Ellie Bohrer is a senior, studying Politics and International Relations

(This post is the next in Readings in Reconciliation.  Click to learn more about the segment and the series, From the Field.)

Is there such a thing as “we” in America, and has this idea shifted with time? Putnam attempts to answer this by charting out the curve “we” has taken over the course of the last 125 years, showing that from an economic, political, and societal perspective communitarianism was on the rise until the 1960s, when the curve leveled off and society began to decline towards individualism. As part of the generation that has never experienced a “we” society, this book helped me understand why older generations tend to refer to their upbringing as a time of greater national unity. The Upswing provides a detailed examination of whether America was ever truly unified, and not only what we lost in the downturn but what we can hope to gain as well.

One of Putnam’s biggest markers of a “we” society is a robust civic life, manifested by individuals joining local clubs and national organizations. He expands on this idea of engagement in Chapter 4, where he notes that America has been a nation dominated by clubs since its founding (112). This trend continued to rise through the 1920s, dominated at first by male fraternal organizations and then later by women’s suffrage groups and the Knights of Columbus and Prince Hall Freemasonry, clubs focused on African-Americans (116). Overall membership in clubs continued to rise until 1957 – and then began to dramatically fall. What was the cause of this decline? Putnam never offers up a singular explanation.

Instead, he dissects the problem through a multitude of lenses, each of which is accompanied by reasons for America’s downturn. Even with a single factor such as the decline in club membership, there are many possible explanations: large national organizations such as Greenpeace turned to the concept of “mail-order membership”, which led to a rise in numbers but seemingly a fall in the amount of active participation of its members (123). Another factor is advancements in technology. I appreciated the fact that Putnam does not ignore how technology has shaped many aspects of modern society but instead acknowledges that modern technology is an amplifier of trends that predate the invention of the computer; it simultaneously connects and isolates people (126). Those who may have turned to bowling on a Thursday night in 1950 now have a multitude of other options for entertainment – yet very few of these include actual interaction with their neighbors.

It is important to note that the communal associations of the previous upswing do not necessarily indicate a united society: bowling with neighbors may have promoted local engagement, but these neighbors were rarely from different races or socioeconomic backgrounds. Discrimination through the form of 1930s redlining policies would have been a physical obstacle to this type of neighborly engagement, and prejudices and stereotypes a social obstacle. Ethnic minorities were usually excluded from the idealistic version of a unified “we” that existed during the upswing. Reconciling these outliers to the overall curve is one of the biggest dilemmas of Putnam’s book, but he recognizes it and dedicates a special portion of the book to studying the difference experiences had by African-Americans. While he finds that there was an increase in education and overall income equality in a similar pattern to the rest of his data, he also acknowledges that these gains need to be taken in context with the rest of society’s increases (213). Although he does this for the case of women as well, I wish that he had included some other measures other than educational and economic equality (250, 258). He only briefly mentions women’s struggle in the political arena and leaves out some of the other inequalities that women face on a daily basis –  such as harassment, violent crimes, and domestic abuse – altogether.

Ultimately, Putnam leaves his reader to decide what exactly caused the downturn, but he does advocate for the idea of bringing the nation back (or forward) into a new upswing. He holds up the better potions of the Progressive era as an ideal to rally behind: the sense of community, dedication, and responsibility towards each other that defined that era creates a dramatic backdrop from which to examine our current place in history: at the bottom of the curve, in a downturn towards self-focused, fearful individualism (314). If history is a pendulum, then we can anticipate and hope for another upswing, but hopefully one that will include women, African-Americans, and the other marginalized members of American society so that there can truly be a sense of “we”.

 

 

Autumn Miller is a senior studying History and Politics & International Relations

(This post is the next in Readings in Reconciliation.  Click to learn more about the segment and the series, From the Field.)

Robert Putnam, of the Bowling Alone fame brings his wisdom once again to the current discussion on the polarized political climate that the United States finds itself. Putnam looks to analyze political, economic, social, and cultural trends from the Gilded Age that led to the “I” era of American history. After a while the pendulum that Putnam describes swings to the “we” communitarian side, in which Americans took care of their neighbors and cared about individuals outside of themselves. Both times in American history are self-identified by Putnam in hopes to draw a parallel between the Gilded Age and today. The idea is to see what citizens did in an earlier time to come together as a community that could be applied to today (7-9). Matters of politics and society are not solved simply by identifying the problems but finding the balance between communitarian and individualism.

While Putnam was a favorite for a long time, he does his best work in shorter prose. Putnam wrote a lot of words and identified problems, but never supplied a solution to these problems. This takeaway also shows that history is not a single, coherent story that is mutable to whatever narrative someone wants to tell. Putnam acknowledges that he simplifies history for the sake of his argument, but the problem arises when he does so. “Any simplified history of a social institution as complicated as the family in a variegated nation over a turbulent century will miss many important subtleties,” (146). Robert Putnam is not a historian, nor does he claim to be such, however this becomes clear with a quick dismissal of the small nuances in history.  For this reason, Putnam cannot produce valid solutions because his historical analysis fails immensely.

