Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
The Polarization ExpressThe Polarization Express

The Polarization Express

How did we get into the tunnel, and can anything light our way out? 

9 minute read

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’ll present (slightly edited for brevity) to Convivium readers over the next several days. 

Today: How did we get into the tunnel, and can anything light our way out?

Steve Paikin: David Brooks, these seem to be the end times for the level of political civility, the level of harmony. Are we doomed to this? 

David Brooks: Are these the end times? Well, if you all disappear, we're in the Rapture. I'll still be here, probably. Sadly. I'll say two things. One, my observation of Canada is that you guys are more polarized than I've ever seen Canada.

From urban to rural mostly, from East to West. And yet when I come up here, it feels like I can breathe. I can relax. In the U.S. it's much worse. It's, "Are you evil?” at every turn. I wrote 16 columns in about 2015 saying, "Don't worry, Donald Trump will never get the Republican nomination for president." I was living in Washington, spending a lot of time in New York, and teaching at Yale. So how could I be out of touch with America, right?

I've spent the last three years trying to recover from that, in often three states a week. And one story just rings out as I'm thinking of it. It's a guy I met in South Dakota, a big Trump supporter. He was 70. His best job when he was 32 and the foreman at a section of a plant that did air conditioning. He got laid off because they got new technology that he was not qualified to supervise. So, he thought he'd disappear from the plant leaving no traces.

He packs up all his stuff in the office, has a little box, he opens the door, he's going to walk to his car, and the 3,500 other people at the plant have created a human column, two lanes from his office to the car door in the parking lot. He walks through 3,500 people with them applauding him the whole way. And he said, "That was the best day of my life." He's been working 38 years since, and every job has been worse. Now got a mother-in-law who's in her 90s so they're there (with her) every day, no vacation.

He said, "Trump's got to win. I don't like the guy, but somehow we’ve got to change things." My answer is that Trump is the wrong answer to the right question. That's the core of our polarization. It's a sense that people are really disenchanted with something and they're looking for something to tear down. 

Steve Paikin: Do you see any way out of the polarization that infects so much of the world today, particularly in the city in which you live right now, Washington D.C.?

Anne Snyder: My favourite reason for travelling, not just to Canada but anywhere in the U.S., is because it's more hopeful than where we live. Washington is a very “words” city. It’s a messaging city. I call it a hashtag city, where you're filled with isms and debates rooted in ideologies. I don't believe in doom, but I confess, especially over the last couple of months, I've been in a number of intentionally diverse gatherings to talk about polarization. They’re diverse along sort of ideological lines, racial lines, sometimes class lines. I have left some of those gatherings at the point of tears. I came home about two weeks ago saying, "Man, the founders of this country really screwed things up for the rest of us. Two and a half centuries later, we have to deal with deeply, morally divergent narratives." I think that is what is infecting so much of Americans’ inability to understand where one another is coming from.

It's not just, "I disagree with you." If you disagree, you're sort of morally condemned. There are some real historical reasons for these power plays in any given room. And I find that especially (about race) right now in the U.S.

I'm not finding lots of examples of hope at a huge scale right now (but) where I do find hope tends to be when people get out of the words and the debates. They often say local government is working better than national government. There is a civic renewal going on in the country at the same time that our politics has become so nasty. There's just something about a shared orientation, and a shared assignment, to improve a place that lets people get outside of their perceived differences and get to a deeper basic sense of shared humanity.

Steve Paikin: I think the last time that might have happened for America was in the days after 9/11. Catastrophe tends to bring that on. Can you think of an example short of a massive catastrophe in which a shared national project might be on the agenda?

David Brooks: If Canada invaded, that would be good.

Steve Paikin: As Mr. Trump just reminded us, we're not spending enough of our GDP on the military, so I don't think that's about to happen. One might have thought climate change would have been that, but there's so much disagreement on that as well.

Anne Snyder: I'm having trouble thinking of anything. I mean, people in sort of our circles often talk about the need for a new national narrative that could unite the sort of old America and new America. Again, that may be something that people who are writers and academics say. I'm not sure if national narratives or national creed any longer hold the uniting sway they once did.

Steve Paikin: Arthur, where do you see how we come out of this tunnel of polarization?

Arthur Brooks: Well, everything isn't terrible. It's clear that we're living in the best times we've ever lived in, not just the United States and Canada, but all over the world. We have less poverty than we've ever seen. We have more freedom than we've ever seen. We have less childhood mortality. We have higher levels of literacy and, in point of fact, most countries in the world are getting cleaner and have a better environment. The world is getting better.

The trouble is that we have a neurological tendency. We have an evolutionary prerogative of seeing the bad. If I go back 10 or 15 years, all I read is bad news then, too. If I go back 30 and 40 years, it's not like the newspapers were saying everything was peachy and everything was wonderful, and rainbows, and dolphins, and unicorns. No, it was the same thing. We have a tendency to look at what's wrong and feel rotten about it and wonder why the world is going to Hell. That's just how humans are wired. There's a reason for that. Your genes wouldn't have passed on through the past 500,000 years if you were smelling the roses while there was a sabre tooth tiger sneaking up behind you. You need to pay attention to what's wrong. That's actually how you stay alive.

