The Great Antidote

Undivide Us: Ben Klutsey on Exploring and Confronting Polarization

February 02, 2024 Juliette Sellgren
The Great Antidote
Undivide Us: Ben Klutsey on Exploring and Confronting Polarization
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Ben Klutsey is the Director of Academic Outreach and the Director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is also one of the masterminds behind a recent documentary, Undivide Us, which tackles the affective polarization in America and how to remedy it through thoughtful conversation.

We talk about Ben’s journey and how it led him to this project, the findings of the Undivide Us documentary, and potential solutions to the divisions in society today. Near the end, we discuss the relationship between technology and affective polarization, and the limitations of virtual interactions. Ben gives advice to individuals and institutions longing for deeper connections across perceived boundaries and divisions. 

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Juliette Sellgren

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliette Sellgren and this is my podcast, the Great Antidote named for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www Adam Smith works.org.

Welcome back. Last night on January 10th, 2024. Wow. It's 2024. Happy New Year. Happy New Year. I attended an in-person screening of this new awesome movie called Undivide Us. It's a memorable name, and it was about, if I may summarize, the polarization in America and how to kind of tackle having these conversations that seem to either not be happening and are pulling us apart by them not happening, or they are happening and they are pulling us apart, or it's not even a conversation and it's just a physical brawl, which is also not ideal, kind of how to fix it. So I'm honored to be talking to Ben Klutsey today about this because he's one of the masterminds behind this film. He is the director of the program on pluralism and civil exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and I'm so excited to talk to him. Welcome to the podcast.

Ben Klutsey 

Thanks, Juliette. Great to be here.

Juliette Sellgren 

So maybe the hardest question, but I don't think it is compared to what's coming, what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know? That we don't

Ben Klutsey 

What you should know that you do not?

Wow. I'm always careful not to offer advice because we're all learners, but I always say to young people that try your hands as many things as possible as you can do when you're young, for instance, via your first job, regardless of whatever it is, seek as many responsibilities as possible so you can learn what you're good at and you can explore different things because I think that when you're young, discovery phase in your life, and I think you should take that very, very seriously. So do as many things as possible, as many things as you can do and learn from that.

Juliette Sellgren 

That's such a good piece of advice. It's so timely because I'm about to restart school and last semester I did not handle my responsibility maybe the way I should have, and I still did. But it is an important lesson to learn as early on as possible that actually it's true. With great power comes great responsibility. Definitely. So with the new year, with the new semester, this is some perfect advice. 

Ben Klutsey 

There you go.

Juliette Sellgren 

So the movie is fantastic. Thank you. Great job.

Ben Klutsey 

I'll give the credit to Kristi Kendall, who's the director, but she did a really great job.

Juliette Sellgren 

Yeah, well, you two together, I would say an interview with her soon to come. I'm super excited about that. Excellent. But I know I kind of took my shot at explaining what the movie is about, but I want to hear it from you. What is the movie about and what lessons does it teach us? What does it highlight that's important to know?

Ben Klutsey (3.47)

Yeah. Well, the movie takes this approach of explorers, right? Tony, who's my partner in crime in this effort, he wrote a book called I, Citizen about the ways in which elites are very polarized in our society. We talk about elites, we mean whether it's academia or it's Congress. You can clearly see how there are strong divisions in those areas, but he says, look, the average American isn't as divided as we might think. And I'd been doing a lot of thinking and research on polarization. And so we wanted to test this out, and that's what really got this project started going to all these different parts of America, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Atlanta, talk to just regular Americans to see if they can have difficult conversations. And we learned some interesting things. So I particularly went in not very sure what we were going to learn from this because I think I was maybe I took a lot more of a pessimistic view about where we are in terms of our divisions. And I think I came out less pessimistic,

Juliette Sellgren (5.07)

And I kind of want to get into the methodology of this experiment. You guys all refer to it as an experiment, and there's something about that that is heartwarming, especially in the context of the results being more positive than maybe we would've thought. And we'll get into that. But I kind of want to take a lot of steps back and ask you to give us kind of a short autobiography, because we know it would take a lifetime to actually give an autobiography because you've lived a life and you sell a lot of life to go, I hope. And I think I know, I hope, I hope. But what has led you not just to this project, but to the ideals that this project represents, and what are some important threads in your life that were necessary for you to get here and to realize that this was a problem worth tackling and that the ideals that this endeavor represents were worth defending and saving and exploring

