More Divided Than Ever

Many of us intuitively feel that the bitter partisanship of American politics is bad for our nation. So should we be concerned about the health of our democracy? This week on Hidden Brain, we revisit two of our favorite conversations about U.S. politics. We start by talking with political scientist John Hibbing about the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives. Then, we explore the role of conflict in democracy with historian David Moss.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We start today with an account of two communities. One is liberal, the other conservative. I want you to guess which is which.


JOHN HIBBING: The schools would stress patriotism and respect, and it would be a very rules-based educational system. The houses would be fairly similar. The lawns would be very nicely kept and beautifully green and mowed. The town would be quiet, with lots of churches.

VEDANTAM: That's Town 1. Here's Town 2.


HIBBING: The schools would be based more on experiential kinds of things rather than rote memory. People would prefer older houses with wooden floors rather than wall-to-wall carpeting. They would keep the yards natural - lots of bars and community theaters and foreign films, more of those than churches.

VEDANTAM: That was easy, right? Conservatives like order. Liberals embrace ambiguity. Now, you may be rolling your eyes or even getting angry at these stereotypes. But we all know there's more than a grain of truth to them. So how did these two towns, which our guest today refers to as Liberalville (ph) and Conservaton (ph), get this way?

When most of us think about how we came to our political views, we tend to have a straightforward explanation. We use our upbringing and life experiences as the basis for our political beliefs. We imagine that our parents, teachers and friends shape our views on everything, from taxes and the economy to immigration and national security.

But what if I told you there is something deeper to those attitudes - drives that shape the music we listen to, the food we eat, the politicians we elect? This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, how the partisan divide in our country might arise not just from our upbringing and lived experiences, but from biology.


VEDANTAM: On a regular basis, right before an election, someone will share an article with me about how science proves that the brains of liberals are stunted. Or a post on Twitter will say, Republicans are less intelligent than Democrats. These claims obscure something far more interesting and far more accurate.

There are genuine psychological differences between liberals and conservatives. Understanding these differences can give us fresh insight into our political conflicts. John Hibbing is a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has spent many years studying the psychological and neurological differences between liberals and conservatives. He is co-author of the book, "Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, And The Biology Of Political Differences." John, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

HIBBING: Thank you, Shankar. Pleasure to be with you.

VEDANTAM: When most of us think about how we came to our political views, John, we have a relatively straightforward explanation that has to do with our upbringing and background. How does that theory go?

HIBBING: Well, whenever I ask my students where their political views come from, the first thing they say is their parents.


HIBBING: And I think we have this sense that those views that our parents have passed along are supplemented by those, you know, from a clergy member or a trusted relative, a close friend. But we sort those through our own view of the world, and we come to a very rational understanding of the world and an understanding of what social policies are best to make the world better.

VEDANTAM: So we're going to look in-depth at some of the psychological and brain differences that do exist between liberals and conservatives. But I want to start by looking at how differences between partisans are not limited to politics. These differences show up in many domains that have nothing to do with politics. Republican President George H. W. Bush once spoke about an issue that had bothered him for many years.


GEORGE H. W. BUSH: I do not like broccoli.


BUSH: And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm president of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli.

VEDANTAM: What do food differences tell us about liberals and conservatives?

HIBBING: Well, we tend to see that there are differences in tastes. Conservatives do like meat and potatoes more. Liberals are more likely to prefer ethnic food. So you see that. And that, we think, is part of a deeper pattern of conservatives are a little bit fonder of kind of predictability, of standard kinds of things. And liberals are a little bit more willing to experiment. And this comes through in food tastes and a variety of other things.

VEDANTAM: Here's another example. Researchers once went into the living spaces of people - offices and dorm rooms. And they recorded the items that they saw. What was different about the living and workspaces of liberals and conservatives?

HIBBING: Well, conservatives tended to have lots of things like sports memorabilia, whereas liberals tended to have more experiential things - lots of books, lots of CDs, especially diverse CDs, whereas conservatives were more likely to have things that organized their lives - calendars, clothes baskets. Also, the researchers suggested the liberals' rooms were not quite as tidy or as well-lighted as the conservative rooms and offices.

VEDANTAM: There's even been some research looking at differences in our preferences for different kinds of pets. I understand Jonathan Haidt and others have explored that liberals and conservatives gravitate to different kinds of dogs.

HIBBING: Different kinds of dogs - it tends to be the case that conservatives prefer purebreds. And liberals will go with mixed-breed dogs. There are some studies that suggest how you view pets - there isn't that much difference in how many have pets. Both liberals and conservatives like to have pets at about equal level. But they might view them somewhat differently. Liberals are a little bit more likely to view them as part of the family rather than, you know, just a pet. So you have those kinds of very interesting things, not just in pet ownership, but kind of in orientation to the pet.