Though it may be nitpicky, small insignificant details that are thrown throughout the work created a false narrative. One of such includes the Founding Fathers and what they may have or may not have foreseen when creating the government. “The Founding Fathers famous failed to anticipate the rise of political parties in their new republic…” (69). This kind of message to an uninformed audience, to which have access to this book, will further deepen the hatred of the two political parties and cause more polarization. They could be led to believe that the Founding Fathers were not able to see what could be coming down the road for the new nation. This assertion is simply not true; a deeper dive into the Federalist Papers besides the one Putnam decided to crack open, would prove that they had thought of that, so the system was created to prevent large parties from gaining control. (See, for example, Federalist #10.) Now we know from hindsight, that the system they had thought was perfect against preventing this event failed. That blame could not be set on the Founding Fathers for the corruption of the system years after their generation had gone. Putnam also provides no solutions to the problems that he identifies, other than, “It was, instead, the result of countless citizens engaging in their own sphere of influence and coming together to create a vast ferment of criticism and change – a genuine shift from “I” to “we” (338). The idea of citizens engaging in their own spheres of influence is not a new idea and considering the general lack of political efficacy displayed by United States citizens, it is a lackluster solution.

The only genuine thing that could be agreed on is that there should be a balance between the “I” and the “we” because going too far in either direction can lead to disaster. Putnam does not see either of these ideas as competing, but ideals that can coincide with one another (339). The idea that equality and freedom, “I” v. “we”, is when there is one without the other, when the United States has come to be the balance of both. It would make sense that freedom is the equality of others living together. Putnam agrees in this thinking that whatever the solution is to solve these polarizing issues, there should be a balance between “I” and “we” (141). However, there is no solution for this balance suggested, not even the beginnings of one. If someone who researches in this space cannot produce one for a book, how can politicians and the common people possibly come up with a solution.

The last chapter supplies the only real substance of value from Putnam, while the main parts of the book involved extraordinarily little besides throwing numbers around to somewhat quantify the vague points he was making. While it was interesting to see the change in thought from “I” to “we”, it was frustrating that Putnam would author a book with all the quantifying data. Then at the very end, supply no solution other than working in our own spheres of influence. That solution helps no one.

Dr. Robin Lauermann, Professor of Politics and International Relations & Chair of History, Politics, and International Relations, serves as editor for this series

 

(This post is the first of a set on Robert Putnam’s The Upswing.  Click to learn more about the segment and the series, From the Field.)

Conversation in our capstone course this semester has been full thus far!  Students have asked really compelling questions and exemplified the kinds of interactions that would serve our public sphere – civil, pressing and willing to move beyond pat responses to tough issues.  This collaborative and engaged dialogue has pushed each of us, myself included, to re-evaluate ideas and conclusions.

In our second book of the course, we tackle a long-time theme of whether and how we can balance individualism and common interest within culture and our political decisions.  To do so, we examined the latest work of Harvard political scientist, Robert Putnam – see this prior post in our sister series Tocqueville Capital for more about Putnam and his work.  In The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, Putnam lays out the case against pure individualist and collectivist approaches, calling for a rebalancing of the I and We in a way that builds mutual trust and improves our ability to solve key issues.  Building understanding has helped to build relationships – the lynchpin of what Putnam’s work has addressed from its very beginning.

Read on for the distinct and thoughtful insights that students have written!

American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham - Used (Acceptable) - 0812976665 by Random House Publishing

“The preservation of American liberty is the most demanding of tasks, requiring unrelenting work and a resilient spirit, but to whom much is given, much is expected.”

 

(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post to learn more!)

Just over three years ago, eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania lost their lives.  A man who had ties to extremist groups that, among others, held anti-Semitic views allegedly killed them.  That this incident was one of 836 crimes against individuals of the Jewish faith that year.  This fact challenges the value of religious liberty – one’s freedom from persecution – that was an integral element in the roots of American history.  James Madison who, among other contributions, provided the initial draft of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment.  Based on the ideas previously stated in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, he argued for such freedom as a fundamental right, because authentic belief comes only from personal conviction and not by force (Article 1).  Crimes like that which took the lives of the Tree of Life members reveal that even today, not all Americans have religious freedom, even as religion is active in American culture and politics.

In American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham demonstrates that religion has had a very nuanced role within American history.  Following in the contemporary civil religion tradition of Robert Bellah, Meacham acknowledges the presence and influence of faith from the separatist arrival to the present, while clarifying its limits as public and not exclusively Christian.  Consistent with many other analyses on the topic – for example those by professors Amy Black and John Fea – Meacham offers significant evidence that the United States was not founded as a Christian state, but rather by individuals religious beliefs that shaped their views and work – among which was Christianity.  Most importantly, like Tocqueville, he emphasizes the importance of the sovereignty of private religion for each individual as well as ways in which it can contribute constructively to our common life.

