Transcript: Bridging the Gap with Stephen Hawkins

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Turi: Today, we’re thrilled to be talking to Stephen Hawkins. Stephen is the director of research at more in common, an organization designed around bridging the gap that polarization has built. He leads all the studies on polarization in the U S and Europe. Stephen, it’s a great pleasure to have you on the Parlia podcast.

Stephen Hawkins: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Turi: first, because it sort of works as a beautiful exemplar of what you, and more in common are working on. Can you tell me a little bit about you and your own background?

Stephen Hawkins: Sure. So I have an international background. First of all, I was born in Bahrain, oddly enough, and then moved around a lot from country to country Holland, Brazil, UK us. Yeah. But really my formative, the formative element of my upbringing was being an evangelical Christian and then being a Republican and a conservative with my American family, all being from Atlanta, Georgia. And those beliefs were really very central to my identity, really. Um, Shaped the way I made decisions as a, as a young mouse student in university, I studied political science and international affairs because so motivated by my belief system.

And then in my college years, I sort of had a transition away from a religiosity and the way from my political perspective, as a conservative and fast forward, about six or seven years post-grad school. Was working on fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Buy-in, we’re working for an LGBT run activist organization called purpose, which was trying to change people’s minds about gay marriage, about abortion and about climate change. It was about as much of a pendulum swing as you can make from being an evangelical conservative as, as possible. And this is in 2000, uh, 17 or so was starting to have some misgivings about the way that the conversation was being conducted on the progressive left. Wasn’t so much the perspectives that I disagreed with it was the dogmatism of it.

That, um, someone who has sort of reoriented himself around being a critical thinker, I found that the discussion was becoming narrower and that disagreement was becoming tougher and judgment and that the progressive left wasn’t as characterized by being open and being tolerant so much as it was being characterized by. Uh, kind of specific type of thinking that had to be adhered to and preserved. And that, that became very ideological for me. And so I drifted away from that. I’m still very much a liberal and still secular, but I’m very much want to promote a kind of discourse that allows for more diversity of opinion, more development of ideas and more healthy disagreement.

Turi: Stephen, thank you for sharing that. Um, we were talking earlier, it’s an experience, which both I and my partner at Parlia share, both of us were brought up in religious context and then broke out of those quite forcefully. Um, and in my case, I think the thing which has been interesting has been, as you look at multiple different perspectives, remembering that all of them come from a sincere and moral foundation, one of the things which you lose so much as you drift to one hard side or another, is the acceptance that alternative perspectives. Uh, Strongly held and come from a place of deep humanity as well. So perhaps there’s something in all of us looking at this sort of the bridging the gap. Um, maybe there’s a commonality of experience maybe where we’re our own subset of a demographic subset, our own tribe. Our own tribe. Exactly. Um, we’ll come to that in a minute before we do tell me a little bit more about more in common. You believe, I think in more in common that there are forces threatening democratic societies today. What are they and what are you guys doing about it?

Stephen Hawkins: So more in common began in the UK. You may remember the death of Joe Cox member of parliament who was killed primarily because of her support for Syrian refugees in the peak of this Syrian civil war and the, um, the movement of, of refugees into Europe and the UK. And that was an alarm bell that rang very loudly it to many of. The co-founders have more in common and to people everywhere that things were not do things we’re not all going so well in the UK.

And at the same time, we were seeing the rise of the AFD alternative for Deutschland party in Germany and seeing as well that Marine Le pen and national rally then called natural front was on the ascent in France. All of these parties. Sharing a strain of strong anti-Islamic sentiment and, um, and a, a sort of suspicion or, or fear of people who were different from them. And what we were also seeing is that these trends did not map onto the left right political spectrum, which historically has been maybe more about the degree to which government should intervene in society. Versus the individual should take responsibility for herself. And instead we were seeing something which seemed somewhat orthogonal to the traditional debate around family values and scale, scale of government.

