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How to Overcome Tribalism, the Shouty Minority and Facebook Toxicity

Have modern politics become irredeemably tribal? In September, Thomas Friedman decried the “virus of tribalism” infecting the United States and other democracies. “Politics in the United States continues to feel increasingly tribal and divisive,” noted CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2018. If there’s one thing pundits have agreed on over the last few years — particularly in the Trump era — it’s that tribalism in politics is on the rise, and that’s a problem.

For my recent book, I spent months in conversation with a handful of thinkers who wrestle with the big questions driving populist politics today. One of them was Jonathan Haidt, whose 2013 book, Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, astutely presaged the current conversation about tribal politics. He puts the blame not at the feet of Facebook or either party, but on humans’ basic need to define teams and camps, and belong to one of them. Throughout the history of the world, elaborate Hero-versus-Villain narratives have regularly been spun to glorify one political camp and demonize another. Who’s in charge never really matters.

Haidt, a social psychologist, suggested in his book — and still believes — this inclination might have an evolutionary background: Clans and villages that were bad at cooperating were often conquered by their less divided neighbors. This might have wired us to appreciate tribal kinship. It also may have wired us to prefer defending our reputations rather than defending the truth — another aspect of politics that infuriates journalists and pundits but appears to be built into the system. (Haidt reveals in his book that his eureka moment, in this respect, occurred when his wife asked why he had failed to do the dishes. Only afterwards did he grasp that his mind automatically invented an elaborate, and false, defense story that even he believed at first).

But he also thinks the problem has gotten far worse in the past decade, with social media creating a kind of outrage machine that feeds on, even amplifies these tendencies.

So the real challenge isn’t how to get tribalism out of politics. It’s how to design a system that pays heed to our inherent shortcomings. In a recent interview with Haidt, he zeroed in on two critical ingredients: political reform and social media reform. “The worst number of political parties to have in a country is one,” he says. “But the second worst number is two.”

Two political tribes, equally convinced they possess the moral high-ground, might seek to rule through open confrontation with the aim to subjugate. On the other hand, three political tribes or more can be more incentivized to seek alliances. But with the country’s two-party system unlikely to go anywhere any time soon, Haidt suggests steps to rein in the power of the extremes on both sides.

One idea: requiring open primaries for all elections so people don’t have to be a member of a certain party to vote. Another is detoxifying the public square through a serious social media overhaul, an idea gaining more currency after the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.


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