VEDANTAM: The patterns that John and others have identified are more than just curious. These patterns suggest that our model of political differences is wrong in an important way. Liberals and conservatives don't just have different political preferences. They have different temperaments. Conservatives don't just care about lower taxes. They also care about whether poetry rhymes.

HIBBING: That's right. Should poetry rhyme? We also ask - you know, are you more comfortable with novels that end with clear resolution? - those kinds of things. And you know, you can start to see a pattern already, I think, in our discussion, that it is the case that liberals are more likely to say, sure, I'm OK with free verse, whereas conservatives say, no, you know, we really think there should be a pattern - music should come back to a recognizable melody, poetry should rhyme, and novels should wrap up in a way that we are comfortable with.

VEDANTAM: To be clear, the differences John identifies are averages. So you can certainly have a Republican who likes free verse and a Democrat who hates jazz. The point of this research isn't to stereotype liberals and conservatives but to show that our political choices flow from deeply ingrained psychological differences. Many of us don't realize how our choices as consumers - the cars we buy, the food we eat, the music we listen to - that these choices inadvertently reveal our political preferences.

So I'm happy to tell people on Facebook what kind of music I listen to, but I imagine that they wouldn't be able to tell from that whether I was a Democrat or a Republican. I asked John about research that suggests you can tell whether someone's a conservative or a liberal if you know what kind of movies they watch, what kind of food they eat, what kind of vacations they take.

HIBBING: It's very reasonable that people would not resonate with that line of argument because, to them, it's not like they say, well, you know, in order to be a good conservative, I need to do this - or in order to be a good liberal. So you know, they're just being themselves. And I think that's the real message here, is that our political beliefs are part and parcel of our entire being. You know, it's not like they're completely separate. And it's just a natural outgrowth of these larger psychological and even physiological tendencies that we've been talking about.


VEDANTAM: Liberals and conservatives differ when it comes to how they see threats and danger. Here's Wayne LaPierre, the former head of the National Rifle Association.


WAYNE LAPIERRE: We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and there are home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers and rapers and haters and campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers...

VEDANTAM: So talk about this difference, John. When liberals hear this, what do they hear? When conservatives hear this, what do they hear?

HIBBING: Yeah, it really is a remarkable quote. I remember Jon Stewart played this once on "The Daily Show." And after the clip, they pan back to Stewart...


JON STEWART: Where the [expletive] do you live?


HIBBING: ...And he was hiding behind his desk.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

HIBBING: So you know, you get the sense that if you listen to this very long, you're scared of everything. The message that I take from this is that, you know, you play this to liberals and they say, this guy is nuts. You know, others have told me he's just doing it because he makes millions of dollars from the NRA and he doesn't really believe it.

I think he does. These threats are very real to him, and we're not going to get anywhere unless people who don't feel that way understand that some people do. And likewise, the Wayne LaPierres of the world need to understand that for some people, they just - you know, they don't see the world as threatening as he does. And they don't think we need to build our society around mitigating those threats.

VEDANTAM: So you know, when a liberal like Jon Stewart hides behind the desk, partly what he's doing is he's mocking a Wayne LaPierre. He's sort of saying, this is ridiculous. It's beyond ridiculous to imagine that all these threats are basically around us. We live in a relatively safe society. And basically, what Jon Stewart is communicating is, you know, what you're saying doesn't make any sense. And what you're saying is, it might not make sense to you, but it makes sense to Wayne LaPierre.

HIBBING: Exactly. You know, one of the favorite things for conservatives to say about liberals is that they just don't get it - meaning that, you know, they don't appreciate that it's a dangerous world. And I think that is absolutely true. But it's not that they don't get it because they're being obtuse or they're not informed. They read about events in the world, and they just don't respond to them in the same way.

And likewise con - liberals, rather, need to recognize that while this may seem silly - and you're right about Jon Stewart mocking this - you know, how can you live your life worried and whatever? But to them, this is very real and a good citizen is vigilant and is prepared to do battle to protect himself, his family and society from those threats.

VEDANTAM: What's interesting about both groups here is that there is a very powerful illusion that we have that the rest of the world sees the world the way that we see the world. And if they come to a different conclusion, it must be because they're being deliberately obtuse or somehow deliberately biased, as opposed to the idea that people are actually - they might be seeing the world the same way, but their reactions to world might actually be very different.

HIBBING: Yeah, I'm really glad you brought that up. Psychologists talk about false consensus. So it turns out that if your favorite color is blue, you grossly overstate the percent of the population whose favorite color is blue. So you know, I think we need to recognize that. We did a study once. There's a substance, androsterone - it turns out that people smell it very differently. It's just because our olfactory systems are structured differently. Some people smell it very favorably. It smells like kind of cookies or incense. Others smell it unfavorably. It'll smell like sweat or even urine. And some don't smell it at all. And it's a genetically based difference.