The problem is that it's misdirected socially. I mean, we have a tendency to use that natural human tendency to be bitter, to be angry about what's wrong. In my work, I try to look at what's coming two and three years ahead. And it's been a tough time to be looking two and three years ahead when what we see now was on the horizon. I remember in 2014, I read a very interesting article in a journal called the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which is the most prestigious academic journal about science for non-scientists. Three social psychologists at Northwestern University wrote about a phenomenon called motive attribution asymmetry, which is what we academics do. When you have a simple idea, you put a fancy word on it, and you get tenure.

Motive attribution asymmetry is a simple concept. It's when you have an intractable conflict between any two groups of people. Generally speaking, you find an asymmetry in the way that they see themselves and each other. Namely, "I'm motivated by love and you are motivated by hatred, hence we cannot deal with each other." Both sides see this in each other and therefore you'll have intractable conflict sometimes for generations. Obviously, that's a cognitive error because both sides can't be simultaneously motivated by love and hatred. That's the good news. It's an error. The problem is, it's very hard to solve. And these authors were looking at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Rwandan genocide, the Balkans. But the reason this got my attention in 2014 was because the authors found the same level of motive attribution asymmetry between Democrats and Republicans in the United States, as between Palestinians and Israelis. "I'm motivated by love; you're motivated by hatred."

Now that was coming down the pike. It arrived. At the time I was running a think tank in the United States called the American Enterprise Institute. I was travelling around raising money, giving speeches, and it was a great life because I would talk to all different groups of people and sort of take the temperature, not just in major cities. A couple of months after I read that article, I gave a talk to 600 conservative activists in Manchester, New Hampshire. Looking at the program, I noticed I was the only guy not running for president, and I thought, "Well this is a mistake," but there aren't any mistakes. There are only opportunities.

So I thought to myself, "What can I do that they can't?" The answer was I can say exactly what I think. So I did, and the three before me, one of them was Donald Trump, by the way, they were doing what politicians always do. They get in front of incredibly partisan, non-mixed audiences, and say, "You're right and everybody who's not here is stupid and evil." That's what they do. I mean, that's how you get votes. You're insane not to do that. I mean, God bless them, I'm not a politician, I can't tell them their business, but I don't have to do that.

So, I got up in front of this audience and it was a kind of a distinct moment for me. I said, "You've been hearing a lot of things that have earned your applause today, and you agree with them. By the way, so do I. The people who aren't here because they wouldn't be comfortable being here, they're political progressives. And I want you to remember that they're not stupid and they're not evil. They're simply Americans who disagree with you on public policy. And if you want to persuade them, which should be your goal, there's only one way you can do that, and that's with love." It was not an applause line. But this lady got the applause right after she yelled out from the audience, "I think they're stupid and evil!"

It was not to repudiate me. It was a joke. It was a festive environment. I thought to myself at that moment: this is a real epiphany for me, morally. I thought of my hometown. I was born in Spokane. I was raised in Seattle, the most left-wing city in America. My mother was an artist and my father was a college professor. What do you think their politics were? I'm the oddball. I'm the black sheep of my family. Let me tell you, they were not stupid, and they were not evil. They were great parents who gave me educational values and raised me as a Christian, and I'm so grateful for those things. They taught me to think for myself, which I did at great inconvenience to them.

So, that was motive attribution asymmetry on the part of that audience, on the part of those politicians, on the part of that lady, and it created huge cognitive dissonance for me. I realized that I was insufficiently exhibiting the moral courage that doesn’t come just from standing up to the people with whom you disagree. That's easy in a free society. Real moral courage comes from standing up to the people with whom you agree on behalf of those with whom you disagree. That's what my parents taught me, and your parents taught you that too. And I saw this is what's coming down the pike. It did, and it's here.

So here's the good news. There's something better coming. Why? Because you cannot maintain this energy, and this is a lot of what this conversation is all about. And I know we'll get into it, but I do see a much better future when 95 per cent of Americans say they hate how divided we've become as a country, and I bet it's 99 per cent of Canadians. We have an old saying at the American Enterprise Institute, "Things that can't go on forever, won't." And our job as those who are engaged in social renewal, our job for those who believe in brotherhood and solidarity, and love for others, is to create the social movement that will push people towards what they really want. And I think we can do it.

Click here to read the next excerpt which explores The Startup Your Life Project

Steve Paikin 

Steve Paikin is a Canadian journalist, author, and documentary producer. He is anchor of TVO's flagship current affairs program The Agenda with Steve Paikin.

Arthur Brooks 

Arthur is Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, and Arthur C. Patterson Faculty Fellow at Harvard Business School. Before joining the Harvard faculty, he served for ten years as president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He has authored 11 books, including Love Your Enemies and The Road to Freedom.

David Brooks 

David Brooks is an author and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.

Anne Snyder

Anne Snyder is the editor-in-chief of Comment magazine and oversees our partner project, Breaking Ground.

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