Sunstein’s Standard: Split the Difference?

Cass Sunstein is worried about the internet’s potential to polarize political views; Dan Hunter has offered a rebuttal. After setting out their positions, I’m going to add one more angle to the debate.

First, here’s Sunstein on the dubious benefits of a “Daily Me” digest of web news:

As a result of the Internet, personalization is everywhere. If you want to read essays arguing that climate change is a fraud and a hoax, or that the American economy is about to collapse, the technology is available to allow you to do exactly that. If you are bored and upset by the topic of genocide, or by recent events in Iraq or Pakistan, you can avoid those subjects entirely.

Many liberals jump from one liberal blog to another, and many conservatives restrict their reading to points of view that they find congenial. In short, those who want to find support for what they already think, and to insulate themselves from disturbing topics and contrary points of view, can do that far more easily than they can if they skim through a decent newspaper or weekly newsmagazine.

Sunstein reports on some empirical research to back up his worry . . .

[L]et us explore an experiment conducted in Colorado in 2005, designed to cast light on the consequences of self-sorting. About 60 Americans were brought together and assembled into a number of groups, each consisting of five or six people. Members of each group were asked to deliberate on three of the most controversial issues of the day: Should states allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions? Should employers engage in affirmative action by giving a preference to members of traditionally disadvantaged groups? Should the United States sign an international treaty to combat global warming?

As the experiment was designed, the groups consisted of “liberal” and “conservative” enclaves. . . . In almost every case, people held more-extreme positions after they spoke with like-minded others. . . . .Liberals favored an international treaty to control global warming before discussion; they favored it far more strongly after discussion. Conservatives were neutral on that treaty before discussion, but they strongly opposed it after discussion. The creation of enclaves of like-minded people . . . made both liberal groups and conservative groups significantly more homogeneous — and thus squelched diversity.

Sunstein worries that enclaves are exacerbating ill-informed extremism:

Outside of enclaves, moderation is the usual path. Now imagine that people find themselves in enclaves in which they exclusively hear from others who think as they do. As a result, their confidence typically grows, and they become more extreme in their beliefs.

Dan Hunter has responded by stating that “Sunstein mis-applies the social psychology work on how groups polarize to more extreme positions. . . . the research on group polarization does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that the Internet creates extremist communications or behavior.” I can’t judge who’s right on the balance of the social science evidence. But I do think that Sunstein’s implied standard for measuring the correctness of political points of view is troubling, because it smacks of a “split the difference”-ism that dominates (and waters down) MSM treatment of current affairs.

1. While acknowledging that the “more extreme tendency might be better rather than worse” than the moderate one, Sunstein appears to presume that, on balance, moderation is better. He worries that “countless editions of the Daily Me can . . . produce serious problems of mutual suspicion, unjustified rage, and social fragmentation.” But I just don’t think you can offer a critique at that level of generality without presuming the objective correctness of the moderate position.

For example, in assessing the results of a small-scale deliberative project on crime policy, deliberative democratic theorist James Fishkin called the experiment a success because of the conversion of many of the participants to more “rational” positions on the issue:

They started out tough on crime and remained so: for example, they continued to insist, as they did at the start, that “sending more people to prison” is “an effective way of fighting crime.” But they offered, by the end, a much more complex appreciation of the problem. Realizing the limits of prison as a tool for dealing with crime, they focused on rehabilitation and on different treatments for first-time juvenile offenders.

Although Fishkin may endorse these shifts, it is hard to imagine a “law and order” conservative also finding them salutary. Certainly we can all agree that deliberative democracy ought to give citizens “a much more complex appreciation” of political problems. However, in this passage Fishkin identifies such a capacity with the choice of concrete solutions to the political problem at hand. If this is the only way to measure the impact of conversations, then broad deliberativism may be a procedural disguise for substantive commitments.

2. As he laments the centrifugal tendencies of group polarization, Sunstein may be unduly discounting the centripetal force of social networking sites like Facebook. Consider Hugo Liu’s take on the triangulated desire evident on “favorites” listings:

Liu . . . explores how Facebook embodies the virtual pursuit of cool, with users claiming to like the things they think they should like, agonizing over whether “Borat” or “Wedding Crashers” is a more appropriate favorite film.

Tocqueville 2.0?:

Tocqueville’s now famous discussions of the democratic tendency toward mediocrity, conformity, and unconscious assent to potentially tyrannical mass opinion along with his discussions of the myopic individualism and excessive materialism that would plague democracies were summed in a single ominous phrase: democratic despotism.

Maybe polarized groups are a potent way to avoid the muddle of the middle mind.

3. One final point: might the ideal of broad deliberation that Sunstein endorses amount to an effort to get voters to be like Wikipedians? Consider this page on that website’s search for truth via a “neutral point of view:”

To write from a neutral point of view, one presents controversial views without asserting them; to do that, it generally suffices to present competing views in a way that is more or less acceptable to their adherents, and also to attribute the views to their adherents. Disputes are characterized in Wikipedia; they are not re-enacted.

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