How Can We Break Our Addiction to Contempt? (Ep. 478)
Arthur Brooks is an economist who for 10 years ran the American Enterprise Institute, one of the most influential conservative think tanks in the world. He has come to believe there is only one weapon that can defeat our extreme political polarization: love. Is Brooks a fool for thinking this — and are you perhaps his kind of fool?
Listen and follow our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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DUBNER: I have a question that I’m afraid is going to sound rude no matter how I put it.
BROOKS: It’s okay.
DUBNER: My reading of your second-to-last book, The Conservative Heart, was that it was written to help pave the way for the right kind of Republican presidential candidate in 2016, maybe a Jeb Bush-type or whatnot. Is that roughly right?
BROOKS: Yeah, it was my entrant into the ideological sweepstakes of 2016.
Wolf BLITZER: It’s debate night for the Republicans and we’re just moments away —.
BROOKS: And I lost.
Jeb BUSH: This is a tough business, to run for president.
Donald TRUMP: Oh you’re a tough guy, Jeb.
BUSH: And we need to have a leader that is principled —.
TRUMP: You’re tough. You’re real tough, Jeb.
BUSH: You’re never going to be President of the United States by insulting your way to the presidency.
TRUMP: Well let’s see, I’m at 42 and you’re at three. So, so far, I’m doing better. So far, I’m doing better —.
DUBNER: Right. You did lose because Trump was not the kind of Republican or conservative candidate that you wanted. And then in 2019, you publish a book called Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. And this book argues that we have reached a contempt crisis in the U.S. and that we need to fight it with kindness, essentially. Now, from the evidence I’ve seen since 2019, that argument of yours is not working so well either. So, let me ask you this — those were just statements. Now, finally, is the rude question. How do you rate yourself as a public persuader? And if not very well, why not? Because you are a smart, experienced, well-meaning person with good communication skills, experience, connections, et cetera. So, what does this failure say about either the message or the messenger?
BROOKS: I have a latent-demand strategy and latent-demand strategies — they lose a lot. You know, entrepreneurship means rolling out something new. And by the way, I might never succeed. But remember that the average successful entrepreneur has 3.8 bankruptcies. I had a couple of bankruptcies. I mean, it wasn’t bankruptcies. They were best-sellers. I mean, that’s not nothing. And by the way, I talk to mayors and governors all the time — many of them were successful using these ideas. Both Democrats and Republicans, who say, “I love this book, and I’m using it. And it helped me get elected and it’s helping me govern, and I’m governing across the aisle.” I mean, you’re right to say that this ideology that I’m trying to inject, it looks a little quixotic, I’m like tilting at windmills or something — I get it. But I think it’s right, I think it’s morally right. I think it can be popular and I think that it just might work. But you got to keep trying. You can’t stop — just because virtue didn’t fit at the current moment — well, I guess I’m going to turn to vice. I know that’s the wrong strategy.
The person I’m speaking with today is named Arthur Brooks.
BROOKS: I’m a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School.
The latent-demand strategy that Brooks mentioned — that’s the kind of thinking employed by entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.
BROOKS: These are people who basically said, I have a product, you don’t even know what it is. You’re going to need it. You’re going to need it! And latent demand is more powerful than extant demand. And it can have much bigger markets than extant demand. But requires visionary entrepreneurship. So, what’s going on right now is that we have an untapped latent demand for the kind of country that we want, which is an aspirational country, which is not characterized by bitterness and polarization, which is one in which we actually can learn from each other, and one in which the competition between the ideological sides — which is good and healthy because iron sharpens iron, as far as I’m concerned — is to see who can empower people the most. Instead, what we have is the actual demand curve firing up dopamine in people’s brains again and again and again and again, creating addiction.
And what are we addicted to? Contempt. That’s his argument, at least. Now, who is Arthur Brooks, and why should we be listening to him? We’ll get into his full bio later but, briefly: before teaching leadership at Harvard, he ran the American Enterprise Institute, one of the most prominent conservative think tanks in the country. Before that, he was an economics professor. And, before that, a professional French horn player. So he’s already had several careers — and an unusual trajectory, which has led him to an unusual belief. Arthur Brooks believes that the best way to detoxify American politics — maybe the only way — is with love.
