar town. I met a woman with nine kids. She runs triathlons. She’s a school bus driver, swim team coach, substitute teacher. She runs the local music festival. In these small towns, everybody has nine jobs. So I've been heartened by the level of local repair, even if there’s national dysfunction.

With the Weave project, I've been in probably 40 states in the last three years. Whether it's in rural Nebraska or urban New Orleans, the people I meet with who are really healing community and building relationships use the same language. It's radical mutuality. We're not helping others. We're all broken. We're just helping each other. It's radical hospitality. 

You knock on my door, I'm going to open it wider than you'd ever think. In the urban areas where we live and where Arthur lives in Boston, if you knocked on your neighbour's door at 8:30 at night, it would be the most outrageous violation of privacy ever. But one of the things that hearten me about the local areas that I go to is that isn’t true. I was at a dinner in New Orleans and I said, "The problem is none of us knows our neighbours," and they looked at me like, "What are you talking about? We all know our neighbours."

A woman in Florida we met was helping the elementary school kids out of the classroom to cross the street so they could go home. And we said to her, "Do you have time to volunteer in your community?"

And she said, "No."

And we said, "Are you being paid for this?"

And she said, "No, I do this to help the kids across the street."

We said, "What are you doing next?"

She said, "Well, on Thursdays I take food to the hospital for the sick people."

"So, do you have any time to volunteer?"

"No, I have no time to volunteer."

She just considered what she was doing as being a good neighbour. At the national level, we look pretty diseased. But the hope for me is that at local level, we look pretty repairing.

Anne Snyder: I've been hearing about a series of fairly echoing stories in a variety of rural communities throughout the U.S. where the very people that might be most vocal, at least in our polls, on the immigration issue in a pretty anti way, for example, are some of the most hospitable people when a group of refugees needs help. And you hear these stories of amazing pluralism working itself out around tables in a civic environment. And they're very open to saying, "Yes, these people are actually revitalizing even our moral sensibilities as a community." But that's somehow not always reflected in the political fears. No doubt some great psychologists can make sense of that. But personal encounter doesn't always change politics.

Questioner: If Fox News had been around and in (President Richard) Nixon's day, would he have been impeached?

Steve Paikin: Arthur?

Arthur Brooks: Fox News is a consequence, not a cause, of the problems in the United States. One of the encouraging, and discouraging, things about democratic capitalism is that both democracy and capitalism tend to follow the demand curve of society. They affect it too, don't get me wrong, but one of the things that we see is that businesses respond to market signals. And when there's no longer an appetite for it in the United States, Fox News will suddenly change. I predict that within four or five years, Fox News will be a different phenomenon, as will MSNBC and the similar products all across the political spectrum in the United States that are polarizing. They look like they're pushing the polarization. They are involved in the polarization process. But fundamentally they're a consequence of the fact that people have these impulses per se.

I think it's impossible that Fox News would have existed under that (previous) ecosystem. It came to be in 1996, and one year later MSNBC came into existence. It was actually in the late '80s that a run-up in trust in the press started to deteriorate rapidly in the United States. It was during the George H. W. Bush administration. 1988 is when you just actually see the bottom start to drop out on trust in the press, as well as many other institutions. There's literally only one government institution in America where trust is high and getting higher, and that's the U.S. military. Every other institution is falling, and it's also the case with the press and civic institutions that trust is falling apart.

It was in the late '80s and early '90s, before Fox News came into existence, that there was a lot of questioning of the veracity of press reports, about the integrity of journalists that was coming around. And there are a lot of different hypotheses about whether that existed. A lot of it has to do with right-wing talk radio, which has had a much more, I think, metastatic force on the polarization of American politics than the TV networks have.

Questioner: David, in your most recent book, you seem to indicate we're in a transition period between moral ecologies, and that's part of our cultural moment. Do you think the polarization and the intensity we have right now, how much is it because of that transitional phase that we're in, and what moral ecology do we think might be coming on the outside of this transition period?

David Brooks: The reason we're tribal is because if you leave human beings spiritually alone and socially alone, they do what their evolutionary roots tell them to do, and so they revert to tribe. And to me, tribe is a word that's complicated because my native American friends love the word. But the way I'm using it here is a little different. It's the opposite of community. Community is based on mutual love for a place or an idea. And tribe is based on mutual hatred for one another. Tribalism is a scarcity mentality, not an abundance mentality. It's a zero-sum game. It's us versus them. It's conflict. It's war. And that's the mentality we're into. I'm a cultural determinist. I think culture shapes most things. And our norms about individualism versus the group have shifted over 70 years.

So if you grew up in the '50s and you lived in Chicago, you didn't say, "I'm from Chicago." You said, "I'm from 59th and Pulaski." It was your local neighbourhood, your local parish. It was your local butcher shop, that was your place. And you were ensconced in relationship. There was not much TV, not much air conditioning, and the kids were running in from house to house. There were coffee klatches. There were babysitting co-ops. As one historian said, you had to be a very determined loner to be alone in such a place.

And we shifted out of that because we had the shift away from a society that was too racist, too sexist, too anti-semitic, too boring. The food was awful. And to me the highlight, the symptom of cultural shift was in American football, Super Bowl III, where the Baltimore Colts had a quarterback named Johnny Unitas who was a very '50s guy. Crude cut, high top sneakers, very boring, good player, but just like an organization man. And the other side of the field, on my team, was the New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, who had long hair, a swinger, anti-institutional. He wrote a memoir called, I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow Because I Get Better-looking Every Day. 