Though certainly not reflective of a harsh separation of faith and political life, Meacham does not find support for theocratic or religious nationalist roots in America.  Settlers from the early years came from different religious traditions, which did not always lend to similarity of beliefs and peaceful coexistence (52-54).[1]  Some of the central founding documents, notably the Declaration of Independence and the later Constitution of 1787, were shaped as much by the ideas of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, as they were by theological ones (60-63).  In addition, the use of God’s name and reverence for “divine providence” also reflected the Deist beliefs of some founders – including Jefferson – who did not also necessarily believe in the Christian Trinity (8).  Beyond the First Amendment, other official documents, such as the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, explicitly emphasized that American was “not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” (Article 11, 262 – see full text of the treaty here).  As Meacham notes, religion and politics could not be “hermetically sealed off one from another” as, practically speaking “if the people held religious values, there was no escaping the projection of those values in to the republic (79).  Thus, no “smoking gun” exists either for those who want to wall off religion completely from public life nor for those who have wanted to promote policies that effectively “establish” – or privilege – religion, especially at the expense of the beliefs of others.

Rather than considering the influence of religion on the nature of the state or explicitly its policy, Tocqueville recognized its inevitable impact on society.  The religious beliefs of adherents, he observed, would inherently shape their public views.  “The first object and one of the principal advantages of religions, is to furnish to each of these fundamental questions a solution which is at once clear, precise, intelligible to the mass of mankind, and lasting… if faith be wanting in him, he must serve; and if he be free, he must believe” (Vol II, Chapter V, pars. 4-5).  Faith thus provides a perspective and ethical frame – though history is rife with examples of humans perverting the intent of the ethics for material gain, power and other motives.  Thus, he also cautions against too extensive a display, finding it “peculiarly dangerous to multiply them beyond measure” (par. 10).  In larger part, the danger comes from the potential oppression of those who do not share such beliefs.

Despite this well-documented analysis of the writing of key figures – Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, King and others – Meacham also illustrates the value that religion, when used beneficently, can bring to public life.  First, among the many elements of John Locke’s thought that Jefferson carried forward, was Locke’s view that inalienable rights of nature were God-given (28). Thus, they saw God as the source of popular sovereignty – both in the colonies break with Great Britain, as well as the adoption of not one, but two constitutions.  Second, faith offers a means by which individuals can perceive a common good and develop into virtuous citizens, “a habit of mind and of heart that enables Americans to be at once tolerant and reverent” (23).[2]  It may also serve as a basis in morality reflective of “justice, decency, duty and responsibility” (27). [3]  However, Meacham notes that given competing scriptural arguments over issues like slavery, Lincoln and other leaders recognized the need for not only revelation to discern ethical outcomes (128).  In this way, religion was not a means to force ideas on others, but serve as a guide for one’s individual actions.  It is in this vein that Meacham draws on Tocqueville’s observations and insights.

Tocqueville likewise draws the connection between religion and civic responsibility, showing faith to be a potential curb for the excesses of individualism, one of his central concerns for democracy:

There is no religion which does not place the object of man’s desires above and beyond the treasures of earth, and which does not naturally raise his soul to regions far above those of the senses. Nor is there any which does not impose on man some sort of duties to his kind, and thus draws him at times from the contemplation of himself (Vol II, Chapter V, par 6).

Here Tocqueville captures an essence of civic religion as a social imperative of humanity.  He nonetheless admires the distinction he sees between the religious and political spheres (par. 14).  During his time in America, he did not see strong impulses for the establishment that concerned Madison so. However, Meacham illustrates the shifting beliefs on this subject with the two Great Awakenings (Chapter 3) and the rise of the New Right (Chapter 5).  These movements, among others, have promoted the privilege of Christianity, as well as some theological traditions within it.

Religious liberty has shaped the development of this country, and holds an attraction for individuals who wish to live out their faith.  As Meacham and Tocqueville have both shown, it also has the potential for a positive influence on society.  However, that influence becomes problematic when not all Americans have this right respected.  Comparative ratings of democracy, show the United States with a mixed record on this front.  Theologian Miroslov Volf asserts the importance of responsibly and respectfully engaging one’s faith in the public sphere, emphasizing that it can happen by finding common ground.  For example, the shared scripture of Genesis in the Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – ground them all in the value of each person as created in the image of God.  Building from this foundation, differences between the sacred texts and traditions can benefit from “hermeneutic hospitality” – sincere attempts to interact with and understand those with different traditions (136).  Harvard’s Pluralism Project offers resources to learn more about the many traditions across the world and within America and to promote constructive interfaith relations.  Such practice can begin with the respect for religious freedom, especially one’s physical security in its exercise.

 

[1] Madison expressed this significant concern in Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, stating, “the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” (#3).  However, we should also recognize that no freedom is absolute, nor have they been ruled as such in American history.  Beyond the obvious concerns when the liberty of one or some individuals infringe on the exercise of others, the Supreme Court has established criteria weighing the role of government action with individual liberty.  As part of the strict standard of judicial scrutiny, which includes fundamental rights such as religion, the court has determined that the government must show a “compelling state interest” and that the action must be “narrowly tailored” to achieve that interest.  Moreover, the Lemon test – so named for the case from which it originated – adds further criteria.  Even though the criteria from Lemon have been modified, the result is still a complex relationship between religious exercise and government action.

[2] Hebraic tradition, particularly the Ten Commandments, place emphasis not only on one’s relationship with God, but also with right relationships with others.  For example, the commandment against killing, which varies in its numerical designation depending on tradition, is often interpreted as a call against not only doing harm more generally but also a positive expectation to help others. (See, for example, Luther’s discussion of the Fifth Commandment in his Small Catechism, included in the Book of Concord.)

