David French on the Polarization in America

Monday, August 24, 2020 - David French discusses the polarization he sees in America and studies in his book and why short-term solutions seem improbable.

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David French attorney, political commentator, and author. A fellow at the National Review Institute and a staff writer for National Review from 2015 to 2019, French currently serves as senior editor of The Dispatch.
David French attorney, political commentator, and author. A fellow at the National Review Institute and a staff writer for National Review from 2015 to 2019, French currently serves as senior editor of The Dispatch.

David French attorney, political commentator, and author. A fellow at the National Review Institute and a staff writer for National Review from 2015 to 2019, French currently serves as senior editor of The Dispatch, a fact-based digital media company, that endeavors to provide both sides of any given position. In 2020, he published Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. Today, he will discuss the polarization he studies in his book and why short-term solutions seem improbable.

In a recent article, David French called the political climate a “new fundamentalism.” A fundamentalist, he explains, often has no existential humility or uncertainty, and that’s what we now see in politics. He similarly highlights three recent political trends: The Big Sword - Americans have begun in the last few decades to intentionally live around like-minded neighbors; The Law of Group Polarization - when like-minded people gather, they reinforce those shared opinions to an extreme; Overton Windows - while the Overton Window concept is the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time, there are now two separate windows for either party in the case of many issues. 

Go to NoLabels.org to learn more about how we are bringing together a bipartisan group of public and private leaders working to solve America’s toughest problems.

In This Episode

Opening Remarks

David French:
Thanks so much. I almost feel like, because I was talking to Tom beforehand, that I should begin with an apology, what a dramatic de-escalation in guests because you went from the guy who spearheaded the Bin Laden raid to a reserve Judge Advocate who served in one tour in the surge. But I'm not here to talk about military policy, I'm going to talk about our national polarization. How bad it's getting, why there aren't any real prospects in the short to medium term for it to get better. But, there are some things that I think we can do in the longer term to turn this thing around.

So, when I was talking to Tom, he was asking me to lay out why I think we are where we are and what it looks like to be where we are. The impetus for this was a Sunday essay I did that said, that America's in the grips of a fundamentalist revival. It's just not a Christian fundamentalist revival. It was spawned by a reaction that I'd had to a tweet where I said, "I don't think you can really understand this political moment unless you've either been a part of or been very familiar with fundamentalist religious communities." The reason why I said fundamentalist is because we've often heard people describe politics is like a religion to some people or pop culture is like a religion to some people.

But, I don't think that describing something as a religion actually does justice to the intensity of what we're talking about now because there are a lot of different religious people in this country who have a lot of different demeanors. Some of the most open and welcoming and mild-mannered and temperate and kind people, I know in life, are very religious people. That's why I pinned down on the word fundamentalist. In fundamentalist religious circles, a fundamentalist is often somebody who lacks any kind of existential humility. They have got it figured out. They have an extreme amount of existential certainty about who God is, the nature of God, what God wants the world to look like, etc, etc.

What we're beginning to see in a lot of our secular political struggles, is this absolute existential certainty. You see it all the time. It's the business model of Twitter to have people sharing at volume, their existential certainty, and trying to drown out or suppress those voices that don't share their point of view. I thought it would be good, in talking to Tom, to show a little bit about how we got here. It's not everything to do with politics. You've probably read a lot of stuff over the years that say, "Okay, well, here was the political moment where things got bad, say." Let's say it was when Newt Gingrich became speaker, and he learned to weaponize C-SPAN in the months and years before he became speaker, or was it Clinton's impeachment where things became much more partisan or was it the rise of the Tea Party, or was it not until the 2016 campaign? We keep going back to these political moments?

What I would say is, these political moments, which the data shows, if you look at Pew studies on polarization, for example, show steadily increasing polarization since the 90s. These political moments reflect cultural trends. I'm just going to highlight three cultural trends. One is, The Big Sort. The other one is something called the... that Cass Sunstein has articulated, which I think is one of the most important concepts... If you take nothing from anything, I say, at all today, remember this, it's called The Law of Group Polarization. The third factor is, not the Overton window, but Overton windows, plural.

So, I'll just briefly go through each one of these three things. Tom, I don't know how we want to do the Q&A. If you want to interrupt and ask me some questions. Happy to take questions throughout. Okay. So, The Big Sort is a term... I didn't invent any of these terms, by the way, I'm just melding them together... It's a book from the early 2000s. It indicates that Americans are beginning to live around and congregate in like-minded areas of the country. We are clustering. We are walling off from each other. We're cocooning. You see this in a lot of the data that is steadily showed that more and more and more and more Americans live in something called a landslide county. A landslide county is any county where one party or the other usually wins by 20 points or more.

