What Nixon Wrought

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 19 2012 @ 12:15pm

Pete Wehner has a nice post up about confirmation bias and Jonathan Haidt's fascinating new book. It's as honest as our motto, "Biased and Balanced." At least we try to be balanced when my views can be cogently countered by others. Hence our constant reader threads and dissents and reaxes from around the web and platforms for Jen Rubin et al. – designed, I hope, to work against the kind of epistemic closure I suffered from before the Iraq war forced me to recognize my own profound fallibility and failure. But this passage leapt out:

According to Haidt, individual reasoning is not reliable because of "the confirmation bias" – and the only cure for the confirmation bias is other people. "If you bring people together who disagree," he argues, "and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason." We’re not very good at challenging our own beliefs – but we’re quite good at challenging the beliefs of others. Our task is (to borrow from William Saletan’s review of Haidt’s book) "to organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways."

I cannot help but think of Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy, and how its legacy still poisons our politics. For a very long time, the deep cultural divide in this country was in part managed by the Democratic party. Its alliance of Southern conservatives and Northeastern liberals – perhaps exemplified by the Kennedy-Johnson ticket – gave what we now call parts of red and blue America a joint incentive to work out their differences through a common partisan affiliation. The had a fellowship that facilitated compromise. A less coherent ideological party structure actually created a more coherent political debate. I wonder if civil rights legislation would ever have been achieved without this.

This isn't a new insight, of course. But as we survey the grim prospect of this election season and the polarization that appears immune (and would be immune on Haidt's argument) to reason, we should take a moment to remember Nixon. And the deep damage his opportunism wrought.