Ben Klutsey (6.16)

A question that's really interesting and a big question. I take the ability to express oneself very, very seriously to have the freedom to do that, the liberty to do that because growing up, it didn't come very easily because there were certain conditions on the ground, so to speak. I grew up in Ghana, west Africa, and I grew up at a time when we had a military rule and we had a Marxist revolution in the late seventies, early eighties. And people like my dad, who was an entrepreneur, was nearly thrown in jail, but he was harassed and about a third or two thirds of his assets were taken away from him. He was the kind of person who grew up very poor, but found his way through entrepreneurship, built a business and employed hundreds of people, but he was going through this really difficult time because of the sort of authoritarian military system that we had. And he would tell me that if you walk outside of our home, do not talk about politics. Just avoid it completely. Don't challenge those in power. Don't say anything critical. Don't say anything that would give the indication that you lean one way or another on any particular issue. And that was a little challenging for me to navigate. So I just decided to just be quiet most of the time.

And something changed for me when I came to America. I talk about some of this stuff in the movie, but I'm studying, all kinds of interesting things and economics and political science, and I get into philosophy and it's really exciting. I often joke that philosophy is sort of my first love because it just opened up so much to me. But in my very first philosophy course, I can still remember pretty much every single thing that I learned in that class. It was just really amazing. And at the end of that course, I get an A, and I'm really excited. I pick up my paper and at the bottom of my paper, my professor writes, you have a lot of good things to say them in class. And that was kind of a transformational moment for me because no one had ever really said that to me before. And I contrast that with what the conversation I had with my dad about just not staying quiet, not saying anything, and so on. And I started to take a lot of courses with this particular professor who said that I have a lot of things to say, say it in class, John Drayer, really amazing man. And every single day in class, he would ask me to say something every single day.

Juliette Sellgren 

That's awesome, Ben.

Ben Klutsey (9.32)

He, would ask, what's the main point of this argument? How would you counter this? What do you think the author is saying? And it was just every single day. And I often say that John gave me a voice that I didn't know that I had, and that voice just transformed me from a very quiet and reserved kid to a confident young man. And when I go around the country talking to students, I work a lot with students. I do tell them that those values, freedom of expression and speech and all those things that are enshrined in the Bill of Rights are extremely important, and we have to work hard to preserve them. It means that sometimes we will have difficult conversations that will be robust debates, but we should work hard not to shut people down and silence them.

Juliette Sellgren (10.32)

Thank you for sharing all of that. Something that has really struck me and these sorts of conversations about how immigrants of America feel about American culture, not modern culture necessarily, but the constitutional culture and the ideas that this country was founded upon. It's striking to me how people like my mom or other immigrants feel so much more connected with those ideals. Maybe not always across the board, but generally they feel more connected to these ideas than it seems a lot of Americans like land born Americans, especially kids my age. Because I remember the moment when I decided that I was explicitly proud to be an American, and it wasn't just an inherited thing that it was a choice, and that felt like a really important moment.

I guess kind of where I'm leading with this is you can say something and obviously even you sharing your story here right now like this in instant, the emotion and the importance of these lessons and these values. But I guess what has communicating this and sharing this with other people, what has it taught you about actually imparting these ideas? What have you found for yourself to be the best way to express this and to impart that on people who even though it's inherited, maybe take it for granted really, and do they take it for granted or am I a little cynical?

Ben Klutsey (12.19)

Yeah, I think you're right. I think Americans, those are born in America, I think do take a lot of these things for granted. And those of us who have experienced something different, something different, I think that we see the contrast and we tend to value what we see here, very, very valuably. I think that I feel as though that the natural instinct, our natural instincts go towards cynicism, paternalism control. And it reminds me of a really wonderful article by James Buchanan, I think in 2005 before he passed away called Afraid to Be Free. And in that article, he talks about how those of us who care about liberty feel as though as soon as we go out there and preach Liberty, Liberty, liberty, people are going to be so excited about it. They're going to want to embrace it and run with it and so on.