So, what this means is, as a general rule, we just don't live around people who disagree with us as much as we used to, by choice, and then the choice begins to get its own momentum. We now live around people who agree with us. We live around people who share our values. Just to give you an example, I'm one of the few national columnists who lives in a very red America. My precinct, in 2016., I lived in rural Tennessee, voted for Trump. I think the ratio was 72% Trump and maybe 18%, Hillary, and 10% other. It was decisively Trump. The precinct I moved to in 2018 was around 69, 70% Trump, is where I live. You can assume, if you run into somebody especially if they're a white voter, in my neighborhood, that they're a Trump voter. You just can assume it. It's a fair assumption to make.

That's not unusual. The share of people that were living in landslide counties in 2016 was the highest since we've been measuring the statistic. So, it just keeps building. It gets its own momentum. So, we hear a lot about bubbles and we hear a lot about cocoons, but we don't really hear a lot about... We have the sense that it means something. There's something meaningful about that in our politics, and there's something meaningful about living mainly around like-minded people. That's where this Cass Sunstein concept comes in, called The Law of Group Polarization. This is so key. So, what the law says, is that when people of like mind gather, people with a common point of view gather, the common expression of their shared point of view gets ever more extreme.

Let me make it concrete. Let's say, a whole group of us got together, and we're all gun rights supporters, which means we want fewer restrictions on guns, and we all get together for dinner. At the end of that dinner, we're more likely to support gun rights then when the dinner started. We feed on each other, we reinforce and vice versa. If it's a group of like-minded people are getting together and you're in favor of fewer immigration restrictions, while you feel on each other, you're going to become even more opposed to immigration restrictions. It's just the way human dynamics work.

What Sunstein said is, you can even begin to reach a point where there's such a cascade of reinforcement in our point of view, that by the end of the deliberation, the group can be more extreme than the most extreme individual was at the start of it. That's how powerful this is. I'm not going to go into all of the supporting social science, but you begin to see how people, when the like-minded people gather, they get more and more extreme. So, do we have communities like that that are extremely like-minded? Yeah.

So, I'll pick up a couple of threads. One, connecting back to The Big Sort. So one, we have white evangelicals. So, the famous white evangelical vote that went for Trump. 81% voted for Trump. That's a pretty monolithic voting bloc. That's extremely monolithic. This is a monolithic voting block that is not evenly spread throughout the United States of America. It's clustered in specific suburban and ex-urban parts in rural parts of the United States. So, 81%. So, you can sit there and say, Of course, these guys are going to be subject to The Law of Group Polarization, and sometimes I can see it with my own eyes, people who elected Trump in 2016 are now very zealous Trump in 2020. Certainly were until the pandemic began to crack and fray some of this universe support.

So, that even as Trump, for example, continued to engage in conduct that would shock the conscience of a lot of these evangelical voters four or five, six years ago, if they'd seen other politicians do it, this group polarization, this group deliberation, in support of Trump, was creating greater and deeper and deeper loyalty. So, that's white evangelicals. Well, you can go to urban areas in the US, whether it's Manhattan, San Francisco, Center City, Philly, Washington, DC, in fact, multiple boroughs in New York City, that are more politically monolithic than the white evangelical church. They're more than 81% voting for a Democrat.

So, what you have are some of these competing bubbles. These immense communities of Americans that are monolithically in support of one side or the other. As they are monolithically in support of one side of the other, are growing more extreme in their political positions. You see this in a lot of the data again, as well. It used to be the case, that if you're going to look at American ideology, you would have that classic U-shape, that bell curve, where you had the vast majority there in the middle and you had these small minorities on the edges. But again, some of this Pew polarization data shows that those minorities on the edges are pulling that bell curve. So, it's not a you, but it's moving more, just, a straight line where there is still a substantial middle. But, what was the extremes is also growing in numbers.

Now, what's disturbing about that, and this is again, part of The Law of Group Polarization, is that our perception of the extremism of our opponents is growing even faster than the actual extremism of our opponents. So, one of the things that we are... especially those of us who are most prone to engage in political media, are often most wrong about our political opponents beliefs. We believe they're far more extreme than they really are, even though they are growing more extreme. Okay, so that's The Big Sort, that's The Law of Group Polarization, The last part was Overton windows, plural.

