This symposium on behavioral economics examined social and political participation, including why individuals choose to join a movement or party, the influence of partisanship on decision-making, and the use of implicit and explicit behavioral nudges to increase civic engagement.
The Robert B. Menschel Economics Symposium, presented by the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, is made possible through the generous support of Robert B. Menschel.
BUSSEY: Well, welcome, everybody, to our session today on “Behavioral Economics and Social Movements.” We are delighted to have Professor Cass Sunstein with us from Harvard Law School, a behavioral economics expert, former Obama administration official. And we’ll be going to—we’re going to talk for a little bit, and then we’ll go to questions in about a half-an-hour or so. We’re very much interested in your involvement in the discussion as well.
I do want to say, this symposium is presented by the Maurice Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies. It’s made possible through the general support of the Robert B. Menschel Fund. So thank you all for joining us. It’s on the record. And if you wouldn’t mind just putting your cellphones on stun mode so that they don’t—they don’t ring during the session. Excellent.
Cass, thanks for joining us. Delighted that you’re—that you’re here. You’ve just written a book, how do we change, how does social change actually happen? And it focuses a lot on social norms. And I’m wondering if we can start by just understanding, what exactly is a social norm?
SUNSTEIN: It’s a regularity whose violation triggers social disapproval. So if I were wearing a T-shirt and it said Tom Brady Forever, that would violate—I do have such a T-shirt. (Laughter.) But wearing it would be a violation of social norms. Or if right now I lit up a cigarette, that would be a violation of social norms. Or if someone said something that violated widespread evaluation of what is appropriate to say, such that there’d be a kind of taboo triggered, then we’d know a social norm was at risk.
BUSSEY: So we all like to think of ourselves as individually minded. We come to this session and any other action with preconceived notions. We behave in certain ways. But there are forces that can cause us to change those preconceived notions and behave in new ways. Could you describe some of those for us?
SUNSTEIN: Sure. So if you think of things like buckling your seatbelts, or smoking cigarettes, or making certain remarks about gender or sexual orientation, or making certain remarks about immigrants, these have all gone very different ways over a relatively short time. A social norm is sometimes the equivalent of a tax or a subsidy, so that if you violate it it’s like you’re taxed stiffly. If you say something, you know, that’s inconsistent with social norms with respect to something people widely believe about religion, then you’re going to be hit hard in terms of how other people react. And the sign, whether it’s a positive or negative, can shift over a decade. So there are acts and statements that used to be subsidized that are now taxed, and exactly the opposite.
So there was a time when buckling a seatbelt was like a suggestion I think you’re a bad driver or I’m a really cowardly person who’s terrified by life. (Laughter.) That’s—the norm was such that buckling your seatbelt was such a signal. And it still is in some parts of the world. Now buckling your seatbelt has no accusation of the driver or a confession of being afraid. And so the tax has been taken away. And these shift very dramatically. And we often find ourselves acting in accordance with a norm, even it shifted like yesterday, without being very self-conscious about it. It happens so unconsciously and rapidly that our own reflectiveness about our change might be, you know, really fast. And then you think, oh, this is what people do.
BUSSEY: Nothing like going through a windshield to maybe change the notion of the importance of buckling your seatbelt.
How does the #MeToo movement factor into what you just described? How does—how do those forces play out in what we have seen happen with the #MeToo movement?
SUNSTEIN: In some parts of many countries, what was neutral—meaning, it was socially neither taxed nor subsidized; let’s call it mildly harassing behavior, or worse—has how been accompanied by a stiff tax. And the word tax, you know, just means there’s a negative association such that to do it is to expose oneself as a bad actor, which is a qualitatively distinctive kind of tax. And so what #MeToo has done in some places is to make things that range from the offensive to the horrific, and to turn them taboo, where formally—at least in some places—they weren’t. They were, in some places—not places that I know well, I’m pleased to be able to say—but in some places apparently that kind of behavior was either fine or actually was rewarded as the kind of things that certain kind of men did. And it was a stamp of something good. And #MeToo has—it’s still a work in progress—but it’s turned either sideways, meaning you’re no longer supposed to do, or upside down, such that doing it is regarded as what it actually is under law, either a civil or criminal offense.
BUSSEY: So in your new book, How Change Happens, you talk about a phenomenon called the norm entrepreneur. Explain that for us.
SUNSTEIN: OK. There are people, some of whom will never make it into the history books, others of whom have chapters devoted to them, who have sparked either a local or a global change in norms. They have—Rosa Parks was a norm entrepreneur. Adolf Hitler was a norm entrepreneur. Where the thoughts is there’s a widespread taboo associated with something or an absence of a taboo associated with something, and that has to shift. And the kind of brilliance of the most effective norm entrepreneurs—and I think on this count Rosa Parks and Adolf Hitler, you know, had something in common—they were alert to the fact that inside people’s heads were, let’s call them, moral commitments, or something, that people weren’t actually articulating.
So let’s use the Rosa Parks one, because it’s easier, where what she was signaling is there are a lot of victims of call it discrimination or oppression who lived quietly with it, but despised it. And what they needed was the equivalent of a green light, by which their internal feeling of humiliation or outrage could be vocalized or turned into behavior. And her own bravery gave a green light to expression, what was inside a head. And I turned out that the number of people in whose heads that was, was really large. And at least white people didn’t know that. Probably African Americans generally did. But probably they had less awareness of the intensity and widespreadness of it than emerged after the green light was given. And I’m giving a case of a civil rights—you know, incomplete, but significant victory over the decades.
In the Hitler case it’s—you know, the valence is different, but it has something not so different where what Hitler was able to do was to be able to give a green light to, you know, antisemitism of the most horrific sort. And one reason he was able to succeed is that there was not a lot, I hope, in terms of percentages, but sufficiently significant in terms of percentages, people who harbored those feelings inside. And they were taboo. And Hitler said, bring it on. It’s OK. It’s actually valid. And that led in a very rapid time, you know, not a civil rights movement, but to a massive cultural shift.
And what the norm entrepreneur does is to identify a disconnect between people’s beliefs and actions and their actual statements and conduct. And once their beliefs and actions privately are revealed to be different from what their beliefs and actions publicly are, there’s an opening. There’s a wedge. And that has led to some of the greatest advances. They can be really small, but great, like politeness, or opening doors for people whose legs don’t work so good, or treating people with mental illness as people who are, you know, struggling with something that isn’t in kind different from what is recognized with a struggle which society should help with, like you’re blind or you can’t hear. And sometimes the norm entrepreneur signals that or something terrible can happen, because the human heart, as George Lucas, author of Star Wars movies knows, there’s a dark side and there’s a light side in all of us. And norm entrepreneurs can trigger one or the other.
BUSSEY: So this is tapping into something that you call falsified preferences, in your book, which is that we really don’t know what people are thinking. We think that we know, because we’re all kind of conforming to a conventional way of interacting. But they could be thinking something quite different. And this is kind of fertile turf for norm entrepreneurs to tap into and then change. In the case of Rosa Parks, she’s an example of a norm entrepreneur that was an unintended spark. She says she was just tired that day and she had had enough, and she took a seat on the—on the bus. In the case of—and looked what happened. In the case of Hitler, it was much more intended as a norm entrepreneur. So it could be either. It could be a norm entrepreneur that had no intention of being one.
SUNSTEIN: Completely. I love what you say about Rosa Parks, which is historically true, that she wasn’t intending to create a movement. And sometimes if you’re really tired or, you know, something, you just do what you think best.
BUSSEY: It’s the vegetable vendor in Tunisia, who kind of sparked the—sparked the Arab Spring.
SUNSTEIN: Yeah, completely. And so there are norm entrepreneurs, people who never make the history books, who are deliberately doing that. And they’re in New York, or Los Angeles, or Columbus, Ohio today, and they’re doing something which will lead to something major. Or there are people who are just saying, the norm, I don’t like it. And I’m not going to speak as if I do.
BUSSEY: We’re going to get into politics a bit more in your next session, but just to take the obvious detour here for a second, Donald Trump tapped into this in 2016.
SUNSTEIN: Yes. And his emphasis on political correctness is astute. So whether you think he’s—you know, you’re for him or against him, he’s onto something which is deep, which is that in people’s minds is often a sense that there is a norm which is crushing what they authentically think. And he’s truthful about political correctness, that it does have a free speech quelling feature. Political correctness of the left-wing sort. I’ll tell a little story which really got me able in my own head to put words on paper for this book. I was in a room. It had a lot of people in it. And one of whom was one of the world’s great athletes. He’s American. And I asked him a question I always wanted to ask one of world’s great athletes. There were about ten of us in the little group in this room of about three hundred.
And I said: Suppose it’s the end of the game, there are about two minutes left or less—and this guy’s sufficiently good so what I’m about to say isn’t hypothetical. I said, it’s all on you. The outcome’s all on you. Said, in that moment when everyone’s watching and it’s all on you, are you having fun? And he responded, absolutely. That’s what I was born for. I’ve been trained to do this. This is sport, this is sport at its most rich. You ask me if I’m having fun? Of course, I love it. That really surprised me, I confess. So about an hour and fifteen minutes later I found myself with him, very tall. And I said, can we just go in a corner for a minute? And I took him into the corner of the room.
And I said: Your answer—I didn’t expect that answer. Is that the truth? And he said, you want to know the truth? And I said, please. And he said, you asked me if I’m having fun in the last two minutes, where everything turns on my performance? No. (Laughter.) He said, I hate it. He said, don’t get me wrong. I’m good at it. I’m trained for it. And he’s famously great at it. He’s a terrific clutch performer. He said, no, it’s awful.
And I find—now I can write the book, because he was obeying a norm, which is a great athlete doesn’t hate performing under pressure. And notice, I’m respecting his trust in me because the reason he didn’t say it in the group of ten was he didn’t want it in the newspaper. It might have affected his salary negotiation. It certainly would have been a blow to his reputation. But the disjunction between what he would say publicly and privately, oh. And there’s work now with respect to Saudi Arabia, where Saudi—young Saudi men, if asked do they want their wives to work outside of the home they have until recently, maybe still, veto power. Young Saudi men say absolutely, that’s fine with me, that’s great. I would be just fine with my wife working outside of the home. And the data suggests the answer is more like I want them to work outside the home. We need the money.
