Polarization, Harvard Graduates and Bonobos
In 1968, the year I graduated from college, the country did not agree on much. Recall Vietnam protests, riots at the Chicago Democratic convention, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, drugs, the sexual revolution and campus occupations.
Our graduation speaker was the Shah of Iran, who would likely have been shouted off the podium today.
We did not use the word “polarization” in 1968, but we could have.
Fast-forward to last May and the celebration of our 50thReunion, when my Harvard class reconvened in Cambridge. A series of four symposia on polarization was on the agenda.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Now, as it happens, I have spent the last seven years in retirement learning, thinking and writing about contemporary politics – in other words polarization – so this was of considerable interest. Besides I neither drink nor sing, activities that consumed most of the rest of our four days together.
I decided to see how my classmates would tackle this difficult problem – one that seemed to have worsened during the 50 years of our adult lives.
What is so bad about polarization?
Polarization is the extreme sports version of democracy. You can either have polarization or effective functioning government, but probably not both, as people who hate each other tend not to compromise and thus be governed.
The “just get on with it” people prefer their governance at lower volume and with far more effectiveness.
Most of what bright people hate about politics relates to polarization. And most of that is intentionally created for partisan advantage.
Of course, there is a textbook definition of the word — the process by which public opinion divides and goes to the extremes — but that definition pretty much explains why few people read textbooks without being coerced.
A more useful description is “that miserable phenomenon that makes smart people hate Washington, cable news, pundits, experts, commentators, politicians, the people who get them elected, political parties, newspapers, Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, Paul Manafort, the odious Podesta brothers and pretty much everything else related to government.”
Okay, I might have been venting.
Now, to be fair, not everyone hates polarization. Some definitely favor it because it is central to their business models. MSNBC and Fox News come to mind, but we should not lose sight of the vast increases in circulation at The New York Times and The Washington Post while they have been covering President Donald Trump.
It is a business axiom to favor things that make your stock price go up, and, for some companies, polarization does just that.
The election industry is another group that adores polarization. Angry people, especially those who can be made to feel threatened, are far and away the best donors. The election industry has learned that the more it wants to be paid, the angrier and more threatened the potential donors need to be.
Election industry participants are not unique in preferring to be paid more rather than less.
There’s the polarization problem, now let’s hear what my classmates had to say.
First, in each of the four symposia, there was an audience of 300 to 400 people, out of the thousand or so 1968 graduates and spouses in attendance. There was no coercion, they self selected. This was the Heisenberg Principle writ large. Leave aside the physics, and the Heisenberg Principle suggests that the act of observing something changes it. The speakers were likely to be influenced by the audience and to try to please their college classmates.
Second, President Donald Trump is so divisive and so profoundly unpopular with the four audiences and virtually all of the 14 speakers that visceral reactions to him also seemed likely to change the attitudes of the panels of problem-solvers.
Third, reunions are invitations to return to childhood. They are designed to help us think of ourselves as we were in the past. They are also opportunities to signal our virtues to old friends.
These might not have been helpful if problem solving was the goal.
The Harvard ’68 Approach
The first two panels were devoted to diagnosis and the last two were focused on solutions.
“Diagnoses – Social and Economic– Centrifugal forces driving the separation of American society include changes in jobs and wages, income and wealth, color and ethnicity, internal migrations and social sorting,” according to the squib in the reunion program.
The session was moderated by Alan Bersin, a Washington lawyer, who had served for seven years as the Superintendent of Public Education for the San Diego City Schools and for eight years as Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection under President Obama.
His two panelists were Bob Pozen and Barbara Sard.
Pozen had been President of Fidelity Investments and served as Chairman of the Board of the Tax Policy Center and a member of the Presidential Commission on Social Security.
Sard serves as Vice President for Housing Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She has written extensively on welfare, homelessness and housing issues.
Bersin set the stage with a series of income inequality charts and Pozen followed with a litany of economic causes including globalization, technology and lack of mobility. Sard focused on poverty and income redistribution.
A fellow audience member whispered quietly that there had been no discussion of antifamily policies or personal responsibility. He did not wish to be heard by the other 300 people.
This was a wise decision because the questions and answers at the end of the session suggested that the panelists were far too centrist for the audience.
“Diagnoses – Political – Partisan hardball and its enablers – money, mega-lobbies and think tanks, media transformations, voting rights and gerrymanders, the new swing voters. Dems and GOP strategies,” was the second squib.
Ellen Hume moderated the session. She is a career print and TV journalist, perhaps best known for her time at The Wall Street Journal.
Her panelists were Chris DeMuth, who headed the American Enterprise Institute for many years and Tom Reston, a recovering lawyer who has recently completed “Soul of a Democrat: The Seven Core Ideals That Made Our Party – And Our Country – Great.”
DeMuth knew he was in hostile territory where his center right business-y Republican views might not be well received. He reviewed the long history of US polarization to put the situation today into context. His observation about the sharply decreasing costs of communication and mobilization to fuel political anger were both new and noteworthy.
Reston began by characterizing the state of civic health as appalling then went on to describe how his party had lost its soul. He is too modest by half for the level of self-promotion required of an author, and had to be asked what the seven core ideals were. For the record, they are party of the people, the fight for the outsider, the social gospel and secular altruism, respect for ideas, economic security for one and all, the marriage of high ideals and hard interests in foreign policy and equality and civil rights. Get his book and read it. You might not agree with everything but he is contributing to a solution.
At this point, the mission changed from “what is the problem” to “what to do about it.”
“Prescriptions(Open-Mic Forum)– The focus is on remedial strategies to repair the rents in the civil fabric,” read squib three.