And so in order to understand these dynamics better, we began in 2016 to conduct. Public opinion research in France and Germany and subsequently in Greece and in Italy and now in the United States and the UK, where we have looked into the psychology of these different perspectives and we use a statistical technique or actually several statistical techniques to try and understand the patterns of these different groups in society, what they have in common. And how they can be better, how they can provide a better description of society that isn’t just using young and old or East versus West or political parties or income groups, but instead provides a portrait of countries, which is based on its. Ideas landscape or its psychological landscape. And so that’s what we have been doing through our segmentation studies since 2016.

Turi: I love the idea of an ideas landscape. I’m sure there’s a long German word for that. Um, but, but help us, help us understand what those, what the new fault lines are, what the, what these ideas, landscapes, what these belief landscapes look like. How do you identify how we think.

Stephen Hawkins: Well, much of the work has been done by psychologists and social psychologists and political scientists and understanding more narrowly described phenomenon. So I know you’ve had Jonathan Haidt on your show before he has foundational work on moral foundations. Has been very influential to us in describing how it is that people have different moral systems that are based on different foundations, conservatives, caring more about things like loyalty and the preservation of authority and the, um, and purity notions of purity, especially around sexuality and around religious beliefs.

Whereas more cosmopolitan liberal people tend to have beliefs that are. More around fairness and more, um, around basic empathy. And that don’t have as strong an orientation towards the preservation of authority and traditions. I think that’s well known, but what moral foundations theory helps us to understand is the relevance of that in the actual experience of the different groups, where people’s emotions are actually connected to these different foundational. Beliefs. So that’s one set of ideas. And then just to add two more, um, we’ve been influenced by Karen Stenner’s work here in, center’s done a lot of work around authoritarianism and authoritarian dynamic. And one of the things that we’ve learned in exploring authoritarianism is that there’s a strong relationship to parenting styles.

So if you believe that children. Aren’t fundamentally good people. Maybe aren’t fundamentally good, but rather it’s society’s job parents, job religions, job to inculcate strong ethics values, morality self-discipline into the child, into the individual. Then you tend to be more oriented towards support for a stronger, more authoritarian government, especially when you feel that the groups to which you belong are under threat. By contrast, if you see that the problem of the human experience is that too often authority figures, parents, religions, teachers, schools, the government metal in the path of the individual and the individual needs to learn to cultivate, curiosity and creativity and individuality. Well, then you tend to be more liberally oriented and tend to think that the government should not have as strong a role in trying to bring about control and order in society.

And then the last set of ideas, which I think are particularly salient, but where there isn’t as much academic literature that we’re drawing from, but it’s more just the observation that we’ve had in conducting these studies over time. There’s a real thread related to this pendulum swinging between societies being racist and patriarchal and discriminating against minority groups. And then on the other side of the pendulum that society has now fully reversed that trend and has resentment and criticism of white people and of Christians and of men. And that the tables have turned. In the United States, the strongest predictor of our devoted conservatives, which is that narrow 6% on the far, right?

Is this sincere belief, strongly held that today, the rights of immigrants are better protected than the rights of American citizens. And it’s the sense that we are over-correcting for our past, and now the victims in society are the groups that have historically been the ones in power. So those are the three moral foundations theory authoritarianism, and then this, this thread of resentment and perception of group favoritism, which I think are really key, but there are others that we could get into as well around group identity, around personal agency and responsibility that all kind of clustered together and help describe the societies that we study. Turi: That’s fascinating that last, that last piece talks very strongly to the whole idea of polarization belief, polarization in particular, which is all around ingroups and outgroups, um, and sort of the radicalization of in groups in relation to their opposites. It sounds like the question here is who’s the victim, but the, but the group is very, very strong. Is that, is that, is that the articulation of that thread that you described? Stephen Hawkins: who is the victim? Um, that that is a good articulation. Just let, just as an example, for instance, in the United States, we’re currently doing a lot of research around questions of belonging and racism in the United States and the divisions and disagreements around racism towards black Americans are actually much greater among white Americans between white progressives and white conservatives than they are between black Americans, white Americans on average. And that’s because of this wide ideological disagreement about the extent and degree of racism versus the extended degree of contempt that the establishment media academia broader cultural forces has towards conservatives, towards white people, towards men, towards evangelical Christians.