But then they’re asked, what do other young Saudi men think? And they say, oh, the norm is—people like me, I’m isolated, I’m the only one. My friends, they don’t want their wives working outside the home. The norm is very negative. Now, here’s where things get cool. Half of the people in a very large group—half of the men were told, actually, you’re wrong about the norm. If you ask people privately the other young Saudi men agree with you. They think it’s fine. And in that population, several months later, the number of women applying for work and actually ending up outside—working outside of the home skyrocketed. It was—
BUSSEY: It’s now OK.
SUNSTEIN: It’s now OK, because they—it was revealed that the norm was consistent with their private beliefs. And that’s a story of equality rising in a situation in which men believed in it but didn’t think it was OK.
BUSSEY: Now other preferences take hold. Marital harmony, the wife wants to work outside, and the extra income. So is social—is social media speeding this process, this social change in general? Social change requires interaction, you were describing, you know, people communicating with each other, norm entrepreneurs, et cetera. And social media accelerates that interaction. Or does it do the reverse? Does it create insularity and a kind of an echo chamber of likemindedness that keeps social change from happening?
SUNSTEIN: It’s a fantastic question. And we see a lot of both. So you mentioned #MeToo. And its success was fueled by social media, where after Alyssa Milano said something #MeToo, she was the popularizer, 42 percent of American Facebook users had #MeToo on their page within twenty-four hours. It went wild. And that was a—she was acting as a norm entrepreneur, in that case deliberately, and she succeeded in giving the same kind of green light that the Saudi men had been given by the experimenters.
But it’s also the case that, let’s call it political correctness as a red light to expressing what you actually think is very much in play on social media, where if you find yourself in a group online of people who think X or Y or Z—it could be something about a product, it could be something about climate change, it could be something about something involving equality—to buck the group online is to risk ostracism. And that can be worse, not just ostracism but hatred and rage. And that can lead people to self-silence. And once you self-silence, it’s very hard not to start quieting that very voice in your own head that you’re no longer allowed to express publicly.
So what is unthinkable in the sense that within the group people don’t say that, can eventually become unthought. That’s the—sometimes the inspiring process. But more often, you know, dystopian science-fiction process, where’s what’s unthinkable, meaning socially sanctioned online, punished—sanction is one of those not-good words that means both itself and its opposite. So let’s just say punished—what’s punished online, sometimes among participants—and we’re seeing this every day—becomes like a little tiny voice in one’s head that one starts ignoring.
BUSSEY: You know, the—I get the sense in reading the book about, as much as we’d like to think that we’re progressing, that human beings are pretty malleable, kind of like clay. We can zig and we can zag, where social change is concerned. On the one hand, yeah, we have vaccines now for diseases and haven’t had a major war in, you know, seventy-five years, but that can—that can change pretty quickly. Or do you find that social change is progressive, that things get better?
SUNSTEIN: And so I have on my door in my office a quotation which I made into, like, a bumper sticker, which comes from Daniel Kahneman, who’s been here, who in an interview not long ago kept asking what he thought. And he kept saying he didn’t know. And the interviewer—this wasn’t a very good interview, he kept saying I don’t know. (Laughter.) The interviewer finally said, well, what do you think? And he said, it’s not a matter of thinking. It’s an empirical question. So I have on my door, “It’s not a matter of thinking. It’s an empirical question.” I originally made it as a bumper sticker, but I’m too scared to put it on my car because I think they’ll—I’ll get stopped, right? (Laughter.) What’s he doing?
BUSSEY: Stopped and frisked, maybe.
SUNSTEIN: Who is this guy? Stopped and frisked. What does that even mean? So the question whether there’s progress, I’m hearing Kahneman’s words in my mind. And a couple of thoughts. One, I think Steven Pinker convincingly shows that along multiple measures things are just getting better and better. So people are living longer, there’s less war, there’s less killing, there’s better health, et cetera. A lot if it’s through technological improvements, but a lot of it’s through let’s call it civilization in the large, where we see each other as fellow members of the species and don’t—(makes sound)—them as much as people did. So there’s that.
But I think your point is right that to see the arc of history as bending toward justice has complacency in it. And given the fact that there—you know, forget the reference to George Lucas, one of my heroes—but what makes Star Wars great, many of the things—one of the things that makes—one of the many things that makes it great is its alertness to the dark side of the human soul. And it’s connected with tribalism and with feelings inside of humiliation. And if those are triggered, then things can go very bad—especially, but not only, if people are facing economic or other woes. And in some parts of the world, we’re definitely seeing that.
BUSSEY: There is—and it comes through your book also—there is a kind of herd-like instinct to human beings. I mean three hundred thousand years of product development has kind of shown us to pays to stick with the group, that it’s safer from a survival standpoint. You don’t want to get, as you said earlier, ostracized. You don’t want to get thrown out of the cave. And that lends itself to manipulation.
SUNSTEIN: Let me tell you a little experiment I did in Colorado a few years ago. Not that long ago. I went to Boulder with colleagues and got a bunch of people who were screened—so we made sure they were left of center people. The reason we did that was only for purposes of the experiment. And we asked them privately what they thought about climate change, whether they thought there should be something like a Paris agreement, and how much they agreed with that. And then we had them deliberate as a group to a verdict. And then we recorded their views anonymously.
We did the same thing in Colorado Springs, which is right of center. And we screened them to make sure they were actually right of center. Here’s what happened. It’s exactly what you say. And I’ve seen the tapes. So you can see it happen in real time. Before people talk to each other, people in Boulder I’m going to put right—somewhat to my left on climate change. They wanted an agreement, but they showed some diversity there. And there were some people who weren’t sure an international agreement was a good idea. In Colorado Springs, I’m putting this somewhat to my right, they were not in favor, on average, of an international agreement, but some of them were. And they had varying degrees of concern about climate change. Meaning not they were all unconcerned.
After they talked to one another, the people in Boulder went, woosh, to the left. They became unified, confident, and extreme. The people in Colorado Springs after, oh, half an hour of conversation, reaching a verdict, in their anonymous statements of view post-deliberation, they went, woosh, to the right. They were thinking climate change is a hoax, an international agreement is a terrible idea, and they thought that basically unanimously. Before they talked just with one another, they were about this far apart. You know, significant, but not different universes. After they talked to each other, they were this far apart.
And you could see in real time one of the things that was happening, which is the people in Colorado Springs who thought, you know, I’m a little worried about climate change. It seems like it’s getting hot. They didn’t want to say that in front of a group whose majority would think that they were ridiculous, or traitors. And in Boulder, it was exactly parallel. There were some people you could see starting to say, how much is this agreement going to cost us and what are we going to get from it? But then they started looking around thinking, oh man, if I talk in those terms it’s going to be—the rest of the meeting isn’t going to go well for me.
And the idea is this is a tiny little experiment, but it’s happening, you know, in real time right now. Not like an hour from now, or an hour ago. It’s happening right now. We are either online or in private groups, people who are discussing any number of issues, like whether a product’s going to succeed, or whether on issue X some candidate has it right. It’s like the Boulder experiment.
BUSSEY: We’re going to come to your questions in just a minute. But a bit in this context, in the book you also studied what you call partyism. Very relevant to today’s world and the United States. Tell us what you—what you discovered.
SUNSTEIN: So what appears true is that a long some dimensions, automatic revulsion toward people of the opposing political party is crushing racism. In a way, that’s a great achievement, that racism is falling, according to what we can record. But if people are asked in—four years ago, what would you think if your child married a Republican. They’d say, great. That’s fine by me. You’d be a weirdo forty years ago who’d say that’s a problem. Now latest evidence we have, something like 35 percent of Democrat—Republicans would be very upset if their child married a Democrat, and about the same number of Democrats would be very upset if their child married a Republican. You don’t want your child to marry one.
And the numbers are increasingly dramatically over time. People will discriminate in their hiring choices. I’ll hire someone of the same political party as I am in, even if they’re less qualified than the other people, when they wouldn’t discriminate on the basis of sex or race. And I saw it in Washington where, you know, to identify yourself as a member of one or another party was to make someone’s face fall, if they were a different one. And that is recognizable, isn’t it? And it didn’t used to be like this. And in other countries in which this phenomenon has been studied, it hasn’t been picked up. It seems to be a distinctly American phenomenon. And I think it’s connected with the Boulder and Colorado Springs experiment. It makes productive action, let’s say on infrastructure, hard if you think that you’re maybe dealing with someone whom you’d be aghast at your child marrying.
BUSSEY: And it’s become that way because, why?
SUNSTEIN: Well, we don’t know exactly why. Social media seems to be a contributor. So your point about likeminded people living in echo chambers, that seems to have helped fuel it.
BUSSEY: And your choice of news channel.
SUNSTEIN: And your choice of news channel, where if you can select your communications universe, you can end up in a cocoon, like our Boulder experiment. You can end up—that’s how we live. And if you’re—my climate change experimental subjects, after their conversation, they were not liking their fellow citizens in Colorado Springs, who thought the opposite. They were thinking they were horrible people, whereas before they were thinking they had a disagreement.
And in campaigns it gets worse because of negative campaigning. And you can see this. By negative campaigning people become so sharply identified with the person they like that the opposing person is not just wrong or foolish but is some kind of demon. And whatever you think of politics today, think of this as a pervasive thing in politics over the last twelve years or so in the United States.
Can I tell you one thing that this makes me bullish on? This isn’t the happiest picture. Is that there are people working every day in the U.S. government in the Department of Transportation working on issues of highway safety, in the Department of Agriculture working on food safety, who—to try to figure out whether they’re a Democrat or Republican is really hard.
BUSSEY: Hard to do.
SUNSTEIN: And even to ask them, they tell you but they’d wonder why, and it wouldn’t be central to their self-understanding.
BUSSEY: You do end that chapter kind of on this attempt at optimism, where you say—and it’s spoken like a former bureaucrat, I got to say—that what we need to do is have more reliance on technocratic expertise, is the term you chose. And you had a very important role in the Obama administration in the Office of Regulation and kind of oversight. So that, to me, sounds like—technocratic expertise—that sounds to me like a reliance on what we do think moderates this polarization, which is the rule of law and institutions. You mentioned Agriculture Department, State Department, et cetera. And yet, I think what we’re seeing of late is that the rule of law and institutions in this country can be quite fragile.
