Surviving Polarization

Surviving Polarization

In recent years, shelves have been stocked with books about the boogeyman of postmodernism; the demise of truth and the popularity of fashionable relativism; the increasing irrelevance of facts and science to politics and policy; the ascendancy of affective polarization; plummeting trust in traditional institutions and experts—all wrapped up in a declensional monologue that hovers around a general feeling that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong in the United States, philosophically, culturally, and politically. The point is always the same: to find a universalistic story about why, when you scrape away all the historical contingency and variation, we are where we are; a story that flows through history whether or not it’s perceptible at any given time period. A story about humans as such. And there’s a predictable formula to these books: about two-thirds are spent talking about what has gone wrong and why, and then a much smaller third (maybe less) dealing with potential correctives to the dire situation we find ourselves in.

Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge is a good example. He first sets out to describe our baseline operating system at a cognitive level. The news isn’t good. Thinking is extremely difficult given the litany of biases we have to deal with, most of the time and for most people biases that operate on an unconscious level. Confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, framing effects, availability bias. The list goes on but the point is the same: our cognitive equipment isn’t as good as we tend to think it is—overconfidence effect!

The problems, of course, don’t stop once we step outside our own brains. We not only confront a laundry list of individual biases but also have all kinds of complex social biases and commitments, usually just collected under the label “tribalism.” As Rauch argues:

What matters most from an evolutionary perspective is not that a person forms beliefs which are true; it is that she forms beliefs which lead to social success. In effect, what matters most is not what I believe or what you believe but what we believe.[1]

Our personal cognitive biases and our social biases and commitments then play themselves out in intense creedal wars.

When creedal warfare takes hold, reality becomes a weapon in tribal conflict. Seemingly ordinary questions of fact turn into chasms of incommensurable conflict; instead of looking for ways to adjudicate their disagreements, groups escalate them in order to sustain in-group solidarity.[2]

“When we encounter groups whose worldviews are at odds with ours,” Rauch goes on, “we have trouble imagining they are operating in good faith. … In American politics, the belief that the other side must be evil, stupid, or willfully ignorant—or all of the above—has become a defining feature of partisan polarization.”[3] True enough.

But when it comes to the second part of the book, correctives and solutions, Rauch is much more modest. We simply need to double-down on our knowledge-creating institutions, push back against cancel culture, stand up for broad free speech norms, insist on truth and reality even though they may be hard or impossible to detect, etc. etc. And it must be a collective effort, not just an individual one.

So far as they go, the solutions are fine, if a little vague and abstract. So just keep sharing those New York Times articles and insisting that science, while not perfect, is one of the best knowledge-producing institutions we have. Just keep doing what you’re doing, keep the faith, don’t give up the fight. Liberal institutions—decentralized, networked systems—are our best chance at fighting the chaos of the modern world.

The bigger issue is that these solutions, ironically enough, are born from an analysis that sees the problem and predicament as at least solvable. Here are our issues—they’re bad, sure, but we have institutions to correct for many of our biases—and here are the solutions. But what if the problem is much harder to solve. What if it runs much deeper?  

One nation, two realities

Recognizing how deep problem goes is something David Barker and Morgan Marietta attempt to get at in their book, One Nation, Two Realities. In it, they offer their assessment of the situation, often running through the same kinds of depressing data from cognitive science and social psychology about how we’re not so great at empirical accuracy—though we tend to think we are—and much better at projecting our priors and values onto the world, all the while thinking we’re just disinterested and dispassionate observers of the passing show.

Political polarization, party identification, and even ideology aren’t the primary drivers of polarization, according to Barker and Marietta, and often hide more than they reveal; they are symptoms of a deeper kind of pluralism. For them, value pluralism is the bedrock issue—political and ideological polarization is a consequence of deeper, individual value commitments.