But that's not the case. I think there are a lot of experiences that have shown us that people care a lot about security, and if you give them the options in difficult times, they'll probably choose security over liberty. And that it's something that you have to work hard at culturally and show people how important you cannot teach that in a vacuum. I think that you always have to show what it's like when it's not there. And I think some of our stories help explain what it feels like when you don't have it. I think liberalism is the kind of thing that you take for granted until it's gone and you realize that, oh my gosh, we had something really, really good here.

Juliette Sellgren (14.21)

So how would you describe liberalism and liberty? What does that mean to you? Obviously your story conveys part of it, but how would you define it and maybe give an example? I don't know if that's a little nebulous.

Ben Klutsey (14.36)

Yeah. The way that I like to describe liberalism is that the default position that we are one another's dignified equals and that we have to treat each other with respect, with equal dignity because we are equally free. And the Declaration of Independence, the opening line is that we owe these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. And I recently, not recently, maybe a couple of years ago, in talking to Danielle Allen, who's a professor at Harvard, wrote a really amazing book called Our Declaration Highlights. One thing that she worries that classical liberals don't emphasize enough is that we don't talk about the equality part of it, which comes first before the liberty part. Not that we want to prioritize one over the other, but it's a really, really important concept that we should talk about a lot along with liberty. So we have equal dignity, we are equally free.

And as Emily Chamley Wright would say, there are four corners of liberalism that we have economic liberalism, that is the stuff of Adam Smith, the idea that we have access to property, we can own property, and that we can take that property and we can exchange that for our mutual benefit. That's an important part of liberalism. The other is political liberalism that we should have access to a political process that have a voice, we can vote, we can participate. That's important. There's cultural liberalism, which is a third one that we have the chance to practice our different cultural practices, live out our beliefs as best as we can. And then finally, epistemic liberalism, the freedom of thought, the freedom of expression, and that in a truly liberal society, we have to be able to challenge orthodoxies, to speak up, innovate to do all kinds of cool things based on innovative ideas that we have. And so I think that a real liberal society is sort of firing on all these four cylinders. Now, there will be contestation in the spectrum of liberals because there are different kinds of liberals. There are those who think that the market system ought to be a little bit more regulated and others who feel like less. So there'll be some contestation there. But I think a liberal society is very robust in all these sort of four corners.

Juliette Sellgren 

So kind of back to the movie a little bit and how the movie relates to this, and I think it's super practical, but we'll get into that. How does polarization fit into this picture? Is it a symptom of something that happens in liberalism? Is it a disease that is plaguing liberalism? How do you characterize polarization in our current society and as it relates to this structure that we purportedly exist within if we do?

Ben Klutsey (18.24)

That's a really good question. Now, the way that I got into this, I work at me at Mercatus. We think a lot about markets and the role of markets in fostering innovation, in advancing human flourishing, but we don't just care about the markets for goods and services and that kind of thing, but we also care about the marketplace of ideas because it is, that's the place where innovative things emerge. That's how entrepreneurs can take those ideas and run with them, develop new things and so on. But we noticed that the marketplace of ideas has been reoriented towards conflict and discord. I think that makes it very, very difficult for us to, because the reason we care about markets generating a flourishing society is also because that we will have peace. You need a peaceful society so the markets can thrive and so on. But polarization just doesn't get us there.

So the ways in which that the marketplace of ideas and it's been reoriented towards conflict in discord as a result of polarization isn't a great thing. And so we're spending some time thinking about how can we coexist and live together peacefully in the context of polarization? And I think that's where the movie comes in. So this is sort of an effort to kind of, how do we figure this out? And the polarization can be challenging, but it's not always a bad thing. Just sometimes it shows that, look, we're different and we have different views and perspectives, but there are ways in which polarization can go south very quickly.

Juliette Sellgren 

So I guess this is the part where we talk about the methodology, whereas maybe the time, I want to mention that I describe you as a conversation facilitator synonymously, a liberalism facilitator. And so I don't know if you would describe yourself in that way. I thought that that was maybe the broadest, most descriptive yet concise way to

Ben Klutsey 

Describe it. I like it. I like it. I haven't described myself that way before, but I like it. I'll take it.

Juliette Sellgren (20.59)

You should actually take it and introduce yourself as such. There you go. So I found that you do this outside of the movie, but the movie kind of captures a specific method of conversation facilitation and a kind of venture into this world of polarization. And so how do you do that, this facilitation, and what were the results? What did you find about polarization and actually about the way that people engage with each other in this setting?

Ben Klutsey (21.33)

Yeah, another great question. The method is really, I think, fairly simple, but not always easy to do. It's reflective listening. We have a fancy term called the triadic elimination, but I think some say it's what they call the Turing test. And I think the touring test was developed decades ago, but I think Alan Turing is the name. And it was to try to figure out if a computer can sort of pass the Turing test as in behave in a way that you'd expect the human being to behave. So what we're trying to do with this method of facilitation is figure out whether someone can get in the mind of somebody else or can pretend like there's someone else and make a case for why they believe what they believe. So we kick things off with a pretty simple question. Which one of these has the most impact on human happiness? Cats, dogs, or both? Neither. And we give them these paddles to pick their options. The orange paddle goes if you're a dog person, you pick the purple pedal if you're a cat person and you pick the rose pedal if you are in between. And so we give participants maybe 60 seconds or so to kind of think about their choice and write down a couple of points and reasons why they pick the options that they pick. And then they do the big reveal. So I see Juliette, you are a cat person,

Juliette Sellgren 

Correct?

Ben Klutsey (23.32)

And Ben, you are a dog person. Now, Ben, can you say why you think that Juliet might be a cat person? And so I kind of have to go, okay, wait a second. Let's see. Maybe she grew up with cats, maybe she likes ways in which cats might be easy to manage. I might say a couple of things like that. And the facilitator will ask, so Julia, what did Ben get? Right? It's like, oh, he only got 30% right? And then you add the other 70% that I missed. Okay, there are all these other reasons why you care about cats. And then we'll do the other way around as well. Like Juliette, can you say why Ben might be a dog person? Ben likes to go running. And so he likes to do that with this dog. He loves the way that his dog might welcome him when he gets home and all these things go, what did Ben get right? What did Juliette get? Right? Sorry. I said, wow, okay, 70%. And I'd say some other things.

And so we kind of go back and forth. We'll ask the person who is for both or prefers rabbits, whatever, say, well, I think this is interesting, and we'll ask what folks have learned about each other from this and what else? What have we not talked about? This is a part of research about cats or maybe dogs and that we have not explored yet, and we'll talk about those things. But as we do that, we realize that we're learning some interesting things about each other, that we are giving each other a little bit more grace in these conversations and that, so we move from cats and dogs. We talk about more difficult conversations, obviously difficult topics, wrong direction, right direction of the country, immigration, abortion, guns and all these other things. But it's the same approach. Why do you think this person might be stronger in border control? And this person thinks that we should have open borders or maybe a less strict immigration system. And there's just a lot that we learn from that experience. And that's sort of the approach. And I realized that when you are having a conversation and listening not to respond with a quip or as in you're debating someone and you are showing them that you are taking the time to listen to them, I think it kind of lowers their guard a little bit. And you kind of see each other's humanity. I think that's what we're going for.

Juliette Sellgren (26.39)

So now we're going to, as we continue get into the practice of this, how infectious is this, right? So it lowers the guard of the people engaged in the conversation. And these were small groups. It looked like about six people per conversation and maybe more, maybe less, and maybe it changes how each of those six people continues to engage in conversation with people outside of the group. But that seems kind of slow growth. And this problem seems a little pressing, and it's not that that's a bad thing in itself. Any change is welcome. Changing one person's life is still immensely valuable, but it is a countrywide problem. I guess the first part of this is how much do you think us both learning how to have this conversation will have a multiplier in other conversations we have and for other people? Because it seems like it's a learned skillset that you have to be kind of taught how to have these sorts of conversations, whereas yelling at each other is maybe more natural and instinctual something to be overcome maybe.

Ben Klutsey (28.08)

Yeah, I mean, I think that because we are now sorting ourselves into groups like-minded groups, it's very likely that where you live geographically, the people who live around you agree with you on most things. We are not getting as much practice in, in talking with people who are quite different from us in terms of their perspectives and ideas and so on. And so there's an element of this that requires a lot of practice. The reason I think that a medium like a film helps is that you provide an opportunity for lots and lots of people to actually see it, and hopefully they'll be inspired by it. The research on contact theory, which is the broad category of interactions that people who are together and they're talking the ways in which that diffuses polarization and so on and so forth. A lot of research on this stuff indicates that it's helpful, especially in the short term.

But when people are removed from this experience a week to two or three, it's not as clear that it's sustainable. And so we have to get into practice of doing this not as a one-off thing, but consistently over a long period of time. What we are experiencing with polarization cannot be addressed with a silver bullet. And so I think that there are lots and lots of other groups that are doing different things. So this is one piece of the puzzle that we hope that will resonate with others. But just trying to have the conversation. Now, there are three principles that we often talk about when I work with students and we do something called the plurals lab. Three things. Number one is respect, which goes back to the whole concept of equal dignity, which is firmly rooted in liberalism, that we give each other that, and we all have a right to be here to be in this space. And the second thing is authenticity, that we are coming to this discussion with our true selves to the extent that people are masking their views. And it's a thing because we know from the research that college students in particular are self-censoring. We want them to come to the table with the belief that they can express themselves without hiding anything. And then finally, curiosity, exploring these conversations and thinking of each other as really amazing mysteries to uncover your fellow citizen. Very an interesting mystery.

I think that just thinking about these three things over and over again helps us get there. I often talk about Monica Guzman's book. I never thought of it that way. She talks about this really amazing experience that she had after the 2016 election going from her county in Washington. She lives in Seattle, and in the aftermath of the 2016 election, seven 6% of her county voted for Hillary Clinton, but the entire country didn't vote that way. And she was surprised. So she, along with her friends, take a bus and go to a different part of the country that had the very opposite, where they go to a part of Oregon where 76% of that county voted for Donald Trump. And they have, I think a full day there. And they have lots and lots of conversations. And at the end of the conversation, one of the folks who hosted them said that for the very first time, he felt seen.

And I think that when you allow someone to feel seen, it does change the dynamics of the relationship. And I think that's what we lack, and we need to do more and more of that. So yeah, there are no easy answers about scalability. And I get these questions a lot about scaling. How do we scale this? I love, it's a bottom up proposition that we're making here, and that we want individuals to really be confident that this is possible. And part of this thing with the movie is to show people that it's possible to have these conversations. It doesn't mean it's always easy, and it doesn't mean that you always have to have these conversations, but when the opportunity presents itself, it's really possible. So go for it.

Juliette Sellgren (33.26)

And I think that that's great, especially as someone of my generation, and I guess people nowadays kind of maybe across the board feel like this, but coming of age in this era, it's hard to feel as though you could do anything except everyone is telling you that it's your responsibility. And I know I've talked a lot about this on the podcast, listeners, and this has kind of been something I've been dealing with for the past year since I realized I felt this way and realized that a lot of people feel this way, but you're reminding me that the movie does something. And obviously it's not that I thought that it didn't do anything, it was deeply moving, but that even just having this conversation might spark that in someone else, whoever's listening, if not now, years down the road, maybe even. And so I guess instead of asking you to solve the problem or what the solution is, I want to ask you something that might be a little different than what other people talking to you about this or asking you questions about might ask, which might be more productive.

Recently, I've become swept up in this idea of institutions being super important, especially if the work we do now and the thoughts we're having now are going to influence the future. And if we're going to respect the past, the founding, the ideals, the people who have worked so hard to get us where we are today and to kind of pass it forward. And that's kind of why we're here, isn't it? If not the only reason why that must be part of it. And so in order to do that, you need an institution that lasts beyond just us sitting here having this conversation right now. And so what are the sorts of qualities or characteristics of an institution, any sort of institution? It could be a university, it could be some sort of parallel institution, it could be plural, list, labs, a podcast, any sort of, I use very, very vaguely like norms, things that continue beyond individuals. What are the characteristics that they would need to have to uphold these principles?

Ben Klutsey 

That's a great question.

Juliette Sellgren 

Also difficult.

Ben Klutsey (35.52)

Very difficult, I think of institutions the way that Yuval Levin defines them in his book, A Time to Build. And he says that they are the durable forms of our lives together, and they can take different shapes and different forms. And so you're right that you have to think about these things fairly loosely. We can think of constitution as the military or the church or the rule of law, gift giving. And I think all of these things are important institutions that we need to develop, ways in which any institutions that we are a part of have this sort of pluralistic ethos. And your question is about what are the values that are relevant for institutions that are pluralistic or liberal, broadly speaking, that they are sustainable over a long period of time.

I think that one thing that's really, really important is virtues. I've been thinking a lot about virtues because I think that when I think about your generation, even though sometimes people think that you guys don't care about these things, I think you do a lot. And I think that there's a particular focus on, let's say justice as a virtue. And I think that there are people who are very concerned about the challenges they see around the world, and they want justice. They want to address the problems justly. And I think it's important for institutions to embody justice as an important virtue. But we have to think about these things in a balanced way. And I think that a society cannot thrive on justice alone, but we need things like humility. We need prudence. We need wisdom, we need courage.

And I think that institutions that help guide people to form people with virtues that are balanced, I think that will thrive over a long period of time. That requires another important virtue, patience. And that's some of the changes that we want to see may not happen overnight, that we have to give ourselves some time to see them work their way through all these different systems and institutions. So I would say that focusing on virtues is really important, and that thinking about them in balanced ways are very, very important. And that we have to look at the world or learn to look at the world not with one lens, but with multiple lenses. I think that's where humility and prudence comes in, because then we have to think about the ways in which we ourselves could be fallible and so on. But yeah, I think that we have to think about these things as important virtues to embody within all of our institutions. I think that's where that institutions have lost trust over time.

Juliette Sellgren (40.06)

You gave such a good answer, and I'm going to offer you now an aspect of, I think institutions that promote pluralism and these virtues that is maybe more less meta. And I'm wondering what your thoughts are going to be, and I guess I kind of mentioned this a little bit before, but something that was really powerful about the film and seeing these interactions between people who didn't agree was that it was in person. These people were together. There is something about that that made it so much more moving to watch, but I think also made it easier for them to have this conversation. And so I'm kind of wondering, is the institution of being in person or the aspect of a potential institution being in person, how important is that? And does that mean that we couldn't have things online or that there's a limitation to what we can do online and how we can connect, especially as we're trying to come together instead of, I don't know. Is it a hindrance to deeper connection, do you think?

Ben Klutsey (41.32)

Yeah, I love technology. I love the virtual space. I love the things that it allows us to do. It's just not a perfect substitute for in-person interactions. I often talk about Juliana Schroeder's work. She's at UC, Berkeley, she studies the psychology of human interactions and a lot of her work and tries to explore these things, how we engage in social media and the virtual space and all of that. And there's a hierarchy of things that are really, really from good to great, right? I mean, text-based communication helps us a lot, but it's even better to have audio so we can hear someone's voice. It's even better to see someone on the screen and obviously really, really great if you can be in person.

And she says, look, text-based communication can be dehumanizing because there are things that you don't pick up in text. And when we are face-to-face, we can see each other. We can pick up on a lot of cues when someone is getting upset about something, someone is becoming emotional about something, distracted about something, you can pick up these things and you can calibrate responses based on that to foster better relationships. And I think that as we spend a lot of time in the virtual space, some of these skills tend to atrophy and we have to try to work our way up and practice more is just sometimes we can't always do these things in person. So like I said, having the virtual thing is great, but it's just not a perfect substitute.

And I think that a lot of this stuff with technology is that we are still learning. It's fairly new and we're still learning how to engage with it, how to deal with, it reminds me of the emergence of printing press, and there was just so much that went on as a result, and even wars that emerge as a result. And I'm not saying that we're going to have wars or not anticipating wars as result of this emergence of this new technology, but I think that we're learning and we have to give each other some patience to grapple with all of this. But yes, in-person interactions I think is really good if we can do that when we get a chance to do what we should.

