Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell: The dark psychology of social networks
Over the years, our acquaintance has grown into a friendship, and I trust Haidt to make sense of the times in which we live. So in the midst of this deeply unsettled moment in American life, when we’re dealing with both polarization and a pandemic, I reached out to him.
IBEGAN THE INTERVIEW by asking Haidt to reflect on what COVID-19 is revealing about American society, whether it would draw us closer together or push us farther apart, and how we might leverage this moment into greater social solidarity and cohesion. The best way to approach this question, he replied, is to look at the trajectory of American democracy over the past decade and a half or so.
Around 2008, Haidt became increasingly concerned by how politically polarized America was becoming, and polarization has only worsened over the past dozen years. “I’ve gotten more and more alarmed every year since then,” he told me, “and there are several trends that are very disturbing,” including the rise of “affective polarization,” or the mutual dislike and hate each political side feels for the other. “When there’s so much hatred, a democracy can’t work right,” he said. “You can’t get compromise. You get exactly the situation that the Founders feared, that [James] Madison wrote about in ‘Federalist 10,’ which is faction, which is people care more about defeating the other side than they do about the common good.”
For some time now, Haidt has been saying that if current trends continue, the United States may somehow come apart—but he always adds that trends never continue forever. Things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse; you can’t just extrapolate from the present. “When the COVID-19 crisis hit, at first I was very optimistic that no matter how bad things get, there’s a real chance this could throw us off of the downward trajectory we were on,” he said. “There’s a real chance that this could be the reset button. So that’s the framework that I bring to all of my thinking about the implications of this crisis for the country, that we were headed in a very bad direction and a lot is going to change. And so I am more hopeful now than I was before—but that isn’t saying much.”
Derek Thompson: Why the internet is so polarized, extreme, and screamy
Social media essentially gives a megaphone to the extremes, so it’s very hard to know what most people really think. “And when you look at the people who are loudest on Twitter and elsewhere, it’s quite clear that this pandemic is turning into just another culture-war issue, where people on the left see what they want to see and people on the right see what they want to see.”
But Haidt pointed out that several surveys, including one in April by More in Common, show that the pandemic is having the sort of unifying effect that major crises tend to have. Feelings toward Donald Trump are almost perfectly polarized, as one would expect. But on other important questions, there’s not that much polarization. For example, 90 percent of Americans believe that “we’re all in it together,” compared to just 63 percent in the fall of 2018. The share of Americans who describe the country as “unified” has grown from 4 percent in 2018 to 32 percent today, while the percentage of Americans who regard the country as “very divided” has dropped from 62 percent to just 22 percent. Other polls show that the divide between Republicans and Democrats on social-distancing measures isn’t all that large.