In the introduction to Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers, Aileen Kelly writes:

True pluralism, as Berlin understands it, is much more tough-minded and intellectually bold: it rejects the view that all conflicts of values can be finally resolved by synthesis and that all desirable goals may be reconciled. It recognises that human nature generates values which, though equally sacred, equally ultimate, exclude one another, without there being any possibility of establishing an objective hierarchical relation among them. Moral conduct may therefore involve making agonising choices, without the help of universal criteria, between incompatible but equally desirable values.[4]

Barker and Marietta pretty much agree with Berlin on these points about the reality and intractability of value pluralism. Surveying the literature on values in political science, they come to a loose definition of values as “standing judgments of better or worse priorities or, in more psychological terms, trans-situational evaluative predispositions. In common language, they are deep understandings of what is right and wrong.”[5]

What’s important is that this is rock bottom. Ask someone to justify their political opinions and you’ll likely get the runaround for the better part of an hour, if not more. But eventually the conversation, if you press hard and long enough, will start boiling things away and what you’ll be left with are someone’s values, their core commitments. As anyone who’s gone through the “why” toddler stage—or taken an intro to philosophy class—knows, asking someone to justify those bedrock values will likely result in blank stares or, more likely, circular reasoning—using a point from earlier in the conversation to back those values up. “If I have exhausted the justifications,” Wittgenstein wrote, “I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’”

For Barker and Marietta, differences in the value structures leads to what they refer to as dueling fact perceptions.

What is most important and influential in the politics of facts are not the facts themselves—not who is right or who is wrong—but citizens’ dueling perceptions of them. It is fact perceptions that have political ramifications. And for many fact perceptions with clear political ramifications, Americans are in an uncompromising duel. That contest is fueled by more than just partisan leadership. It is also about values and the deeply internalized psychological processes…[6]

Of course, it’s not a straight shot from someone’s core values to their highly idiosyncratic perception of the facts and thus their political preferences—though the variety of the biases and mechanisms we’re already familiar with get us most of the way there—but, following Tetlock, Barker and Marietta point out that the values themselves lead people to ask different kinds of questions. They refer to this as intuitive epistemology, which is the idea that values precede and shape epistemology. “If we have knowledge of a person’s values,” they write, “we may also have insight into their intuitive method, grounded in which questions they will ask more quickly and more often.”[7] It’s important to keep in mind that much of this is subterranean—hence intuitive—and so is rarely visible to ourselves.

William James anticipated this point—and perhaps even the root causes of pluralism and polarization—a hundred years or so ago. “The history of philosophy,” he wrote, “is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments.”[8] We can generalize his point and say that the history of human kind is to a great extent a clash of various human temperaments.

Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he [sic, etc. etc.] tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key with the world’s character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and ‘not in it,’ in the philosophic business, even tho they may far excel him in dialectical ability.[9]

Political conversations, then, are always a bit insincere, since “the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned”—that is, our dispositions, our priors, our values, our temperaments.

Rather than use James’s traits, Barker and Marietta using Jonathan Haidt’s famous moral foundations—care, equality, proportionality, sanctity, loyalty, and authority—to argue that each of these leads people to ask different kinds of questions when conducting inquiries about the world.

The liberal caregiver epistemology, associated with the care/harm moral foundation, is concerned foremost with, Are people being harmed? Fairness focused on equality leads to the crusader intuitive method, inquiring Are people being discriminated against? The alternative form of fairness from the conservative side—proportionality—leads to a different question: Are people cheating or taking more than they deserve? Purists want to know if “people are committing indecent acts,” loyalists if “people are being disloyal to us,” and constables if “people are dishonoring cherished traditions or proper authorities.”[10]

Barker and Marietta’s analysis is refreshing in that they don’t rely on hidden, often rosy, assumptions about epistemology or, starting from an ideal but demanding standard, spend pages pontificating about how people ought to reason in public—which usually amounts to saying what my freshmen students say just in slightly more sophisticated form: people need to stop thinking so emotionally and think more logically. Barker and Marietta accept, for example, that although we tend to think of them as “philosophically distinct,” facts and values are impossible to pry apart. Even if you can talk about facts and values as separate things in philosophy—and even this is hard to come by these days—they are nonetheless “psychologically intertwined.”

Similarly, their view that values drive epistemology pushes them to reject simplistic notions of misinformation and misperception, which are the most popular heuristics used for understanding our moment. They argue that

conceptualizing the core problem as misinformation or misperception gives the impression that a corrective is easily available; accurate information can be provided and misperceptions can be corrected. However, one of the clear conclusions of the existing studies of fact perceptions is that the problem is not simply one of a lack of exposure to authoritative facts, and their correction is not simply a matter of providing the legitimate information.[11]