Juliette Sellgren (45.00)

And I have to remind myself that if we hadn't actually invested in technology and continued to use it, which obviously it's super helpful for a lot of things, we wouldn't even be able to record this podcast without it. We wouldn't have had Zoom or any sort of technological communication that could even be face-to-face if we hadn't used technology. So even continual use of technology has led to less potentially dehumanizing use of technology and creation of technology, which is maybe a little trippy to think about now that I'm trying to verbally communicate that. But second to last question, what advice would you have for an individual or a group of individuals that are either trying to venture out and create an institution to continue to pass it forward and to engage in these conversations or have these sorts of virtues embedded in the way they engage with other people to share that, whether or not it's on a personal level or to actually create something that extends beyond them and their interactions? What advice would you have to someone who might be afraid or doesn't know what might be in store for them? Kind of ties back to the first question, maybe your response to it.

Ben Klutsey (46.31)

Yeah, I mean, I'd say don't overthink it. I think currently my bias will be towards action just doing and experimentation. There are lots of different things that we need to try to make this work. And when I say to make this work, I really want to back up for a second and talk about the kind of polarization that we mean. I don't think that I've had the chance to sort of spell it out, but there is political polarization. It's the ideological distance that we have between parties. And that's fine. You get a stark, the contrast, right? You see that, okay, someone is pro-life and pro-choice. You can see where they are, where they stand on issues. I think for a very long time, we haven't really moved much on a lot of these differences, if anything at all. If we've come a little bit closer in terms of our views on these, whether it's climate or guns or whatever, what's happening now is not goes beyond these differences. It's what they call affect depolarization. Some say toxic polarization, but it's no longer that the other person disagrees. But oh, their views are dangerous. They're a threat to my existence. And they're almost like an enemy to me.

And so what's happening is that because this is what people see on display all of the time, people going after each other politically, they tend to have a bit of an overestimation as to how extreme we each are on a number of things. But it turns out that the folks who are the most polarized and have a hard time having these conversations and so on, are the ones who are, they call the most involved. They're tracking the news 24 7 on social media all the time on cable news and following everything. That's a minority of the population. But they create the impression that everybody else is that polarized. And you have a lot of people in the middle who are like, what's going on? And the experts put the numbers around 19, 18% or so. That's like 9% on either side of the political spectrum that's as polarized and as sort of steeped in your views. And so I think that there's a lot of hope that if you try something, if you try creating an institution or an organization that brings people together, seeks opportunities to have conversations across divides, I think you're going to succeed. And so just try and it'll be beneficial. And I think the goal is to show that give people a little bit of confidence that they can do this and show that it's possible and give them a little bit of hope.

Juliette Sellgren 

So put your screens down and stop watching the news a little bit. A little bit.

Ben Klutsey 

Bit. That helps. Yes, definitely.

Juliette Sellgren (50.17)

But I politely remind you, listeners, that you don't have to be looking at a screen to listen to my podcast. There was this great visual in the movie about these moments that we see on the news and how there's kind of this small part of the group present that is on the screen, but then there's all of these people. The majority is actually on the outside of a given conflict that you can see. I'm thinking of a specific physical brawl that shows up that you see in the movie.

And I think that, I mean to me, is a screaming reason why people should watch the movie because it is really great and it puts in a visual so many things that we're talking about now in a way that is super memorable. So yeah, that's my little bit. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and for sharing your wisdom and for doing all the work that you do, because every second that you work on stuff like this, and even that, you engage with other people outside of work. In this way, you're upholding the pillars of liberalism. I have one last question for you. Sure. What is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

Ben Klutsey (51.44)

Wow, that's a tough one. I often used to believe that people can always accurately assess and predict how they might act and respond under VE circumstances. I've come to realize that that is not always the case, that we're not always the best judges of ourselves. Now, it doesn't mean that I think that we should have anybody controlling us and telling us what to do or anything like that. No, but it's just really a point about humility and that you never know how you might react or respond when you're in somebody else's shoes. And so I think about this often these days that I don't know how I might react or respond under certain circumstances. So I have to give people a lot of leeway, even when I perceive them to be making mistakes. I have to do that. That's what I'd say.

Juliette Sellgren 

Once again, I'd like to thank my guests for their time and insight. I'd also like to thank you for listening to the Great Antidote Podcast. It means the Great Antidote is sound engineered by Rich Goyette. If you have any questions, any guests or topic recommendations, please feel free to reach out to me at Great antidote@libertyfund.org. Thank you.

(Cont.) Undivide Us: Ben Klutsey on Exploring and Confronting Polarization

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