So we had a bunch of our graduate students smell this. And I remember one fellow, and he smelled it, and it just smelled awful to him. And it didn't smell awful to many of the other graduate students. And he was convinced that this was some kind of psychological trick, that we were trying to, you know, get him to say, well, yeah, it doesn't smell bad, it was one of those studies - when in fact, he just couldn't believe that people were that different in the way they smelled this substance. And I think the same thing applies to political beliefs and to the way we experience threats in the world.

VEDANTAM: I remember one of the things that broke the Internet recently was the big controversy about whether people heard the word laurel...



VEDANTAM: ...Or heard the word yanny (ph).



VEDANTAM: But this idea that, you know, the way that we see, hear, something must be the way everyone else sees it. And there's just this feeling of utter disbelief that other people might not see and hear the world the same way.

HIBBING: Yeah. It's just what we're used to. It makes sense to us. So I do think that's something we need to continue to pound away on - that we really are wired up quite differently.

VEDANTAM: Let's look at how this plays out when it comes to the subject of immigration. Here is Republican Donald Trump.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

VEDANTAM: And here is Democrat Nancy Pelosi.


NANCY PELOSI: We are constantly reinvigorated by immigrants coming to our country. Their commitment and courage and commitment to the American dream, which drew them here in the first place, strengthens the American dream.

VEDANTAM: Now, it's important to stipulate here, John, that it's entirely possible - these are politicians. They might indeed be saying things that are just politically strategic. But how might differences in threat perception shape the way liberals and conservatives, in general, think about the subject of immigration?

HIBBING: Yeah, I really think - you know, immigration, defense, police, law and order - I think this is really at the core of who we are and at the core of political differences.

So you know, if I am a person like Wayne LaPierre who feels these threats and thinks they're all around us, then it seems to me I would want a set of policies put forward by our government that helped to reduce those threats. And how am I going to do this? I'm going to do it by allowing people to be well-armed. I'm going to do it by spending a lot on defense. I'm going to empower police. I'm going to have the death penalty, and I'm going to not allow immigrants to come here. Or if they do, they are going to be extremely vetted, as the president's once said.

So you know, those, I think, to a threat-sensitive mindset, are steps that - you know, they only make sense. They just can't really understand why anybody would be opposed to those kinds of things because this would help us to be a safer place.


VEDANTAM: Now, there are all kinds of confounding factors when it comes to studying how politicians speak in the actual world, political considerations that are difficult to disentangle from psychological and biological traits. But John and others have studied these differences in experimental settings. John once showed liberals and conservatives positive and negative pictures, and he found they reacted very differently.

HIBBING: A positive picture would be something like a beautiful sunset or somebody enjoying themselves on a ski slope, a happy child. A negative picture would be things like a house that had just been leveled by a hurricane or a guy eating worms or children who are malnourished. We had people hooked up to some physiological devices. The most obvious one is electrodermal activity or skin conductance, which is a common way of seeing if somebody is just having a reaction - having a physiological arousal to that stimulus.

And what we found is that people do have arousals when they see these kinds of images because they have some emotional content. But we tended to find that liberals were more reactive to the positive images, and conservatives are more reactive to the negative images.

VEDANTAM: I understand that in one brain imaging study that you conducted, volunteers were shown disgusting images. And brain activation from even a single image was actually pretty good at being able to tell who was liberal and who was conservative.

HIBBING: That's true. There have been three or four studies that attempt to see if the brain activation patterns of liberals and conservatives is different. And the one that we did goes back to kind of our favorite thing, which is to show them these different kinds of pictures. Actually, we had the most luck with pictures of mutilations. And you're right. When we did that, it was very easy to categorize people, you know, without knowing anything about them. All we would look at was the brain scan results. And we could be incredibly accurate knowing whether they were liberal or conservative just on the basis of that.

Liberals' brains, when they looked at mutilation images, were much more active in a part of the brain called the S2, somatosensory 2. And this is part of the brain that will be activated if you suffer pain. So if I kick you in the shin, your somatosensory 2 would be active. But it's also active if you see pain in others. And so if you would see a movie of somebody stepping on a rusty nail - goes right through their foot - your somatosensory 2 would be active. And what we saw in these brain scans was that liberals were more likely to have activation in the somatosensory 2 than conservatives. Doesn't mean that conservatives are hard-hearted; it just means that things are happening differently when they see these different images.

VEDANTAM: Now, you could argue that a lot of this research is correlational. You could also argue that a lot of the patterns that John and others find are consistent with the power of upbringing in shaping political preferences. Here's how.

