Apr 20, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Structural stupidity

Mike Allen
Illustration of digital Tower of Babel
Illustration: Nicolás Ortega for The Atlantic. Source: "Turris Babel," Coenraet Decker, 1679. Used by kind permission

An article in the May issue of The Atlantic is one of the most clear-eyed looks we've seen at how America fractured — and what'll happen if we don't find a way to fix it.

The big picture: "In the 20th century, America built the most capable knowledge-producing institutions in human history," writes Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business. "In the past decade, they got stupider en masse."

Why it matters: All day, we're barraged with tiles in the mosaic — this data point, or that hot take. Haidt's vivisection of America, 2022, is an excuse to step back and behold what future historians will see.

In "After Babel," Haidt invokes the Genesis tale of the Tower of Babel: God is angered by early humans' hubris, then scrambles their languages.

  • Haidt sees "a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families."
  • In the past 10 years (especially 2011-15), he writes, something "went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth."

What happened:

  • The early internet looked like "a boon to democracy": "Myspace, Friendster, and Facebook made it easy to connect with friends and strangers to talk about common interests, for free, and at a scale never before imaginable."
  • Instead, the "Like" button, retweet and comments "encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics."
  • Of three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies, social media "has weakened all three ... social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories."

Haidt writes that this "stupefying process plays out differently on the right and the left because their activist wings subscribe to different narratives with different sacred values."

  • The right: "They share a narrative in which America is eternally under threat from enemies outside and subversives within; they see life as a battle between patriots and traitors."
  • The left: "[L]ife at every institution is an eternal battle among identity groups over a zero-sum pie ... This new narrative is rigidly egalitarian — focused on equality of outcomes, not of rights or opportunities."

What's next:

  • It's going to get much worse, the article warns: "If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse."
  • Haidt's prescriptions for "redesigning democracy for the digital age" look elusive: hardening democratic institutions and reforming social media.

The bottom line: Haidt puts our hope in Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, who "bear none of the blame for the mess we are in." That generation's admirable embrace of mission and activism could be our salvation.

What historians will see

Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and I talk about these trends all the time, and lots of Axios coverage is aimed at making sense of them in a clinical way. So I asked for his thoughts on Jonathan Haidt's piece in The Atlantic:

  • Slowly infecting EVERY institution: Look at how this dynamic injected toxicity, then tension, then distrust into media, then the political parties and process — seeping quickly into churches, and now into business (look at the debates over Disney and Twitter). And it's now exploding through classrooms. 
  • THIS is the story historians will write 100 years from now: We thought the rise of Donald Trump and then COVID were the once-a-century stories our children's children will read. Turns out, both are simply gripping scenes in much a bigger saga.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Gen Z includes people born between 1997 and 2012, not before 1997.

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