Turi: Interesting. Um, okay, so we’re into polarization, unfortunately. Now we’re into what divides us. Are we more polarized than we have been? And how can we tell?

Stephen Hawkins: So it’s a challenging question because it’s a polarization is capturing a lot of different phenomenon at the same time. Behavioral. Attitude, no voting patterns, et cetera, but there are few good measures. One good measure at the level of the everyday person at the level of populations is looking at things like the relationship between ideology and party. And it used to be, for instance, in the 1990s, there was quite a lot of, there were quite a lot of liberals and among the Republican party and a lot of conservatives among the democratic party, and we’ve had a sorting process.

But now there’s a lot more homogeneity of thinking with very, very few conservatives among Democrats, very, very few liberals among Republicans. And then another good measure is looking at what happens at the level of Congress. And so you can see in the United States, for instance, that cross party voting has drunk dropped significantly. And that’s a further reflection of how the implications of a polarizing population then have ramifications in the way that. Members of Congress view their incentives and view their, their, um, obligations to represent their constituency. And then there’s also just asking people at a very basic, maybe emotional level. Do you feel that the country is more divided than, than it has been in the past and everywhere we’ve studied that we find that people tend to report that yes, that’s the case, especially in the UK as true in the United States as well.

Turi: Is that Brexit in the UK? Do you find similar? Pew research has done such fantastic work on radicalization in the U S, I’m not aware of any similar deep long-term studies in Europe, but find similar kind of a similar polarization, a similar kind of, and just, uh, just use another image of that as I understand sorting, I think what you’re suggesting is that in the 1990s, a Republican could be pro-abortion and a Democrat could be free market.

Today, if you without giving too many notes to cue in on where we go on, we go all, um, if you’re Republican, you’d take the whole gamut of Republican opinions and they are yours and an identity around which you build yourself. I’m detailed on the democratic side, but is that true also in France, Germany, Spain, sorry, not Spain, Italy, Greece, UK.

Stephen Hawkins: It’s true to lesser degrees. I think the United States shows the sharpest extent of this sorting tendency. Um, we just released this week. So, um, in the UK, we released Britain’s Choice, which is rather extensive discussion of the degree of polarization in the UK. And we find that it’s not as sharp as it is in the US.

And there’s rather a lot that Brits agree on whether it’s that it’s a good thing that the country is becoming more diverse. It’s an obligation to take care of the environment that there’s pride in the national healthcare service. So it was quite a lot that. Brits do agree on that. Americans would not. And really what seems to characterize the British political environment right now, more so than polarization is exhaustion. There’s been tumultuous, rapid change in prime ministers in the last few years. And of course, all of the seemingly interminable conversations around Brexit has left Brits saying this is the most divided that the country has been in their lifetimes, but we find that the Culture Wars that have erupted in the UK in recent months and years around statues, for instance, and other more turbulent episodes in the UK represent a rather small minority between progressive activists and other groups of groups we refer to as loyal nationals or backbone conservatives, and that it’s actually not engulfing the entirety of society.

Uh, the US has a deeper problem that encompasses a larger share of the population.

Turi: What about France and Germany, where you’ve also done these kinds of studies, what are the fault lines there?