The Overton window is a concept coined by a senior executive in a conservative think tank, The Mackinac Center in Michigan, and, essentially, it's defined as the window of acceptable political discourse. According to his theory, the real battle, ideological battle, wasn't between, over time, Republican versus Democrat, it was over the where the window was. If you could move the window far enough left or far enough right, you could lose elections, and, still, you're winning in the culture.

Here's a very good example. So, in the 1990s, a lot of people... conservatives now who look back on the Clinton administration, they look back on it with bitterness, but, in many ways, this is the most social conservative administration of modern times. Think about this, they passed the Clinton administration... Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act, which essentially gave special protections to religious use of land. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and he implemented, Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Not one of those pieces of legislation could make it through Congress now. That's an example of an Overton window moving.

So, that's an example, when conservatives say there has been losses in the culture, a lot of what they're referring to, is a moving of the Overton window. But, is there one Overton window anymore, when the two sides are beginning to separate? I'd submit, in many areas, there's not. That, in fact, the strain has meant that there is a separate range of acceptable discourse on the left and on the right. We see this often most starkly in issues around race. So, for example, if you're in left political discourse, and you try to argue that there is no such thing as systemic racism, it's hard for you to have an entree into the conversation. There is a shared set of presumptive beliefs about the state of race relations in America that's often centered around specific language and specific terms such as, for example, systemic racism, which is a term with an academic definition, that an awful lot of people on the left, understand and agree with. It's the entry ticket into discourse.

Now, on the right, if you try to argue that there is systemic racism, in a right-leaning community, you're often not going to get a hearing at all, because the assumption is that that is a left-wing concept, systemic racism. It marks you as a member of the left-wing tribe to buy into it, and so your entry into serious political conversation, on the right, cannot use the language of the left. Why? Because, we have the two separate Overton windows. Our positions on gun rights in politically active communities are another good example for that. In 1986, I don't know... maybe because some of the best data I'd seen exist in 1986... In 1986, a very small minority of states in this country allowed a person to walk outside of their home with a handgun. The vast majority of states in the union had a rule that said, they were either no issue, you cannot get a carry permit or they were may issue, you can only get a carry permit if you get permission from the government. By now that's just completely flipped. There are no, no issue states. There's a tiny minority of states that are may issue and the vast majority are either, shall issue, you're entitled to a carry permit, or what are called constitutional carry where the Second Amendment is your carry permit. In right-leaning spaces, if you're going to come in and you're going to question that, that's outside the Overton window.

Another way of describing the Overton window is political correctness. What are the politically correct perspectives within any given community? There is no one set of views that is politically correct. Whenever I hear political correctness, I often ask, okay, in which community? What's politically correct in which community? So for example, on the left, there is often a tendency to over-racialize issues. On the right, there's a tendency to under-racialized issues. Those are reflections of different forms of political correctness that are often reflections of these different Overton windows.

Now, it would be one thing if we were growing more different, with different views with equivalent commitments to pluralism. Where, in other words, okay, Manhattan, you'd be Manhattan. Franklin, Tennessee, where I am, you'd be Franklin, Tennessee. We're increasingly different, we don't watch the same sports, we don't watch the same movies, we don't watch the same television. It's really fascinating to look at television maps, which different shows almost perfectly track the Trump and Hillary voting maps, depending on what the show is. I felt like a real fish out of water because I'm a red stater who watched the ultimate blue state show religiously, which was Game of Thrones. The Game of Thrones viewing map tracked to the Hillary map. I was less devoted to The Walking Dead, which is the gory, violent show of the right. It tracks more the red state voting map. College football tracks red state voting maps, NBA basketball tracks blue state voting maps.

So again, all of these factors make us very different. It's one thing, if we're equally committed to pluralism, but all of this is occurring at the same time, that we have increased centralization of the federal government. Increased centralization of power, and not just in the federal government, because that would imply the Congress i part of this. No, Congress is abdicating. It's much more in a person, in a president, and that is leading to extreme amounts of tension. One of the reasons why you have the escalating rhetoric surrounding every presidential election, this is the most important election of our lifetime. We've always heard that. Everyone is the most important. It's flawed reasoning, except this, every election... because the ever-increasing power of the chief executive is electing the most powerful peacetime president in American history. So, each election cycle has an escalating stake in the sense of the power of the person being elected, whether or not historically it's the most important election or not.