Let's say I'm raised in a conservative home. I learned to be politically conservative from my parents, but my family also influences all kinds of other things about me that have nothing to do with politics. They shape the kind of food I like to eat, the kind of movies I like to watch, the kind of sports I enjoy. By this line of reasoning, the fact that liberals and conservatives are different on all manner of things isn't about biology. It just shows you how your family environment can affect lots of things about you.


VEDANTAM: There's a really interesting way to separate the effects of biology from the environment. Think about fraternal and identical twins. Identical twins have identical genes. Fraternal twins have similar but not identical genes. If you follow a group of fraternal and identical twins, each twin pair is raised in the same household. Each pair eats the same food, listens to the same conversations, watches the same movies. Now, if you find differences between identical twins as a group and fraternal twins as a group, that suggests that biology, not environment, is the driver. I asked John what such studies reveal about political preferences.

HIBBING: We were fortunate to have access to a data set. It's very large - includes thousands and thousands of twin pairs, collected by a guy named Lindon Eaves long ago. It's a fairly dated data set. But it was a valuable one for us because it included lots of information about their political views. And when we subjected these data to the standard twin design approach, we did indeed find that the - political views were quite heritable. Although people oftentimes misread this, our results suggested that maybe 30 or 40% of our political views come from genetics.

But you know, that bothered a lot of people, and this was quite a controversial study in political science. Many people didn't like that at all. And they tended to overinterpret those results and make it sound like we were saying that everything was genetic. But you know, if it's 30 to 40% genetic, that obviously leaves, you know, 50, 60, 70% that comes from the environment. So all we're saying is that that genetic component is not zero. But apparently, that was enough that some people were upset about that.

VEDANTAM: And so you basically - you're able to tell, in some ways, that there is a closer link in the political orientation of identical twins than in the political orientation of fraternal twins. And that tells you that there is some element of the biology, some element of genetics, that is driving political preferences.

HIBBING: Exactly. Now, that's well put. And again, it's nice to compare political views with other kinds of things. Height, for example, turns out to be about 80% heritable when you see these - when you subject it to the same kind of design. Personality traits are about 56%. Political views - 30 to 40%, I would say.

VEDANTAM: One of the big implications of all of this work, besides just being interesting in itself, is that it helps us, I think, think about the political conflicts we have with fresh insight. And you've made the case that, in many ways, the more we are able to see the differences between groups of people as inherent or biological, in some ways, it changes the way we think about those differences. Talk to me about that idea, John.

HIBBING: Yes. When other traits have been understood to be biological - I'm thinking of something like handedness. You know, we used to think that if you were left-handed, that was just because you got into a lazy habit. My father was left-handed, and the teacher - you know, this was long ago - would beat him on the hand with a ruler whenever he wrote with his left hand, trained him to write with his right hand. So we viewed that as a flaw, something that need to be driven out.

Of course, now we understand that being left-handed is very biological. This is something much deeper than just a lazy habit. Or of course, you know the big one today would be sexual orientation. When people realized that sexual orientation is indeed biologically driven and not something that they just have decided to do, then people are much more tolerant of that. So we were wondering if perhaps the same thing might happen with regard to politics. If we realize that our political opponents were not simply being lazy but rather were oriented to the world in a different fashion, that maybe we would be a little bit more tolerant of them, that this is the only way we're going to get anywhere if we at least understand where they're coming from, even if we still might deeply disagree with their conclusions.

VEDANTAM: What would you say to critics who would say, you know, the argument that psychological traits and biological differences are beneath our deep political conflicts doesn't make sense because we didn't always have this deep divide in our country between liberals and conservatives. There was a time when we had many, many more people in the center. The most liberal Republican was often to the left of the most conservative Democrat. And you know, there really has been a sorting of the political parties in recent years. What explains this change, especially over the last 20, 30 years?

HIBBING: What I would say to that argument is that I believe we have always had this very same division, this very basic difference between people who are fairly sensitive to threats and think we need to be vigilant and those people who are more into experimentation and trying new things. Ralph Waldo Emerson has a great quote - and I'm sorry I can't give it to you verbatim - but it's basically that the division between those people who are supporters of tradition and those people who are supportive of innovation is very old and has structured the world since time began.

VEDANTAM: John Hibbing is a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has spent years studying the psychological and neurological differences between liberals and conservatives. Along with Kevin Smith and John Alford, he is the co-author of the book, "Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, And The Biology Of Political Differences."

John, thanks for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

HIBBING: Thank you, Shankar. It was a pleasure to be with you.


VEDANTAM: Our partisan divide today can make it feel that our nation is at a breaking point. But my next guest says disagreement makes democracy robust.

DAVID MOSS: Certainly in the United States, conflict has been - not every time, but a lot of the time - very productive.

VEDANTAM: I speak with historian David Moss after the break. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.


