Why Can’t We Talk Anymore?

Kristin Hansen • June 12, 2020 • 4 min read

America’s founding motto, “E pluribus unum” (from many, one) is fraying. No one would argue that we suffer from a lack of “pluribus” … Americans arguably hold a more diverse array of political opinions than at any time in our recent history, and this is generally healthy in a democracy.

Rather, we risk losing the “unum,” the commonly accepted norms, systems, and institutions that are required for a highly pluralistic, democratic society to thrive.

Many explanations are offered for America’s declining civic health:

  • Civic education is lacking. We are under-investing in civic education and failing to raise the next generation of citizens who understand, embrace, and participate fully in the American democratic experiment.
  • Civic, community, and political participation have eroded. We are seeing steep declines in civic participation among adult citizens, with negative political tribalism the “new religion” replacing healthy civic, community, and faith-based attachments.
  • Political incentives have become too distorted. Cynical politicians and donors have exploited weaknesses in our democratic process to gain distinct advantages, at the expense of a healthy, functioning democracy.
  • Media and social media are highly fragmented. American media and social media outlets both create and exacerbate “filter bubbles,” by staking out extreme positions and blurring reporting vs. commentary, with the aim of maximizing audiences and revenue.
  • National pride and identity are being superseded by other affiliations. Following a post-World War II peak, when Americans and most others in the world saw the United States as an unambiguous “force for good,” national pride and identity have succumbed to widespread self-scrutiny and been superseded by other affiliations that people value.
  • Wealth inequality is rising while the middle class shrinks and stagnates. Rising inequality means the middle class has been declining as a share of the population, and relative incomes have stagnated. This has sowed the seeds of class division and loosened shared bonds based on national civic identity.

While acknowledging all of these trends, Civic Health Project focuses on a deeper, root cause set of explanatory factors: namely, the moral and cognitive drivers that underpin human beliefs, preferences, and behaviors.

Cognitive and Moral Drivers of Political Polarization

For several years, America’s increasing political polarization and deepening ideological fault lines have been studied by an array of leading academics from the fields of political science, sociology, psychology, and anthropology.

Two areas of research come to the foreground, due to their explanatory power in describing how humans’ deep moral and cognitive characteristics steer our civic and political participation:

  • Moral Foundations Theory. Based on Jonathan Haidt’s research and articulated in his book The Righteous Mind, Moral Foundations Theory asserts that human values can be understood based on several distinct “moral pillars.” Further, by measuring how a person characterizes the relative importance of these moral pillars, we can also understand how that person is likely to lean politically. Key insight: By understanding our own and others’ moral foundations, we can increase empathy and tolerance, restore civil discourse, and improve human interactions across ideological divides.
  • Cognitive Bias Theory. Countless academics have weighed in over the years on the question of how human judgment is impaired by various forms of cognitive bias, notably the pioneering researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Among 100+ forms of cognitive bias cited in today’s aggregate literature, a handful stand out for their ability to explain how a person’s political judgment may be clouded by susceptibility to bias. Key insight: By understanding our own and others’ cognitive biases, we can contain their influence on civic and political discourse, increase the power of facts and evidence, and drive more rational decision-making.

Civic Health Project believes that leading edge academic theories such as these need to be more broadly understood and applied to the task of restoring healthy civic discourse. Our mission is to foster both broader awareness of these explanatory theories, and widespread adoption of positive interventions in our citizenry, politics, and media.

To achieve this, we partner with leading academics and practitioners to design and execute projects that deliver measurable improvements in rationality, empathy, and decision outcomes for the sake of a healthier, more functional democracy.

Learn more from our online clinics that offer free educational resources and accessible tools that promote rationality, foster empathy, reduce polarization, and create healthier civil discourse.