Stephen Hawkins: France is in a deeper state of division and is more pessimistic than is Germany. Uh, Germany has, um, uh, an angry group that sort of serves as the far right. Um, constituency there that more supportive of AFD frustrated at, um, And, and concerned about Islam and feels that they’re treated as racists. And there’s also a growing sense in Germany. This was one of our key findings that it’s time to move on from discussions of the past. Um, uh, rather than continuing to feel. Guilt and shame always about, um, world war two and about the Holocaust. And so there’s a, an emerging debate around identity and German identity and responsibility and shame. That is one that’s critical in Germany right now. Hasn’t engulfed society to the degree that it has in the us, but there are growing concerns around misinformation and the splintering media system there.

And, um, one of the differences that was true earlier in the year, for instance, of, of Germany and not true of the U S was that there was actually quite a lot of pride in the way that the government handled the first episodes of COVID 19, which was a sort of stabilizing force. It was a reminder of the efficacy of the German government and things that. Worked well there now, as we’re seeing Germany descend into a much deeper and much of Europe, descending into a much deeper crisis of COVID, we’ll see if that exacerbates divisions further than they have.

France is a country where we’ve seen the, sort of the collapse of socialism, the emergence of a centrist, Emmanuel Macron coming into power, but struggling to maintain a coalition and issues of Islam are particularly relevant. The area where we see the most agreement in France and the most potential is around environmental responsibility and addressing climate change. It’s an issue which connects across all tiers of society and all of the tribes that we’ve identified there.

Turi: We’ve identified some of the key things, which divide us some of the things which bring us together. I wanted to talk about your tribes because More in Common has done a lot of work identifying different political slash moral value groupings, both in the U S and the UK. So in 2018, you came up with a report called Seven Tribes, which we’ll link to in the podcast notes about the U S and you identified seven specific groupings of Americans and in your most recent report on, um, on the UK, you came up again with seven tribes there, but they’re subtly different. So can I ask you to explain what these high-level, what these seven tribes are, how you segment a population by moral and political values, and then also ask you, you know, what the differences are between the US and the UK.

Stephen Hawkins: So the process very quickly is we take. Not demographic information, but rather a behavioral and attitudinal. Um, behavior or information rather. So variables on people’s psychology and what they do politically. And then we use statistical processes led by statisticians at our partner organizations to find the patterns and the groupings that are most visible in the data.

So you can think about our groups is sitting along two dimensions, one dimension of political disengagement to political engagement and the other dimension being. Broadly speaking a left to right access. Although it doesn’t mean it’s a big simplification in the U S with our seven tribes, we found that a couple of key dynamics, the first was that the most politically engaged and most intensely divided groups in the country were actually rather small. The progressive activists, just 8% of the population on the far left the devoted conservatives, just 6% on the far right. And that there were four groups in the middle. And that we refer to it as the exhausted majority and the exhausted majority is not a coherent group. It has a lot of diversity in it.

Demographic diversity, political diversity, behavioral diversity, socioeconomic diversity, but it shares a common frustration at the status quo. Politically. It doesn’t feel very well represented in the news media and is more willing to see compromise. They’re not as invested in their political identities. In the UK, we also have seven groups. But we did not find that there was such a clear continuum of disagreement across the issues. So in the US, we will find that if you ask about abortion or immigration or racism or sexuality or family, or government responsibility across a whole range of seemingly disconnected issues, you still see the same ideological polls disagreeing with each other to very, very clear extents. I mean, 95% agree with answer choice a and 95 or a hundred percent of the other side, disagree with it and believe the answer choice B. We didn’t find that same pattern in the UK, which is a good thing.

It shows that there is not this diametric opposition between two groups that mutually love each other, but instead that Brits tend to think through issues on the basis of the merits of the particular subject. And so we see, as I was mentioning earlier, more consensus around diversity, more consensus around questions of gender or consensus around environmental issues and narrow where divisions on specific issues. Of immigration and the Brexit and of the direction of the country.

And so we don’t see those same sharp polls that we see in the UK. There is a progressive activist group, which shares a lot of the same characteristics of being college educated, younger cosmopolitan, higher income. But we don’t have the devoted, conservative religious group that we have in the U S in the UK. Um, instead we see that there’s kind of a splintering of the conservative, um, counterpart to the progressive activists between more established Brits who are more comfortable in their lifestyles. And. Support status quo and then loyal nationalists or loyal national, sorry, who, uh, really fervent in their patriotism for the UK.