That was individual self-expression. And we've now had 60 years of it. And we've had individual self-expression of the right, which is economic individualism, of the left, which is lifetime lifestyle. But it's been individualism all the way down. We've attenuated the connections between each other.

What we're hungry for, and what we're searching for, is some sort of way of reconnecting to each other. And tribalism is a way to attempt to do that. But to me, the keyword in our society for the first time in my lifetime is not freedom. It's connection. And we're just looking for that way to connect.

Arthur Brooks: David and I have this conversation a lot. We've been friends for a long time, and I'm always a little bit more on the individualistic side than David is. And one of the things that has repaired American societies significantly and consistently, in my view, has been in times after, for example, after the Civil War, what created a much more unified understanding of American society was the self-improvement revolution that happened after the Civil War. And the self-improvement revolution had a tremendous communitarian aspect to it. It was the evangelical churches sweeping across (America) in tent revivals. It was the temperance movement, but it was also the idea that Andrew Carnegie built 2,509 English-speaking libraries for the working man such that you can be your own CEO.

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It was the idea that Dale Carnegie had when he wrote How to Win Friends & Influence People: Everybody has greatness within. And it became kind of the civic religion that the individual had primacy, the individual had greatness, but of course you need community. That was the whole concept behind “Go West, young man,” which was a big deal in Canada too. Every community should be able to repair itself, of course, but it distresses me just as much that the geographic mobility in the United States has been cut more than in half since 1980. According to census data in the United States, when I was a kid one in five families would move any given year. We knew our neighbours, but one in five families would move in any given year. It's less than one in 10 right now.

We're demobilizing people with welfare systems. People still don't know each other. We do have an opioid crisis, and yet people are stuck in these places where they feel they don't have agency, they don't have a sense of their own greatness. They're stuck in a place where there isn't any opportunity.

I filmed a documentary last year and part of it was filmed in a little town in Kentucky called Inez, Kentucky, where Lyndon Johnson kicked off his War on Poverty. Today, only 29 per cent of adults are in the workforce. Why? Because there aren't coal jobs. It should be an ex-town. They don't need Donald Trump. They don't need opiates. They need U-Haul. It's very important to remember that the sense of self-determinism is integral to the understanding of the North American spirit. So just a word for individualism.

Steve Paikin: This has got to be the last question I'm afraid. 

Questioner: You've talked a lot about tribalism and there's a place where tribalism flourishes in great measure, and that is social media. And you haven't really touched on the social space but in many ways it's kind of replaced the public square, especially for the young people you were talking about. The impact of that is not only that they don't necessarily feel the need to get out and engage with their physical neighbour. They're no longer able to. They've lost a lot of the skills socially, which can explain some anxiety you're talking about. I'd like your perspective on the role of the social space in both damaging and potentially repairing the kind of polarization we've been discussing.

Steve Paikin:  Anne, do you want to start on that one?

Anne Snyder: I'm such a Luddite. I'm probably in some ways the oldest one here in not being pro-social media. I'm going to let them answer on the whole question. I think it's just been really damaging. It's just been really damaging. And I wish I were more nuanced on it, but I'm not.

Arthur Brooks: There's a lot of very clear research on this. People who talk about climate science say the science has settled. In this case, the science is settled. People who use social media less than half an hour a day have higher levels of social connection because they use it to find out what's going on with their real relationships. People who use it for more than half an hour a day are substituting their social media relationships for their in-person relationships. Social media, when it's a complement in your life, is beneficial. When social media is a substitute for real human-to-human relationships, where neuroscientists talk about how eye contact stimulates a hormone, a neurotransmitter called oxytocin. That's the love molecule.

You don't get it from social media and so you're getting a counterfeit substitute that gives you really no satisfaction, and it frays all sorts of bonds that actually should exist. And so net, given the fact that most people use social media, use it for hours a day, it is a net social bad.

David Brooks: I mentioned the 70 per cent rise in suicide. We're not wired for imperfect communication, for ego-driven communication. Instagram is, "Look, my life is better than yours." Twitter is, "Look, your opinion is dumber than mine." And that's imperfect communication. When new technologies come in, we don't know how to use them. All we see is the upside. I'm not giving away my phone, but we figure out the downsides and then we adjust. I think we're in the process of adjusting. I have this conversation everywhere I go, and it raises the question, "How do I use this thing correctly?"

We have a friend named Andy Crouch. He has a rule: "When I wake up in the morning, I go outside, and I look at the sky before I look at my phone." He takes phone Sabbaths and tries to figure out how to use the technology properly. I was out at Facebook two weeks ago and it's an awesome facility by the way. But I was struck by having many conversations, including with Mark Zuckerberg, that these people are engineers, they have no clue. They, just like Zuckerberg, say, "I'm an engineer. I don't think about this. I don't think in those terms."

Somehow, we find a way to make Facebook and Instagram and Twitter products for good. I'm not sure Twitter can be (a product for good), but Instagram or Facebook really can be. Facebook groups can be a source (of good) if we use them correctly to create the real community.

Arthur Brooks: They have the complementarity.

David Brooks: With our Weave Project, those most enthusiastic about our project are people between 18 and 24, because they say: "We don't know how to do relationships; teach us." It's just basic skill-building. 

Anne Snyder: Courage building.

David Brooks: And courage-building, right. And so somehow if we can use Facebook to teach those basic skills, then we can use the technology. Somebody (at Facebook) was telling me how the technology is improving. They were saying that in five years, none of us will be using our thumbs to text. You'll just talk into the phone and the other person will talk back to you. And I said, "So it's a phone." So, my basic view is people figure stuff out.

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