SUNSTEIN: Yeah, OK. So here’s my association, as you talk. In the next twenty-four hours everyone in this room is going to benefit from an demonstrate norms of considerateness. With respect to strangers on the street, you will do things and be benefitted—I just noticed this, coming in from the train. That these people, you know, let me find my way with my bag, or held the door for me, or when I was talking on the phone were quiet. And I tried to do the same. And these norms of considerateness, from which we are mutually gaining, are so part of the fabric of the day that we don’t even notice we’re doing them.
And governance can be like this too, yeah? Certainly workplace life, families. But if they—if they start to collapse, then there’s a big problem. And if the—you know, there’s no banner that says technocracy now, or if there were that would be a norm violation. (Laughter.) OK, I got to make a bumper sticker to that effect and put it in my closet so even I can’t find it. (Laughs.) But if the—and basically, I think the picture in our government, for all the, you know, challenges, it’s by world historical standards fantastically good. We can eat food or drink water, and the chance that it is clean is very high, and safe.
The likelihood—five thousand Americans die in workplace accidents. That’s much too many. But considering the size of our country, that’s a great achievement. And part of it is the private sector working really hard to make sure people don’t get hurt. Part of it is spreading best practices. Part of it is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and state equivalents. But when norms are shaken, either individual life or, you know, at a company, or in government, then there’s hell to pay. Either restoration of a new norm, or some sort of law instead of a norm, that’s what’s needed.
BUSSEY: Let’s go to your questions. And if I can just remind you, it’s on the record. If you could tell us who you are, and if you could keep your questions short so we can get to as many of you as possible.
Bob Hormats, right here in the front.
Q: Thanks very much.
BUSSEY: We’re going to get a microphone to you.
Q: Thanks very much. We had the—I enjoyed very much our association in the Obama administration. And I’m glad you’re writing and thinking about this.
On question, particularly on the current political environment that troubles me, and I suspect it troubles you and many in the room, is the salience of the issue, not simply of race—which is a deep, traditional issue in this country, and still not one fully resolved—but to broaden that, the us versus them, the sort of xenophobic, anti-immigrant, particularly anti-immigrants of color, different nationalities, different races. How—most people probably, at least in parts of the country we travel in, would on the face of it say, oh no, we won’t pay any attention to that. So the question is, in general how deeply held are those kinds of things, that have come up in American politics, particularly in the current administration? And how regional is it? Because if you go to the tribal issue that John mentioned, you can—the tribal views on some of these things might be different in the tribes seated around this room and an equivalent group in, say, Des Moines, or some other part of the country. So I’m interested if you could sort of dig deep. How deep is this problem, or how pervasive is it, and how regional is it?
SUNSTEIN: Yeah, I’ll give you the only data I have, and then I’ll speculate a little bit.
SUNSTEIN: So here’s the only data I have. There was a study done relatively recently in which people were asked: Do you want to give to a xenophobic organization, an anti-immigrant organization? And they were given an opportunity to do it anonymously or in a way that was publicly knowable. And these were large groups of people, so it was a randomized experiment. And not amazingly, a lot more people would give anonymously than would give—would give publicly. There was a very significant disparity, which suggests it’s like my athlete. That people wouldn’t want people to know.
Then, and here’s where things get interesting, people were reminded that Trump is the president. Just as a part of the—a different version of the experiment. They were just told, you know, that President Trump is the president. Then the difference between the anonymous and the public disappeared, went to zero, because people thought: It’s OK. I’m not going to get in trouble. The president is basically broadly in my corner on these issues. This was not geographical, but it does—this was—as I recall, this wasn’t geographically—didn’t tell us a lot about the geographic distribution. But it did show there are a number of people who privately harbor anti-immigrant sentiments who were willing to give voice to them only if they know it’s OK socially.
I have a different hunch, though, broadly—and this is speculative—which is that in the average American’s mental orbit on a given day, anti-immigrant sentiment is not swirling around. It’s like, how’s my kid doing? How’s my job going? How are my parents? You know, do I have anyone to date? That sort of thing. Not immigrants, immigrants, immigrants. So the idea here, which is a great question and suggests something we haven’t explored yet, is sometimes social change happens when some people are being given a license to say what’s in their heads. But sometimes there’s a transformation where something is made salient or activated, which wasn’t there before.
And if you look at issues involving, let’s say, sex equality, at least among a lot of men, probably a lot of women over the years, it wasn’t like some thing suppressed came out, it was just there was a transformation in people’s understanding of what society should look like. And I think that immigrants—a lot of it has been a norm entrepreneur who hasn’t given the green light to people to say what they secretly thought, but who said: You should be worried about this. And given the—you know, the way the human mind works, if you have stories of violence or of job displacement, you can activate people.
Now, whether people—I want to be very careful not to say that people in some parts of the union are more easily activated than people in other parts of the union, because I think anything I would say, A, would have a high chance of being wrong and, B, have a very high chance of playing to a stereotype that wouldn’t be very nice to play to. So I’m going to be careful about that.
BUSSEY: So it can be inculcated.
Yes, right here in the back. Yes, you. Can we get a microphone right here? Just a reminder, tell us who you are who you’re with.
Q: Maryum Saifee, I’m a CFR term member.
What role do you think honor and privilege plays in the ability of the norm entrepreneur to succeed? And I’m specifically thinking in the discussions around #MeToo, there was no mention of Tarana Burke, who started it over a decade ago. And when you talked about Rosa Parks, she was characterized as tired, and in her own autobiography she states that she wasn’t, you know, tired or old. She was forty-two years old. And in fact she—it was very strategic. She was a seasoned activist. So I guess my question is sort of these other structural—if you could overlay an intersectional analysis.
SUNSTEIN: OK. I should say—
BUSSEY: Different history.
SUNSTEIN: I should say about Rosa Parks, I’m not expert on her psychological state. So take this as a placeholder for two different types: People who say I’ve had enough and people who are deliberately trying to engineer something. And they’re both really interesting. I’m not sure what you mean by honor and privilege. So this is just a semantic question.
Q: (Off mic)—that #MeToo really took off at a viral state, whereas Tarana Burke, who is African American, who started it over a decade ago, it just didn’t pick up. So that’s the—that’s the term.
SUNSTEIN: OK. So I hear you. So what kind of activist ends up having what kind of impact turns on a thousand and one different things. And it might be that there’s a benefit by being, you know, white or male or not. So in some domains, the fact that a person is, let’s say, relatively poor and a person of color is a comparative advantage for being a norm entrepreneur, because there’s a signal of something that is accompanied by those characteristics. If you’re a famous actor or actress, then you have a megaphone. And it might be that Taylor Swift, who’s one of my favorites, she’s white and female and, gosh, does she have a megaphone. So I’m puzzling now that—OK, I’ll tell you my kind of—my general understanding of social life.
That there’s a lot more serendipity than the human mind naturally sees. So whether it’s Alyssa Milano, or Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, or Robert Kennedy, there’s a lot of serendipity in who goes where and when, and how becomes that. So that’s my kind of pathetically incomplete answer.
BUSSEY: Right here in the front. Then I’ll come to you in the back—I’ll come to you next.
Q: Philip Ellison (sp), Grapevine Development (sp).
Professor Sunstein, you know, there is a—there is a—given the American system of representative democracy and the, you know, versus majoritarianism, and given the innumerate individual rights of the Constitution—not just the first ten amendments but, you know, through the entire document—there seems to be a trend, I think maybe you put your finger on it, about, you know, a kind of a conformity, that we’re kind of almost reliving the 1950s, that there is a conformity being demanded by social norms, whether you’re in a blue state or a red state, and those groups that you point out in Colorado. I’m curious of any of that conformity, and again the whole debate about the electoral college and everything else, and majority rules and all of those things—if we’re in danger of endangering those human rights in the Constitution by criminalizing—not literally, but in some cases literally—criminalizing deviations from social norms.
SUNSTEIN: OK. The particular thing that I think you’re putting your finger on is probably best described as tribalism. And here’s a funny experiment, which takes an assortment of political issues. They’re not extremely familiar, in the sense that people wouldn’t know, you know, it’s guns. Where if it’s gun control you might know what you think given your beliefs or your tribal affiliation. It’s more like nanotechnology, or something. And in the experiment, people were sorted into—without knowing—they were sorted into groups where they could see online what other people thought. And they could see the political affiliation of the people who were their large, online group. So they could see on nanotechnology, oh, most Republicans like it, or more Democrats like it.
And the basic upshot is that in online opinion, people could be shifted very dramatically. Republicans could all go yay and Democrats could all go boo, or the opposite, depending on whether the initial Democrats or the initial Republicans seemed to go yay or boo. Meaning, you could establish an equilibrium where nanotechnology was something Republicans loved and Democrats hated, or vice versa, depending on who initially seemed to like it. You got the craziness of this? And I think we’re observing that in real time, where at least on a wide assortment of issues what Republicans and Democrats like is a reflection of what prominent early movers seem to like. Not all issues, but a lot of issues. Immigration is probably one, yes?
OK, so on the Bill of Rights, I’m struggling a little bit on that because I’m thinking about literal violations of the Bill of Rights—religious liberty, freedom of speech, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, the due process clause, protections again taking of private property without just compensation. And I’m pondering what you have exactly in mind with criminalization that offends one of those things. So I guess I’m pleased to say my mind is drawing a bit of a blank, which is not ordinarily a pleasant emotional state to be in. (Laughter.) But on this one—so where do you have in mind where criminalization is offending one of the—
Q: I guess—I guess I’m thinking really of, you know, free speech questions. You know, I mean, there are many others that would be related. I mean, of course if you violate a free speech or a public norm, you know, in terms of your speech, we now seem to be in a place where a lot of things have become actual criminal offenses. You know—
SUNSTEIN: Such as?
Q: Well, in New York City now it’s a crime to make a comment on someone’s hairstyle. You know, it’s—
SUNSTEIN: Given my state, I have some sympathy for that. (Laughter.)
Q: You know, I mean, but these are things that, you know, of course they probably aren’t going to be enforced very heavily, but—and I think there are a couple of cases pending in the—kind of waiting the Supreme Court’s action on free speech grounds. But that’s maybe just the tipping point, where speech—and then, of course, taking one’s property because of things you’ve said or done in public. You know, I’m just curious that we do seem to be taking things very literally and criminalizing a lot of behaviors that used to be left to the individual or his or her group to enforce.