BROOKS: I will not let the press, the media, politicians tell me I’ve got to hate my brother-in-law. I’m just not going to put up with it anymore. In the end, people want to love. They don’t want to hate. And then we can accelerate that with good leadership and I’m telling you, Stephen, I’m spending all of my time doing what I can to make love cool right now in politics.
And how is this love offensive working so far?
BROOKS: Everybody hates me. Yeah, totally. I’m despised by one and all.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: can love really conquer all? Is Arthur Brooks a fool for believing it can? And are you maybe his kind of fool?
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Let’s say you are a bright, ambitious, civic-minded kid, in middle school maybe. And you’re considering a career in government, perhaps in Congress. So you tune in one day to see what’s happening on the House floor.
Jerry NADLER: I now call up HR 7120, the Justice in Policing Act of 2020.
You find two representatives: Cedric Richmond of Louisiana —
Cedric RICHMOND: By the time I’m finished, you will be clear that we are not good friends.
— and Matt Gaetz of Florida —
Matt GAETZ: Are you suggesting that you’re certain that none of us have non-white children?
— having the sort of high-minded debate our Founding Fathers must have envisioned.
GAETZ: Because you reflected on your Black son, and you said none of us could understand —.
RICHMOND: Matt, stop. I’m not about to get side-tracked about the color of our children. We’re talking about Black — I reclaim my time. It is not about the color of your kids. It is about Black people in the streets that are getting killed, and if one of them happens to be your kid, I’m concerned about him, too. And clearly I’m more concerned about him than you are.
GAETZ: You’re claiming that you have more concern for my family than I do? Who in the hell do you think you are? You should take those words down.
BROOKS: Trying to insult somebody into agreement is the stupidest thing you can possibly do.
Arthur Brooks again.
BROOKS: I mean, it’s completely ineffective, but it feels good. It feels satisfying in the very short run.
But surveys suggest that most of us hate this noise.
BROOKS: Ninety-three percent, if you believe Tim Dixon’s data on this, 93 percent of us hate how divided we have become as a country.
Brooks is referring to a 2018 survey run by an international group called More in Common, which tries to build stronger communities and fight polarization. Now, we shouldn’t pretend that political polarization is new; it’s more of a feature than a bug in many political systems. You can find incredible nastiness if you go back a century in American politics or a couple millennia in Roman politics. The current American polarization has been building for a while now. Here’s an example: in the 1960’s, only 42 percent of votes in the U.S. Senate were party-unity votes — that is, votes in which the majority of Republicans opposed the majority of Democrats, or vice versa. By the 2010’s, that number had risen to 63 percent. Here’s some more data to consider: in 1935, the Social Security Act was passed with 90 percent Democratic support and 75 percent Republican support. So — not unanimous, but united. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed with just 60 percent Democratic support but, again, 75 percent Republican. If you look at the major legislation passed in recent years, however, it’s a different story. ObamaCare made it through Congress with zero Republican votes. President Trump’s 2018 tax-reform bill made it through with zero Democratic votes. This political partisanship is clearly echoed in the public. Consider how people think about the media. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of Democrats trusted information from national news organizations, along with 70 percent of Republicans. Today, 78 percent of Democrats still trust the major media but Republican trust in just a few years dropped from 70 percent to 35 percent. So, how did we get here? What’s been driving this intense spike in division and partisanship?
BROOKS: It’s a perfect Freakonomics question, actually. So there’s an interesting paper from the European Economic Review that was published in 2017 by three German economists that looked at 800 elections over 120 years in 20 advanced economies, including the United States. And what they found was that a financial crisis, which is a two-times-a-century deal — not a regular V-shaped recession, but a financial crisis like what we endured in the ‘30s and what we endured in 2008-2009 — has a very, very strong impact in the following decade on political polarization. Specifically, on average, it causes a 30 percent bump in voter share for populist parties and candidates. This is Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump by the numbers. So we don’t know how to distribute the returns after the economy is coming back, without 80 percent of the returns going to the top 20 percent of the income distribution, which opens the door for political populists to say, “Somebody’s got your stuff, and I’m going to get it back,” whether it’s foreigners, or whether it’s trade, or whether it’s bankers, or whether it’s wealthy people.
DUBNER: You’re saying that the populist sentiment comes from frustration over how the recovery gains are distributed? Because I was assuming it was about blaming the experts and elites for the underlying crisis.
BROOKS: Well, there’s that too. But that generally comes later. It’s the fact that I’m seeing people doing just fine after the crisis, but I’m still not. And my brother-in-law, Cletus, is still on my fold-out watching T.V. all day because he can’t get his job back. And it’s like, what the hell? But then the real action happens, because in democracy, which is the political version of capitalism, a.k.a. markets, people decide, the leaders are not leaders — they’re followers. They’re following market signals. And so Donald Trump, all he did was followed market signals. Bernie Sanders follows market signals. These news networks, they follow market signals. And those market signals are coming from a whole lot of frustration. And then, of course, the tail starts to wag the dog. So the contempt that actually is serving the markets as an outlet of frustration for the lack of progress that’s going to the margins of society, then actually fires up more contempt and it self-fuels.
DUBNER: Let me be sure I understand, because you’re saying all this frustration comes from us, from the citizenry who feel duly wronged by the big macro events that have ruined our livelihoods. And that feeds into something that politicians then respond to and it creates this even bigger storm. But, you also just told us that most of us don’t want to be involved in that contemptuous partisan cycle. So, you’re saying that we are both victim and villain, we being the citizenry, no?
BROOKS: For sure. And the same thing is true with any addictive cycle, where you want some relief and so you drink and then the homeostasis sets in and so you drink some more and you want the relief, but you hate the process. And so what we’re in is this weird downward spiral of contempt.
DUBNER: Tell us what you can about the science of contempt. I’d like to know, first of all, just how empirically it’s been identified as a separate thing from, let’s say, anger.
BROOKS: Anger is a basic negative emotion, the negative emotions are produced vis-a-vis stimuli of your limbic system. It’s kind of your lizard brain. Anger is a hot emotion that says, I care what you think and I want it to change. The problem is when you mix these emotions into complex emotions — so shame and guilt are complex emotions, for example. And contempt is this nasty cocktail of anger plus disgust, which is not a hot emotion anymore. It’s a cold emotion, it says, “You are worthless. And what you said is worthless. You are beneath my regard.” And that’s something that should be reserved for something that’s not human.
DUBNER: Reading your book Love Your Enemies, it was so moving to me, especially the portions where you’re describing the difference between contempt and anger. You write, “People often characterize the current moment as being angry. I wish this were true because anger tends to be self-limiting. But then when you mix it,” as you’ve described, “with disgust, and it becomes contempt, it’s a totally different thing.” What I found so moving about it was one very positive thing and one very negative thing. The very negative thing was you realize how easy it is for anyone to tip into contempt. In fact, I don’t know if most of us have even noticed that we added that layer of disgust to our anger. The upside, what makes me happy about it, is once you can identify the forces that are being destructive, you can address those forces. So, do most of us who exhibit contempt or experience contempt even know it? Do we identify the fact that it’s something different than anger?
BROOKS: The answer is no, because it’s a habit. Our habits of communication are as ingrained as smoking. I mean, I’ve seen myself in debates about the free-market system and somebody made an ill-considered remark about capitalism and I rolled my eyes, Stephen. I guarantee you that my interlocutor didn’t go home that night and say, “I was debating the president of the American Enterprise Institute on C.N.N. and he was making some very good points.” It’s like, “The guy’s a jerk!” And the reason is because I made somebody feel horrible with just one little action. And I didn’t hate the person. It was just a habit.
DUBNER: What do we know about the characteristics of people who are most likely to exhibit contempt or to be the target of contempt? In other words, break down if you can, whatever you can tell me, gender-wise, Republican-Democrat, old-young, anything racially/ethnically, and so on.
BROOKS: So we don’t see racial differences and we don’t see gender differences. And we actually don’t see differences between right and left. What we do see is differences in consumption of media. So the more time you consume political information on social media, the more you’re going to be both a victim and a perpetrator of contempt. The more that you watch cable television, you’re going to be a victim and perpetrator of contempt. For example, answering questions like, “What do you think is the biggest threat to the United States?” The likelihood of you saying it’s a person of the other party is directly related to how much political news that you consume. And I don’t even have to know what political news you consume. It’s funny, but it’s not, right? It’s straight hits off the bottle for people who just can’t handle it.
DUBNER: Make your best argument that while feeling contempt seems to make us happy or satisfied in fact makes us psychologically and physiologically worse off.
