Election cycles are always hyper-partisan. Every new cycle we have pundits telling us that this is the worst it’s ever been, but generally this an exaggeration that gains credibility simply because the current cycle is at the front of our minds. But they are always nasty – it’s the nature of politics. People do not like to be challenged on their political ideals, as Diana Mutz documents in her book Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy, and people will go to great lengths to only associate and interact with like-minded others. Try to imagine all of the potential social gains one misses out on with this kind of thinking. Or rather, if you happen to not share the politics of your parents, imagine your life without them. Clearly, this shows that politics is a poor reason to divide us in the way that it does, and that, lest we forego a lifetime of unknown benefits (with some costs, to be sure), we should take steps to not allow hyper-partisan thinking to cloud our judgement of everything.
So, I was encouraged when reading through Cass Sunstein’s Bloomberg column on “Five Books to Change Liberals’ Minds.” Sunstein, a very influential legal theorist and a known progressive, argues that walling yourself off to people who do not agree with you is “not ideal, because it eliminates learning and makes it impossible for people to understand what they dismiss as ‘the other side’” and goes on to list five books that he takes very seriously despite the fact that he disagrees with their more conservative or libertarian political implications.
When it comes to politics, too few people are willing to admit they might be wrong and we are all subject to a host of biases that entrenches this even further. Here are my five books that I have read that were successful in making me think really hard about why I believe the things that I do:
- Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion: This book made it onto Sunstein’s list. As a hyper-rational person there are times when I struggle with understanding moral reasoning. But Haidt’s explanation that our moral compasses are initially driven by gut feelings and intuitions, followed by after-the-fact reasoning was eye-opening. Also, as someone who leans libertarian, understanding that there is more to morality than harm and fairness goes a long way to shaking off simplistic approaches to the social world.
- Samuel Bowles – The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Good Substitute for Good Citizens: I tend to think that we could probably commodify most things (two controversial examples are kidneys and bone marrow). But Bowles’s book shows that sometimes intrinsic motivations can outweigh extrinsic reward, and certain incentive structures can crowd out commonly-accepted civic virtues. This means maybe we shouldn’t put a price tag on everything.
- John Tomasi – Liberalism Beyond Justice: Citizens, Society, and the Boundaries of Political Theory: Tomasi argues that because our political emphasis on individualism will inadvertently influence the ethical culture of non-political life, then we need a way to combat this if we are going to take pluralism seriously.
- Ian Morris – War! What is it Good For?: I am fervently anti-war. Morris’s argument that “productive” war creates large states that are able to foster internal security, trade, and prosperity was provocative enough to both cause my blood pressure to rise and make me think, is he right? While ultimately I don’t believe he is, this is one of those really good books that makes an ambitious claim and is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom.
- Thaddeus Russell – A Renegade History of the United States: This may not be the alternative history that most people wanted, but given the puritanical and social authoritarian impulse that has guided much of American history, it’s the one we deserved. This is a great look at how pretty much everything we value about the modern world was given to us by “bad” Americans: “drunkards, prostitutes, ‘shiftless slaves’ and white slackers, criminals, juvenile delinquents, brazen homosexuals, and others who operated beneath American society[.]” Instead of Howard Zinn, read Thaddeus Russell. Or read them both.
If you think intellectual honesty and humility are important, then by all means read these books. Read the books Sunstein recommended. Read any book that you think might make you feel uncomfortable. If you are a progressive, have a political conversation with a conservative (or a libertarian) and vice versa. Think for just a second that maybe they have something to say that could be useful and illustrative for you – consider that you could possibly be wrong. Dare to be different, and don’t let politics divide anymore than it already does.
Jerrod A. Laber is a Program Manager at the Institute for Humane Studies. He is a Young Voices Advocate.