SUNSTEIN: OK, I agree with the values you’re expressing. In fact, I think the values you’re expressing, if anything’s bedrock for a democracy it’s what he said. But I’m not thinking that it’s much at risk. So the Supreme Court, so far as I’m aware, has no cases—this might just be a gap in my knowledge—but no cases where this sort of thing is there. I hope we don’t get there. One area where I think we are doesn’t involve criminalization, but involves norms, where people are afraid to say things that may be a very important part of public discussion or may be a legitimate part of public discussion, even if it’s rightly viewed as abhorrent.
BUSSEY: Speakers getting shut down on campuses.
SUNSTEIN: Completely. And you know, at some universities, like the one I’m lucky enough to teach at, there are students with certain political views who are silencing themselves because they think it’s not acceptable. And I’m thinking of people who are on the conservative side. And that’s—it doesn’t matter really. That’s not—that’s antithetical for your reason. So it might be that in terms of the real world of freedom of speech—and I saw this in the Boulder and Colorado Springs tapes. People were being silenced not because other people were saying, if you say that I’m going to hate you, but because there was a fear of that, and because people didn’t want to incur that. So to create a culture of receptivity to either individual participants in the discussion or people who are in leadership roles is completely essential.
And so I’m working myself up very much in your direction, that both, you know, in Colorado Springs and Boulder, let’s have them placeholders for left and right, there are aggressive norms that make it so the professional athlete and equivalents will say I’m having a great—a lot of time here with one minute to go and it’s all on my shoulders.
BUSSEY: Way in the back there, yes. In the pink.
Q: Mary Lake Polan, Yale University.
I think your experiment in Colorado is very intriguing. But let’s push that one step farther. Let’s take that to a hypothetical Democrat and Republican rally before you go to vote. What happens when people go into a voting booth privately? Do they behave the way your tall perhaps basketball athlete did, and they say what they believe? Or do they adhere to the herd instinct? And do you have data on that?
SUNSTEIN: I don’t. It’s a great question. So let me talk around it a little bit and just give you a change-related data point, which doesn’t answer your question but is relevant to it. You may know about this, work done on China’s—the Chinese government’s relationship to its own social media uncovers what, to me, is a big surprise, which at least up until recently, and I have no reason to believe this isn’t still the case, there’s a lot of dissent on social media in China. And the government doesn’t do anything about it, in the sense of censoring. So if people go on social media and Twitter and say negative things about the government, what the government will typically do is flood the system with positive things, saying, you know, things are going great here along just the dimension along which people are dissenting, but will not take down or suppress the dissenter.
But contrast, if someone says, we’re having a meeting on this street in Beijing on Thursday at 4:00 in the afternoon please come, that is taken down and the person who puts that up is at risk. I think there’s acuteness in this behavior, that what the person who says we’re meeting at 4:00 on this road, they’re creating the Boulder experiment. They’re creating a group of people. And that’s dangerous. That can stir up confident, unity, and relative extremism. And the government’s nervous about that. And in terms of the anonymous voting behavior, the trick in our—in our Colorado experiment is that what my co-authors, I think, were principally interested in is what’s the verdict? How does the verdict compare—the verdict compare to the anonymous views they stated before they speak. And the verdict is consistent with what was just described, and that is the verdict is unified and extreme compared to the anonymous statements.
But what I was interested in was the anonymous statements after the verdict. The anonymous statements are extreme and unified. They track the verdict. So people go in the group, they adhere to the group, and then anonymously under conditions where their privacy is guaranteed, they’re with the group. Now, what’s going on there? I think it’s either that they’ve actually been persuaded or it’s that having been part of a process—let’s say it’s a rally—where you get all excited one way or another by people like you, then to go privately in the voting booth and do something else, you feel like a creep or an idiot. So our little experiment kind of tracked anonymous voting. And it found that what people ended up with publicly in terms of their consensus with the group is almost exactly where they were privately afterwards. So that’s the hunch.
Q: How unfortunate.
SUNSTEIN: (Laughs.) It is. Though, you know, consistent with Kahneman’s precept, you want to think of it as an empirical question. And it can be good if people are in an inspiring rally, let’s say, and they’re convinced that the direction of the candidate, it’s great. I worked on the Obama campaign in 2008, and I saw that. And I confess, I’m a—you know, I like President Obama. And whichever candidate you like, Republican or Democrat, there can be learning and consensus. And so it’s not only a negative.
BUSSEY: Question right over here.
Q: Hi. Rich Engel, MSNBC. Hi, Cass. How are you? Congratulations on the book.
You talked about norms of considerateness, like someone opening the door for you if you have a big. That’s wonderful. I wouldn’t legislation that that has to be done. That’s a norm that’s acceptable. But one of the things we’re finding, I believe, in the current administration is that things that were considered norms, like the president of the United States doesn’t interfere in a Justice Department investigation, maybe it shouldn’t just be a norm. Maybe it should be a statute. What are norms in government? And in your old job in government you were looking at regulation. What are things that are norms in government that now you think, wow, those should be laws, and should be protected.
SUNSTEIN: Right. So it’s a fantastic question. And you know, you could be a(n) enthusiastic supporter of the president and be extremely nervous about a President Sanders, and have exactly the question you’re asking, where it might involve exercise of presidential power or it might involve socialism, or something. And the question would be nonpartisanly insistent. So unless I dreamed it, I think I have an op-ed in the New York Times that went up two hours ago—(laughter)—that’s right on your question. And it supports a position that I would have thought preposterous as recently as eight months ago. And it’s right on what you say.
So I’ll tell you the proposition I would have thought preposterous, which is that the Department of Justice should be an independent agency like the Federal Reserve Board or the Federal Communications Commission. And let me talk a little bit about the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Communications Commission. They’ve long been independent of the president. And Democrats and Republicans and independents have all agreed on that as a broad principle, even if they thought the Fed and the Federal Communications Commission are terrible. On the ground that for the president to undersee an agency that’s deciding who gets licenses, you know, TV and radio, there’s—even if the risk of politicization is low, it’s intolerable. So the FCC gets to be an independent agency. The Federal Reserve Board, Democrat or Republican president has a high temptation in an election year to juice the economy and lower the interest rate. So it’s an independent agency. And seems to be general agreement.
Now, let’s think about the Department of Justice. It has the authority both to undertake and to refuse to undertake criminal prosecutions. Probably the cautious word would be that’s awesome power. The better word is it’s terrifying power. Anyone in this room could be subject to an investigation which could run your wallet, or possibly an indictment which could, you know, for a time, or maybe longer, ruin your life. And the Justice Department gets to do that. Now, if there’s a president, you know, of any political party who gets in his or her mind, you know, we got to do something about this once, then our country’s transformed. Or, if the president maybe once or twice says, we’re not going to go after our friends, then the incentive to be a friend is skyrocketing. And, yes, for both friends and enemies.
And that suggests that the argument in principle for making the Department of Justice independent of the president—and this was something that’s been thought of at times by both Democratic and Republican presidents. President Carter considered this very seriously and after the Watergate affair both Democrats and Republicans were thinking about this. Now, if you have a norm in place that is very robust, that says there won’t be political interference—I’ll tell you something from my own experience, shall I? Which is that I was privileged to oversee regulation.
There was one time when a member of the Cabinet said: You know, you should consider issuing this regulation because it’s in the president’s political interest. It was on a phone call. And I said to the Cabinet members, you and I have never discussed politics in terms of issuing regulations, and please let’s not start now. And the Cabinet head laughed and said, you’re absolutely right. The Cabinet head was violating a taboo, which you don’t issue a regulation involving the environment, or food, of occupational safety because you’re going to swing a state to the president. And I can’t tell you how horrifying that thought is to me. You can’t do that. And if the government were doing things like that, let’s say on a regular basis, then there needs to be institutional change because the norm collapsed.
Which is a long way of saying that the—for a law professor, the radical and crazy idea of putting some distance between any president and the law enforcement agency of the federal government, it has logic. And it’s not unfamiliar. In the states, the attorney general is not dischargeable at the will of the governor. And if it were suggested the attorney general should be in multiple states dischargeable at the will of the governor, there’d be an uprising. People would say, what? The attorney general has a duty to the rule of law. And even governors, you know, welcome—accept, or welcome, or celebrate that. Saying, don’t put that on me. Then you put me in a terrible position.
So you’re making a deep point. And to think of the long term rather than, you know, President Sanders, President Trump, President Obama, President Bush. That gives us a veil of ignorance behind which we can maybe make institutional changes that are suited to norms which aren’t as robust as maybe a certain space and time suggests.
BUSSEY: Ending on a positive note, relying on the rule of law and technocratic expertise to moderate our impulses. Cass Sunstein, thank you very much. (Applause.)
KARABELL: So welcome to the second part of our symposium. Cass Sunstein’s always a hard act to follow, but there are four of us and one of him so hopefully that will be at least additive. That’s your cue to titter politely. (Laughter.)
So the same Robert’s Rules of Order pertain as the first. This meeting is on the record. So whatever you were thinking of saying off the record about behavioral economics and partisanship, don’t. We will do—have about half the time for questions at the end, and there will be a microphone. And I’ll repeat this, but it’s the same rules that it always is.
My name is Zachary Karabell. I am a Council member and have done this occasionally. And while I am not either a behavioral economics professor, academic, scholar, nor am I well-versed in game theory, in terms of the partisanship and political participation I have one thing to add to this discussion preemptively. And that is for the past year or so I have been a semi-regular on an hourlong show two to three times a week—usually two—on Fox Business News where I, in many respects, play the designated liberal.
Now, how many of you have seen me on Fox Business News? Raise your hands. So—(laughter)—I am sure that I could be on the Home Shopping Network for years and get more recognition amongst my cohort in either New York or California or Boston than I do on Fox Business. I have actually yet to meet a human being who has seen me of Fox Business News. (Laughter.) But I am frequently recognized by security guards, who demographically tend to be male, and tend to be over the age of fifty, and may or may not have a college degree. And I can assure you that very few of them are watching Rick Stengel or Cass on CNN or MSNBC. And this is simply by way of illustrating both my latent and unrequited narcissism, but—(laughter)—the degree to which we are, indeed, in these incredibly sort of filtered partisan ecosystems where there is very little interchange from one to the other and almost no overlap from what I can tell. And I would certainly be guilty as charged. I would not watch Fox Business News were I—were I not on it.
So I only use that as an illustration of, you know, this is a very current reality of the worlds we live in, where there is almost no interplay. And I think it’s more in the bailiwick of our three very distinguished and kind of fascinating individuals to talk more about what the ramifications are of that, both at a practical level but also more at a theoretical and economics level.