BROOKS: There’s a really great psychiatry professor at Stanford Medical School named Anna Lembke, who has a big new book out about dopamine. And she talks about addictions to video games and gambling and substances and pornography. What they all have in common is that they stimulate dopamine. So if you’re a media addict and you’re watching six hours a day of Fox News or M.S.N.B.C., the reason is because your brain is lighting up like a Christmas tree. The problem is that you’re neutralizing the pleasure you get from that almost immediately, leading you to have to take the drug again and again and again and again. These are the sort of the neurochemical predictors of falling happiness. And then at the more meta level, what you find is that contempt is going to drive love out of your life. There’s a very famous study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is an 80-year longitudinal study of people, when they get old, what do they all have in common if they’re happy and well, and the answer is love. It’s just all you need to know. Happiness is love, full stop.
DUBNER: Okay, so is love a verb or a noun? Discuss — and feel free to show your homework.
BROOKS: What I’m talking about is the love that we manage, that we make meta-cognitive. So, love is a verb. It is to will the good of the other as other. What is love not? It’s not a feeling. And this is incredibly important to remember, because in our modern culture, we tend to — in my view — over-valorize feelings, which tends to throw us like bits of jetsam on the surf. And we’re getting thrown around a lot, and it makes our lives have less quality, quite frankly, and it makes us bitter and angry, and it makes us suffer a lot more than we need to.
DUBNER: If you were writing this as some sort of equation in an econ paper, where you are treating contempt and love as these commodities, talk about how the two relate, where the supplies come from, where the demand comes from. In other words, how can this lovely theory of yours actually work?
BROOKS: Your vice, the opposite of your virtue, is your contempt divided by your love. If you want that force in your life to decline, absolutely you should work on your contempt. But the real way to do that, where you’ve got a lever, is that you should have a denominator-management strategy. And the more that you increase the denominator, the more that vicious impulse will just magically decrease.
DUBNER: Are you saying that love is proactive, essentially, and contempt tends to be reactive?
BROOKS: It generally tends to be because it’s being processed by the nucleus accumbens of your brain, which is the part of your brain that governs your habit-forming behavior. And so you can say, “I won’t be that way, I won’t be that way!” — that’s what I used to say when I was trying to quit smoking. And I always wound up with seven cigarettes burning at once because it would be this binge behavior at the end of the day. And people will say, “I won’t be contemptuous,” and then they wind up watching M.S.N.B.C. all night.
We should say: the number of people who actually binge on M.S.N.B.C., or the other cable-news networks, is relatively small. M.S.N.B.C. averages about 1.3 million viewers during primetime — not so many in a country of around 330 million. Fox News, the biggest cable news network, averages just over 2 million; C.N.N. is under a million. This one episode of Freakonomics Radio will be heard by more people than that. But the noise from the cable-news networks — the nearly constant volley of contempt — that noise reverberates, like someone shouting into a canyon. It disrupts any chance of peace you might have hoped for. So, how does Arthur Brooks propose to restore the peace?
BROOKS: Pretend that you’re feeling this love, notwithstanding your feelings, because it’s an act.
And what does this all mean — if anything — for the future of politics?
BROOKS: We need people from both parties that people are going to vote for, as opposed to somebody who will defend me from the person I’m voting against.
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If I told you there was a public intellectual, a conservative, who wanted to fight political polarization and contempt with love — and that this person was trained in economics — you might not believe me. Economists are about supply and demand, costs and benefits — not love. But Arthur Brooks is not a typical economist.
BROOKS: I thought everybody who is a professional economist actually starts out as a French horn player.
Brooks grew up just outside Seattle. His mother was an artist, his father a math professor. Arthur started playing violin when he was four, and piano at five.
BROOKS: And I played the French horn starting when I was eight years old. And that one really stuck because I was good at it. And it’s fun to be good at something when you’re a kid. And then when I went away to college, all I wanted to do was play. So I went to the California Institute of the Arts, where I dropped my required classes and took Indonesian dance and North Indian classical drumming, and was invited to pursue my excellence outside of the institution.
He spent the next 10 years playing French horn professionally, the last several with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra.
BROOKS: I moved to Spain to get a woman who didn’t speak English in a bid to convince her to marry me.
It worked. That woman, Ester Munt, now Ester Munt-Brooks, is still his wife. But his musical career didn’t last as long.
