Ideological capture and its discontents: the end of progressive intellectual life, coups in libraries and law schools, the "exhausted majority" - and another paint-by-numbers attack on Substack
In a much-discussed piece in The Atlantic this week, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that something has gone terribly wrong in North American life, quite suddenly — and that it has left us “disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth.”
We are, he writes, “cut off from one another and the past.”
The something that has happened is, of course, social media. And Haidt argues that it has resulted in “the fragmentation of everything.” Not just between red and blue, but “within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”
Social media, Haidt writes, has weakened the forces that bind together successful democracies: social capital (i.e. social networks with high trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.
The tipping point was roughly a decade ago, with the phenomenon of virality:
This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”
As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality, and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.
This dynamic, Haidt explains, has brought about injustice and political dysfunction in three key ways: It has given more power to trolls while silencing good citizens; it has given more voice to the political extremes while reducing the voice of the moderate majority; it has deputized everyone to “administer justice with no due process.”
There is so much in this piece to mull over, and I encourage everyone to read it in full. (Or listen to Bari Weiss’s fascinating conversation with Haidt on her podcast.)
But it is Haidt’s second point — that social media gives disproportionate voice to political extremes — that I’d like to focus on here, since I believe this is the point that’s least understood by mainstream media.
In his essay, Haidt refers to a study that I’ve been thinking about for a good year:
The “Hidden Tribes” study, by the pro-democracy group More in Common, surveyed 8,000 Americans in 2017 and 2018 and identified seven groups that shared beliefs and behaviors. The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives,” comprised 6 percent of the U.S. population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists,” comprised 8 percent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 percent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 percent.
These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of the broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes. This uniformity of opinion, the study’s authors speculate, is likely a result of thought-policing on social media: “Those who express sympathy for the views of opposing groups may experience backlash from their own cohort.” In other words, political extremists don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team. In this way, social media makes a political system based on compromise grind to a halt.
Everyone who is not in these two warring elite camps — some 86 percent of the population — is considered “the exhausted majority.” Based on my own reporting, this is indeed most people you speak with.
But you’d never know it from legacy media.
I believe there are many journalists who honestly do not know that the “woke” agenda is incredibly unpopular with the public. Obliviousness to this fact helps set the stage for a major backlash, which I think we are seeing the beginnings of now, in both Canada and the United States. I worry about this backlash, for many reasons.
I worry, continually, about the state of our collective intellectual life.
One of the things that I’ve found heartbreaking about the era that we’re living through is that we can no longer take the world of ideas for granted. It is something that I never imagined could be taken from me — and it is one of the reasons that I took a public stand against ideological capture and came to Substack.
I simply cannot, and will not, cede the right to think for myself.
In “The End of Progressive Intellectual Life” this week for Tablet, Michael Lind argues that both the left and the right have quashed innovative thinking and open debate, focusing specifically on what he calls Progressivism Inc.
If you are an intelligent and thoughtful young American, you cannot be a progressive public intellectual today, any more than you can be a cavalry officer or a silent movie star. That’s because, in the third decade of the 21st century, intellectual life on the American center left is dead. Debate has been replaced by compulsory assent and ideas have been replaced by slogans that can be recited but not questioned: Black Lives Matter, Green Transition, Trans Women Are Women, 1619, Defund the Police. The space to the left-of-center that was once filled with magazines and organizations devoted to what Diana Trilling called the “life of significant contention” is now filled by the ritualized gobbledygook of foundation-funded, single-issue nonprofits like a pond choked by weeds. Having crowded out dissent and debate, the nonprofit industrial complex — Progressivism Inc. — taints the Democratic Party by association with its bizarre obsessions and contributes to Democratic electoral defeats, like the one that appears to be imminent this fall.
On that note, here are two excellent pieces that explore ideological capture here at home in Canada, in libraries, thanks to former librarian Greg Barkovich, and in law schools, courtesy of Stéphane Sérafin, writing for Wesley Yang’s Year Zero Substack.
All of this is, of course, why independent outlets like Substack are so essential, in spite of what The New York Times may tell you.
When I discovered Substack, it was an enormous relief to read thinking outside of the elite media consensus. Now, it is a huge relief to write outside of it myself.
This visceral sense of relief is, I believe, part of why the platform is such a success, and no doubt why the legacy media continually circles back with attempts to corral Substack’s runaway freedoms.
They can keep trying. They will continue to fail. The majority may be exhausted, but it’s still the majority.
Lean Out with Tara Henley is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I so appreciate your courage and look forward to every one of your posts. I just became a paid subscriber. I used to comfortably for into the progressive label, but no longer. Thank you for creating thoughtful content for those of us in the middle!
More tremendous food for thought. Although there are many similarities in recent socio-political developments in Canada and the US, there are obviously differences as well. One especially frightening difference is that, in Canada, the intellectually dead, or at least intellectually corrupt, progressives are actually in power. Between the Liberals and the NDP, they are supported by the majority of Canadian voters. Terrifying.