[3] Meacham also notes that this framing is inclusive of individuals regardless of the source of their “wellspring of that goodwill” whether religious or of other ethical nature (29).

Isabel Villegas is a senior studying Politics & International Relations and Spanish

(This post is the next in the segment Readings in Reconciliation and focuses on Adam Grant’s Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.  Click to learn more about the segment and the series, From the Field.)

In today’s highly polarized society, it has become increasingly common to critique the “other” and simply dismiss their views as outdated, close-minded, or otherwise intolerable. Incessant arguments about a myriad of issues both controversial and insignificant abound on social media platforms, political arenas, the workplace and educational spheres alike, with no real progress or true understanding ever seeming to be made. Moreover, the rapidly-changing nature of the world in the information age means that new knowledge and competing ideas are constantly being developed, with or without individuals consciously realizing it. As an organizational psychologist well versed in interpersonal conflict and aware of the capabilities of the human mind, Adam Grant attempts to reconcile these tensions in his book Think Again, while also somewhat brashly challenging individuals to become uncomfortable and wrestle with their own beliefs and convictions, for better or for worse.

As the title would suggest, the piece calls readers to rethink the way in which their brains process information and engage in dialogue and disagreements with others. A key point Grant makes throughout the book is the importance of thinking like a scientist (20). Too often, individuals cling to their beliefs, without bothering to critically assess them or fully process information that is in contradiction with them. Individuals find themselves stubbornly closing off their minds to new information, or simply spewing their own perspectives at others, failing to truly listen to the other side. Grant challenges readers to instead “test” new ideas as a scientist would, taking in all the necessary knowledge and allowing the brain to truly digest and process it, which first requires building an awareness of and surrendering biases that may impede this process (25). In other words, individuals must motivate themselves to expand their minds and have their intellect sharpened.

Grant makes a number of valid points throughout his book, but those that perhaps are the most compelling and important relate to the dismantling of stereotypes. In chapter six, Grant states that “the most effective way to help people pull the unsteady Jenga blocks out of their stereotype towers is to talk with them in person.” To illustrate this point, Grant tells the story of a black musician named Daryl Davis who encountered and interacted with a member of the KKK. Through patient, and open-ended conversations, Davis was able to support and help the Klansman realize the danger of his beliefs, and the profound prejudice behind them. Eventually, the man left the Klan, and renounced his archaic views altogether (139-141). While this story certainly is heartfelt, the more important point Grant tries to make is the importance of dialogue in helping to reshape perspectives. Too often, individuals attempt to change the minds of others through arguments or by shaming those with contrasting beliefs. Davis, Grant points out, did almost the exact opposite, by engaging in dialogue that caused the Klansman to think for himself and critically reflect on his own beliefs. This way, suggests Grant, is how we ought to approach interpersonal disagreements. Face- to-face conversations done in this manner have the capacity to make profound impact in a world that is increasingly digitally divided.

At times in Think Again, it may seem as though Grant takes issue with conviction as a whole. Throughout the book one gets the sense that he is calling readers to constantly question and challenge all their beliefs and ideas. However, there is still something to be said for the importance of enduring conviction, which Grant seems to simply brush over in his piece. Although likely not his intent, for those who hold certain deeply held moral or religious convictions, Grant’s call to challenge every belief might seem a little insensitive or harsh at times. Ultimately though, one can recognize and appreciate that he is simply encouraging individuals to discern why they believe what they do, rather than simply accepting a doctrine at face-value without any critical thinking involved.

Nevertheless, Think Again still serves as a beneficial read, particularly for students of politics. Throughout the book Grant offers a number of helpful and insightful advice on how to engage in debates and disagreements in a way that emphasizes the common ground held between individuals first and foremost. More importantly though, the book calls readers to examine the logs in their own eyes and humbly reassess their own beliefs. Moreover, while Grant’s challenge to question everything that one is told can sometimes seem daunting, particularly for those with strongly held convictions, one can still recognize the importance of knowing why they believe what they do, even if it requires some personal strife and doubt at times.

In regard to the realm of politics, it is a field far too often dominated by hot-headedness and a lack of willingness to pursue true bipartisanship. Grant teaches readers and students of politics however how to approach disagreements in a way that not only produces personal growth but also seeks collective unity and reconciliation. By no means Grant’s advice always simple to follow, yet his book as a whole still serves as a meaningful foundation for improved dialogue and problem solving for those seeking to serve in the public sphere and seek the common good.

Ty Bair is a junior, studying Politics & International Relations, as well as Philosophy

(This post is the next in the segment Readings in Reconciliation and focuses on Adam Grant’s Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.  Click to learn more about the segment and the series, From the Field.)

The main point of Grant’s book, unsurprisingly, is getting us to ‘think again’. “The goal is not to be wrong more often. It’s to recognize that we’re all wrong more often than we’d like to admit.” (83) He wants to challenge us to critically reevaluate our ideas, our beliefs, and even our ways about being in the world. In undertaking this monumental task, I believe that Grant achieves in making the case for self-reflection, but struggles to explain the potential pitfalls, should one go about doing so.