BROOKS: There was really something missing. My ambition was to be the world’s greatest French horn player, not to make beautiful music. And that’s a problem, because I was all about extrinsic satisfaction, not intrinsic satisfaction. So I started doing correspondence school. I was playing in the orchestra. I didn’t tell anybody because I was embarrassed that they might think that I wasn’t all in on music — this is how musicians think — and I wound up secretly getting my bachelor’s degree by correspondence. And then I just couldn’t stop. And so I got my master’s degree secretly at night at a local university. I decided I was just — it’s so great. These ideas are just so interesting that I quit music and started my Ph.D.
DUBNER: I wonder for you, someone who’s coming to academia relatively late, what would you say were the benefits? What did you bring to that academic pursuit as a full-grown adult?
BROOKS: Here’s the deal. People don’t know what they want. The most obscure thing to most people is the nature of their own desire. People always ask the wrong question. They say, “I don’t know what to do with my life.” No, no, no. You don’t know what you want. And they look for exogenous sources of information and they don’t actually go through the process of discernment. Every major philosophical and religious tradition has discernment. I mean, discernment is part of Judaism. Discernment is part of Buddhism. It’s certainly part of the Ignatian tradition in Catholicism. Discernment is all about understanding the nature of your own desire so that you can actually be happy. And what people will do is they’ll say, “Everybody goes to college after high school. Okay, I’m going to go to college after school. And in college, I’m going to figure out what I want to do.” And then they get out of college and they’re like, “I don’t know what I want to do. So I’m going to go work for a consulting firm or write software, and then I’ll figure out what I want to do.” And then they don’t. They’re hoping that some outside experience comes over the transom and shows them what they want to do. And that’s not how it works.
And so what happened was having to make decisions for my own life and treating my life like an entrepreneurial endeavor, I figured out the nature of my desire. I actually really, really, really want to be an idea guy. I want to. It’s not because some college professor said, “You’re smart enough to be like me.” It was because I realized that I’m obsessed with ideas.
After his Ph.D., Brooks became a college professor, first at Georgia State and then Syracuse. He would spend 10 years in academia. He focused his research on philanthropy, primarily the motives that lead people to donate money. Out of this research came his first book, in 2006. It was called Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism.
BROOKS: There was one thing in that book that people either liked or didn’t like, which was that as a general matter — this wasn’t very political, it was more religious in nature — that people who have strong religious commitments give more to all causes and charities, including secular causes and charities, than people who don’t have strong religious commitments. And people who are more religious tend to be more conservative, and so therefore, this is the reason that we see a pattern in which, at that time in particular, conservatives gave more to charity than liberals. And for me as an academic, it’s like, big deal, man, I’m just looking at a bunch of data and I’m noticing these patterns. And also there’s one other characteristic of conservatives, which is that they tend to think that the government is not effective.
DUBNER: How much did you overlay that association on to this argument, that conservatives give more to charity because they don’t believe so much in redistribution while liberals do and therefore think the government should distribute and therefore might give less to charity?
BROOKS: That was an interpretation on the basis of the associations that I showed. But I tried to be careful about my language because I’m a guy who does this research. And so I know what the research is saying and not. But of course, the political thing was what was salient. And it hit the news cycle in just the right way. President Bush read my book. And when the President of the United States is walking out to the helicopter, holding a book, they are like “What’s that book!” and it’s like some obscure college professor. And suddenly my phone started ringing.
DUBNER: So you write that you were happily working as a professor at Syracuse, when you get a call from A.E.I., the American Enterprise Institute, asking if you’d think about becoming their president. Describe that call and how much of a surprise this development was.
BROOKS: They were going through a presidential search that was going very poorly. And so they threw a dart down the hall and basically hit me. I’d never raised a dollar and I never had one employee. It was just insanity.
DUBNER: Usually when an institution has a hard time finding a leader, it’s for good reason, that the place is in bad trouble. Were they?
BROOKS: No. The truth of the matter is, however, that most institutions have a really hard time finding a chief executive. I mean, these jobs are a grind. You’re on the road all the time. They’re 80-hour-a-week jobs. And if you’re going to be a university president, but even more, a think-tank president, you’ve got to be a scholar.
DUBNER: Did it feel like the intellectual, academic, ideas-based operation that you envisioned? Or did you feel like, oh, it’s an ideas shop, but it’s an ideas shop geared toward producing policy that is meant to promote a certain spectrum of the political industry?
BROOKS: It was the former. It really was. And part of the reason was because our scholars are notorious for irritating our friends.