Conn Nugent, a five-plus-decade friend and a funny guy who wrote for the Lampoon, moderated the third hour. He also had a heavy hand in organizing the series.
Nugent happens to work for the Pew Charitable Trusts, perhaps one of the world’s greatest resources on the realities of polarization. Sadly, that subject is not his focus at Pew.
The series would have benefitted from studying more of his employer’s excellent work.
His panelists were: Elvin Montgomery, a PhD psychologist, Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, appraiser of cultural materials and seeker of enlightenment; Jack Egan, who describes himself as a writer on his Facebook page; and Sylvia Poggioli, the overwhelmingly talented NPR reporter.
Sadly, this panel took a hard left, exceeded only by the questioners. The issues raised were predictable – money in politics, electoral college, inequality, reparations, Citizens United, length of campaigns and so forth – at best a recital of impediments to favorable Democratic outcomes, but of limited help in a discussion of solutions to polarization.
“Prescriptions (Open-Mic Forum)– Essentially a continuation of the third session, but with new moderators,” describes the final hour.
Linda Greenhouse, the former New York Times Supreme Court Reporter, was the moderator, prominently displaying her “Resist” armband and clearly missing the irony.
Her panelists were: Pete Zimmerman, a lecturer in public policy and faculty chair of the senior executive fellows program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; Laura Shapiro, a writer of culinary history and also a “Resist” armband wearer; and Andy Tobias, famed author of investment advice books and Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee for nearly 20 years.
Zimmerman led off asking “how we could do mutual respect while the rest of the country couldn’t?”
Actually, we hadn’t.
No views that could have remotely been characterized as conservative or even centrist had been presented or expressed during the “Prescriptions” sessions.
Shapiro wanted to invest in girls and women “because we are the only nation on earth that does nothing on child care.”
Only nation on earth? Really?
There followed a wave of questions along the lines of “we [meaning someone other than the questioner] should do more to [insert left leaning talking point here] though Zimmerman concluded by suggesting, “ask yourself what you personally can do not what others can do.”
And that leaves Tobias.
He went out of his way to praise Michael Bloomberg’s Rice graduation speech, but added, “I am a fan of Michael Bloomberg, but if he ran as a Republican, I would work hard to defeat him.” When asked for a remedy for polarization, his proposed solution was a blue wave election in 2018.
Are there Better Ideas?
Maybe we should try some other fields?
Let’s try divorce and anthropology.
Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington DC center-right think tank, recently launched a podcast series featuring interesting conversations about the state of our civil discourse.
John Gottman was Brooks’s recent guest. He isapsychological researcher and clinician who has done extensive work over four decades on divorce prediction and marital stability.
If you want to think about polarization potentially making countries get divorced, which ours has not done in more than 150 years (and then not successfully), you might as well begin with thinking about what makes individuals get divorced. John Gottman seems to know more about that then pretty much anyone.
Brooks asked Gottman to come up with some rules to stitch America back together again while still maintaining our respective points of view.
Neither was trying to end disagreement, which both thought was healthy for a flourishing democracy, but both thought we learned more from contrary opinions than from people like ourselves.
Based on his four decades studying marital discord, Gottman came up with some rules to reduce polarization.
- Focus empathetically on the distress of others
- Maintain a 5 to1 ratio of positive to negative reactions to the observations of others
- Always avoid contempt
- Learn to cooperate with those with whom you disagree
- Before you speak, see that you really understand what was said
- When you listen, listen to understand not to rebut.
At some risk to my readership in the evangelical community, the two closest genetic relatives to humans are chimpanzees and bonobos. They share virtually 99% of our DNA, yet they differ sharply.
Chimpanzees live north of the Congo River and bonobos live to the south. The land to the north is a much more difficult place to survive than is the land to the south. Hence, chimpanzees are hierarchical, nasty and fierce. They have to fight for everything and often rape and murder each other.
Chimpanzees sound a little like politicians.
Since there is greater abundance to the south of the Congo River, the bonobos do none of these things. No bonobo has ever killed another bonobo and they are happy to share with strangers. Indeed, bonobos are known for having heroic amounts of sex with every permutation of possible partner, friend and stranger alike.
In this respect, bonobos also sound like politicians.
Chimpanzees are a pretty good example of “survival of the fittest,” but bonobos are an equally good example of a concept known as “survival of the friendliest.”
Brian Hare, an Evolutionary Anthropologist at Duke, recently introduced me to the concept of survival of the friendliest.
He taught me about Lomela and about bonobos generally. I heard him speak a few weeks ago then invited him to stay for a night while he was in Washington.
To your great surprise, Brian and Lomela are the ones in the picture.
In addition to evolutionary anthropology, Brian is interested in polarization. According to him, a key element to the evolution of humans is our ability to network with each other and to cooperate. Bonobos are even more successful at it than we are. Chimpanzees are not.
Did My Classmates Solve the Problem?
The four hours at the reunion seemed more chimpanzee than bonobo. Reducing polarization and perhaps facilitating better governance has more to do with understanding diverging viewpoints and seeking compromise.
“All we need is more democrats,” the preferred conclusion of my classmates, seemed unlikely to have much of an effect, unless the plan is to slaughter all dissenters as might chimpanzees.
Arthur Brooks, John Gottman, Brian Hare and even Lomela, the bonobo, had more to offer.
There was a fair bit of bonobo behavior in 1968 but it does not seem to have survived the last 50 years of politics.
Learning from a Comment
I wish I had seen this interview of Arnold Kling by Bill Walton before writing the article, but I am glad the article inspired Bill to send it to me.