One major point that I took from Grant’s writing was that no matter how sure you are of something, no matter how big or small, and no matter how important it is, we can always benefit from a second look at it. Grant convinced me of that old adage over the course of the read that if something is worth doing it is worth doing right, and rethinking is the way to go about that. He showed me that “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is not a valid excuse using the Challenger disaster to exemplify how overlooking things and assuming everything is safe just because it had worked in the past was simply not enough. He also showed me that you can never be thorough enough because you might have been mistaken the first time as you checked in his example of Luca Parmitano and his spacesuit wardrobe malfunction (293), where Luca was in grave danger because NASA only checked what the perceived problem was and he almost drowned in space because of it.

Though I agree with most of his major points, a major issue I had was that he neglected to elaborate on a lot of them, leaving the reader to deal with a lot of the questions that stem from his advice on their own. For instance, when Grant talks about being willing to switch career paths, in his example, his cousin is having serious doubts about his life choices, but decides to stick with them even though he was not entirely sure he wanted to and Grant spins this tale as a cautionary one, but there was no guarantee that if his cousin had decided to chase his more unstable dreams that he would have landed on his feet at all. And when he talks about Daryl Davis and the white supremacists (202), he seems to be endorsing trying to talk to people that hate you. In other words, that changing minds can even require risk of personal harm, but what if you’re in a situation like that? Are you obligated to follow through, or would Grant say err on the side of caution? Grant shies away from confronting the fallout that could come if you follow his advice to the tee, and I think that can be a problem because he is not clear enough about when and where this attitude is appropriate and when rethinking or changing could be harmful in the long run. What if you make a mistake the second time around?

However, the main basis of his argument I think is very sound. In particular, I think his guidance for how to communicate better with people by coming from an area of understanding is extremely useful. He talks about how to have a productive conversation (258) by keeping yourself active and receptive throughout, and he even delves into how high-intensity topics can be approached in such a way as to not explode by considering the “range of perspectives on a topic” (Grant, 236). I think that the book in its totality has really given me an emboldened sense of importance regarding the time I spend evaluating my values, attitudes, and belief structures. These skills in particular are very useful for approaching genuine discussion about hot button issues to better get a grasp of the full situation. If I want to be a conscientious political actor I should be able to affirm my positions on any number of topics and to do so properly simply must include me revisiting them time and time again.

Dr. Robin Lauermann, Professor of Politics & Chair of History, Politics and International relations, pens this series.

 

(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

My name is …

Conversation in the public sphere has recently revolved around fundamental questions of facts, made even more complicated by disinformation campaigns by foreign and domestic actors.  I would hazard to guess that many of us would treat our knowledge about our own basic identities as beyond question.  Yet, is it? I was a young child when I learned that my parents made a legal change before I was born from our family’s Polish surname to an English one.

Although I grew up with connections to this culture, particularly with foods and festivals, it was also very apparent in many statements that my father made that he saw its identity fundamentally tied up in the ways that people treated him and others with similar backgrounds.  One of the most memorable examples related to his continual discouragement to pass along the language that he learned as a second-generation American, even as he supported me in taking four other languages in high school.  Over the years of personal and professional reading, I have since learned that his experiences at that time were not unusual.  For all of the critiques against “identity politics,” such as those by Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama, the reality is that individual’s beliefs form from their experiences; when individuals that share a certain characteristic have shared experiences, they often produce similar responses, which account for differences between groups.  When that identity facet ceases to have relevance to policy, the issues have likely resolved.

Social identity has served as an essential building block for those who study political behavior.  Among the earlier researchers, Robert Lane offers probably the most essential definition in Political Life, Why and How People Get Involved in Politics:

Social identity . . . refers to the use of attributes derived from a man’s identification with social groups to describe and define himself. It is the contribution made to his answer to “Who am 1?”, by his sense of belonging to some specified part of human society, a community, a professional society, a church, a nationality group, even sometimes a neighborhood … “the Tenderloin,” “the West End” (235-255).

In the years since the birth of political psychology and sociology, analyses typically control for group identities that have relevance for specific questions about opinion formation, as well as the behavior resulting from those beliefs, attitudes and opinions.

Opinion formation in politics, as with other beliefs, results from an ongoing and complex process.  Our early experiences – be they positive or negative – have among the most significant.  Not only do those elements produce some of the strongest impact (primacy principle), they shape our processing of new experiences, including the interaction with ideas of other individuals (See, for example, American Public Opinion: Its Origins, Content, and Impact by Robert Erikson and Kent Tedin, Chapters 5 &7).  In turn, absent what we call cross-cutting influences – experiences that challenge or contradict prior ones – common experiences by those with similar social experiences tend to produce patterns of beliefs and opinions, making that identity politically relevant. Thus, identity is not inherently political, but becomes so due to historically relevant patterns; to the extent that a group experiences significant changes within society, an identity may lose its political relevance.  This recent article in the Annual Review of Political Science provides background and current context in this area of research.  The experience of Polish immigrants illustrates this flow and ebb, though it is only one of many group experiences in this country.