So too do they modify—perhaps most controversially—theories about partisanship driving polarization:

people do tend to conform to their partisan group and to the messages from its leaders, but they do so more when the group’s values are the same as their own and when the group’s perceptions make sense to them because of these similarities of values. Values account for which factual perceptions the group will embrace. In other words, it is the content of group membership—shared values—that drives much of the role of group influence. The partisan facts argument emphasizes the more external mechanisms of opinion leadership and partisan media messaging; in this view, citizens are led to partisan fact perceptions. Our argument emphasizes the internal mechanisms originating in citizens themselves, grounded in their prior beliefs that influence the choice of media and shape group identity as well as derive from it. Recognizing the internal mechanism is important not only because it completes the causal story but because the polarization of values is enough to create dueling facts and enough to maintain them, even if the external forces change direction or improve in the future.[12]

It’s this last point that, unlike the many authors who offer simplistic, ambiguous, or naïve solutions to our predicament, that drives Barker and Marietta to despair. They are entirely pessimistic about correctives to this situation and they are very clear about this. The “Correctives” section of the book is a bit of a misnomer in that it surveys correctives people think will fix the issue, but have proved to be less than effective.

And the reason should be clear: they reject external reasons for why people have dueling perceptions of facts and thus are so politically polarized; they think the internal factors, one’s value system, drives everything. And changing people’s values is hard if not impossible in most cases. This might actually explain why are drawn to diagnoses of mis- or disinformation: if they were true, the correctives would, theoretically at least, be in reach. If media and elite messaging were driving polarization, one could make the case that changing those things would precipitate changes in individuals. But if Barker and Marietta are right that people conform to these messages only “when the group’s values are the same as their own and when the group’s perceptions make sense to them because of these similarities of values,” then we are left with a much bleaker picture.

Thus Barker and Marietta claim that both education, broadly construed, and fact-checking are overrated as solutions to the phenomenon of dueling fact perceptions. Education, as they and no small amount of social science show, is really good at helping us connect our priors, our values, to particular justifications, evidence, and reasons. In other words, we overestimate the effectiveness of our current educational regimes in helping us all become dispassionate observers and researchers, simply following wherever the best and most evidence leads. It seems to be better at making people savvier in the ability to see to it that the world, the evidence, the best policies, conform to all their core assumptions. I remember reading something in the wake of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando that said something like, ‘I’m glad this confirmed everything you suspected, whatever it was.’ It seemed an apt description of not only Barker and Marietta’s core thesis but the findings of cognitive science and social psychology in general.

Fact checking is a similarly ill-fit solution since it’s born from the overly simplistic idea that people are truth- and accuracy-tracking beings above all and so people just need to be shown that something is true or false in order for them to change their minds about a particular fact or person. But since facts are complicated and our epistemologies come nowhere near the standards of what you’d find in a philosophy journal, if the fact check collides with our priors, most of the time we’ll just end up casting doubt on the fact-checker themselves or dismissing them and the institution they are apart of. And this is no small problem. The fracturing of the informational landscape and the attendant loss of trust in the traditional knowledge-producing institutions—the media, academia, mainstream science—is what allows people to simply dismiss fact checkers as hopelessly biased. Oddly, they aren’t totally unjustified with this charge.

Barker and Marietta admit that even if we lived in a world where fact checks could be straightforward—we don’t because facts are complicated and rarely come to us unfiltered and obvious—the selection of which things to fact check or not itself can be construed as partisan or biased. This isn’t a problem just for fact checkers; scientists and journalists run into the same problem. Personal values might be purged as much as possible from the final product, be it an investigative report or scientific study, but they will never be absent from the process of selection—why a journalist happened to write on this issue or expose that person or why a scientist chose to study this topic.   

But Barker and Marietta also miss another reason fact-checking doesn’t work, and it’s because they are still married to a fundamentally mythic view of facts: as things out there and discoverable; it may be difficult and impossible to get to them but they are still there, somewhere. They fundamentally reject the postmodern or perspectivist impulse that claims either facts are everywhere, there are no facts, or facts are highly dependent on one’s point of view. But as decades of sociology, anthropology, and philosophy of science have attempted to show, facts are victories, the result of a battle between two or more opinions, where the victor—due to any number of reasons and only sometimes because it has the most evidence going for it—gets crowned as “fact.” This, then, leads us back to the issue of trust. The institutions and experts I trust give me the facts; the institutions and experts you trust merely give you some unwarranted and baseless opinions. 