So, all of those things are gadding together, centralization in the face of increased diversity, increased anxiety over opposing opposite sides, real and imagined extremism. In many ways, and this is the last thing, you see a decreasing commitment to liberalism itself, small-l liberalism. This was the subject of a huge debate I got into last summer when a New York Post editorial editor, a guy named Sohrab Ahmari wrote an article called Against David French-ism, which ignited a huge intellectual fight on the right. What is David French-ism? Aside from a commitment that LeBron James, right there, is the greatest basketball player Of all time, it also includes a commitment that politics should not be treated as war enmity, that civility and decency are cardinal virtues in life, including politics, and that the classical liberalism view of the founders is as relevant today, if not more relevant, as it's ever been.

Tom Davis:
David, I'm sorry to interrupt, but just for our audience, maybe a quick definition of how you define small-l liberalism for everybody, just so that there's no confusion.

David French:
Yeah, so small-l liberalism is a rights-based rule of law structure where one of the principal objectives of the state is the protection of individual liberty. That the state, itself, has profound limits on its power. Small-l liberalism doesn't mean small government liberalism. You can be a small-l liberal and be for bigger or smaller government, but a small-l liberal is going to view a human being as possessing a certain bundle of rights that the state cannot overcome. So essentially, the way to say in the American experience to express small-l liberalism, would be the combination and the opening of the Declaration of Independence as mission statement, and the combination of the Bill of Rights and the Civil War amendments as the enabling documents, as the legal document. So, that's a short version of how I define small-l liberalism.

So, that's why we are so mad at each other, separate and apart from the most outrageous thing that Newt Gingrich did in '94 or the hypocrisy of whatever Clinton did in '98, or the anger at, Bush for Patriot Act in '02. Each side has its list of grievances, but the building anger and the building mutual rage and anger is based on something much deeper and more profound than what is, really, rather a garden variety list of political grievances, historically speaking. Anyway, I have monologued enough.

Is there an exit?

You offered us a totally persuasive diagnosis of our current deals. I bet you know what my next sentence is going to be. Here at No Labels, perhaps, our proudest product is a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives called The Problem Solvers. That, pretty much, defines what we're about, first coming to a common recognition of what the problems are, and then doing our best to do something about them. So, let me just turn that back on you, the unwary listener would say that you've offered a totally deterministic account, or in Sortrian terms, no exit. Is there an exit? If so, what does it look like? Where's the hope in the midst of this problem?

David French:
So, that's a great question. This is going to sound counterintuitive, but there's hope in misery, in the sense that... More in Common, some of you may be familiar with their work. They've done work on a concept called Hidden Tribes where they a lot. They dove into the American electorate in the American population, and they said, "Okay, this is not just a right-left country, there's a lot of nuances in there. Who really believes what and with what intensity? What they found was, that the American dialogue is being driven by a relatively small percentage of the population which shouldn't surprise any of us. All of us who are involved in organizations know that often organizations are typically organizations that are driven by the most committed minority of the organization. There's this old saying in churches that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. In my own experience, I found that to be wildly optimistic, it's more like 90% of the work is done by 10% of the people.

So, who are the people who are driving American political discourse and what More in Common found was, that people who truly are on the edges of commitment... It's the disproportionately white, disproportionately higher income people who view politics as like a virtual hobby. It's a daily part of their life. But, they also said that there is a larger group of Americans, and they called it The Exhausted Majority. That was the term that More in Common uses, The Exhausted Majority.

Now, what's easy to misunderstand about that Exhausted Majority, it doesn't mean they're exhausted moderates. So, it's not like they're united by a particular common set of issues, but it's more of a temperament. They're more politically eclectic, maybe. They might have a more interesting mix of ideas, but it's not necessarily the exhausted moderates, but it's an exhausted majority. That exhausted majority are people who not only, don't share a lot of the anger, they also, actually, have a more accurate... Maybe, these two things are related... A more accurate view of their political opponents. The reason why they do, it seems, is because they just don't spend as much time in media. The people who spent the most time in media and political media had the most distorted view of their political opponents. The Exhausted Majority got its view of politics and their opponents by human interactions, not so much by online engagement.

So, the short answer to the question is... I think one of the keys to the future is, is giving The Exhausted Majority some renewed energy. Waking up The Exhausted Majority. This is something that I think should be a project of those who care about polarization. Why did I say, in misery lies hope? When people are miserable, they don't like to stay miserable. There's a way to deal with that, which is resignation and withdrawal. That's one way, to pull yourself completely out of the process. Or another way to deal with misery, is to activate and get engaged.

