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Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid

There has been a lot of digital ink spilled over why discourse and *waves arm at world* has been so…weird.

One issue I’ve had with a lot of that spilled ink it that it has been too America focused when countries around the world – large and small – from Brazil to Chile to India to France to the UK to The Philippines have been going through similar dynamics.

Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid by Jonathan Haidt focuses on America, but covers widely-covered villain (social media) in a way that is just as applicable to The Philippines as it is to America.

Here’s one pull quote –

The dart guns of social media give more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority. The “Hidden Tribes” study, by the pro-democracy group More in Common, surveyed 8,000 Americans in 2017 and 2018 and identified seven groups that shared beliefs and behaviors. The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives,” comprised 6 percent of the U.S. population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists,” comprised 8 percent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 percent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 percent.

These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of the broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes. This uniformity of opinion, the study’s authors speculate, is likely a result of thought-policing on social media: “Those who express sympathy for the views of opposing groups may experience backlash from their own cohort.” In other words, political extremists don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team. In this way, social media makes a political system based on compromise grind to a halt.

Jonathan Haidt – Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid

Now, the hopeful(?)** outlook is that America (and the world) has been through a period of massive change in work, media, power, inequality, partisanship, and truly awful, awful public discourse. That period was 1865 to 1900. I’ve been slowly making my way through American Colossus by H.W. Brands that chronicles that period. The parallels been fascinating and mind-blowing.

The reset eventually comes when the “exhausted majority” combines with some savvy politicians (notably Theodore Roosevelt) to realign the political parties, implement major bipartisan reforms, establish new norms to match new technology, and more.

**the not so hopeful caveat is that the exhausted majority of 1900 made a lot of really awful short-term compromises during political realignment including the tacit acceptance of Jim Crow, permanent abrogation of several Indian treaties, and the manufacturing of a “splendid little war” to unify Americans at the expense of lots of Cubans and Filipinos.

Anywhoo…that turned out to be depressing. So, I liked Jonathan Haidt’s conclusion better.

Yet when we look away from our dysfunctional federal government, disconnect from social media, and talk with our neighbors directly, things seem more hopeful. Most Americans in the More in Common report are members of the “exhausted majority,” which is tired of the fighting and is willing to listen to the other side and compromise. Most Americans now see that social media is having a negative impact on the country, and are becoming more aware of its damaging effects on children.

Will we do anything about it?

When Tocqueville toured the United States in the 1830s, he was impressed by the American habit of forming voluntary associations to fix local problems, rather than waiting for kings or nobles to act, as Europeans would do. That habit is still with us today. In recent years, Americans have started hundreds of groups and organizations dedicated to building trust and friendship across the political divide, including BridgeUSA, Braver Angels (on whose board I serve), and many others listed at BridgeAlliance.us. We cannot expect Congress and the tech companies to save us. We must change ourselves and our communities.

Jonathan Haidt – Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid

As far as the Internet goes, I think the renaissance in long-form podcasts, RSS feeds, newsletters, polished YouTube productions, and mini-movements to rewild attention are ways to get the benefits of the Internet in public discourse (no gatekeepers, freely & globally available, diversity, hyperlinking, etc) without the downsides (viral dynamics, peek-a-boo news, lack of context, filter bubbles, brigading, etc).

There’s an optimistic take from Robert Wright at Non-Zero.

By Nate

I'm Nate Shivar - I live in Atlanta and love exploring the city, outdoors, books & Internet. Read about me, my Now page, or my work.

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