So to my immediate right, in no particular order—I mean, I assume most of them are probably to my immediate left—(laughter)—that Josh Martin is the director of Ideas42, which is a massive economics think tank in Cambridge up in—
MARTIN: I’m based in Cambridge but we have an office—our main office is downtown in the financial district.
KARABELL: OK. So it’s all over. Josh has a master’s degree from Harvard, from the Kennedy School, and he at Ideas42 works on the application of behavioral science to policy changes and international governance. He’s been an adviser to the government of Cote d’Ivoire, and has been apprentice in the World Bank and a whole bunch of other places, and I think bridges both academia and then the application of this.
To his right is—I’m sorry I have to read these, but I also want to get it right—to his right is Yanna Krupnikov, who’s an associate professor at Stony Brook University in the Department of Political Science. And she brings together political science and psychology, has conducted a series of research on gender and the political process, and is the co-author of Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction.
And Leyla Karakas, at the end, is an assistant professor of economics at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship, and has done a lot on game theory, and has been teaching courses on microeconomics and game theory to both graduates and undergraduates at Syracuse for the past six to seven years.
So we’re going to start with Leyla, who hopefully can frame this a little bit in terms of the ways in which people’s identity and behavior—and we’re going to do this a little bit with Yanna as well—both shapes their actions politically and maybe some of the theoretical framework for that, and then maybe a little bit of the empirical.
KARAKAS: Sure. So I’m an applied theorist, which means where I come from is constructing a theoretical framework for thinking through these issues of identity and how it affects voting behavior and ultimately policy.
So how we have traditionally thought about policy is a candidate offers you a dollar, a dollar is a dollar, so you don’t really care who it—where it comes from. But then there is considerable evidence that people are evaluating either economic or political events through the lens of their identities, whether it’s a cultural identity or a partisan identity, social identity. So when you think about it in terms of policies that are not just objectively pocketbook issues but that also have identity issues embedded in them, a dollar is not necessarily always a dollar for you.
So, for instance, there is evidence that right before the election the—and right after the most recent, 2016, election, how Republicans evaluated the economy changed within two days based on who was the winner of the election. Nothing fundamental had changed on the ground, but just based on who was in—who was elected, they started answering these questions in a more positive way.
So one behavioral theory that we observe on the ground is this idea that voters or people in general tend to either over-reward or under-punish people that they share a group identity with. So, for instance, if I share some sort of identity, whether it’s a political one or a—or a social one, with somebody, well, then I’m more likely to cut slack to them when I see an infringement on their part or I’m more likely to over-reward them when I see that they’ve done something good.
Well, what that comes down to is that the issues of identity and policy are no longer separable. So in our theoretical frameworks we would always think, OK, there are two candidates, they have certain fixed characteristics that we care about—age, gender, wealth, whatever that may be—that they cannot really change; that’s what defines them. And at the same time, we assume that politicians want to get elected—shocker—and that strategically they choose policies to reach that goal. But then, when identity and policy issues are so embedded as a result of such behavioral voting patterns, what you see is that these two—the identity and the policy dimensions are no longer separable.
Well, then this over-rewarding and under-punishing of your—of your—of the people that you share a group identity with has policy implications because the candidates who observe these dynamics on the ground will not just observe these and say, well, that’s great; they take actions accordingly. And what that means is that if you are, let’s say, a conservative politician and let’s say the issue is one of immigration—I’m giving the example of immigration because it’s a typical example of an issue that has pocketbook as well as cultural implications—if you—if you are crafting a policy on immigration and you realize there’s this identity politics happening around this issue, well then you have this incentive to ride this wave that your tribal supporters are giving you—that if your electoral concerns make you lean on a more liberal—on a relatively more open-borders policy to the status quo, then you know that you can do that in the comfort that your tribal supporters are going to cut you more slack, and at the same time you won’t necessarily—you will be more closer to the—you will be closer to the liberal supporters so that won’t be that much of a problem either. So there are policy implications.
But at the same time, the other—the liberal candidate is also going to be engaging in similar calculations. And the fact that the identity and the policy issues are no longer separable will imply that there will be divergence in terms of the policies that these two candidates put forth and, should they get elected, implement. And the stronger the forces of these—of these behavioral voting—identity-politics-based behavioral voting is, the stronger the polarization between the candidates that we see on the ground will be.
KARABELL: Great. So, Yanna, I’m wondering if you could also talk about—in addition to your own observations about this alignment between identity formation and then political behavior, we haven’t talked as much about the role of gender in all of this, which, you know, doesn’t follow the same or at least doesn’t observably follow the same partisan divides that animate the topline discussion right now. But maybe there, you know, you have some observations on that, too, because it’s not something that is, at least in this country, played to directly. It may be played to sotto voce and sub rosa. So perhaps elaborate a bit on that, too, because I know that’s been a central part of your work.
KRUPNIKOV: Yeah. So I think one of the things that often happens with political participation is that we talk about gaps, right, and we talk about gaps between Democrats and Republicans. What we talk about much more rarely is gaps in interest, and we actually often don’t talk about gaps in whose voices actually get heard and whose voices become meaningful in the political process.
What we see now when we spend so much time on talking about polarization between Democrats and Republicans is this idea that people who really dislike the other side are incredibly loud. They’re everywhere. We just—in this last session we talked a whole bunch about these people. The problem becomes that there is a whole other group of people.
I was actually just fortunate enough to be part of the largest-ever survey of nonvoters conducted by the Knight Foundation. These nonvoters feel profoundly disengaged from the political process. They feel that their whole communities are disengaged from the political process and that their voices aren’t entirely meaningful. We focus on the people who are incredibly angry, but we’re losing out large groups of people who don’t necessarily have the privilege to participate. And I think that’s what this survey shows.
One of the striking things about the survey is, to return to this idea of the role of women, women are profoundly more affected, for example, by being a single mother. They are exiting out of the political process, out of political participation, simply because they don’t have the privilege or the time to spend their days really paying attention to news every kind of second of the day.
Another point to this is this fascinating research recently conducted by Eitan Hersh, who’s a political scientist. What his research demonstrates is that often the voices of the people who are incredibly loud are people who are really focused on national politics, right? They’re on Twitter, and anytime the president makes a typo they connect that typo to, like, the downfall of all the governments, right? So “covfefe” is—basically can be the end of the world. (Laughter.) Right? And so they’re there. They’re present. We hear these voices.
But at the same time there are a lot of things happening in very local communities that these people tend to ignore. It’s, obviously, incredibly important to focus on what’s happening at the national level, but there’s so much happening in our local communities.
So who is participating in the local communities? Who is actually doing the grassroots work? Hersh’s work finds that most of the voices we hear on social media, and quite loudly, are the voices of white men. But when we turn to local on-the-ground communities, much of the kind of groundwork, a lot of the community action, is being done by women of color. And I think that’s a really sort of fascinating take on political participation.
We spend a lot of time talking about people who really hate each other even though a lot of research suggests they are a minority, whereas the majority is people who feel wildly disengaged by these two parties basically screaming at each other who are then left in their communities to try to conduct a lot of political work that gets very little notice. And so I think thinking about that, thinking about those types of gaps, is something that’s actually really important for both American politics and for political participation at large.
KARABELL: And is there any evidence or is there any work where you can compare these shifts over time? Or is it—it gets harder and harder the further back you go, obviously.
KRUPNIKOV: So there is—research has been done on what people and political science have termed the nationalization of politics, where people used to kind of focus on their local communities and suddenly what politics is—especially for people who are highly educated and have high levels of income—has become very nationalized. These groups have often stopped paying attention to what’s happening locally and have instead turned their gaze toward national politics. This research demonstrates that over time partisan divides have become freely nationalized, whereas even kind of really engaged and very knowledgeable people no longer know what’s happening basically in their own backyards.
KARABELL: I mean—and I know we’ll get to Josh—it is an interesting question about whether or not they’ve changed over time in a relative sense to an earlier set point, you know, to like a 1950s or a period where we perceive there have been less to it as opposed to the 1850s, where there probably was a lot of nationalization—
KARABELL: —of local politics onto a national scale. I mean, is there a way to get at that at all?
KRUPNIKOV: Well, a little-known fact, 1850s were not a great time for surveys.
KARABELL: Yeah. (Laughter.)
KRUPNIKOV: But since we’ve gotten kind of—have robust surveys, which was about the late ’40s, we have seen this change basically emerge.
KARABELL: Well, funny you should mention that because Josh, who is more of a practitioner and is always looking for, you know, interesting, compelling research projects for Ideas42, maybe we can do something about that 1850s survey gap—(laughter)—going into the future.
It’s funny, you know, for—
KARABELL: —my entire life people have called me “Josh” when they didn’t know that my name was Zachary, so I feel—I feel somewhat akin. (Laughter.) Including people who actually haven’t met me. So it’s—I feel like—anyway. (Laughter.)
On the practitioner question, and how does one bridge that gap? What do you do with a good bit of both theoretical knowledge about the implications of partisanship and doing some fieldwork in psychology and political science and economics, and problem-solving on the ground? Is there a way to marry these things? And how does one do so?
MARTIN: Great. Well, I mean, so first of all just a little bit about our role in all of this. So Ideas42 sits in between academia and practice. Our job is to try to take some of the insights that you just heard from Leyla and Yanna, and take those and try to instrumentalize them and use them to really dramatically improve public-good provision and services, including voting behavior and the ways in which democracies work. And although we must—we should say a lot of the insights you heard from Cass earlier on represent really the leading edge of the field in the way that behavioral science is thinking about these issues. Behavioral science as a discipline really cut its teeth on much more cut-and-dry areas in which you have lots of data to work with like financial health and education, et cetera. So we’re talking here a little bit at the—at sort of the edge of what we can imagine in terms of policies that can be implemented to make measurable differences in some of these phenomena.
But I mean, I would just say I think one helpful bifurcation of what we’ve been talking about so far may be that when you think about any action that we’re all—that any of us take, it really separates into forming an intention to take that action and then actually following through and taking it. And so maybe one thing that I can contribute to here is to take the intention piece that Leyla and Yanna have already spoken to a little bit and talk about how people—all of us, in fact, translate our political intentions into real, concrete actions that we then take, and how those get interpreted by society.