One of the things about The Dispatch that has been incredibly heartening to us is, in our commitment to this fact-based reasoning and analysis, we have an incredibly diverse readership. If you ask them, what is it that you like about us? They will say some of the same things. They'll say, "You are committed to trying to figure out what's really going on no matter whose ox is gored. You're committed to civil discourse. You're not like the outrage bait, you're not like the clickbait, you're just different." We're beginning to see Yascha Mounk, a good friend of mine that Bill knows, started his own outlet called Persuasion, and had, just with one or two tweets, suddenly had 15,000 people sign-up. Now, it sounds like a drop in the ocean and it is a drop in the ocean, but it's not your normal 15,000 cross-section of people. Many of the leaders of American discourse, sign-up to this joint left-right publication that is trying to find another way to communicate outside of this outrage cycle.

So, I think, what you have is you have fertile soil for change. You have fertile soil. It's just not fully activated, with an exception. If you look at the Democratic presidential nomination process, in many ways, Joe Biden ran as like, it's just going to be normal again. It's a return to normalcy style campaign that's often hidden in a lot of the "sturm un drang" of the exposure given to violent protests here or Trump tweets there. This was a campaign run from the Democratic Party, which, in many ways, prevailed precisely because it was not kept intentionally pointing out that it was not occupying an extreme place. So, that's a contrast to Trump, who often quite ran his, however much you think anyone else, from Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio or anyone else, can fight, I'll fight harder.

The interesting thing about Trump is, this wasn't, I'll be more conservative than anybody else who was, it was, I'll fight more than anybody else. It was his commitment to the combat. So, it's going to be an interesting contrast in 2020, where you're going to have somebody who ran specific different in ideology and tone from the extremes of his party against somebody who ran and defined the tonal extreme of his party and has continued to define the tonal extreme of his party since. So, that's going to be a very interesting contest, I think.

Methods for Breaking Out of the "Cocoon"

David, going a little deeper on Bill's question, let's talk about some specifics. We know that it is awfully easy and progressively easier to stay in the cocoon and talk to only people with whom we agree. But, how about these three things, your reaction to them? Number one would be mandatory service, again reinstated, whether military or [inaudible 00:32:25], so that, at a young impressionable age, we all get to know the other rather than being removed from them.

Secondly, housing policies that assure more integration of different communities and less walled off life experience from others. And the third, I would say, a little more... I'll use the word indoctrination, in which our teaching of history returns to one in which we understand there were flaws, but great people have been the movers of history. That John Locke wrote brilliantly, and the founders of our nation picked up on ways to make a political organization that really appealed to the better angels of people and was efficient.

So, in each of those, whether it be mandatory service, housing, or a better job of orchestrating the myths on which all of our young people... Myths is the wrong word, a shared history that we can all get comfortable with, be excited about, and want to preserve. Those three things, what would you say about specific strategies in those areas?

David French:
So first, let me say something very positive about shared experiences. This is something that, I'm sure, Admiral McRaven could wax far more eloquent about than me. But, I had eight years in the Army Reserve, I had a year active duty in Iraq and many other active duty assignments other than that, as well, and all of this cliche that you see about, here's the platoon and you've got Tex from Dallas, and you've got Joe from Brooklyn and you've got this cross-section, it's kind of, true. It's not as true as it used to be because now there's disproportionate recruitment from pre-existing military families and from the south. So, it's not quite as true as it used to be.

But, there really is something powerful in that connection from across all of the geographic and racial and ethnic and religious divides that occurs, united by a common purpose and service in the military. But, that has also given me a caution about viewing some of these things as a panacea because there is a unique purpose. There's a unique common bond that occurs amongst people who are either training for and engaging in combat. That's a lot harder to replicate in other kinds of enterprises and activities. There's a single goal that focuses the mind about as sharply as anything can focus the mind, and that is the shared experience of combat or the shared experience of preparing for combat. I think that that is one of the... it's not just taking a bunch of people from their different backgrounds and plopping them into the same place. Because, colleges and universities have been trying to do that for a long, long time.

I served on the admissions committee at Cornell Law School, and so I saw how the sausage was made. One of the things that we really tried hard to do was, if you had all other things being equal, if you had the 34th person coming in from North Jersey, we might want the first person from South Alabama. I know, for sure, my own entry into Harvard Law School... I'm pretty sure that I got in, in part on the redneck diversity initiative, where I am from rural Kentucky, born in South Alabama. It was an eye-opening experience for me.

So, we have had several important institutions, educational institutions, that have been trying to consider these common... or putting together people from wildly different backgrounds into the same common experience with mixed results. A, I'm a firm believer that a common experience can bind people together. Where I sometimes have a little bit of skepticism is, I think, that if we reach a point where the political process would reach such consensus that it would plow through all of the objections to major social change... Like, national service would be major social change to implement such a change, that we, already, in a large degree, solved a lot of our problems.

