‘All the Green Shoots Are Dead’

It’s an overcast Thursday in Manhattan as I arrive at Favela Cubana, a cozy Greenwich Village restaurant with no customers inside. The streets are disarmingly quiet, yet distant car horns and loud Brazilian music provide an appropriately chaotic soundtrack as I wait by the door for my lunch companion. At noon exactly, Jonathan Haidt arrives, dressed in muted colors with a backpack slung over his shoulder. We choose a table outside, braving the risk of rain for the sake of hearing each other clearly. After we’ve exchanged pleasantries, an affable waitress brings us water and menus. But as we begin to discuss the future of American democracy, her cheer seems to mock Haidt’s discouragement. “I’m Cassandra and I’m seeing doom coming towards us,” he tells me. “Philosophically, intellectually, I’m depressed.”

In conversation, Haidt is terse but polite, expressing his convictions in a soft tone. His great fear is that resurgent illiberalism on both left and right will cause society to crumble. In a recent essay for The Atlantic titled “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” he argues that social media has emboldened illiberal forces while eroding trust in institutions, fostering extreme polarization, degrading standards of behavior, and stimulating a mental health crisis among the young. Previously, he explored the rise of adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide in The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), written with free speech lawyer Greg Lukianoff. At the end of that book, the authors identified several “green shoots”—encouraging developments in politics and culture that could reverse these trends. But four years later, as America reels from COVID-19 and the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency, things have only gotten worse. “Massively worse,” in fact, Haidt tells me as we prepare to order our food. “We saw these green shoots and none of them have grown. 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.”

Before he became a public intellectual, Haidt was a respected psychology professor at the University of Virginia. Raised in Scarsdale, New York, by Jewish parents who revered Franklin D. Roosevelt, he inherited their progressive sensibilities and dabbled in politics in his youth, occasionally volunteering on Democratic campaigns and running a gun control group in college. As an undergraduate at Yale, he majored in philosophy; experiencing an existential depression in his senior year of high school had drawn him to the subject. “After reading Waiting for Godot in English class and thinking about existentialism, I was really kind of down just thinking, ‘There’s no point to life, and if the whole earth got hit by an asteroid, in the scheme of things it wouldn’t really matter,’” Haidt says. “So I just resolved that I would study philosophy in college. I did take a philosophy class in high school that I didn’t like, but I still persevered. I just wanted to read and think.”

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