So if you think about voting behavior as one of those, you know, you may be the most committed supporter of a particular candidate in the country, but that doesn’t say much to me about your propensity to actually go and do something about that. So you can be outraged on social media, you can—you can have your identity be activated in various ways, and you can get really involved in the discourse, but does that mean you’re going to vote? And you know, one thing we know about campuses, for instance, at the university level, is that there’s lots of outrage and there’s lots of protest, but there’s very little voting that actually happens on university campuses. And so what accounts for that differential?
And it’s actually—you know, it’s puzzling in a way, but it’s actually not that puzzling when we think of all of our daily lives. I mean, we all go to bed at night setting an alarm clock for the morning, those of us that have early-morning meetings to get to. You know, I get up at five because I have calls—(laughs)—in various countries that are far ahead in the time zones. And so, you know—and what I do is I set my alarm, not right next to my bed but I set it on the table on the other side of the room. Why do I do that? Because I’m making a statement about—I’m making an admission, really, to myself about the ability of my future self, the self that next morning, to follow through on the intention that I have the night before, and I know I’m going to be in a weakened and depleted state, and I’m not going to be able—I’m going to have a tough time counteracting that intention.
So there’s been some interesting research in the voting world about how you get people to, essentially, set an alarm clock for themselves to go and follow through on this political intention that they have. Todd Rogers, who’s at Harvard, has done some of the most influential work in this space, where if you—his experiments are around getting people to fill out a little card that just says where are you going to vote, what time are you going to vote, and, critically, how are you going to get from your house to the place where you’re going to vote. Are you going to take the bus? Are you going to drive? Is a friend going to drive you? Because having—simply having thought through those steps ends up being quite an influential determinant of whether you then go and execute them.
Now, that was several years ago. Political campaigns have caught on to this, unsurprisingly, and are now doing this on a large scale. But you know, one point I want to make—because you—because you ask about how do we—how do we instrumentalize this, how do we operationalize this in the real world—one of the key principles here is testing and iterating, because you never actually know what works until you try it out and until you measure whether it works or not using some sort of rigorous method for doing so. And so even though everyone is now using these little cards that get you to articulate what your intention is and how you’re going to execute it, we’ve stopped testing it.
And so there’s—there are new things that we can do. And political parties are actually good at renewing the science around this and continuing to experiment, but they’re not always able to do it on their own. And one technique that I—one of my former colleagues at Ideas42 is now out there evangelizing is this idea of vote tripling, which is not just getting an individual, like all of us, to commit to voting in a particular way or at a particular place, but getting you to commit to bringing three of your friends to do so as well because that ends up being quite a powerful way of improving voter turnout. And so new techniques like this are coming out more and more, and being tested more and more, and we’re learning more and more about how to turn the intention that we can create into action.
Just wanted to mention a couple more things. I mean, I think this applies not just for voting, but for political behavior on other levels. You know, we began looking several years ago into the science around implicit bias, which has been in the news quite a lot when it comes to the racial discrimination, in particular, in police forces. There is very little, if any evidence—and if it’s—and if there is, it’s very recent—that you can meaningfully shift people’s implicit bias and have it impact their behavior at all. So you can make somebody less implicitly biased, less racist or less discriminatory, in a lab for periods of minutes or days. You can have that extend maybe over a week in their regular lives when you take a survey and measure their follow-up propensity to express these characteristics. But you can’t make that influence something that they actually do on a systematic level. It’s been very difficult to demonstrate that.
Go ahead, yeah.
KARABELL: I want to ask you on that, and Leyla as well, because some of the—the game theory part of this. We all assume that people are highly manipulatable, whether it’s on social media—you know, part of our contemporary climate I think rests on a fear/assumption that individuals can, in marionette fashion, be channeled to behave in certain ways. Is that true?
MARTIN: So I would rephase it a little differently. So I don’t think that we are all simply leaves floating in the wind and that we can—we can—we’re just pushed whatever direction, you know, we want to be if somebody knows enough about how to do that. I think the terms that we use, at least within the applied discipline of behavioral science, is—in fact, it is a term from Daniel Kahneman that Cass also mentioned, the Nobel Prize winner of 2002 in economics, first psychologist to ever win the Nobel Prize in economics—which is “bounded rationality.” So it’s this idea not that humans are irrational, or unpredictable, or infinitely maneuverable or influenceable, but that they seek to be rational and do succeed most of the time in being rational, but that if we know something about the context in which they make certain decisions and take certain actions we can predict how they will behave as a result of changes to the context.
And so some of the ways that Leyla and Yanna mentioned are good examples of that. If you make someone’s identity salient at a particular moment—for instance, African American children in secondary schools, some of Geoff Cohen’s research at Stanford—if you—if you make their identity salient right before they take a test, they’re likely to do worse on that text because of the stereotypes and mental models that exist.
KARABELL: Do you—I mean, Leyla, what’s your take on this?
KARAKAS: Well, what I—as was said in the previous session, it is an empirical question and I don’t know the answer, whether people are actually manipulatable or not. But what I can say is that if it’s relatively a low-cost thing to do, that certain candidates will have the incentive to do that, and therefore will try it. So if pushing certain buttons will help them either mobilize their base or get some voters to swing to their side, then they will certainly try that using whatever means possible, whether that’s social media or grassroots organizations. And what that ends up doing is that when the identity-based part of your—of how you decide who to vote for gets amplified. That crowds out other parts of your—of things that you care about that are perhaps more fundamental.
So there is this idea that people are voting against their economic interests when identity-based issues take center stage in politics. It’s difficult for me to say that anybody would do anything against their own interest, but what I can say is that that interest has certain parts, and what those actions lead to is a distortion in how people perceive which parts matter more or less. And ultimately, what that ends up—ends up causing is, when the election is over and it comes—and the time comes to actually see these policies in effect, helping or hurting people, the parts that would actually make a difference get silenced. That’s the noise that we hear all around us. So the identity parts become louder and louder, and the bread-and-butter issues that people would be more concerned about in their daily lives just get downgraded in their importance. And this—you can think of it as, like, a—as a—as a cycle in which identity-based issues become louder and louder, that leads to more bread-and-butter issues becoming downgraded, and therefore even giving greater incentives to the candidates to go—lean even deeper into making these issues more salient. So salience of an issue itself is something endogenous that politicians can manipulate to their advantage.
KARABELL: So I want to harp a little bit on this partisanship question. And because we’ve invoked the 1850s as the decade du jour, does partisanship lead to greater animation and political participation? And again, there are—there are times when it clearly does. Or does it actually lead to less? Because there’s an assumption of, you know, you whip up passions, that people will then act on those passions—although, as you just said, college campuses are a place of great passion and not so much action. So does this, in fact, translate into it? And is there any evidence one way or the other, or does it depend highly on the time, the moment, and the issue? Maybe you can—
KRUPNIKOV: So I’ll give, like, a total academic answer: It depends on how you define “participation”—
KRUPNIKOV: —how you define “partisanship,” and how you define “context,” right? (Laughter.) So all of those things matter.
If we think about what partisanship is, it is essentially a heuristic. Politics is really complicated. Partisanship gives you a shortcut. You don’t have to know everything about a candidate; you just have to know if they’re a Democrat or a Republican. So in that sense, it’s helpful. Rather than trying to, you know, figure out an entire slew of issues of how you should vote, you just have this shortcut. You know how to vote for either a Democrat or a Republican, or in a country with more parties you know which party you might want to vote for. And if you know how you might vote, if you’ve made this decision, you’re more likely to turn out to vote.
In terms of participation, also if you have a better idea of where your interests might lie, you can use partisanship as a heuristic. If might help you to participate.
So, in every model and every survey that political scientists have run, one of the most significant predictors of whether or not you will vote is the strength of your partisanship. People who are strong partisans are much more likely to vote, much more likely to participate.
So, then, what happens to everyone else? What happens to those elusive independents that we’re trying to basically capture every election season? Those people who call themselves independent are often much less likely to vote. They seem to have less connection to a party. In large part in the U.S. this might be because they don’t feel like either party really represents them, so what purpose would they have to vote?
In terms of—another kind of factor that really sort of connects to partisanship is this idea of mobilization. People are most likely to vote and participate if somebody tells them to. This idea of kind of tripling, getting three of your friends to vote, is somebody telling you to participate. It’s somebody mobilizing you. Over time in American history a lot of the mobilization efforts were left to political parties. Political parties were now in charge of getting people out to the voting booth. Political parties are going to try to mobilize people who are going to be most likely to vote for them. They’re going to have really clear records of who is a faithful voter. They’re going to have really clear records of who they are most likely to get and mobilize. If money is finite, which it always is, you’re going to spend that money on the person who’s most likely to give you the payoff. What that means is that a lot of people who currently aren’t voting are simply just not being mobilized. They’re being left out of the political parties’ equations. So it’s difficult to sort of predict how partisanship might affect them because nobody is really trying to get them out to the polls.
KARABELL: So you know, your caveat of an academic answer, it depends, evokes the Mike Myers on Saturday Night Live saying the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire, talk amongst yourselves.
So on the external dimension, given that you’ve also done some work outside the United States, are these cross-cultural realities or are the observations, particularly given a lot of these—some of this empirical work and some of these surveys are within a country, do these translate across countries? Meaning, are these human behaviors, or are these American behaviors, or are these British behaviors?
MARTIN: I mean, I think if we assume that people are all of one species and their minds all work in similar ways, I think we have to assume they’re universal. The truth is, though, that we don’t—
KARABELL: That’s a big assumption. Yeah.
MARTIN: That is a big—well, I mean, you said it, not me.
KARABELL: No, I mean, it’s a big assumption that we all behave similarly.
MARTIN: (Laughs.) But I mean, the short answer is we don’t really know because the evidence is much less in other countries, particularly in the developing world, where I work. I do think we see signals that these things are true, but they express in very different ways. I mean, social media has been a big part of the conversation, obviously, recently in places like Myanmar, where the—exactly the—very similar disinformation campaigns that we’ve—that have been in the news in the U.S. have also been fingered as one of the major causes of ethnic cleansing and violence, communal violence there, as well as recently in India and other countries too.
So certainly, I think partisanship is just as much of a problem in the world as it is—as it is here; in fact, you could say that it’s here relatively a recent problem in the U.S. compared to elsewhere in the world. I do a lot of work in work in Lebanon, a place where, you know, the study that Cass referred to about how accepting would you be if your daughter or son married someone from a different political party, I mean, you know, that has been the case in countries like Lebanon for centuries. So certainly, I think there’s—you know, the extent to which identity is associated with political belief and political behavior is not a U.S.-centric phenomenon.
