‘All the Green Shoots Are Dead’
Jonathan Haidt fears for the future of American democracy.
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.”
When Haidt arrived at Yale, he took a series of freshman psychology courses that inspired him to pursue the psychology track within the philosophy department. After his graduation in 1985, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a Ph.D in psychology in 1992. His dissertation, “Moral Judgment, Affect, and Culture, or, Is it Wrong. to Eat Your Dog?” concerned the role of disgust in moral judgment. In it, he gave interviewees examples of repulsive yet harmless behavior (for instance, “A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a dead chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks and eats it.”) to test whether the emotion of disgust would overpower reason in their responses. Haidt recalled in 2007 that disgust won among all groups “except for groups of politically liberal college students, particularly Americans, who overrode their disgust and said that people have a right to do whatever they want, as long as they don't hurt anyone else.” These findings led him to the conclusion that moral judgments are driven by intuition rather than rationality, which would later inform the thesis of The Righteous Mind.
Haidt became an atheist at 14, but he has maintained a spiritual life since his time as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, where he and his friends began to explore psychedelics. “It was June 12, 1993, and I had a rebirth experience,” he tells me. “I was a different person afterward.” At the time, Haidt was studying Hinduism in preparation for a trip to Orissa, India, where he planned to continue his moral research. “And then one tiny little piece of paper, in a sense, showed me intuitively what some of the central insights of Buddhism and Hinduism are. I became much less moralistic, much less judgmental, a little more easygoing, and that change was permanent.” Today, Haidt does not necessarily believe in God, but he regards the grandeur of the universe with intellectual humility. “I have no idea where the universe came from and what's beyond our ability to think,” he says. “Psychedelic experience has shown me that we live within a set of constructs and dimensions and we cannot imagine things outside of them.”
By 2004, Haidt had begun to apply his moral theory to political ideology in an effort to understand the psychology of conservatives, libertarians, and progressives. To gain a fair understanding of conservative beliefs, he read National Review alongside The New Republic and watched Fox News. “It was really, really interesting to do that week after week,” he tells me. “I really just felt my mind growing like, ‘Oh, I never looked at it that way.’” In The Righteous Mind, he explored why human beings diverge so drastically on political and religious questions, describing three principles of moral psychology that lead people to different ethical conclusions. According to these principles, morality is driven by intuition, it is about more than harm and fairness, and it binds us together in ideological teams while “blinding us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
Haidt stands by these principles—“as far as I know, none of them have really been challenged,” he says as our starters are replaced by main courses. But if The Righteous Mind were written today, he would make one crucial change. “There's a line in The Righteous Mind that’s the most false thing I ever wrote. I [argued that] a good society is one in which our reputations are on the line all the time, where we’re constantly being watched. I wrote that line in 2011. And little did I know that 2011, that’s when everything is changing. If you imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which everything you do and say is public and open to review, that is hell. And that’s where we live now.”
As the real world has become increasingly inextricable from the virtual landscape, illiberalism has grown. For progressives, it manifests in cancel culture, a hostility to free speech, and an overriding concern with emotional safety. Haidt recalls that in his early years as an academic, there was no hint of this in higher education “because the students were Gen X. They were partying, hooking up, smoking pot. They were doing things kids do. You can’t have cancel culture without social media or technology. A lot of the ideas had been around since the ‘90s—words are violence, things like that. But they didn't leave those departments until the walls fell. And it took social media to dissolve the walls between everything.” Haidt believes 2014 was the year in which Twitter enveloped American life, eliminating the distinction between public and private and fueling a censorious woke culture on the left. But the right has equally succumbed to its baleful influence, embracing conspiratorial thinking and the vulgar aspects of Trumpism. Tribalism rules across partisan lines.
“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 is now politically homeless, and he credits viewing the world through a non-partisan lens with sharpening his thinking. He describes himself as a “liberal process centrist” who prioritizes a belief in the rule of law and strong institutions over adherence to rigid ideology. But beyond our political dysfunction, he is equally concerned by the mental state of young Americans. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Haidt and Lukianoff explored how rates of depression and anxiety have surged among teenagers since the early 2010s. For Haidt, two factors explain this trend: fragility caused by a loss of free play in early childhood, and widespread entry into social media at a young age. “I think your generation has what we might call emotional scurvy,” Haidt tells me. “By keeping [children] safe, we’ve made them so weak that they are easily frightened and they have higher suicide rates. If we take all of the lives saved because kids don’t get kidnapped or hit by cars that’s probably several dozen—it might even be several hundred. But the number of extra deaths from suicide probably dwarfs that. With social media, puberty is when the brain is changing rapidly. For kids to go through puberty showing photos of themselves and letting strangers evaluate them is a horrible thing.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic made forced social isolation the norm, social media use hugely expanded and free play became even less common. Haidt recalls that despite obvious difficulties, his children made it through. But even so, “our kids spent most of COVID on their screens—much less physical movement, much less in-person interaction. So their generation was already crushed by so many bad things, then the overreaction to COVID came along. The right was pathologically motivated to minimize or deny, leading to more Republicans getting killed by it. And the left was pathologically motivated to amplify or exaggerate, leading to overly repressive regulations that might have made sense for the elderly, but never made sense for children.”
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.”
Our waitress brings us the check, and as we prepare to leave, I persuade Haidt to offer a modicum of optimism. “The appetite for reform and change is vast,” he tells me. “The great majority of Gen Z hate what’s happening to them. The vast majority of Americans are exhausted; they’re fed up. And this was the biggest surprise of my Atlantic essay. Even though I said very harsh things about the Republican Party and the cultural left, I expected a lot of people to attack me for that and nobody did. Maybe there were like eight mean tweets? I put forward prescriptions and they’re not trivial things, [but] nobody has objected. I think there’s the appetite to do some pretty substantial things. So that’s absolutely hopeful.” Indeed, if we wish to see change, it is our responsibility to enact it. Only the American people can reverse the corrosion of America’s soul.