VEDANTAM: There are four words often used to describe America today.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Seems like the country is more divided than ever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The country and the Congress are more divided than ever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: At a time when the country is more divided than ever divided than ever...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Americans are more divided than ever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I think this country is more divided than ever. I think...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Republicans and Democrats now more divided than ever before.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Most polls say that Americans are more divided than ever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Are we more divided than ever?

VEDANTAM: More divided than ever.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Not my president, not my president, not my president.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Build the wall. Build the wall. Build the wall.


VEDANTAM: If you feel our nation is at a breaking point, today's show may provide you some solace. Historian David Moss takes the long view. In his book "Democracy: A Case Study," David argues that intense political conflict to the point where it looks like our democracy is about to fail has been with us since the country was born. In fact, he argues, such conflict, far from being a harbinger of doom, is actually a sign of vitality.

MOSS: I think we need to remember American democracy is far from perfect, but it is extraordinarily resilient. And it has generated tremendous progress.

VEDANTAM: Many people judge political success or failure based on whether their side wins. David uses a different metric. He says, in the long term, real success and failure is about the health or sickness of democracy itself. Does conflict strengthen our bonds, or does it destroy the fabric that holds us together? In today's episode, we'll use American history as a lens to look at how conflict can sometimes bring people together and sometimes tear them apart.


VEDANTAM: I started by asking David the obvious question. At a time when political conflict seems to be pulling the country apart, how can he possibly be optimistic?

MOSS: Certainly, in the United States, conflict has been - not every time, but a lot of the time - very productive. And so I could give you many examples, and maybe we could talk about some of them. But really, if you think about, for example, in the economic marketplace, competition - conflict - is really what drives innovation, new ideas. And the same thing happens in the political sphere.

So you have - you know, you have two parties. You have different interest groups. You have all sorts of different people trying to fight it out. And in the process, you get all sorts of good ideas that are surfaced. And so conflict/competition in the political marketplace is crucial.

VEDANTAM: David says that what matters is not whether there's conflict but whether that conflict is constructive or destructive to democracy. If you just focus on the conflict, you might not see the real picture. To understand the effects of different kinds of conflict, I asked David to tell me about three moments in American history where political disagreements were so intense it seemed like the country might implode. In one case, as we will see, it nearly did. The first moment was just a few years after the founding of the new nation.


VEDANTAM: We think of today as being an unusually bitter moment in politics. But the Founding Fathers were happy to sling mud, too. Thomas Jefferson's supporters called John Adams hideous and hermaphroditical. Adams called Alexander Hamilton that bastard brat of a Scottish peddler. The nasty talk was hardly the worst of it. There were deep disagreements about what it meant to be a country. George Washington said he was mortified that political fighting had left the country looking, quote, "ridiculous and contemptible."

MOSS: It did appear to many, including Washington, that the country might be falling apart. So if you look at what was going on, this new nation had just declared their independence in 1776. And so you know, they're jubilant about having won this battle. But it turns out that things sort of turned south fairly quickly.

VEDANTAM: At the time, the new nation was not yet governed by our Constitution, but by another document known as the Articles of Confederation.

MOSS: And they really made the states almost all-powerful. The states were sovereign. Federal government existed, but it was very weak. There was no president. There was no Supreme Court, just a Congress. And the Congress had very limited power. For example, it could spend, and it could borrow, but it couldn't tax. So the federal government is soon in default. The economy falls into recession.

Economists disagree about exactly how severe it was. Some say it was even worse than the Great Depression. Many say it was much less severe. But in any case, people at the time thought it was a pretty bad problem. So there were all these different things going on, and that's why Washington is mortified beyond expression. In fact, he goes on, and he said that he's mortified beyond expression - that at the moment of our acknowledged independence, we look ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of all Europe. And so what he's saying is we founded this country, and it's falling apart.

VEDANTAM: So as the states are wrangling with one another and we're trying to figure out whether to actually have a workable federal government, it turns out that the states come up with something of a compromise in terms of how to build the institutions of what today we think of as the modern federal government.

MOSS: One of the first debates was - how do you build Congress? The small states wanted a Congress that would represent them one vote per state. So a state like Delaware or New Hampshire would want that. But other states, the large states, wanted proportional representation - representation according to the number of voters.

But in any case, as they were trying to figure out how to set up Congress, they came up with an interesting compromise, which we all know is the great compromise, where they set up the House of Representatives, as you well know, is going to be organized by proportional representation, and the Senate is going to be two votes per state.

But what's particularly interesting about this is that I think often, people think about compromise. And we think - and you hear this all the time today - we need to compromise; we need to meet in the middle. Meeting in the middle is one form of compromise that occurs sometimes. But I think even more common I think in American history in dealing with the kind of conflict that I see is that you don't meet in the middle. You do sort of the best of both. So what you see is the small states got what they wanted, and the large states got what they wanted. So instead of meeting in the middle or splitting the difference, they did both.


