Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

By Alan Jacobs

Amplifying Charity

New rules for political engagement.

Cass Sunstein is a legal scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago. His formal specialty is constitutional law, but he has written very widely on law and politics, and since his 2001 book Republic.com he has shown a strong interest in the ways that new technologies are shaping our political culture.

Everyone knows that such shaping is taking place, and that its effects are profound. If twenty years ago the wild card in political life was the emergence of television networks like CNN, with their ceaseless coverage of politicians and candidates for office, the more recent wild card has been the blogosphere. But if CNN dramatically changed the lives of politicians, and of the new class of pundits who could now make a living from daily and even hourly commentary, the emergence of the world of blogs has changed the lives of political junkies—and indeed has created countless thousands of political junkies.

For there are many people who would never have become obsessed with politics if they had not had the opportunity to talk back to politicians (and to other commentators), to make their views known, to announce their loyalties and hostilities. All across the political spectrum, from The Daily Kos and points further left to Little Green Footballs and points further right, people are—ahem—expressing themselves vigorously and in great numbers. (On both the sites just mentioned, comments on a post often run into the hundreds.) And since Howard Dean's campaign for president in 2004, whose early success was widely attributed to an internet–based community of enthusiasts, politicians and their handlers have been scratching their heads and trying to understand the meaning of such cyberspatial energy—that is, trying to figure out how to harness it for their own purposes, or at least to prevent it from doing them much harm.

Cass Sunstein has recently been thinking a lot about these issues. Sunstein's concern has not been to figure out which politicians are helped and which hurt by the blogosphere, but rather to understand better how collective participation in the Web World is altering our general political culture. He has rehearsed some of the important groundwork in his most recent book, Infotopia, which explores, in the words of its subtitle, "How Many Minds Produce Knowledge"—how, when people collaborate, especially in large numbers, they can gather more real knowledge than any of them could working alone.

Sunstein is by no means an uncritical cheerleader for the "hive mind" of the internet. His most recent work indicates an interest in the moral issues raised by the collective cultures of the internet, and as a new presidential campaign slouches toward Washington to be born, we would do well to meditate on two key concepts that he is calling to our attention.

The first concept is ideological amplification. Not much of what Sunstein has written about this has appeared online, though you can get a pretty good handle on the concept by doing a Google search for "sunstein ideological amplification". But in a post on The New Republic's group blog Open University, he gives a brief overview:

"A few years ago, I was involved in some studies that uncovered a funny fact: When Republican–appointed judges sit on three–judge panels with other Republican appointees, they show unusually conservative voting patterns. So too, Democratic–appointed judges on three–judge panels show especially liberal voting patterns when sitting with fellow Democratic appointees. In short, like–minded judges show a pattern if 'ideological amplification.'

The presence of even one Republican appointee often makes Democratic appointees much more moderate. Republican appointees often become much more moderate when even a single Democratic appointee is there.

We now know that ideological amplification is pervasive on federal courts––that it can be found in numerous areas, including sex discrimination, affirmative action, campaign finance law, disability discrimination, environmental law, labor law, and voting rights.

It turns out that ideological amplification occurs in many domains. It helps to explain 'political correctness' on college campuses—and within the Bush administration. In a recent study, we find that liberals in Colorado, after talking to one another, move significantly to the left on affirmative action, global warming, and civil unions for same–sex couples. On those same three issues, conservatives, after talking to each other, move significantly to the right."

The relevance of this idea to the blogosphere is pretty obvious. On a website dedicated to supporting the policies of President Bush, a commenter who despises the president either doesn't show up at all or, if she decides to take a flier, finds her views—along with her personality, her character, her intelligence, and her friends, family members, and pets—instantly subjected to a barrage of, shall we say, critical scrutiny. Such a person is likely to get the message and flee into the welcoming, consoling arms of Kos or Atrios. And of course the mirror image of this scene is enacted on the left–wing blogs. With the dissenters driven away, the Faithful who remain reinforce and, as Sunstein says, amplify one another's views, with the result that the community of that blog becomes more monolithic and more extreme. As Sunstein writes in another post, the regular readers of and commentators on certain blogs tend to produce "echo chambers" or "information cocoons"—they insulate themselves from alien ideas and (even more important) unpleasant facts.

Among the ideas that get amplified in such an environment, one of the most pernicious and (alas) common is the idea that people who are not among the Faithful deviate from the True Path not just because they make different political judgments, or have different beliefs about how best to form a just political order, but because they are, well, evil. One predictable effect of ideological amplification is the transformation of opponents into enemies. Which leads us to Sunstein's second key concept—one which (to my knowledge anyway) he hasn't directly linked with ideological amplification, but which I want to contend is intimately related to it, as a potential antidote. That concept is political charity.

Sunstein's discussion of this subject seems to have begun with his claim that in the aftermath of the midterm Congressional elections in 2006 President Bush and Rick Santorum—who had just been defeated by Bob Casey in his attempt to be re–elected as a Senator from Pennsylvania—behaved graciously in defeat, giving credit of various kinds to their opponents:

"Santorum's concession speech was, in its way, quite remarkable. Showing no trace of bitterness, he began by praising Bob Casey, saying that he was a fine man and that he would do a fine job for Pennsylvania. He specifically asked his supporters to give a round of applause to Casey, and when the applause was tepid, he added, spontaneously and with evident sincerity, 'Come on, give it up, give him a round of applause!' "

Some commenters on this post were outraged by the very idea that people they disagreed with on political issues could behave graciously. "As for myself, however, I will continue to hold Santorum in the basest contempt," wrote one; "Rick Santorum is a loathsome creep," another affirmed. But Sunstein stuck with the idea, and in later posts suggests that Senator Barack Obama exemplifies, in many of his speeches and writings, virtues very similar to that which he credits to Santorum at his moment of defeat. In a later post Sunstein spells out the key components of political charity:

"Three practices seem to constitute political charity. First, those who display political charity do not question the motives of those with whom they disagree. On the contrary, they cast those motives in the best possible light. (Consider imaginable discussions of the Iraq War or affirmative action.) Second, those who display political charity try to endorse the deepest moral commitments of those with whom they disagree. If they cannot endorse those commitments, at least they show respect for them. (Consider imaginable discussions of same–sex marriage and climate change.) Third, those who display political charity try for reforms and innovations that can be accepted by people who reject or even abhor what they take (fear?) to be the defining commitments of the reformers and innovators. That is, a central goal of those who display political charity is to obtain agreements on practices amidst disagreement or uncertainty about what, precisely, accounts for those practices. (Considerable imaginable discussions of increases in the minimum wage, energy independence, or health care reform.)"

Obama gave a speech at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church that Sunstein thinks exemplifies these commitments; he explains why here.

We could, I suppose, debate whether Bush or Santorum or Obama truly exemplifies the grace and charity that Sunstein attributes to them. But perhaps we should in our very evaluations of these cases err on the side of charity, as Sunstein does. He clearly wants to highlight and applaud any charitable words or deeds by our leading political figures, because those words and deeds resist the powerful current of ideological amplification. Every time a defeated politician credits his or her opponent with good character and good intentions, and every time a political candidate acknowledges that those who disagree with him or her may be doing so with moral seriousness, a door is opened in the echo chamber. The volume of the echoes diminishes a bit, and voices from outside the room begin to be discernible. These are small changes, but vital ones if we wish to heal the deep wounds of our current political culture. Cass Sunstein is pointing us all in the right direction.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.

Most ReadMost Shared