MONDAY, MAY 10, 2021
For a long time, Haidt says: Earlier today, the Washington Post's Robert McCartney posted a gloomy report. The headline says this:
Even in moderate Northern Virginia, GOP activists buy the ‘big lie’ about Biden’s election
McCartney had spoken to Republican activists from the more moderate parts of Virginia. Here's how his report starts:
MCCARTNEY (5/10/21): Republicans at the national level persist in pushing the “big lie” that President Biden was not legitimately elected, and I’m sorry to report that GOP activists in Northern Virginia mostly seem to agree.
In interviews at Saturday’s state conventions in Loudoun and Prince William counties, a majority told me they believe either that Democrats stole the election for Biden, or at least that enough “shenanigans” occurred to make them doubt the result.
I was disappointed to hear it. I had hoped that Republicans in the two outer suburbs would be more accepting of reality. Loudoun and Prince William residents are comparatively better educated than those elsewhere in Virginia. GOP voters there are also more moderate.
Examples of his interviews with those activists follow. Even in the more moderate part of the blue-leaning state, McCartney found that GOP activists don't believe that Biden actually won, or feel that they aren't real sure.
In fairness, there's no ultimate way to prove that anyone ever won any election. Did FDR really defeat Herbert Hoover in 1932? If you don't want to believe that he did, there's no ultimate way that anyone can make you.
A person can always imagine, or become convinced, that FDR ended up in the White House due to some fiendish ballot-stuffing scheme—a scheme so fiendish that it escaped detection. Today, there would be plenty of orgs eager to push that idea.
You may think that's a crazy idea. But go ahead—try to prove it! In the end, there's no way to compel belief.
In the end, all examples of widely shared national belief are built upon social cohesion and trust. When social cohesion and trust take a dive, so does shared belief.
In recent decades, shared belief has been worn away by the power of partisan media—by partisan talk radio, partisan "cable news," partisan Internet sites and partisan social media.
Also, social media allows us to find other people as dumb and deluded as we ourselves are. At one time, it was hard to do that!
This lets Republicans believe that Donald J. Trump really won the election, and it lets us, over here in the streets of Our Town, believe that Daunte Wright was being arrested on a warrant for a marijuana charge. Or for dangling air fresheners!
We saw it on Brian Williams' show! We read it in the Times!
Under current arrangements, residents of various towns are told about the crazy beliefs of people who live in the other towns. Fox viewers learn about how crazy we are in Our Town. We, in turn, are told about the crazy beliefs Over There.
Over the weekend, we watched a C-Span book event, during which Jonathan Haidt was asked how long this state of affairs will last. It will last a long time, the gentleman gloomily said:
HAIDT (4/18/21): I'll have to say that, if we channel Steve Pinker or Matt Ridley, in the long run things get better. And as you've pointed out, with every previous major technology there are disruptions.
So if I had to bet, I'd bet that, fifty years from now, things are going to be a lot better, and we'll have figured this out.
However—however, for the next ten or twenty years, and probably for the rest of our lifetimes—my lifetime, not the younger people here—I think what has happened to us is that the tower of Babel was destroyed between 2009 and 2012.
In that story, in the Bible, God said, "Let us go down and confound their language so that they may not understand each other." And while it's always difficult to find the truth, I think that, after 2012, we are in Babel. and social media has made it possible for people to create alternate narratives within every company, within every university, and everything is a battle to put your narrative forth.
And so I think that we will never again find shared truth—I shouldn't say never again. In the next twenty years, we will not be able to find shared truth. And so I'm also despairing that good research such as yours—our ability to even agree on the facts, even within the social sciences—is being compromised by this.
So I guess I would say, long-term optimism—you've got to be an optimist long-term if you look at history. But short term, I'm very, very pessimistic.
Haidt was speaking with Professor Bail about Bail's new book, Breaking the Social Media Prism. To watch the full event, click here. Haidt's assessment comes right near the end.
Professor Haidt has been an apostle of sanity over the past several decades. We may be slightly gloomier than he is about the problem in which we're now deeply mired.
In our view, our nation was well on its way to Babel as early as the start of Campaign 2000, if not long before. We started designing this site in the fall of 1997 because we thought things were already so far out of hand. In our view, this very much isn't a problem which started with social media.
According to Haidt, things will be fine if we wait fifty years. Along the way, we'll offer this bit of advice:
Stop believing that The Crazy is confined to The Others. Our Town is shedding its sanity too, and The Others are told about the crazy things we say and do on every night on Fox. Some of those reports are crazy, but quite a few of them aren't.
Our Town is losing its sanity too! Experts tell us that human history has always followed this pattern, with tribal breakdown leading onward toward some version of war.
On the brighter side, it's always the fault of the other towns. Our Town has never been wrong!