Jonathan Haidt on the psychology of democracy



Jonathan Haidt
Jonathan Haidt

We say on this show all the time that democracy is hard work. But what does that really mean? What it is about our dispositions that makes it so hard to see eye to eye and come together for the greater good? And why, despite all that, do we feel compelled to do it anyway? Jonathan Haidt is the perfect person to help us unpack those questions.

We also explore what we can do now to educate the next generation of democratic citizens, based on the research Jonathan and co-author Greg Lukianoff did for their latest book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

Jonathan is social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His research examines the intuitive foundations of morality, and how morality varies across cultures––including the cultures of American progressive, conservatives, and libertarians.

One last thing: This week marks the first anniversary of Democracy Works! We are thrilled that the show has caught on with listeners around the world and are excited to bring you even more great episodes in year two. If you’d like to give the show a birthday present, consider sharing it with a friend or leaving a rating or review in your podcast app.

Additional Information

Jonathan’s books:

OpenMind 

Heterodox Academy

New York Times article on free play and democracy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Why is democracy so difficult to sustain?
  • Does hearing about the moral foundations of politics change the way you perceive people from another political party?
  • What can each of us to do make better decisions and resist the temptation to follow our inner elephants?
  • What do you make of the relationship between free play and democracy?

Interview Highlights

[4:32] Why is democracy so hard to practice?

Haidt: In the 20th century we developed this obsession with democracy and I think it’s because we fought a war to defend democracy and World War I and then we did it again in World War II and we were thinking that democracy is the greatest thing in the world. Then in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapses, It was clear that democracy won and there is no alternative into the end of history and every country as it developed is going to become a free market liberal democracy just like us. And we were wrong we were fooled. Democracy is a lot harder and lot less stable than we thought. Now it’s clear that’s the case.

[7:12] Are there other things about the way we’re wired as people that make it so difficult to carry out democracy in practice?

Haidt: Our founding fathers knew we were not rationals and we don’t relate to any people and that’s why you don’t want to have something that’s too, democratic because especially when there are hard times somebody’s going to come along and tell you the reason for our troubles is them, and it’s really easy to rally people to hate them and then attack them and kill them.

[9:42] What motivates people to continue practicing democracy?

Haidt: Tocqueville noted how we individualists come together very quickly and easily to solve problems, that was what he noted was really unique about us. So we’ve always been a democratic people in that sense. We’re ready to take things into our own hands, solve problems and, um, America in the, in the, you know, 20th century, we certainly see many cases of activism that were like that and that worked. Um, of course, taking things into your own hands can also lead to riots and violence.

[11:49] Can you talk about how you see the way that we’ve organized ourselves into political parties here in the U.S.?

Haidt: I think the worst number of political parties to have in a country is one, but the second worst number is two. Research shows that if you simply have three combatants, then the hatred of each for the other is much less. We have two parties and anyone who was psychologically disposed to leftism or progressivism is now a Democrat, and anyone who was psychologically predisposed to conservatism or traditionalism or stability is now Republican. My colleagues and I came up with a theory called the Moral Foundations Theory, which has five features of every society:

  • Care vs. harm
  • Fairness vs. cheating
  • Loyalty vs.betrayal
  • Authority vs. subversion
  • Sanctity vs. degradation

[17:12] Where do these moral foundations stand today?

Haidt: Moral foundations never change, that’s the whole metaphors at their foundations. A moral or political order is a consensual hallucination. We hallucinate it together. We pretend that it’s real. It becomes real, we live in it, and we get angry within it.

[24:42] What do you think about calls for restoring civility?

Haidt: It’s absolutely the right approach, we need to restore that, but just saying it and signing some pledges we are not going to reach a change in civility. We’re not going to get very far by just doing this. I think we’re going to get really far by changing the path that the elephant is on.

[28:01] What’s the relationship between free play and democracy?

Haidt: The way to learn social skills that are essential for a democracy is through free play, and it has to be unsupervised. If there’s an adult there to settle disputes, you learn how to appeal to adults instead of learning to figure things out for yourself. Gen Z is the first generation in American history that was deprived of childhood. We freaked out in the 90s and thought even though the crime rate was plummeting and actually the crime wave ended in the 90s. Americans began to think because we’re frightened out of our minds by media, that if we ever take our eyes off our kids outside they will be abducted, and so in the 90s, we stopped letting kids out to play.

[29:35] How will this impact the way Gen Z views democracy?

Haidt: I think democracy is or democracy is in real danger now, but when Gen Z becomes more politically active, you know so in the 20, 30s when they’re the largest group let’s say, um I think our ability to govern ourselves will be much harder.

[32:54] What can we do to reverse this trend?

Haidt: The first thing is we have to give kids back childhood to create more resilient kids. We have to stop overprotecting kids. We have to let them develop skills. Secondly, I think we have to educate kids as if democracy was fragile. We have to be teaching skills of democratic engagement. I think that high schools should be teaching politics in a very different way. That is, teachers and social studies teachers in particular tend to be on the left. They either don’t teach anything about conservatism or they some of them let their politics intrude um and I think we should be teaching great respect for the long philosophical traditions of left and right, and then teaching skills of democratic discourse.

 


One thought on “Jonathan Haidt on the psychology of democracy

Leave a Reply

*