But yeah, in concept, I say common experiences and real relationships with people across the aisle, make a very big difference. I also think leadership makes a very big difference. One of the things that, even absent national service, people are in the leader class of Americans, whether they're cultural or religious, or political, is, intentionally cultivate those relationships. I think that has a trickle-down effect, because a lot of the negative polarization... quite frankly, I'm much more familiar with it on the right than I am from the left, is trickling down from the leader class on the right. The media leader class, the political leader class, is telling their listeners, telling their followers, this is what they are really like. That message is relentless, it's constant, and if you have a leader class, it is delivering a different message, even short of some of these massive social and political changes, I think you can begin to make a difference.

Question (cont'd):
How about those schooling experiences of our young people related to a history on which we can coalesce our enthusiasm?

David French:
Yeah, that's a good question. I think that the difficulty there is, you have to coalesce around reality. The reality of the US... I wrote this long thing for National Review about, how is it that you can recognize the serious consequences of white supremacy, at the same time, we're including slavery and Jim Crow, then also, much of the oppression delivered to other marginalized communities, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, at the turn of the 20th century... The list goes on, and still inculcate a love for this country and an appreciation of the greatness of this country. Can you do both at the same time? Can you deal with a reality at the same time that you are inculcating an appreciation for the country?

I do think you can. I'm skeptical about the ability of a top-down curriculum to do it. I think it's very hard, which is not to say it's not worth thinking hard about whether it's possible. I just think it's really, really hard.

Abdication of Responsibility by the Legislative Branch

David, appreciate your comments, especially about Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. I think that's one of the reasons why I'm part of No Labels because I didn't like either of those shows. But, could you talk a little bit more, just given our focus on working with the Problem Solvers Caucus and developing something similar in the senate... Could you talk a little bit more about the abdication of responsibility of the legislative branch and, why you think that's occurred? I can see good arguments either way, but I'd be interested in a little bit more depth.

David French:
Yeah. So first, I'm firmly of the belief that the three branches of government were not intended to be co-equal, that the legislature was intended to be Supreme. How do we know this? Because, the legislature can actually fire the president, and it can override vetoes and it can fire any Justice of the Supreme Court. So, while they can check each other and there are certain checks on Congress and there's checks on the judiciary and there's checks on the president, ultimately, the branch of government closest to the people had the ability to fire the president, to fire the Chief Justice if it so chooses.

But, I think that the founders believed that there would be more institutional loyalty amongst members of Congress than there actually proved to be or, more, a desire to protect the institution of Congress, as opposed to the institution of the party that the member of congress comes from. So, you take all of these things that I talked about, The Big Sort, group polarization, etc., and you add on top of that a healthy dash of gerrymandering, and you have a situation where many members of Congress, their main threat to their continued presence in the institution, is from their right flank if they're conservative, or from their left flank if they're progressive. There is a strong disincentive towards compromise, a strong disincentive.

In fact, arguably, it was the Gang of Eight on the right side of the spectrum that doomed Marco Rubio more than anything else. This attempt to compromise on immigration that doomed him more than anything else. So, what ends up happening, to borrow the phrase a phrase from my colleague, Jonah Goldberg, is, you end up with a parliament of pundits. Not everybody, of course. But, you end up with a group of members who are often competing to get the Fox hit, or the MSNBC hit who they will write letters that have no effect in the real world other than to generate a new cycle. Ex-congressman writes a letter to the NBA Commissioner. What does that do? It generates a new cycle, for example.

So, Congress is imprisoned, in many ways, by these overarching trends that make them more in danger from their extreme flank, than from The Exhausted Majority. The Exhausted Majority doesn't present a danger to most of them for not compromising. So, that creates a real problem for which there's no simple, easy suggestion to get out of it. You can do something about gerrymandering, and that'll help, but that doesn't end The Big Sort. Then, what has happened? What has happened, is the Supreme Court has stepped into the breach, which just makes everything worse. I'll explain to you how the Supreme Court has done it.

