US democracy is a finely calibrated and fragile instrument, warned Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU Stern School of Business, during a lunchtime keynote address for the Law Alumni Association (LAA) Fall Conference on “Democratic Distortions.” (The Latham & Watkins Forum co-hosted Haidt’s appearance.)

Jonathan HaidtDrawing on research in moral psychology, Haidt identified a range of stressors he sees as intensifying divisiveness in American society and politics. For instance, he said, although humans share basic values such as compassion, fairness, liberty, loyalty, sanctity, and authority, liberals and conservatives assign different weights to such values—and those differences are increasing, in large part because of social media. “As our politics is becoming more tribal, more passionate, and more dangerous,” he said, “it's becoming more like a fundamentalist religion.”

“What I’d like to suggest to you is that [humans] are unsuited for life in large, diverse, secular societies, unless…you get certain settings finely adjusted to make possible the development of stable political life,” Haidt said. “So, clearly, it's possible for us to live this way, but what I'd like to suggest is that the margin for error may be very small.”

Selected remarks:

“This first principle—intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second—has a lot of applications to our task today. As passions rise on both sides, the more we hate the other side, the more desperately we want to believe bad things about them and good things about us. This is one of the major reasons we have post-truth politics. It's not just the technology, it's us. It's our passion and anger. Social media amplifies this hatred. It gives us motivated reasoning on steroids. This is why we have an explosion of fake news. It's not just the technology, it's our own passions.” 

“Left and right build their appeals on different moral foundations, and then they talk past each other. The left builds on care and fairness, but fairness especially as equality. The right builds on fairness as proportionality, but also builds more than the left on loyalty, authority, and sanctity. This leads to endless divisions and misunderstandings about almost any issue you look at.”

“Leadership certainly matters, but I am much more of a systems fan.… if we could design the perfect next president, it wouldn't be somebody who is a healer. It would be somebody who has the power to knock heads, get Congress to pass reforms, somehow commit America to a path of systemic, and structural, and legal reform.”

Posted December 18, 2018

Watch video of this event: