Americans are increasingly polarized and we know it, but aren’t sure what to do about it. We talk about polarization a lot and some of us are even taking action: a number of organizations have sprung up in recent years to work on bridging divides. Maybe they have made progress, but it’s safe to say there’s still work to be done.
The prolific social scientist and public intellectual Arthur Brooks is the latest to enter the antipolarization fray. His contribution is a DIY depolarization manual of sorts titled Love Your Enemies. The book makes a behavioral science–based case for why and how we should be respectful toward, and yes, maybe even love, our fellow citizens, even when we disagree politically.
Brooks will be the Joseph McKeen Visting Fellow at Bowdoin College, my employer, in the upcoming (2019–20) academic year. I haven’t met him, but we’ve exchanged a few e-mails and I look forward to meeting him when he visits campus. I’m particularly interested in his work partly because of his new affiliation here, and also because we’re both economists now trying to make contributions to the world of political psychology. Like Brooks and many others, I see polarization as a fundamental problem, as it prevents us from addressing many (most?) other problems, and it’s been a focus of my research.
Brooks has an unconventional background. He grew up in Seattle, the child of liberal academic–artist parents and played French horn professionally for 10 years before going back to school. He converted to Catholicism as a teenager and is still devoted to the faith. He was a successful academic before becoming president of perhaps the leading right-of-center think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. His other books include The Conservative Heart and Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism.
Brooks’ eclectic and impressive credentials, and social consciousness, should, one would think, give him credibility to readers across the political spectrum. And Love Your Enemies is, unsurprisingly, very well written and well researched. It fills a gap in the literature of academic papers and related books on the topic, engagingly and convincingly making the case for the title’s proposition.
The book’s first key point is that “views might be [worthy of contempt], but no person is” (his italics). Indeed, people on “the other side” tend to be more decent than we’re often inclined to think. An especially compelling example is the amazing story Brooks leads with of Hawk Newsome, the Black Lives Matter activist who led a protest of a Trump rally in September 2017, just a few weeks after the “Unite the Right” conflict in Charlottesville. Violence seemed about to flare up (again) when rally organizer Tommy Hodges unexpectedly invited Newsome to come on stage and speak. Newsome made the most of the opportunity, winning over the crowd with a message of unity, and has stayed friends with Hodges since then.
Brooks’ second major point is that we should love our enemies (so to speak), not because it’s our civic duty, but because it will benefit us personally—that we are more persuasive and happier when we are respectful and appreciative, rather than contemptuous, of others. This “invisible hand” argument for depolarization (that pursuing self-interest leads to the common good) is consistent with, and perhaps influenced by, Brooks’ general laissez-faire philosophy.
One relatively obvious shortcoming of the book is that its suggestions aren’t likely to reach those who most need to hear them. Yes, some readers may be enlightened, and others might appreciate the talking points. But the book is much more likely to be read by those who least benefit from its message.
Another clear issue is that even Brooks acknowledges there are some bad actors out there, but it’s not so clear what to do about them. Nice guys can get exploited. Figuring out when to fight back is the tricky part of these repeated games.
A perhaps more subtle critique is that Brooks’ case for what he calls “the competition of ideas,” based on an analogy to sports—and discussion of relevant social science—is, I think, somewhat incomplete. Yes, the benefit of exposure to differing viewpoints and intellectual diversity is often underappreciated. And yes, competition is a great motivator and often a good way to evaluate merit.
But in sports, competing players are supposed to be completely self-interested: they play to win. In politics, one of the big issues driving partisan discord is that we believe the other side is too self-serving and focused on political gamesmanship—and not truly pursuing the common good. Brooks notes the importance of respect for the rules in sports. But politics is about making the rules. A competitive approach in politics can therefore easily be perceived as signaling “bad faith” and feed hostility.
For example, suppose I prefer policy A and you prefer B. I have two pieces of hard evidence that I observe privately, one pro-A and one pro-B. A strictly competitive approach might imply that I should just disclose the pro-A info. If you later discover that I hid the pro-B piece, you might lose trust in my honesty and motives.
Even if my motives were indeed pure, or at least I felt they were, the deception implies, or may be unduly interpreted as, evidence to the contrary. To best act in good faith (and signal this to others) we must make an active effort to share such “counter-attitudinal” information. We might have to make an active effort to even observe such information, since we often unconsciously ignore it otherwise.
Remember: “don’t believe everything you think.” Brooks neglects the psychology and behavioral economics literatures on overconfidence and motivated reasoning supporting such “intellectual humility.” These literatures at least implicitly suggest that we should not just seek to make the best case for our ideas, but also to learn from others, and even acknowledge our mistakes. This hurts our reputations less than we’d expect and might even help; owning up to our errors is correlated with a variety of positive character traits.
In fact, there is also evidence of a direct link between overconfidence and partisan contempt. When we stop thinking of ourselves as advocates for a position, and more as truth-seekers, happy to accept appropriate uncertainty, we become less likely to think of those with different views as “enemies.”
I fear that Brooks’ competitive approach to the world of ideas may be counterproductive for some of these reasons. Recently, a smart progressive friend of mine said he thought Brooks might be “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” My friend claimed that Brooks had willfully overstated pro-market arguments in prior work, signaling bad faith. I think this skepticism of Brooks is unfounded. And maybe it is in a sense unavoidable; there will always be skeptics out there.
But maybe the skepticism was caused partly by Brooks’ competitive approach to ideas. A more cooperative strategy, acknowledging uncertainty, contrary evidence, times he changed his mind and even made mistakes in the past, etc., could diffuse such suspicion.
Anyway: one of the most important messages of Brooks’ book is to embrace disagreement. So I’m glad to say that I’m confident Brooks will welcome or at least not be offended these points of dissent. Even if any of them are valid, the book’s importance is not diminished. Its strengths far outweigh any weaknesses. I do hope it’s read widely—especially by politicians, political activists and others who are likely least interested. (Who wants to start the U.S. Congress book club?)