I don't actually blame the Supreme Court as much as I blame, again, Congress. Let's say I'm interested in a social issue, like free speech on campus or LGBT rights or gun rights, or you name it, I can spend weeks, months, years lobbying for major legislation at the national level and go nowhere. Just go nowhere. But, if I file a legal complaint, the judge has to answer it. The judge has to respond. A representative doesn't have to respond. Congress doesn't have to respond. But, a judge has to either grant the relief or deny the relief. if the judge grants or denies, whatever the losing side, can appeal, and the Court of Appeals has to respond. Well, you do that enough, and you begin to get, what's called, the circuit split. The conflict in law between two Courts of Appeal, which is intolerable, because we don't have one set of federal laws for part of the country and another set for another part of the country. So then, the Supreme Court has to get involved.

Then, you get into this horse-trading that you often have at the Supreme Court because they're not that many, what you would call, jurisprudential, philosophical, purists on the court. So, you get, inevitably, into the compromising and horse-trading that you used to have at the legislature level. We saw a lot of that this last term. So, that exacerbates the problem because the Supreme Court is the most removed from the democratic process. What it's going to take, is some real courage in the House and the Senate, quite frankly. It's going to take some real courage to be able to say, no more. Some the process of compromise was actually, and has been, one of the things that's kept this country together from its inception.

The Constitution is a complicated series of compromises, that it's worked pretty darn well. If we punt away compromise, if compromise is impossible, and the only real compromises you see are a judicial branch that's most removed from the people, that puts a real strain on the system. The good news is, I have talked to a number of members and senators and people on both sides of the aisle who understand this is a problem. They get it. They get it's a problem. You guys work with them all the time, they get it. But, there is not yet the sufficient numbers or momentum to break out of that, to break out of the log jam, which is why I have the short to medium-term prediction of, it's just going to get worse.

Thoughts on Conviction Trumping Expertise

Thank you, David, for taking the time. I love your pieces, and I read a lot from a former colleague of yours at National Review, Tom Nichols, who I had on a call regarding his book, The Death of Expertise.

David French:

Question (cont'd):
One of the things that I've seen for a while and I've seen it under both Democratic and Republican institutions, so never quite like what we have now, is a destruction or, what I would call, anti-institutionalism. We're almost the left and right anti, many of the things that I would pin American exceptionalism to. Whether that's our educational structures or trust in federal government, in and of itself, large companies, small companies, it just feels, not just polarized, but that we're doing real damage to institutions and trust. I'm interested, if you have thoughts on that, in this post-truth environment of where, I'm going to let my conviction trump your expertise.

David French:
That's a great observation. Very few institutions have consensus trust left. The American military is one of the last institutions that has consensus trust left, for example. I would... gosh, Tom, I should send it to you, because I can't remember, off the top of my head, who wrote it, but there was this really fascinating article in the New Republic that says, what we're encountering is not so much... Yes, we're seeing the death of expertise that Tom... or mistrust of experts that Tom has talked about, it's not... it's so much, the one side says, "I trust experts", and the other side, "I do not trust experts at all", it's more like one side says, "I trust consensus experts", and the other side's side says, "I trust dissenting experts."

So, for example, in the COVID crisis, if you've paid much attention to a lot of right-wing media, you will see people rear up that you haven't heard before, but have some credential. It's not like, "Hey, I'm Bob from Michigan, and I have no experience in this matter, but here's my medium post", and it's going to go viral. It's been much more, this is a dissenting epidemiologist or this is a dissenting former writer of the New York Times. You're often seeing a clash between consensus and dissent, where there's not so much a truth-seeking enterprise going on as is there's a priors reinforcing exercise going on. You can almost always find someone who fashions themselves an expert that can reinforce your priors. You see this in the masking debate all over the place.

What can be done about this? This is where we can move into what Tom was talking about with the media. To a large degree, the media marketplace is such that there are extreme disincentives towards gatekeeping versus cheerleading. A lot of folks have said the media has become partisan. I think that that actually understates the problem a bit, especially when dealing with dedicated part... the most right-wing media, the talk radio, Primetime, Fox, certain specific outlets and you often see it in some of the quote, unquote [inaudible 00:50:27] outlets on the left. It isn't even partisanship so much is it's almost lawyering.

The difference between a partisan and a lawyer, is a partisan has a loyalty to an institution, the Democratic party or the Republican Party. The lawyer has a loyalty to a client, to a personality. What you're seeing an awful lot... again, my echo system, I'm most familiar with, is right-wing media, is, essentially, lawyering for a person, lawyering for President Trump. Taking whatever fact pattern exists and doing what lawyers do, making the best argument from that fact pattern that they can for their client. To me, that's a problem beyond partisanship. But, it's where we are with a critical mass of the media. It's one of the reasons why people on both extremes are most wrong about their political opponents. If all you ever listened to was a prosecuting attorney, for example, you would have an incredible distorted view of the defendant. If all you ever listened to was a defense attorney, you would have an incredibly distorted view of the state's case. That's where we are as a lawyer in media.