VEDANTAM: So the historical moment that mortified Washington also resulted in a model of government that has endured for more than two centuries. The conflict was painful but productive.


VEDANTAM: Nearly 100 years later, the new nation was tested again, this time after the election of Abraham Lincoln.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, reading) Let the consequences be what they may. Whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved 10 fathoms in depth with mangled bodies or whether the last vestige of liberty is swept from the face of the American continent, the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.

VEDANTAM: An Atlanta newspaper expressed what many were feeling in the country at the time. Southern states were starting to secede. It was the eve of the Civil War. While the Civil War brought slavery to an end, David still thinks of this moment as an example of destructive conflict. That's because the conflict wasn't resolved through the democratic process, but through the bloodiest war in American history.

MOSS: In a sense, the Southerners - those who are going to favor secession - they're more committed to the institution of slavery than to the national democracy. And so when Lincoln is elected and he opposes the expansion of slavery - interestingly, he didn't oppose slavery, per se; he wasn't calling for abolition at that point. But he didn't want to see slavery expand, and that was a very controversial issue. And many Southerners who believed that the only way to maintain slavery was for it to continue to expand to maintain political balance between free states and slave states, they couldn't really tolerate the idea that the president of the United States would oppose the expansion of slavery. And so although he was elected - and I think they recognized he was elected, in a sense, fair and square - they just couldn't accept him as president.

And so what you see is they're putting a policy issue - in this case, an entire worldview and way of life revolving around the evils of slavery - they put that ahead of the democracy. And so now the conflict just descends into rancor and violence. And so I think it's an important lesson of how our differences can be a source of strength, but they can also be an incredible source of weakness. And the question is, do we have something in common that's holding us together? In most of American history, the answer's been yes. At that moment in history, the answer was, unfortunately, absolutely not.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if one of the things you are implying when you talk about the difference between productive and destructive conflict is that when people have productive conflict, they're actually willing to say, I believe very strongly that I'm right, but I want to at least concede the possibility that maybe there are others who have something of value, or it may be that history will show in the future, 20 years from now, there is something that I don't know.

And I'm wondering if this is potentially one of the implications of what you're talking about, which is the difference between productive and destructive conflict is that in productive conflict, people say, there's a chance that I could be wrong sometime in the future.

MOSS: I think that's correct. I think that's true. But even if they don't think they could be wrong, there's a sense that if you believe in the democracy so much, there's only so far you're willing to go.

And so you know, if you think, another analogy would be in a family. Right? So a family, we - you know, every family, people fight; they quarrel; they disagree about all sorts of things. But if there's love in the family, the conflict only goes so far. If the love breaks down, then actually, the conflict can rip the family apart.


VEDANTAM: In the 20th century, the bonds of that democracy were tested again. When we come back - the political upheavals of the 1960s and their echoes today. Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We are now in the 1960s.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Mass marches, rallies and demonstrations...


BARRY MCGUIRE: (Singing) The Eastern world...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Protests, picket lines and beatings occur each week all across our land.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: This promissory note insofar...

VEDANTAM: Martin Luther King Jr. is leading the civil rights struggle. There are deep partisan divisions in the country. It's another moment of crisis where it seems like the nation is coming apart.


KING JR: America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.


VEDANTAM: King finds that progress isn't achieved by reaching quickly for consensus. He finds, in fact, that progress comes from triggering conflict.


KING JR: I have a feeling that if we can get a breakthrough in Birmingham and really break down the walls of segregation, it will demonstrate to the whole South - at least, the hardcore South - that it can no longer resist.

VEDANTAM: Here's historian David Moss.

MOSS: I think what was so brilliant about King - but also before him, if you look at the - a long line. From the early 20th century, the NAACP was trying to think about, how do we make change? And what they thought was - we're going to embrace democracy; we're going to hug democracy tightly. And we're going to reveal the hypocrisy.


KING JR: We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we've come to cash this check...


KING JR: ...A check that will give us, upon demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice.


MOSS: And I think what leaders of the civil rights movement figured out is that hypocrisies actually can be a plus, not just a minus. So if you can bring it out - if you can expose it, if you can put it in front of people and show that the principles they hold dear are being violated - that, in some cases at least, forces people to choose. Sometimes they choose wrong, unfortunately. But sometimes they actually side with principle.

So this is basically what Martin Luther King was trying to do. He wanted to pick some of the most challenging places to protest - Birmingham, Ala., Selma - knowing that there were some pretty tough people on the other side, some pretty brutal police and sheriffs on the other side who were going to take that opportunity to beat up the protesters, use dogs, water cannons and so on. So what he realized is that if you could make people in their living rooms see this violence and bring it out, you know, to - into the light of day, then suddenly, this hypocrisy, which unfortunately was at the heart of the country at that point - we were talking about equal protection, but we weren't living equal protection.