The history detailed in The United States and the Rebirth of Poland, 1914-1918 by M.B.B. Biskupski shares the political role of Polish American immigrants in the years leading up to World War I.  Beginning in 1870, a wave of individuals fled the oppressive rule by the empires that had, over time, gobbled up the Polish state.  Known as “Polonia,” the diaspora settled in the northern central and eastern portions of the country, as well as just over the border in Canada.  Despite a common national identity, this group did not have unified beliefs, differences that stemmed from not only social and economic factors but also the area of Poland from which they arrived.  Those Poles who settled in the Midwest/Great Lakes region hailed from territory then controlled by the Germans tended to have more conservative religious and economic values and adopted a pro-Russia stance. Poles who migrated to the eastern seaboard of the US had secular, socialist and pro-German stances.

Although they had limited success in raising funds and military support for Poland directly, they became an electoral force in American politics.  Motivated by questionable assertions about immigrants in writings and speech, Polonia came out as a force against Wilson in 1912, to which Wilson responded by vetoing immigration restrictions and, after winning their support in 1916, entering the war and advocating for the return of an independent Poland.  Ultimately, Wilson and other international actors would be successful in garnering this latter goal as part of the peace settlement of the war.  (If you would like to read a little more detailed analysis, check out the book review that I previously published in a special volume of Rocznik Przemyski on pages 201-206.  The larger volume offers a detailed portrait of the role of Polonia during the quest for the return of an independent Poland, as well as its experiences within America during and after the war.)

Although the key issue that motivated Polish Americans to political engagement had been resolved, their experiences still reflected a distinct status in society. Despite the perception of America as a “melting pot”, the process for many immigrants has been at best gradual, particularly for the waves that have come from different areas around the world than prior ones. In his book, Working Toward Whiteness, historian David Roediger examines the journey of many immigrant groups. His research notes that racial classifications came not solely from distinct characteristics of social groups, but also from policies that categorized individuals.  For example, Southern and Eastern Europeans were not considered white and thus were marginalized by disrespect and discrimination.  These groups sometimes made progress in gaining acceptance by perpetuating similar behavior against other marginalized groups such as Asian, African and Latinx Americans (See Chapters 1-3).  Even though name changes were not pervasive for Southern and Eastern European groups, they did manage to work their way into acceptance within society in subsequent generations.  As such, Polish ethnic identity does not make a noticeable impact on individuals’ political beliefs in America today than it did in earlier decades.

Social identity influences political opinion and behavior to the extent that groups of people share common historical experiences that are relevant to particular issues.  For some individuals, aspects of their identity that are relevant at one point may not always be so.  However, some experiences are so stark that huge challenges remain to overcome boundaries; where we observe group differences in opinion on issues, our first response should be to learn more about group experiences and discern the reasons for differing and even competing opinions.  For example, listen to and read about the work by Yosemite ranger Yenyen Chan to uncover the role of Chinese Americans or read this post about the experiences of Asian, African and Latinx Americans from our sister series Tocqueville Capital.  By listening and learning, we may not only gain a broader perspective and evaluate how policies affect ability of all individuals to enjoy the rights and freedoms of our country, but we may also acknowledge the history and respect the cultures that have shaped portions of the American population as well as the larger history of this country.

 

Senior Alyssa Reiff majors in Politics and International Relations

 

(This post is the next in the segment Readings in Reconciliation and focuses on Adam Grant’s Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.  Click to learn more about the segment and the series, From the Field.)

 

The question posed by Adam Grant’s Think Again is knowing when to think again. Grant defines ‘thinking again’ as the ability to let go of ideas when they are not serving you anymore (12). This process encourages people to identify what they believe and more seriously consider the beliefs of another; although, it can become detrimental when it inspires the constant deconstruction of values and beliefs core to a person’s identity. Rather, people must learn to humbly articulate what they believe and be willing to listen to the beliefs of others.

The ability to admit you may be wrong is essential in order for a change in beliefs to occur, which is only possible through humility. Humility comes from having an accurate view of your understanding and being willing to admit what you don’t know (118-19). Daryl, an African American musician, embodied humility, and willingness to develop relationships had huge ripple effects (141). For Daryl, this looked like understanding that the behaviors and beliefs of these members of the KKK reflected something deeper about where they came from. Daryl approached those relationships with the knowledge that he did not know everything about them and that motivated his curiosity in conversation with them. Unknowingly, Daryl had harnessed the power of motivational interviewing (148). Grant promotes this, saying “Yet the most effective way to help others open their minds is often to listen” (151). To trust another’s ability to engage in self-discovery requires a certain level of humility. “The objective is not to be a leader or a follower, but a guide”, Grant adds (153). We must realize that we never have the ability to change someone’s mind–only they can do that–and we must understand that it is a special and rare thing if we have the privilege of helping them along in the process.

A caution to Grant’s invitation to ‘think again’ is that not all beliefs should be deconstructed. Some solid sense of identity is required in order to go on questioning. It is necessary to have some core values or beliefs to engage and make decisions within culture, which is relative and always changing.  In the last paragraph of his Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis describes the challenge Grant’s inquisition of values may pose:

You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.

There must be something solid, something that we know to be true to give us a sense of stability and inform our identity. Grant touches on this idea when he discusses the difference in response to change from major phone companies BlackBerry and Apple. BlackBerry creator Mike Lazardidis refused to rethink his product and adapt it to better serve the culture it was in. On the other hand, Apple chose to expand the limits of what the iPod was capable of by creating the iPhone. Steve Jobs was hesitant to make this change because Apple was first and foremost a computer company. How they managed to adapt where BlackBerry did not was through a simple philosophy: rethink the technology, preserve the DNA. “Although our strategy might evolve, our identity will endure” (31). Grant’s writing should encourage us to look at all the beliefs we hold. They may not all need to be challenged, probed, and prodded, but we should never be afraid to identify what we believe and why.