But, again, I'm pointing out big trends for which there are stirrings of dissent from. Yascha Mounk put it very well in a podcast I listened to with Ezra Klein. He said, "One of the things that has to be done, is we have to create fighting institutions for liberalism." I like that phrase. If a large chunk of the media is drifting almost into lawyering, for a particular cause, what you need to do is create competing institutions, fighting institutions, in Yascha's phrase, for small-l liberalism itself. And, that's beginning to happen. Not at large scale, but it's beginning to happen. Every time it's happening of late, those who are doing it, are seeing a far greater demand for their services than they thought they had when they started.

Just to take our small little pirate ship, we now have 350% of the subscribers we projected to have by the end of the year, and it's July. So, there is a demand for an alternative approach. So, that's a seed of hope that I see.

Can a leader "bridge the gap" and decrease polarization?

Yes, thank you. One comment, then the question, I'll try and be brief. I'm working with my local Congresswoman, who's helping with my project. [inaudible 00:53:15] January, and she is a Democrat. She said that the main issue for this election is going to be healthcare. Now, when COVID-19... it quite apparent that this is serious, I remember saying, "This is a problem for everybody. I don't think this is going to become a political issue." It is now, B, it's overcome healthcare for... that is now going to be the political issue for the campaigns, which shows how much I know. But, my question was really this, do you see a possibility, not today, but where we could have a leader can become elected, who would actually bridge the gap, and actually, decrease the polarization that we see? Is something like that electable?

David French:
I'm going to radically depart from the background pessimism and end with a note of optimism. The note of optimism is, that if you look through recent American history, one of the things that you have seen is that the American people often correct an error by moving towards an opposite. Okay. So, if you came out of the Watergate era where you had this imperial presidency. An unbelievable level of corruption, level of turmoil, huge, intense amounts of dishonesty coming from the executive branch. Yes, you had Gerald Ford as a bridge, but then the American people turned to a Baptist Sunday school teacher from Georgia who walked on his inaugural parade. That's a big contrast from Richard Nixon, just to give you an example of how the American people will often turn on a dime and say, "I don't want to do that again. That is not what I want."

Now, the difficulty is, we have a primary system that often prevents that American view from being heard until you're served up with actual candidates that would not have made that... that do not reflect that consensus rejection of the prior president. But, I would even say, to an extent, it's hard to pick a person more opposite from Barack Obama in temperament, in every conceivable way, than Donald Trump. Look, I would say this about the Biden campaign, I think some of these guys realize that. They realize that, well, one of the ways that they can win is by tacking to the opposite direction of Trump especially in temperament, with Biden really emphasizing how empathetic he is as a human being. He has a life story that really... you talk to people who know him who go through personal crises, they will say, time and time again, that Joe Biden is one of the more empathetic people that I've ever known. I think they're very smartly emphasizing that aspect, without getting partisan in this conversation, just as a matter of political analysis.

But, I do think there is a record of the American people saying, in response to a miserable situation, "No more. No, we don't want this anymore." The marriage of man and moment, we've been very blessed. We've been very fortunate in our history, to have a marriage of a man and moment. Sometimes, maybe, the moment helps make the man. We had a marriage of man and moment in the Civil War. We had marriage of man and moment in the crisis around the Second World War. There has been, throughout American history, a consistent pattern of that. Marriage of man and moment with the first president of the United States with George Washington.

So, I do feel like, with the combination of an Exhausted Majority, that does exist, this latent sense of pent up demand for an alternative... when presented with the alternative, I think there is a match of person and market for that person. I do think it's possible. The thing that makes me discouraged, is that the process that puts a person into that potential position is rife with all of the dysfunction I've spent the last hour talking about.

Sign Off with Bill Galston

Bill Galston:
Well, David, you've been a model of the kind of public figure that the country needs, and that No Labels has been trying to assemble and encourage now for a decade. We need a lot more voices like yours. I know that you are willing to risk shedding your blood in the Middle East, and you've been willing to risk shedding political blood here at home on behalf of decency and civility. The fight that you got into last year was awe-inspiring in its ferocity, and I found myself very happy that I was not you in that circumstance, even though you acquitted yourself nobly.

At any rate, you're an inspiring model, and we hope very much that you'll be willing to continue this dialogue with us, because the forces of civility and compromise need all the help they can get, now more than ever. It's our work, it's your work, let's work together. Thanks so much.

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