Cook: We live in a deeply divided time. I wonder what in your book you think offers the most hope for getting past that?
Haidt: Ultimately, the solutions to our polarization and political dysfunction will be legal and institutional changes which reduce the power of extremists in both parties, and which force the parties back to their traditional strategy of competing for the middle, rather than the strategy, used since 2004, of pleasing one’s own base. We need more states to adopt open primaries and non-partisan redistricting, we need to reduce the role of the Senate filibuster, reduce the role of money in elections… a variety of things like that, which my colleagues and I discuss at www.CivilPolitics.org.
But before there will ever be bipartisan public support for such measures, we have to get over the demonizing – the idea that my side is completely right and the other side is evil. We can compromise with opponents, but not with enemies that we think are evil. My highest hope for the book is that people who read it will see that the other side is just as much motivated by moral concerns, and they'll see that those concerns are not necessarily crazy. Each side cares about different threats to our nation which the other side largely fails to see. So far, emails I get from readers tell me that this is working: People don't move to the center after reading the book, but they seem to get less angry at the brother-in-law whose politics they once found repugnant.
Cook: Can you explain what you mean by the "hive," and what promise this holds?
Haidt: For the last half of the 20th century, the dominant idea in the social sciences was that people are selfish. Economists thought that people were only out to maximize their self-interest, political scientists believed that people voted entirely for their self-interest, and biologists told us that we were driven by selfish genes, which make us generous only when it will help our kin or our reputations. Self interest is of course a very powerful force, yet it leaves out our deep and passionate desires to be part of a group, to lose ourselves in something larger than ourselves. It leaves out so much of the psychology of religion and self-transcendence.
This is why I say that one of the basic principles of moral psychology is that we are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Most of our social nature is like that of other primates – we’re mostly out for ourselves. But because our evolution was shaped by a few hundred thousand years of intense group versus group conflict, we are also very groupish. We are descended from groups that had fine-tuned mental mechanisms and cultural rituals for binding themselves together into communities able to work together, suppress free riders, and achieve common ends. When we do these things we are more analogous to bees than to chimps. But for us, it's just temporary. We have brief collective moments, and we can do great things together in those moments, but eventually, self-interest returns.
Cook: And, if I may quote one of your chapter titles, "Why can't we disagree more constructively?"
Haidt: We humans are really good at forming groups to compete, and then dissolving the groups and reforming them along different lines to compete in a different way. Two people might be teammates at work, but competitors on Saturdays in an intramural soccer league, but sing in the same church choir on Sunday. Such shifting teams are normal and healthy. American political parties used to be shifting coalitions of interest groups.
But what's happened in the last 30 years, ever since the Southern conservatives left the Democratic Party and joined the Republicans, is that we now have a perfect sort along a single omni-present axis: liberal versus conservative. The Congress is no longer a check on the executive, as the founders had intended. Rather, a bright line runs through the middle of congress, and through the Supreme Court. The members of each party in all three branches of government are one team, united to fight the other. And the same bright line runs through so many of our institutions, and even neighborhoods.