Grant’s invitation to ‘think again’ is incredibly beneficial in political thought as it promotes healthier dialogue around the things people care about the most. Everyday political conversation would bode much fairer if people embodied the humble willingness to learn that Grant describes. Additionally, presidential debates would go a lot smoother. The 2020 Presidential Debate held on September 30th was the perfect example of where politicians could learn from Grant. The debate was neither productive nor pleasant to watch. Tom Jones (2020) summarized the debate in a couple phrases “Constant interruptions. Constant talking over one another. Name-calling. Juvenile bickering.”. Is this what we are to expect from our highest ranking politicians? Our country’s representatives?

The debate highlighted the need for the thoughtful strategies Grant recommends, including: confident humility, listening, and acknowledging common ground. Harish, an expert debater who took on a computer about preschool subsidies, gave this advice: “You should be willing to listen to what someone else is saying and give them a lot of credit for it. It makes you sound like a reasonable person who is taking everything into account” (107). In debates like the 2020 Presidential debate, and similar ones one might have at the dinner table, the actual seeking for a solution to real, complex problems gets lost in the pride and passion of the two debaters. If politicians were able to model what it looks like to have a learning posture and collaborate with people they disagree with, it may be easier for their constituents to do the same. This poses another interesting question: what can I do, as a constituent myself, to encourage this kind of behavior? How can I create spaces for productive debate in my own life?

Grant’s book is an invitation to take inventory of the beliefs you hold. What people, experiences, and knowledge shaped them? How do these beliefs inform your decisions? Your conversations? It could be that we feel compelled to ‘think again’ and reconsider an idea or belief we have. Yet, we must remember there are many beliefs worth holding onto. We must be vigilant that our consideration of our beliefs is not merely a guise for cynicism. Cynicism renders all beliefs null. Still, we are responsible to know what we believe, be able to connect it to our outward behaviors, and humbly accept where we err. This kind of examination might just draw us into deeper appreciation and understanding of ourselves and others and the things we each care about most.

Allela Girma is a senior, majoring in Politics and International Relations, as well as Economics

 

(This post is the next in the segment Readings in Reconciliation and focuses on Adam Grant’s Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.  Click to learn more about the segment and the series, From the Field.)

 

Admitting the need to think again can be difficult. The first time I found myself thinking again, I was eight years old, arguing with my brother on the existence of Santa Claus. After a long and disheartening conversation, my brother ended up winning that argument. Although I did not realize it at the time, that uncomfortable and disappointed feeling was a sign of growth. We are so set in our values, and unaware of our blind spots that new knowledge is alarming because it is often at the cost of our comfort. I believe that we can master the art of thinking again by normalizing discomfort and recognizing our blind spots.

Letting go is a big theme in this book – it reiterates the idea that holding on to our most prized values can hinder our quest for knowledge. We face a dilemma between knowledge and values. In my opinion, however, the real dilemma is not a choice between values and knowledge, but between identity and knowledge. We have held on to our values so closely that they have become part of our identity, part of how we define ourselves. For this reason, letting go of our long-time beliefs or core values could feel like we are losing ourselves. Questioning our ideals could feel like shedding part of our identity, leaving us in an uncomfortable, confused state (22). To avoid feeling this way, Grants suggests that we dissociate our ideas from our identity which will make us more willing to accept new knowledge. There are many ways to separate ourselves from our ideas, but the best way, according to Grant, is to base our identity on principles that enable us to “remain open-minded” (116). Principles such as curiosity and integrity, for example, allow us to stay detach to our ideas making it easier to acquire new knowledge.

I, however, believe that Grant’s analysis is somewhat incomplete for two reasons. Firstly, I do not believe that it is humanly possible to separate our feelings, or our identity from certain core values that were established at a young age. Secondly, I think that discomfort should be embraced as it is a sign of growth. Most of our core values were learned through our families and decades of personal experience. Dissociating with those ideals is much more difficult than replacing them with new ones. The solution to this dilemma between knowledge and identity is to normalize discomfort. Understanding that it is okay to feel lost when feel as though others debunk our values, and even welcoming the discomfort that comes with “shedding our identity” (22), can bring us closer to new knowledge. Therefore, I believe the quest for knowledge should start with building a healthy relationship with discomfort rather than just replacing our values. Moreover, gaining new knowledge could be challenging partially because of this dilemma between knowledge and identity, but also because of the blind spots that stop us from knowing when to think again.

I believe that stereotypes play an essential role in the impediment of thinking again as they are active blind spots disturbing our field of view. These blind spots prevent us from seeing the humanity in one another. Grant tells us many stories of stereotypes causing violence and hatred, mostly related to the RedSox vs. Yankees examples. The most compelling part about this chapter was the concept of “counterfactual thinking…imagining how the circumstances of our lives could have unfolded differently” (242) if we were in someone else’s shoes helps us gain more empathy for the other. Although I agree with Grant on this statement, I do not necessarily understand why human nature is so convoluted. I have trouble accepting that it is not enough for us to see that someone is struggling or treated unfairly to recognize and acknowledge it.[1] There are many instances where we should be thinking again, especially when it comes to how we treat others, but we do not, because it seems as though our blind spots concentrate on other people’s struggles. Overall, this book left me with many interesting and useful thoughts, but the most valuable lesson I learned from Grant is to remain critical while being mindful of our listening skills.

