"All the green shoots are dead"

Haidt’s outlook hasn’t always been so grim. When he began writing The Righteous Mind (2012) in 2009, he saw American politics as essentially healthy, populated predominantly by center-left Democrats and center-right Republicans who ultimately respected the liberal tradition despite their disagreements. Now, he believes both parties have been consumed by authoritarian forces that were largely confined to the fringe in the 1990s and early 2000s. “What social media did,” Haidt says,“is super-empower four groups: the far right, the far left, trolls, and Russian agents. The Republicans have always had the John Birch wing. The left has its woke fringe that’s Jacobin, it’s Maoist. So we have these incredibly illiberal wings on each side that now have so much more power over the two major parties, and look what’s happened in the country.”…

“I think tribalism is very natural and easy,” Haidt says as our conversation turns to the Republican Party’s embrace of the Stop the Steal movement and the Great Replacement Theory. “Us versus them will trump any moral foundation. If it’s an existential struggle between us and the bad guys, then the ends justify the means. And if our side has to break a few eggs, break a few laws, break a few rules then that’s okay—look what they’re doing. People will gladly throw away any specific moral principles in service of defeating the enemy.” Until recently, the great success of modern liberal democracy was that it largely kept this primal impulse at bay. “We used to see elections as a game that we trust, and if our side loses, well, we’d better work harder to win next time,” Haidt continues. “And of all the horrible things Trump did, I think literally committing to winning an election by any means before the election is among the most shameful things that anyone’s ever done in American history. And the Republican Party, to its eternal shame, backed him up and protected him.”…

Haidt’s recent Atlantic essay concludes with a call for ordinary Americans and political leaders alike to make personal and institutional changes that can heal our democracy. But much of this responsibility will fall to the same members of Generation Z who have been damaged by social digitalization. When I ask Haidt whether he believes this generation will be strong enough to make such changes, he answers directly with a disconsolate expression: “No, I don’t.”