But one thing I would just add to that is that I think in many parts of the developing world what our—what our work is looking at is the extent to which service provision and the quality of services that governments provide is part of the—part of the mix of factors that influence how likely people are to be engaged and who they’re likely to be engaged with in a—in a way that is much more direct, I think, than in the United States. And so, you know, we’re doing a lot of work these days in India and South Africa and Brazil, for instance, which are all middle-income countries, looking at the extent to which the response that you get—that you expect to get from your local government influences the extent to which you are civically engaged. And the research there is far from clear. If anything, there’s a lot of puzzles, which may—we think may be partly to—we can explain that partly in terms of the behavioral biases of the bureaucrats themselves, by which if you—just by submitting more complaints and making more requests of government don’t lead to greater responses from the government side.
So I think it’s a bidirectional rupture in the social contract in the sense that the citizens may not trust the government, the government may not trust citizens. And you have partisanship happening, really, on both sides.
KARABELL: So we are going to turn now to your questions. Please, as usual, identity yourself, and also if you have a question for one particular person please do that. Sir.
Q: Thank you very much. I’m Mahesh Kotecha. I’m a member of the Council, Structured Credit International.
My question actually wants to—I would like to tap into the expertise around the table there that is not only U.S.-based, but international. So identity politics, you know, to some extent is new; but as somebody pointed out, around the world there’s a lot of identity politics: tribalism in Africa, religious differences elsewhere. Traditionally, one used to talk about the proletariat and the bourgeoise, right? So the nature of the identities has shifted. What is it, in your thinking, that has led to the U.S. having party-based identification versus other things—class, economic class? You know, you could say that the lower economic classes have been duped by this political identity that has been overlaid.
KARABELL: Who wants to take a stab at that?
KARAKAS: I would say that this is—just off the top of my head, I would say that this has been more of a—of a concerted effort by the politicians so that they can address better their advantage, that they can play into the hands of forces that they are good at playing into the hands of. So if culture-based or race-based, religious-based identities—if turning these identities on allowed them to implement policies that otherwise would not be received as positively, then that’s, obviously, something that those candidates would have an incentive to engage in. And that, of course, goes into—takes us into the debates about the role of how campaigns are run in this country as opposed to in other parts of the world, the incredible amount of money in politics here as opposed to others. So the topics just go on from there.
KARABELL: I would just say on that parties in the United States until the 1950s wouldn’t have been the primary partisan fissure. And in a lot of ways, maybe in the past twenty years parties have seized on the partisanship of their core followers rather than the other way around. But that is a more open question.
Others, please. Yes.
Q: Pam Nelson (sp), Columbia University.
Yanna, was your project the 100 Million Project?
Q: Well, congratulations. It is a terrific piece of work.
And one of the findings that really struck me was when you were—when the project was looking at the differentials between voters and nonvoters one of the big gaps was whether they felt informed. So you had a sizeable difference there. And of course, we spend a lot of talking about the polarization of the media, but what this gap suggests to me is the feeling of absence of information. And I wondered if you could interpret that a bit for us.
KRUPNIKOV: Yeah. So I’m actually—I’m very glad that you caught onto that as well because it was one of the kind of more I think shocking and surprising parts of the survey, which interviewed a vast oversample of nonvoters.
One of the things that we were expecting were a lot of things that political scientists had talked about for a long time, right—so feeling disengaged from your community, having a different social network, those kinds of patterns. And those do—those are entirely borne out in the report, but this idea of difference in information ends up being one of the most robust patterns.
I think one of the things that’s happening there is how people are getting the news. There’s a huge gap in the voters and nonvoters in describing their news-seeking patterns. The voters report that they are deliberately seeking out the news. The nonvoters are more likely to report that they just kind of bump into news when it sort of happens to be around them. This ends up really predicting voting and nonvoting behavior entirely.
One of the other things, though, that’s borne out in the survey, which also did a whole bunch of focus groups in battleground states, is that people don’t feel that they have the time to get the information, and then they kind of consequently don’t necessarily feel qualified enough to cast ballots because they don’t necessarily feel informed. My interpretation of that is that sometimes scholars and journalists and other people who pay a lot of attention to politics underestimate how much time it takes to do so. There is the belief that if news is happening all around you, you will certainly pick it up. But what this report suggests is that the disengagement among nonvoters is somewhat so profound that they’re not even necessarily trying to seek out the news. They’re depending on others around them. They’re often embedded in communities where other people are equally busy and people are kind of equally disengaged. There is no one there to kind of trickle the information down to them as political science had predicted would happen to them. It’s not actually happening. And that, as a result, is translating in people basically taking themselves out of the equation and basically kind of entirely disengaging from the political process.
KARABELL: In the far back-center.
Q: Thank you. I’m Jatnna Ramirez. I work with Global Kids.
What are some of the biggest threats you think we’re facing in terms of voter turnout? And I’m thinking two things specifically: the weakening of unions and laws that disenfranchise voters, like voter ID laws. And what are some solutions that you think we could implement on an institutional level to, you know, fight those challenges that we face?
MARTIN: I don’t know if you want to go first.
KRUPNIKOV: You can go. (Laughs.)
Well, I was just going quickly—I think—I’m so glad you mentioned voter disenfranchisement. And you know, I just want to say that that’s one of a category of things, some of which are underrecognized, that are—that try, behaviorally speaking, to introduce hassles, that try to get—make it difficult for people—not just difficult in the sense of actually difficult, but to introduce a cognitive barrier, so just to make it frustrating and annoying to go through the process of voting. And those things are everywhere, and they’re very—they’re very, sometimes, difficult to recognize, and certainly they’re very pernicious.
In terms of policies that can be used—simply because I think often the discourse is very simplified between do we have this or do we not, and how do we roll it back once we have it. But there’s other things one can do to try to ease a burden when it’s there, and I think there’s—here’s where our political parties—maybe unions, but other forms of civil society can play a role as well—is in providing things like micro incentives to go and vote, which are not financially meaningful incentives but small—it could even be little presents or gifts, or nonfinancial incentives that get people to reframe in their minds the purpose of this act that I’m taking, which is going to vote.
Which is not—if you think about what voting is, I mean, voting is a very unusual thing to do. First of all, it’s engaging with a government structure that you don’t engage with very often. It’s not like going to the RMV or something like that. It’s really a very odd thing to do. You only do it once, you know, if—you know, every—like, many, many months, right? And so it’s not something you’re used to doing, so you really have to force yourself to do it. And so people are focusing on the negative aspects of that—oh my God, how am I going to take a couple of hours off my workday? What am I going to do with my kids? How am I going to get from point A to point—to point B? And you have to refocus them on something that is actually fun to think about from voting, and it could be the chance to go, like—with the vote tripling example it could be, hey, let’s go all of us as a group of friends to go vote. Or again, it could be going for some sort of reframed nonfinancial, you know, small, little item of something like that. You see people walking around with these, you know, “I voted” stickers, for instance, but imagine if you took that and you made it into something that’s actually useful rather than just something that’s visible. I think that can—that could also be effective. I would love to see more innovation happening on that—on that front in particular. But there’s many other things one can do to reduce hassles as well. I mean, there’s—of course, there’s initiatives to bus people and make it easy to get transportation to voting centers. But, you know, there’s lots of other sort of avenues one could go down to reduce hassles in that way.
KRUPNIKOV: So just to build on that, so I recently did a study about whether people think voting is difficult or whether it’s easy. And one of the things that we did in this—it was a very large experiment—is we tested the idea that people aren’t voting because they don’t know the details of the voting process. And what it turns out is that when you give people too many steps and too many instructions, even if it’s really well-meaning, it just becomes to seem really much more difficult than it is. And this is kind of taken from psychology.
You can make something really simple seem very difficult by breaking it down into too many steps. And so one of the things that happened when we did this experiment is that the most information new gave people, the harder they thought voting was. So essentially there was this kind of sweet spot of information where people knew just enough of kind of where they had to go and what they had to do, but anything more than that started to make voting seem incredibly cumbersome and incredibly difficult. So I think part of this is trying to figure out how to frame the information in such a way that doesn’t make voting seem like something that would just be too hard for you to do, as Josh was saying.
KARABELL: I mean, just as a historical perspective on the United States, Americans have never been a high participatory society for vote. I mean, it’s been 60 percent in national elections. It’s been 45 percent. But it hasn’t been 80 percent and 40 percent. So the question is totally valid, but it’s not that there has been such an erosion of this in relative terms, because we just have never been—or, at least, the United States has never been a high participating society. I mean, you probably would know about this more, whether other societies are more—absent places like Australia which mandate a vote or have a day off. I mean, it—
MARTIN: So that’s something I don’t know much about. But I mean, certainly I think the premise is correct. I mean, I would just add—I would add, I mean, we did a study that one thing that can be powerful—Cass talked a lot about this—is using social norms, or the power of comparing yourself to what others are doing. And we did something similar in Minnesota. And there have been other studies that have looked at this as well, where if you simply tell people how many other people around them have gone to vote, or what event their own past voting record has been, or the voting record of the neighborhood in which they live, that can have a powerful influence on people’s likelihood to vote.
If you think about why that works, I could work though a couple of different channels. I mean, it could be that you’re just telling people what’s acceptable, what’s normal, to Cass’s point about descriptive norms. It could also just be letting people know that what they think is not possible, is actually possible. I mean, it’s actually easier to vote than you think it is, to your point, Yanna, because look at all these other people around you that have done it. And these are people in, you know, potentially in worse circumstances than yourself. So you know, it could be this powerful, suggestive framing to use as well in get out the vote techniques.
KARAKAS: Just to build on that, I mean, there is also evidence that people are more likely to vote if they know that their friends and neighbors are going to know that they voted. So there’s also this social aspect to it. So you can also think of the “I Voted” stickers within that context.
KARABELL: Yes, over here. And then we’ll go over there.
Q: Mary Pearl, City University of New York.
We have coming up the very important opportunity for civic engagement, and that is the Census. And I’m just curious about—if you have any comments about your thoughts on participation, particularly in urban centers where it’s so important.
