Okay, I don’t mean literal asteroids made of rock and metal. I mean problems from hell that polarize us and therefore paralyze us. If you’re on the left, you probably have extremely acute vision for the threats of global warming and rising inequality. In fact, I’ll bet you spotted those asteroids back in the 1990s, when it would have been so much easier to deflect them, and you’re mad as hell that conservatives are still deep in denial. I mean, just look at the graph! It shows the rising levels of carbon dioxide, the rising average global surface temperature, and the rising of the seas. It also shows the rising percentage of national income taken home by the richest 1%. What’s wrong with those conservatives? Why do they deny the facts? Do they want to destroy our planet and shred our social fabric?
On the other hand, if you’re on the right, you’ve probably been tracking our nation’s entitlement spending and the rise of non-marital births for a long time now – both also shown in the graph. You’ve been ringing alarms about those two asteroids since the 1970s, but liberals have treated you like Chicken Little, completely unconcerned. Caring is spending, they seem to believe. All forms of family are equally good for kids, they assert in spite of the evidence. What’s wrong with those liberals? Are they trying to drive us into bankruptcy and shred our social fabric?
Well, I’m here to tell you that the other side is indeed blind but it’s not as hateful as you think. This is just what partisanship does to us. Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into teams, and in the process it improves our vision for what our team wants to see, while making it harder for us to accept or even see evidence that would disrupt our moral consensus.
On the whole that’s a pretty good deal for our species. I never cease to be amazed at how cooperative we humans are. No other species in the solar system can work together in gigantic teams to solve problems and fend off threats, unless they are close kin. The ants, bees, and termites are pretty impressive, but they’re all siblings – children of a single queen. Their self-interest is the group’s interest. But for us? It’s a miracle that we can lay aside naked self-interest, at times, and become good team players. It’s astonishing that we can form groups at the drop of a hat, and make the group’s project our own project. One of the most powerful tools in our psychological arsenal is our ability to treat certain objects, people, or ideas as sacred. It can be a rock, a tree, an ancestor, the Bible, the Flag, or the ideals of liberty, equality, or free markets. We circle around our sacred objects, and whoever circles with us, we trust. Sharing sacred objects is one of the keys to the magic trick of E Pluribus Unum: from many, one. That’s what binds a nation together, particularly one as ethnically diverse as ours. But within each nation, partisan sacred values bind political parties together, in ways that can divide the nation.
There’s an old Bedouin proverb: “Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” That’s the way politics normally works, with multiple nested or cross-cutting identities. We choose our battles and our allies depending on the threat or opportunity at hand. During a presidential election, of course we’re all focused on the level of party vs. party. Let’s call that “me and my brother against our cousin.” But whenever a victor is declared in the Presidential race, it will be time for us to come together as a nation to confront the many threats and enemies that confront us. Let’s unite with our cousins to fight the stranger!
Unfortunately, since the 1990s, our politics has been largely stuck at the level of party vs. party. Not just for the few months before election day, but throughout the two-year cycle. No longer does a season of campaigning alternate with a longer season of governing. No longer can our leaders shift up to that highest level where they come together to fend off national disaster and disgrace.
Partisanship is not a bad thing. We need multiple teams developing multiple competing visions for the voters to choose among. But when our political system loses the ability to shift up to that highest level, at which national interest comes before party interest, we’ve crossed over into hyper-partisanship. And that’s a very bad thing, because it paralyzes us in the face of so many impending threats, such as… global warming, rising inequality, out-of-control entitlement spending, and the breakdown of the family.
What can we do about this sorry state of affairs? How can we free ourselves and our leaders from hyper-partisanship, and return to plain old partisanship? By joining the Asteroids Club! It’s a club for all Americans who are willing to grant that the other side sees some real threats more acutely than their own side does. The Asteroids Club is more a state of mind than a real club at the moment, but if it were to become a real club, it would have local chapters started by pairs of friends, one a Republican, the other a Democrat. The image of partisans working together and showing mutual respect and affection is heartwarming, and if you want to open minds, you should start by opening hearts.
An Asteroids Club would never hold debates. People use reasoning to find evidence to bolster their existing beliefs, so debates can often increase polarization. Rather, a local Asteroids Club would hold telescope parties in which members help each other to see approaching asteroids – one from each side — that they hadn’t really noticed before. Telescope parties would harness the awesome power of reciprocity. If we acknowledge your asteroid, will you acknowledge ours?
Such parties would even help partisans to better understand their own asteroids. For example, suppose a telescope party were held to examine the inequality and non-marital birth asteroids. Republicans could ask everyone to read the New York Times article titled “Two classes, divided by ‘I Do.” Did the Democrats realize that the decline of marriage was such a large contributor to rising inequality? And the Democrats could ask everyone to read work by sociologist William Julius Wilson. Did the Republicans know that one of the big causes of marital decline among African Americans was the loss of well-paying jobs as America de-industrialized? Women don’t generally want to marry men with poor earnings prospects. By the end of the evening, everyone would see that if you care about either asteroid, you’d better care about the other one too.
So come on, people! Dozens of asteroids are closer to impact than they were yesterday. Don’t wait for Washington to fix itself. Let’s just start working together, and if we can do it, it will be easier for Washington to follow our example. The alternative is for us to follow theirs.
Jonathan Haidt is a professor of business ethics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. He is a codirector of CivilPolitics.org, and of AsteroidsClub.org.