MOSS: Without television, I don't think he could possibly have done it. But with television, he was able to go march peacefully, protest peacefully. The reaction, though, came. And it came swiftly from the other side, and it put on display this hypocrisy.


JOHN F KENNEDY: The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can furtively choose to ignore them.


MOSS: So what you see once again is this link between conflict tied to this deep faith in the democracy - even how imperfect - I mean, imperfect is an understatement.


KING JR: The Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and chains...

VEDANTAM: When you think about some of the other leaders of the time, there were certainly people who were advocating some version of what the South was saying in 1861. There were people who were saying, look. The system is so broken; it is so faulty that there is no fixing it. We actually have to break it down. And I think the point that you're making is really well-made, which is that King wrapped himself in the flag. He wrapped himself in this ideal of the American democracy. And that potentially is what made the conflict productive.

MOSS: Right. So look. There were a lot of things he was concerned about. But he said, let's take these principles and actually try to see if we can all live by them.

I think we need to remember American democracy is far from perfect, but it is extraordinarily resilient. And it has generated tremendous progress - economic progress, social progress, political - a lot slower than we'd all like. But boy, things can go very badly, and we all know that. And so the question is - can you continue to make progress?


VEDANTAM: So which of these historical analogies describes the current moment in the United States? Are we on the brink of a new chapter in our democracy or on the brink of divorce? I asked David about a number of more recent developments that raise troubling signals about the health of our democracy.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Not my president, not my president.

Donald Trump, go away - racist, sexist, anti-gay.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: You're still questioning the authenticity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate.

TRUMP: Very simple, I have people looking into it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: We are introducing articles of impeachment to remove President Trump from office. Given the magnitude of the constitution crisis, there's no reason for the...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: This is not based on any real theories of law. This is the congressional equivalent of petulant children throwing a temper tantrum 'cause their team lost.

VEDANTAM: Are these modern conflicts business as usual?


VEDANTAM: Or has something changed?

MOSS: I think both. I mean, it depends what you want the comparison to be. I think that, relative to much of the 20th century, we've been more partisan. We're more partisan today than in a long time. But I have to say, if you look back in the 19th century, there were strong divisions - very powerful divisions. At one moment, that, of course, led to the Civil War. But most of the time, those divisions actually did not lead to anything like violence. In fact, they often led to very productive conflicts. So I don't think the question - I don't think the right question is - is there too much conflict? Again, I think conflict, especially if it stays in the political realm, is a very good thing. It generates good ideas.

The question is - what do we have in common? I think that's really - we have to ask ourselves not - how do we suppress conflict? - but how do we elevate what we have in common? So we don't have a common ethnic origin. We don't have a common religion. This country is very different from many others. We have people coming from all over.

Back in 1776, the Continental Congress, just hours after it adopted the Declaration of Independence, it asked a very powerful, heavyweight group of people - John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin - to develop a seal for the United States of America - the great seal, a two-sided emblem. They wanted some marketing materials for this new country they'd just formed. And anyway, these three come up with a design, and Congress doesn't like it. They reject it. They come up with another design.

But Franklin, in that process, came up with three words that Congress did like. And those three words were Latin words e pluribus unum. He took those words not from a great Roman thinker but rather from a magazine he liked called Gentleman's Magazine. It was a literary magazine. And on the cover were these words e pluribus unum - out of many, one. And what they were trying to say in the magazine was out of many fragments of literary works, one magazine.

But he saw it as out of many states and peoples, one nation. And I think what he understood really very early was that diversity - difference - created great strengths for the country. But what was going to create that unity, it was going to be our common belief in democratic self-governance. So as we look at conflict, I think it's maybe a fool's errand to try to suppress conflict. The question is, do we have enough in common to hold it together?


VEDANTAM: Political scientists have noticed that both parties are becoming more ideologically consistent. In other words, Republicans are more conservative, and Democrats are more liberal than they used to be. I asked David if this kind of polarization might be leading to a destructive conflict.

MOSS: Look. We don't know, so I want to be careful. I'm a historian. I look backwards; I'm not so good at predicting the future. And I think none of us are. So we don't know if this type of conflict is itself dangerous. I guess I'm not convinced that it is.

I think a much bigger concern - and if you look at - for example, Gallup asks this question on a regular basis - if you ask - do you have confidence in your fellow Americans to make decisions as part of our democracy? - actually that number has been falling quite dramatically. And the number who say that they have little or no confidence in their fellow Americans has increased sharply from about 15% in the early 1970s to about 43% today. Those are big numbers. I have to say. I worry much more about those numbers than ideological conformity and so on.