So it’s a more subtle story. It’s a more encouraging story. And the reason it was called Britain’s choice is because the UK has the capacity at this juncture, in our opinion, to preserve its dynamic diverse. And less intensely ideologically divided society, or it can move in the direction of the United States and become more polarized. And I know that the UK is beginning to see that news networks similar to Fox are beginning to come into the UK. And so there’s certainly the potential that things could head more in the direction of what we see on the side of the Atlantic.

Turi: It’s even a rule of thumb that we’ve many of us have always assumed is that, is that the U S is naturally slightly more Democrat in terms of demographics and population. There are slightly more people on the left ish side and the UK historically is, has, is sort of the opposite. They’re slightly more people on the conservative side and you can actually see that in terms of our government government history is post-war in, in the, in the UK. Is that born out?

Stephen Hawkins: Well, not if you use the same, not if you use the same definitions of liberal or conservative, not in my opinion.

No, because in the UK you have, for instance, a strong consensus that the government should be involved in healthcare and should be managing it centrally through the government and in the U S we have had what, since the 1990s Democrats have been trying to convince, since the Clinton era, been trying to convince a conservative reluctant population that the government should broaden its scope to include provision of healthcare to the whole population. They still haven’t succeeded in that we have a Supreme court, which may decide to append certain parts of. Yeah, affordable care act passed by Democrats and by the Barack Obama administration 10 years ago. And the consensus around climate change is much weaker in the United States as well. So if you use the definition of Democrat or of Conservative that refers to the scope of government. I think you’d find that the British population is considerably more left leaning than the American one is.

Turi: Yeah. So it’s not the politics. It’s where you put the midpoint, which describes the difference. Gotcha. Okay. Enough of these divisions more in commons mission is to bring people together around shared values, beliefs, identities, to counter polarization, to counter what you guys call othering. How do you do that?

Stephen Hawkins: It’s a really hard question. Our current hypothesis in the U S where I work the most on this issue is that we need to construct a greater sense of shared identity. In the U S we don’t really have a strong sense of shared identity across our political divisions. So just to put the specifics around that our, our far-right groups are very much oriented around their American identity.

It’s very, very important to them. They’ll say it’s in many cases, more important to them than their religious identity up there together with. The importance of their family identity as being a father, being a mother, being a daughter on the progressive left, we see no real interest in being American and a lot of pride in being progressive and liberal and a lot more pride in identities that are connected to marginalized, marginalized groups, being a person of color, being a woman. So these identities are very much at odds and. Uh, very much in conflict. And so what we’re trying to do is to explore how we can cultivate a sense of shared identity, and that would have as many as eight components to it. I’ll just run them through them very quickly. One, there needs to be an individual experience of belonging, regardless of your background or biology. Second would be, we need to have a common perception of the country. One that isn’t self-aggrandizing. Nor self-loathing but more that self-aware right now, that’s very challenging in the United States because we’re having this discussion about the extent of racism, both in it’s in the country’s history and in its present form.

And it leads to this false notion that we either need to see the United States as, as a villain or as this heroic, perfect country. And most Americans view it with far more sober and complex picture, and we need to embrace that. Third, we need to have a basic alignment on the institutions that we trust. We’re very far from that today. We need to have a notion of what it means to be a good American, what our responsibilities are, need to have a common notion of our basic rights. We need to have some sense of our shared identities towards more our sorry, shared values towards our moral decision-making. We need to have pretty good inter group perceptions, congenial relations between races in particular. And then finally we need to have some kind of common aspiration for the future. So I recognize that was just a long list that I rattled through. But across those eight dimensions of what it would mean to have a shared identity. We’re pretty close on a few of them already. And on some of them, the divergence is actually rather narrow, but very vocal.