The consequences of dueling fact perceptions, then, are pretty bad. “Greater public ignorance, more entrenched policy gridlock, and the failure of deliberation,” are the easy ones, but Barker and Marietta note deeper problems as well, focusing “on the social (and therefore indirectly political) ramifications.”[13]

Citizens are less inclined to think well of or even work with those who hold opposing perceptions of facts. The reluctance to work next to fellow citizens who perceive facts differently is a noteworthy facet of contemporary polarized America. As citizens retreat more into enclaves of like-minded families and friends, the workplace remains one of the possible spheres of interaction across ideologies, but not if shunning grounded in contrary perceptions becomes normal. Rather than attempting to understand those with opposing perceptions, citizens often react with distrust of their character. Rather than engage in discussion or a search for common ground, they more often retreat further into their own zone of comfort, reinforcing the prevalent worldview bubbles and increasing the existing polarization.[14]

Can we stem the tide of polarization?

I’m not sure I buy all of Barker and Marietta’s analysis; I certainly share their despair to a degree. But I think they overstate just how much of a separation there is between one’s core values, their social groups, and, finally, their political allegiances, and this forces them not only to despair but to miss potential avenues for correctives. To be fair to Barker and Marietta, they do state plainly that the causal mechanisms for polarization are extremely hard to parse out and analyze independently, but they nonetheless still hold fast to claiming, at the end of the day, it’s values that are determinative of everything else, and values are hard to change. I’d like to try out a potential corrective. To be sure, I share the authors’ general feeling that any corrective will be hard-going and probably require taking the long view—something human beings aren’t so great at doing. I think that’s an Official Bias™ too.

The first potential corrective can be gleaned from a few sources: Will Wilkinson’s paper “The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization, and Populist Backlash,” Elizabeth Anderson’s The Imperative of Integration, and Ryan Muldoon’s essay, “Diversity isn’t what divides us. Division is what divides us.” The story is one of separation—quite literally, physical separation.

As Will Wilkinson’s excellent paper argues, urbanization over time “has sorted and segregated national populations and concentrated economic production in megacities, driving us further apart—culturally, economically, and politically—along the lines of ethnicity, education, and population density.”[15] Mapped onto partisan affiliations, “Democrats have become the party of the multicultural city, Republicans the party of the monocultural exurbs and country—the part of relatively urbanization-resistant white people.”[16] Wilkinson argues that this “self-segregation of the population … created the polarized economic and cultural conditions that led to populist backlash.”[17]

Although Anderson’s book is specifically about the necessity of racial integration, the themes she develops apply to democratic societies in general, so we can expand Anderson’s analysis of segregation not only to apply to racial segregation but also to the political and ideological sorting that Wilkinson describes.[18] The problem, for Anderson, is that segregation makes it more natural for us to think in terms of me and my group’s problems and their problems rather than our collective problems. She goes further: most of the time we don’t actually even know what their problems are and this can very easily slide into an outright injustice when we then have to decide about what kinds of policies we want to pursue that affect all kinds of people in different places.

But the point is that given the density divide, we have little idea what they—be it African-Americans, liberals, conservatives, Christians, Muslims—live like, what they value, what their hopes, needs, and wishes are. Ryan Muldoon sums up the point when he says, “We may be growing more diverse, but that’s not our problem. Our problem is that we don’t regularly interact with the people who are different than us. In other words, segregation, not diversity, is our problem.”[19]

This analysis, of course, is nothing new. Robert Putnam pointed out long ago that our intermediary institutions, our clubs and informal gatherings, were suffering and having measurable effects on individuals and society. But the problem is worse; ideological sorting adds another layer of complexity to the problem: even if everyone were to start enthusiastically participating in informal civil culture, this would mostly mean that they’d be getting together with like-minded people, thus just further cementing the problem of polarization.

The moral of the story is that we need policies that, well, force us together. Muldoon gives a good example: end the policy of local taxes funding schools and expand school districts so that they stretch over larger areas and thus encompass more diverse neighborhoods. Putting kids from diverse backgrounds together in learning environments will go a long way in ensuring the next generation can more ably navigate cultural, political, ethnic, and religion differences—in a word, deep value differences.

Seriously reforming zoning policies will also help put us in contact with people from more diverse backgrounds. As Jenny Schuetz writes in Fixer Upper: How to Repair America’s Broken Housing Systems, “the nation’s growing divides—by geography, income, race, and age—are reflected in and exacerbated by inequalities in housing markets.”[20] The housing crisis, in other words, has sorted people by the kinds of problems and worries they tend to have. If you live in a wealthier suburb of Cleveland, for example, you likely have similar problems as your neighbors, but they tend not to be entirely concerned with where you’re going to find next month’s rent or mortgage payment. And this income-based comfort has a kind of cascading effect; if you don’t have to worry about it, you can and do worry about other things—and can even spend more time engaged in politics. If you live in Cleveland proper, your worries are probably quite different; you’re likely to be more concerned with how much money is being funneled into rent every month and have less time for, among many other things, politics. This isn’t at all to say that there isn’t overlap—indeed, overlap is part of the reason that we ought to take more robust integration seriously—but the current divide even makes our needs, wants, and worries relatively homogenous with our neighbors as compared to people in other areas.