MARTIN: Want to take that? I mean, I would just comment just on—following the question about making it easy to vote, I think, you know, there’s been a lot of attention recently on attempts to make it hard to participate in the Census, particularly for marginalized populations, by including the citizenship question and all that. And so I think, you know, you see this recognition by those who would seek to suppress participation, perhaps more even than the recognition on those who would seek to increase participation, that how hard and how easy, how scary, how risky we make—we make these actions seem, how influential that could be on people’s likelihood to follow through.
KARABELL: I mean, I will just say on the Census, having done some work on this, one thing that’s remarkable is how little education we do publicly about the Census. So there’s vast portions of the population that neither understand what this is, know what the utility is, and find it both bewildering and invasive, simultaneously. And that’s a cross-partisan issue.
In the back right, please.
Q: Thank you. Stephen Blank.
When we taught this stuff years and years ago, before anyone was born, we—one of the things we played with was the idea that nonvoting was not particularly a problem. Because people don’t vote doesn’t mean they’re alienated. They may be roughly content with things as they are. They may not feel the polarization. Second, we vote so often in the United States, people get tired of voting. It becomes a burden. So, again, the assumption that high levels of voting is a problem may not be the case. Indeed, countries—Germany in the 1930s, where there was very high level of voting, shows the danger point.
Second, in terms of moving people around, we’re—are we rediscovering what machine politics was about? The old machines, Tammany, worked very hard worked very hard at providing incentives. Sometimes a dollar bill, sometimes a ham at Christmas. Always a way to get to the voting booth. So again, this is—we didn’t take modern behavioral economics to understand this. This is the way U.S. politics have worked. And finally, third, since the de Tocqueville we know that all U.S. politics has been about groups.
And so it’s not surprising that we think in terms of rediscovering that we’re all basically group based. That’s the way American politics has always worked. How many groups can you put under the umbrella of the two parties? That the umbrellas may be further apart now is interesting, but nothing has changed about the essential role of groups—of group identity in the process. So I don’t want to sound too much like a historian saying we told you so, but some of this stuff seems to be fairly familiar. Thank you.
KARAKAS: My only comment to your thread point would be while it is, of course, true that groups have always been important in driving elections, the technology that political parties and candidates now have to turn on and off those identities have vastly expanded. The role of media, social media, to name the obvious, is one thing. So while things were maybe—the group identities formed on a more provincial level—you looked at your neighbors, you looked at your immediate family and friends—and that could form the basis of your group identity that later translated into a political behavior, now that circle has vastly expanded. And therefore, the implications for national politics as well have expanded, is how I would—
Q: As someone who’s studied the media—(off mic)—was more—had a greater capacity to mobilize people along these lines than we do today. If you look at the violence of the media in terms of anti-this, and anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-Jew, with so many newspapers in a highly compressed area, I’m not sure what you’re saying is accurate.
KARABELL: You want to take that for a second? Yeah.
KRUPNIKOV: Well, I was going to take the voter turnout question. So in 1965, Phil Converse, who’s a sociologist and then a political scientist—he was a little bit of both—he basically wrote kind of a similar point to one that you’ve made, which is that a bunch of people aren’t voting but they don’t know anything anyway so we’re all better off for it. And now we all read this at the start of our political science Ph.D. programs. (Laughs.) And I think there is kind of something comforting, quite, in that idea, that the people who aren’t voting are essentially disengaged, they don’t know enough, and so we should leave these matters to others.
But to return to this idea of surveys, has surveys have improved we have managed to capture a lot more information about people who aren’t voting. And in some cases, I think you’re right. They’re not voting because they are 100 percent disengaged. These are people who are actually skipping opinion questions. And when you ask them, how do you feel about the president they say, I don’t know, right? They’re entirely disengaged from the process.
But I think for other people the disengagement is actually quite different. They have a dissatisfaction with their communities. They have a dissatisfaction with their government. They have a fairly profound distrust of the politics that’s happening to them. They have felt disenfranchised by the system. They have felt disenfranchised by the voices that are in government. They are not certain that any of the candidates can possibly represent them. But it’s not just that they’re not voting, right? They feel so alienated that they’re not actually speaking, and we’re not hearing them.
So obviously whether they would change the entire political outcome, the fact that they don’t vote matters or not, that is entirely, to quote Cass Sunstein, an empirical question—actually, to quote Cass Sunstein quoting Daniel Kahneman. It’s an empirical question, right? It’s a favorite academic thing. Everything’s an empirical question, essentially, right? But where we do have empirics is that there is a giant chunk of people who feel like politics is not for them. And I think for somebody like myself, who studies politics, it’s incredibly important to figure out why that is, and what it is about American politics at this particular time that has in some cases—and we know this historically from surveys—deepened that disengagement, right? So it’s not a certain percentage of people matters, but we have to figure out why it is that they aren’t voting. Are they not voting because, as Congress said, they just don’t care, and fine? Or are they not voting because something is happening in politics? And that’s the empirical question.
MARTIN: Or they’re not voting just because they, like, didn’t follow through on something that they wanted to express in some form.
KRUPNIKOV: Exactly, yeah.
MARTIN: So you can’t even necessarily assume that they have a clearly formed—that they don’t have a clearly formed intention about what they would like to see changed in society or stay the same.
KARABELL: Sir, in the far-back center.
Q: I’m Jason Forrester, a Council member.
I’m affiliated with a nonprofit in the Hudson Valley that focuses on social impact and the performing arts that’s called Lumberyard. For a group like ours, that’s considering engaging in some activities to help with voter registration, education, mobilization, who are some of the gold standards out there? I know that at least two of you are here in the state. And you don’t have to home in on the Hudson Valley. But who are some of the gold standards to bring this into practice, the things we’ve been talking about? Thanks.
MARTIN: (Laughs.) That’s tough.
Q: (I don’t know if we ?) can afford Ideas42. (Laughter.)
MARTIN: Yeah. (Laughs.) No, I wouldn’t mention us.
Q: League of Women Voters, NAACP, what would you suggest?
MARTIN: I mean, in terms of candidates that have been really successful at this?
Q: More—sorry—more nonpartisan, you know, lift up a community, young people and others who aren’t—
MARTIN: Oh, hmm. I feel I’m going to get myself into trouble if I mention any proper nouns here. Maybe that’s something that we can talk about afterwards, because I think—I mean—(laughs)—this is such a cop out—but I think that it’s—there are people obviously that are better than others, but I don’t know that anybody has really done what we think is the important thing to do, which is to try out a whole bunch of really different things in a really rigorous way, and build upon what has been shown to work in an iterative fashion. And I think that’s really what the—that’s what’s missing, because there’s lots of people who have lots of cool techniques that they use and great things, but none of those things are patented. They’re available for everyone to do. And also they’re—it’s not as if they’re really, really hard to execute.
The thing that’s really hard to do is to bring science to the table, and to use some of the insights from psychology that we know, especially the recent ones, to inform the way that we reach out to voters, the framing that we use, the wording that we use, the way we—the way we lay out the visuals on the forms that we send to them, the types of words and the phrases that we put into the scripts that we have our volunteers use when they go door-to-door. I mean, all of the minute details of how context might impact the decisions and actions these people make, that is really where the magic happens. And it’s the identification of those techniques, but it’s also the testing and the iteration and the learning from those techniques that is most important. And, I mean, there’s examples of campaigns I could use where I think that—that have stagnated on that front, where they were doing really good, interesting, innovative work, and then—and then have stopped doing that, or have relied a little too much on previous techniques.
You know, and I mean, I could show you—and this is not—I mean, I’m a big fan of President Obama and his campaign as well, but just—one of the slides I sometimes use when I give talks about this is a snap—like, a screenshot of my inbox circa 2012, where, you know, and there’s a finding that—they had actually come up with a finding that, I think, that—I think it was them—that the email that gets people most attention—political email that gets people’s most attention is when you have the word “hey” in the subject line. So you literally have all these emails with “hey” over, and over, and over again. You can just see at the beginning, I mean, hey, if there’s even like a 0.001 percent chance that it’s President Obama trying to get my attention, I’m going to open that email, right? But then over time you realize what’s happening, and they just go unopened, so.
KARABELL: Let’s do one quick final question. Gentleman in the back there.
Q: Thank you. Rob Shepardson from SS+K.
Yanna, maybe to you, but to everyone, on your point of alienated voters, I’ve seen research lately on gun safety in the United States. And we hear that over 90 percent of Americans support things like background checks, and such. The research I saw was on gun owners who support gun safety initiatives. And the research showed that they are alienated, that they are outraged and upset when violence occurs, and mass shootings occur, and what have you. They would support gun safety programs. They do not identify with the extreme right, the NRA, or anybody like that. And they also believe that the gun control groups actually want to take their guns. Maybe unstated, but that’s what they believe. So like this political divide, this political debate isn’t constructive. It’s not for me. It doesn’t move this along. What’s to be done with people like that?
KRUPNIKOV: That’s a—so that’s an interesting question. It’s something that a lot of political scientists have actually been working on for a while, which is now to frame these arguments for all types of people about gun control. One thing that emerges is this fear of the slippery slope. A lot of people worry that especially as the government is—the two parties in government are polarized, that any time a policy is passed that’s the first step to a slippery slope to your guns actually getting taken away. So that’s a huge fear there.
One of the other things that has emerged from this research, though, is this idea of almost ideological kind of purity, that in order for you to support something there can’t be any compromise in it, that a lot of the people who have these loudest voices, who are the ones that are most likely to be on social media, who are most likely to tweet and talk about it, support very ideologically pure initiatives. They don’t necessarily want to see anything that’s compromising. Whereas, I think the types of people that you’re talking about would be more willing to see something that is more toward the middle.
For me, I think a huge component of it is returns, again, to how everything is framed by journalists, how everything is framed by politicians, how everything is framed by political scientists, actually. As long as we’re framing everything as a zero-sum competition, that any compromise is essentially giving up on any sort of ideological purity, I think people are going to continue to be alienated. As long as I think journalists and political scientists focus on the people who are most politically polarized, large groups are going to be continuously politically alienated, in large part because they feel like, well, if that’s what he parties are like, if that’s what ideological purity is like, then everything is essentially a slippery slope.
KARABELL: Well, Yanna, thank you for solving the problem of gun control in sixty seconds.
KRUPNIKOV: Oh, thank you. It’s a big day for me. (Laughs.)
KARABELL: On behalf of the Council, I want to thank Leyla, and Yanna, and Josh, and all of you. And have a great week and a good day. And vote! (Applause.)