Political Science is a complicated field that dedicates a lot of time to analyzing disagreements on a wide range of important topics. This book has made an impact on my ability to think about the field as it has shown me that good criticism comes from asking the right question, and the only way to do that is through active listening. Grant has taught me the value and importance of understanding how someone thinks, rather than just why they think the way they do. This book is a guideline for mastering the art of thinking again.

 

[1] I wonder – do we only have blind spots when it comes to other people’s humanity? My cousin is married to a white man, and the lovely couple just recently had their first child. Before this child was born, Paul had never thought about racism or discrimination of any kind because he never had to do so. This one night, I think it was George Floyd’s story on the news, and he changed the channel almost instantaneously, as soon as that story came on. My cousin was still pregnant at the time, and she told me that the way he changed the channel that night, it was as if he really thought that this did not concern/ affect him in any way. She had to sit him down, and explain to him that the child they are about to have might go through the same discrimination/ injustice present today. In other words, for him to really care about what was happening it had to involve him in some way? He did not care about those struggles until they were about to become his struggles as well.

I thought of this story when Grant stated, “knowing what it felt like to be disliked for ridiculous reasons helped them see that this conflict had real implications” (240). I thought, but why do you have to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” to empathize with them? I never really understood that concept. Should it not be enough to see that someone is struggling/being treated unfairly, in order to recognize/ acknowledge it? Grant also noted, “In psychology, counterfactual thinking involves imagining how the circumstances of our lives could have unfolded differently” (242). He said “our life”, so we have to be involved in order to recognize it (unjust/ bad behavior). In one of the experiments that Grant shared, someone even said, “If someone hated me because of the team that I loved, it would feel unfair” (239). I wonder what this issue says about human nature. We are blind to someone else’s struggles until we can imagine them being applied to our life.

Pierson Castor is a junior, majoring in politics and international relations

(What is From the Field? Read this welcome post, as well as the introduction post to this current segment, to learn more!)

In Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Adam Grant reminds readers of the need to prioritize truth over comfort. We all have different worldviews because of our different experiences. Nevertheless, if we hope to be informed citizens, we must be willing to consider other viewpoints and new evidence. Beliefs are incredibly difficult to unbelieve, even when presented with new evidence. We must acknowledge, however, that we live in an ever-changing political landscape. If our political beliefs allow us no room for adaptability, we will find ourselves clinging to incorrect understandings of the world around us. This reality is a particularly startling prospect as faithful Christians. Being God’s salt and light to the earth requires us to know the realities we face. Unless we see the brokenness around us, we will be unable to confront it.

Though Grant is not writing to a particularly religious audience, his message is especially relevant for Christ followers. Grant writes, “When adults have the confidence to acknowledge what they don’t know, they pay more attention to how strong the evidence is and spend more time reading the material that contradicts their opinions” (48). At first, this idea sounds contradictory to the notion of faith. Most Christians, for example, believe in the Bible as an authoritative source of truth. Must we doubt this belief? No, but as Grant explains, we must have the confidence to know what we do not know. We live in an incredibly different world than the one in which the Bible was written. Unless we acknowledge our twenty-first century American lens, we will never see the need to pursue a more accurate understanding of the biblical narrative. More broadly, unless we acknowledge the need to grow our understanding of the world, we will never learn how best we can serve it.

More often than not, I agree with Grant’s analysis of human tendencies and the problems they generate. Furthermore, I agree with his analysis in how we as individuals ought to address them. Grant explains, “We won’t have much luck changing other people’s minds if we refuse to change ours. We can demonstrate openness by acknowledging where we agree with our critics and even what we’ve learned from them” (107). We must be a people that builds bridges. Too often, do we expect others to be open-minded but withhold that same open-mindedness from them? Unless we extend a hand to those with whom we disagree, we will fail to learn, persuade, and reconcile. The irony is that Grant himself–in an effort to persuade his readers–demonstrates often an attitude of superiority. For example, Grant writes, “One of my biggest pet peeves is feigned knowledge, where people pretend to know things they don’t. It bothers me so much that at this very moment I’m writing an entire book about it” (40). In the same breath, Grant summarizes a study that discovered “the more superior participants thought their knowledge was, the more they overestimated themselves” (40). Either this is an incredible use of irony to provide emphasis, or this is the most painful example of self-unawareness. The text does not provide clarification.

Overall, Grant addresses tendencies with which all humans struggle: choosing comfort over truth and assuming a proficiency of knowledge. Using graphs, studies, stories and life experiences, he explains why these things are a problem and why we ought to address them in our own lives. He makes a compelling case as to why such behavioral adjustments will help society as a whole. Christian readers, though, may see a societal benefit that Grant does not mention, namely that a refined understanding of the world will help us further God’s kingdom here on earth. After all, if we as Christians do not see the brokenness around us, how can we hope to confront it?