Skeptics might wonder why merely being in contact with other people would help the polarization problem, and it’s a fair question. Interestingly, those formulaic books I mentioned at the beginning often come close to realizing what’s at the heart of cultural change. For example, Rauch says this at one point:

I spent two decades working to change people’s minds about same-sex marriage. Appeals to reason and evidence, I found, could persuade, but only after people had moved to a persuadable place emotionally: by knowing gay people or couples, or by a change of heart among friends or family, or by receiving a signal from a trusted leader or authority that supporting same-sex marriage was OK. People’s personal opinions, political identities, and peer-group norms all had to be nudged and cajoled simultaneously, which was a long, slow process—though impressively effective, in the end. One thing which never worked was telling people they were biased, or even showing them their biases. Other people’s biases were visible, but never their own. [emphasis mine][21]

Let’s deconstruct this passage. Appeals to reason and evidence didn’t work, but that makes sense: reason and evidence don’t come to us in a vacuum; they are shaped and guided by our core commitments and values. Evidence only works in changing people’s minds when they are in a persuadable place emotionally. This isn’t quite right, though. This relies on traditional quasi-Enlightenment accounts of knowledge (i.e. strict separations between fact and value, reason and emotion). Evidence and reason work when they lead to conclusions that align with people’s prior values, and, as William James pointed out, deal a “minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity” to their overall web of beliefs. So in a sense, it’s not even quite right to say that reason and evidence “work” in the way we tend to think.

After that, things get interesting. Rauch essentially says that knowing gay couples or being around people who are tolerant of gay couples does more for changing people’s beliefs than anything else. Which is just to say that relationships change every party to the relationship itself, sometimes in big ways, but more often in small ways and over time. This is one of the keys reasons why segregation—both the self-sorting, ideological kind and the very real hangover we have from decades of redlining and de jure racial segregation—is so harmful: it prevents us from building relationships with people who are different from us and so we lose out on the imperceptible mutual modification that comes with living and engaging with others.

One assumption that lay at the bottom of this kind of belief nudging is the idea that we are all bundles of contradictions, whatever else we like to think about our expressed beliefs and their consistency and cogency. Michael Billig’s groundbreaking and excellent book, Arguing and Thinking, lays this argument out in detail. He makes an important point about how belief and value systems are essentially always “incomplete.” In other words, values and beliefs change in different circumstances, and so we can’t accurately say, ever, that people hold completely coherent value systems. “It is not the case that we possess rigorously formulated ‘belief systems’, which stamp out our thoughts and reactions in a fully determinable way,” Billig writes. “People alter their reactions and expressions to cope with the particularities of the situation” they find themselves in.[22]

Billig paints an interesting example near the end of the book:

Having been placed in a new rhetorical context, individuals may experience an unforeseen rising of the spirit of contradiction, and in this way they may encounter a new side to their attitudes and maybe to their own selves. For example, some of the second generation Irish adolescents discovered the Englishness of their identities only when they went to Ireland. It has been reported that some British emigrants to the United States turn to the sorts of traditionalism which they would have found offensive in their land of origin, For example, one member of a cricket club in Philadelphia apparently “dresses whenever the occasion arises in the ceremonial kilted uniform of the Queen’s Own Highlanders” and declares himself from across the Atlantic to be “an unrepentant imperialist and royalist ’’ (Observer. July 28, 1985). These British emigrants, so full of dissatisfaction with staid Britain before they left, became aware of their feelings for their native land after they had chosen to live in an entirely different environment. Could, one may ask, their younger, impatient selves in Britain have envisaged the parades of blimpery, which afforded them so much reassurance in the United States?[23]

For Billig, “a change in the rhetorical situation can be seen as setting a test for an attitude which has hitherto only been expressed in a very different context… Like laws, whose essences and boundaries are revealed when tested by difficult cases, our attitudes may be put in a different, and more complex, light when an unusually testing situation arises.” And more: “The alteration of a rhetorical context can provide a test of an attitude by revealing qualifications or even reversals which had not been seen in the previous contexts.”