I think the question is, do you have some faith in those around you? Even if you disagree with them sharply, do you believe in the system? Are you willing, when you lose, to accept it? And are you going to be treated with some degree of respect when you lose, as well? You know, as we think about winning and losing, we have to lose with grace, and we have to win with grace, as well. And maybe we just have to be careful not to let the winning and losing become a value of its own.


VEDANTAM: I'm wondering - as you're thinking about the long sweep of history, it's clear there have been many, many, many examples where things look like they're falling apart, and they haven't. And the case you make as a result is that the country is resilient. But I'm wondering if this belief in our resilience can hide the fact that sometimes actually we might be at risk. In other words, it's only in hindsight that you know that a certain thing turned out well or badly. In the moment, how do you know which way it's going to go?

MOSS: Right. So I think you need to look at - is the culture of democracy strong enough to hold us together? That's the question I keep asking. How do you know? You need to look at your politicians. Look at the ones on your side, who agree with you. And do you see them ever putting democracy in second place? And how often do they do it? So I'll leave it to listeners to make that decision. My guess is you can find some examples of that, and you can find examples in history. The more severe that becomes, the more dangerous it becomes.

It's good, I think, in a democracy to be hypochondriacs - that is to think that, oh, our system might be sick because when you think it might be sick, you start to take some action.

VEDANTAM: One of the other factors you identified that's different about partisanship today from partisanship in the past is that you say partisanship in the past was more exuberant. What do you mean by exuberant partisanship, and how could we bring that back?

MOSS: So as you say - I think if you go back into the 19th century, partisanship was extremely, extremely strong. But there was a life in it, an excitement. And that came out, for example, beautifully on Election Day. Election Day was a celebration. It was a party. It was completely different from Election Day today.

What do I mean by that? Well, back then, actually voting was public. You would go and cast a ballot. Your ballot usually had a color. It might be pink. It might be blue. And it would reflect what party you were voting for. Everyone could see when you put the ballot in. And there were a lot of people around you. In fact, usually at your voting place, there was a celebration going on. There was a lot of debating. There was a lot of drinking. There was a lot of fighting. There was a lot going on. Overall, the voting rates were up at 70, 75, 80% - so very high voting rates, much higher than we have today.


MOSS: So there was this celebratory atmosphere that was going on every Election Day. And part of that was something we wouldn't want to repeat. So you know, why were ballots so public? Why was voting so public? Well, part of it was political machines wanted to be able to pay people off to vote for their party.


MOSS: And you couldn't really pay people off if you couldn't see how they were going to vote. So if you're going to pay them a dollar to vote this way or that, you had to make sure you knew how they're actually going to vote. So you had to see - you had to have someone at the polling place watch them put the vote in. So there was a downside. There was a corruption associated with this old system. But unfortunately, when we fixed that, we ended up taking the life out of voting.

And now most people go; they vote. They vote in a private booth, and they make their decision. They walk out. They maybe buy a brownie at a bake sale or something. And that's about it. But there is a question. Could we have a little bit more of that celebratory atmosphere? Could Election Day be a holiday? Could it be more of a celebration? And what you'd see is a lot more people engaged in the democracy.


MOSS: So we got a cleaner electoral system. I wouldn't want to give that up. But boy, we lost something in the process.


VEDANTAM: David Moss is the author of "Democracy: A Case Study." He's a historian at Harvard University.


VEDANTAM: This week's episode was produced by Thomas Lu, Maggie Penman and Parth Shah. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Jenny Schmidt, Laura Kwerel and Angus Chen.

Our Unsung Hero this week is listener Betsy Bolland (ph). Every month, Betsy loads her podcast feed with HIDDEN BRAIN and makes a 14-hour drive to visit her son in a Texas prison. During their visit, Betsy tells him about the stories she's listened to on the way. In an email she wrote, a Texas prison is not a place of rehabilitation but a place where men and women are demeaned, dehumanized, diminished to a number. But for those few hours during the visit, my son is Matt (ph) - son, husband, daddy, brother, friend. Through your podcast, she says, you have joined us on this journey. Your stories have become a part of our story.

Thanks, Betsy. Notes like yours are a source of inspiration to all of us at HIDDEN BRAIN.

Before we go today, we're looking for your help with a story we're working on. When you were a kid, maybe you felt like Mr. Rogers or Big Bird was speaking just to you. As an adult, maybe it seems that Beyonce is the only person who really understands you. If so, you've been in a parasocial relationship, a one-sided social interaction that can sometimes feel as real as any friendship. We want to talk about these relationships in an upcoming episode.

Has your love for a celebrity ever given you a sense of identity or purpose? Has a character in a TV show or movie influenced your career path, even the course of your life? Has your connection to a famous person ever caused you pain? If you're willing to share your story with us, record a voice memo on your phone and email it to us at Use the subject line Secret Friends. That email again is I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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