And we, um, we’re optimistic that this so much of the challenge is just in having things rather than in the fundamental reality on the ground. So what we’ll be doing over the coming years and more in common in the U S is. Taking each of those components and working to see how we can knit together a stronger sense of what brings us together around what our past was, what our present reality is, what our basic responsibilities to each other are around what institutions. And individuals we can trust to explain what’s going on in the country and to set a common description of the future that’s motivating and compelling across the board. So that’s, that’s the basic hypothesis.

Turi: Yeah, easy, cakewalk as they say. Um, but actually maybe not easy, but, um, in September you published a report called democracy for president a project to foster civic engagement and to build up to the election. And, um, I love the title because it’s sort of a fundamental thesis of Parlia as, as well. Um, that the experience of democracy, if the commitment is to democracy, then you got to love the other side because they, your counterpart in building it.

But some of the data struck me as terrifying and some of it beautiful on the terrifying side. I think over 80% of Americans felt that 20%, 2020 was the most important election in their lifetimes. That’s 60% or more of Americans felt they wouldn’t. There was going to be no peaceful continuation of power. If Trump was reelected or, you know, almost 50% thought the same thing would happen. If Biden was elected, 70% of Americans are concerned about widespread election related violence. I’ve seen data elsewhere suggesting that up to, you know, the over 40% of either side. Believes that violence might be justified if the wrong team won.

So all that’s petrifying because it really attacks the very fabric of what makes America Trudy great. It’s democratic participative politics. But on the flip side, um, you had lovely data, deeply comforting that said, you know, more than 80% of Americans agree that democracy is still the best system of government that almost. 90% of Americans felt the voting was the way they could take action to improve that country. That’s fabulous. What it says is that the us still universally or closest dammit believes in this principle of democracy, what’s tricky is it’s articulation. How do you get people to realize that the opposite side is the only thing. That they have going. That is the most important feature of democracy. I mean, it’s one of those, the easiest way to tell a country is undemocratic is by the absence. Any opposition look at Saudi Arabia, look at Russia, look at me. Yeah, Russia. Um, these are countries which are screamingly undemocratic because they do not have an opposition.

So opposition is what makes us who we are. How do you embed that into culture, into the idea landscape, as you say. Stephen Hawkins: it’s a subtle, but very important distinction between your opponent and your enemy. And I think what’s worrying Americans right now, is that the word enemy and the sense of threat is much more acute than the notion that we might, the other side might win this round. That’s the distinction that I think we’re feeling right now a week before the election and it has to do with norms, right? The reason that a football match works and doesn’t descend into violence every, every time it’s played is because there are expectations for good play around what it means to be a good sport about how you define who wins and loses. And there are trusted authorities to determine whether something has been a foul or whether something has been a goal. Right? We have judges and umpires that are trusted as objective. And in the United States, we’ve lost the common sense of authority that should be provided by academia to tell us what’s true. And by science to tell us what’s going on with the environment and what’s going on with. The pandemic and we’ve lost confidence in the media to tell us what’s going on in terms of current events. So that by analogy, the umpires and referees aren’t trusted. And when that happens, people get nervous and they just want to see their side win because they see, they see a lot of threat posed by their opponent. So I’m hopeful that. We will see a return in this country to a sense of basic civic, responsibilities and norms. That mean we don’t vilify our opponents and we don’t vilify the media that we disagree with and that we have some basic sense of norms that help put guard rails around a descent into, um, deeper conflict.

Turi: Stephen, great place to end this conversation, which I found fascinating and instructive. We’ll put up all the links to the various different reports that you guys have been publishing over the last years up in the podcast notes. And it just remains for me to thank you for, um, for talking to us.

Stephen Hawkins: Well, thank you so much for the invitation. Very much support your mission. I’d love to see it succeed.

This page was last edited on Wednesday, 17 Mar 2021 at 13:19 UTC