This is my primary justification for seeing one potential end of polarization in the beginning of a more robust kind of integration: for too long we’ve formed our beliefs, values, ideologies, without the other and found ourselves spiraling in media and community echo-chambers. I find it difficult to believe that we’d just pick up our ideological houses wholesale and transport them into new contexts without any modification whatsoever. We might in the beginning hold fast to our beliefs and values, but soon we’d realize our beliefs and values are a somewhat awkward fit for the new context, even if it’s only in the intensity and fervency we’ve been accustomed to expressing them for so long. But that matters. Indeed, turning the temperature down even a few degrees might go a long way.

More importantly, if we are indeed bundles of contradictions, it follows that differing expression of beliefs cannot be thought of as just mere decorative changes; for who is to say, given the various expression in various contexts, what the true value or belief is?

Summing up the broader point, Anderson says that “solidarity” and “reciprocal regard” need to be “tightly joined in a democratic culture.”

Solidarity without mutual regard  implies the subsumption of every individual under some collective purpose, without that purpose necessarily serving the interests of the individuals so joined. It could express the solidarity of soldiers on a mission  of imperial conquest, for reasons of state. Mutual regard signifies that  the common purposes around which citizens are joined have been constructed with due regard for each citizen’s interests. No subgroup, not  even a majority, is entitled to simply design a public policy that ignores the interests of others and impose it by majority vote. Rather, in a fully  democratic culture, public purposes must be shaped by “mutual adaptation and conciliation,” to different individuals’ interests. This cannot happen without “society and intercourse.” Citizens can adjust their sense of the common purpose to others’ interests only through discussion and cooperative engagement with other citizens from all walks of life on terms of equal regard. This is what a democratic culture consists in. Its site  is civil society. It includes not only the spaces recognized as “public forums”—such as public streets, parks, and auditoriums—but all domains  in which diverse citizens may interact and cooperate.[24]

Democracy, ultimately, is about vulnerability. But people won’t voluntarily put themselves in vulnerable positions where they’re exposed to people who are radically different from them. But that’s precisely why, in Anderson’s terms, the “imperative of integration” is so absolutely crucial for the survival of our multi-racial democracy.

Core values do indeed change—one’s economic situation and political circumstances have a lot to do with cultural drift as well—but they don’t change when they aren’t challenged, even if that challenge is less about explicit argumentation and merely the presence of the other as neighbors.

So long as the social dysfunctions of our moment produce readers anxious for answers, publishers will produce books claiming to offer them. Explanations grounded in foundational assumptions about social, evolutionary, or cognitive psychology have the virtue of offering the illusion of explaining everything, any possible problem in the human experience. This renders them useful for producing books about any problem of the moment, but this sits awkwardly with stories about how our current moment is unique.

What these books lack is a sufficient sense of contingency; their authors always see our problems as bigger than the moment they are nestled in. Even with all our individual and social biases, all of our institutional incentives weighing down on us, people do change—whether in their level of trust in public institution or in their core values.

Understanding the nature of today’s specific problems is difficult, and there are no silver bullet solutions even when we do obtain a better understanding. I have offered one potential remedy—perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a gamble. But I think it’s the right gamble, and one that embraces and pushes us toward a more robust and fuller democracy.     

[1] Rauch, Jonathan. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Brookings Institution Press, 2021.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] Berlin, Isaiah, et al. Russian Thinkers (Penguin Classics). 2nd ed., Penguin Classics, 2008.

[5] Marietta, Morgan, and David Barker. One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy. Oxford University Press, 2019.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] William James. “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy”. Lecture I in Pragmatism: A new name for some old ways of thinking. New York: Longman Green and Co (1907).

[9] ibid.

[10] One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid.

[15] Wilkinson, Wil. “The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization, and Populist Backlash.” The Niskanen Center, 2019.

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18] Anderson, Elizabeth. The Imperative of Integration. Reprint, Princeton University Press, 2013.

[19] Muldoon, Ryan. “Diversity Isn’t What Divides Us. Division Is What Divides Us.” Medium, 12 July 2018,

[20] Schuetz, Jenny. Fixer-Upper: How to Repair America’s Broken Housing Systems. Brookings Institution Press, 2022.

[21] The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.

[22] Billig, Michael. Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology (European Monographs in Social Psychology). 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[23] ibid.

[24] The Imperative of Integration.

Featured Image is The Right Man for the Job, by Louis Maurer