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Posted at 02:13 PM ET, 10/30/2012

Stop bickering and look out for the asteroids! — An interview with Jonathan Haidt


Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama during their second debate in Hempstead, New York. (MIKE SEGAR - REUTERS)

This post has been updated.

It’s a week until election day. Voters are already casting early ballots. The candidates have been crisscrossing the country, dodging megastorm Sandy (although they halted campaign activities Tuesday in the wake of the storm). Both parties are practically turning swing states, such as Ohio and Florida, upside-down in an effort to shake out every last vote.

Campaign ads seem to be everywhere, plaguing cord cutters and cable and satellite subscribers alike. It’s the homestretch of a tight race, and as the candidates continually remind the electorate, the stakes could not be higher, so why take a risk and vote for the other guy?

New York University Stern School of Business Professor Jonathan Haidt agrees that the stakes are high, and the challenges, he finds, go well beyond who wins the next election. The problems facing the country — including growing income inequality and the oncoming fiscal cliff — are much like asteroids barrelling down on the planet. Meanwhile hyper-partisan politics is preventing us from seeing our common problems and joining together to find solutions. Haidt issued his asteroid warning during remarks at the TedxMidAtlantic conference which convened this past Friday and Saturday and sat down for an interview shortly thereafter.

Haidt, a psychologist and author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” and “The Happiness Hypothesis” understands that our propensity for tribalism is part of human nature. He sees it “not as a curse that we need to overcome but as a really basic feature of our social life that we need to manage.”

Human beings, he has found, are not a deeply altruistic species, but are a deeply cooperative one. We form groups, says Haidt, which is “generally good for us.”

“The problem comes only when we cross a line — we go beyond being a group that is competing with other groups. We go to being a group that is demonizing other groups, seeing them as evil and wanting to destroy them. That’s when the competition … becomes toxic,” he says.

“The fact that that’s happening in Washington,” Haidt continued, “is exacting a terrible toll on our nation.”

But how do you get both sides to listen?

“There’s no one, secret sauce,” he concedes, to get us all to communicate and, ultimately, cooperate. There are also multiple levels on which we can be tribal: There’s nation vs. nation, party vs. party, two candidates competing to represent a district, and so on.

We’re at a point, says Haidt, where party-vs.-party is crowding out everything else, which weakens our ability to fulfill our national interest, and that includes policy initiatives that could have an effect on the nation’s innovation future.


What can we do about America’s hyper-partisanship? (James Steidl - JAMES STEIDL)

Haidt steered clear of making specific policy recommendations, but maintains that a lot of the policies enacted will have to be done as a grand bargain.

“I think we do have a window,” said Haidt, when asked if he was optimistic.

“I think the odds are we won’t get big reform. If I had to bet, I’d bet against it. But I think there’s a real chance,” said Haidt. “I’d say 10 or 20 years from now America will be more governable and institutions will work better.”

But it’s more likely than not that such a grand bargain will be fueled by an outside force, says Haidt, rather than an agreement from within.

“It can’t be exponentially worse unless we start shooting each other,” he observed. “Things are bad, but there’s really no violence around this and that’s incredibly helpful.”

Unfortunately, this close to an election, says Haidt, it’s too late to make any significant changes in one’s mindset before casting a vote. But, fortunately, he continued, the nation has two presidential candidates who are, he finds, “inherently civil … smart, honest and decent.”

There are things one can do after the election, says Haidt, such as being active with organizations such as League of Women Voters NoLabels.org and Common Cause. Then, of course, there is one other key way:

“If the winning candidate offers a hand, if he comes out trying bipartisanship again — which he might not do, given Obama’s experience last time around — but if he does, take it … and push your leaders to take it,” says Haidt.

This doesn’t mean working against one’s principles.

“What I’m recommending is they take a broader view,” he continued. “Be open to supporting grand bargains. I think that’s probably the best model for us going forward.”

Read more on the election from PostPolitics and read more news and ideas on Innovations.

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