DUBNER: Give me an example, if you could.
BROOKS: You talk about the carried-interest provision, which is basically it’s a loophole where you take income and say it’s not income for founders of certain kinds of businesses. And our scholars are like, “No, it’s income.” Sure, lower the income tax. But don’t say that something that is income isn’t income. And so we were saying things like that all the time. I was getting these outraged phone calls from donors all the time. “How can your scholars say something like this?” Like, “Dude, this is what the data is telling them. And I’m sorry, what do you want me to tell you?”
DUBNER: So, let’s say that I am a billionaire plutocrat, and I wish to affect U.S. policymaking, okay? Where do I get the best R.O.I.? A) funding a think tank to support research that promotes my agenda and works its way into the bloodstream? B) lobbying members of Congress directly. Or perhaps, C) some other route like a public-relations campaign or a media blitz.
BROOKS: I’d buy a bunch of T.V. stations and newspapers, and I would probably start a cable network. That’s where you’re going to be coalescing a movement of people who are highly ideological, and that’s where you don’t have to worry about anybody telling you you’re wrong. The whole idea that you’re actually going to be informed by cable media? That is just insane if you think that. If you’re actually going like, “Oh, I’m going to watch these cable news networks, especially during primetime, and I’m really going to find out what’s going on with Biden, what’s going on with the Russia collusion case with Trump.” No, you’re not. You’re basically going to have your biases scratched. And if you go to the other side to see what the other side is saying, you’re going to recognize the accelerants on these half-truths and rumors and that won’t change how you think either. So we have a big problem with the means of communication in this country and the way that we actually do so-called news. There are things that can happen that can radically change this environment, or we can have a slow kind of oozing, moving forward, where the leadership in one or both parties basically says, “I’ve had enough, I’ve had enough.”
What I really, really hope is that you have this — you remember the good old days, Stephen, remember 2012? Obama and Romney were just duking it out about who was going to be a better opportunity politician for the American public. And I knew tons of people were like, “I don’t know who to vote for. I don’t know which one of them I like more.” And instead, you get into 2016 and people are like, “Yeah, I don’t know who I like less.” Things can change really fast in American politics. And so we need people from both parties that people are going to vote for, as opposed to somebody who will defend me from the person I’m voting against. That’s what we actually want.
DUBNER: So you’ve collaborated with the Dalai Lama, and you asked him once what to do when you feel contempt. And his answer was, “Practice warm-heartedness.” And then you did exactly what I would have done, which is, said, “Um, can you say a little bit more about that, please? Are there any specifics?”
BROOKS: You got anything else, Your Holiness?
DUBNER: And then, as you write, he suggests that you think back to a time when you answered contempt with warm-heartedness, remember how that made you feel, and then do it again. Is it really that simple? Because that sounds like even I could do that.
BROOKS: It’s amazingly good psychology. It’s reversing an automatic process. There’s a famous exercise that I teach to my Harvard students now. I have to teach a class on happiness. And when you’re feeling unhappy, if you want to feel happier, if you put a pencil in your mouth and bite down so it’s sideways in your mouth and you’re biting down on your molars, that will actually strain the orbicularis oculi muscles in the corner of your eyes, giving you a little crow’s feet. And that signals to your brain that you’re doing a Duchenne smile, which is the only smile associated with true happiness, and it runs the causality in the other direction, and you will literally feel happier. So that’s what I’m suggesting. Pretend that you’re feeling this love, notwithstanding your feelings, because it’s an act. It’s a commitment. It’s not a feeling. And in so doing, you will run the cognitive process in the opposite direction, and you’ll get results. And that’s what the Dalai Lama was telling me. He was just not telling me in those wonky, nerdy terms.
DUBNER: So you’re making the argument that people, individuals, can and should opt out of the contempt industry, and practice more warm-heartedness. But I wonder if you’re being somewhat Pollyannaish here because the leverage and the reach of the industries that promote contempt — especially the political and media industries — they’re very powerful. So what makes you think that those Goliaths could ever be taken down by even a very large army of Davids?
BROOKS: Well, the answer is that every movement actually starts with a few people. What political leaders do, what institutions do, is they get in front of parades that are going down the street saying, “This parade needs a leader.” And the parade’s got to start someplace. And none of the things that I write are at odds with the idea that we need institutional change. That’s true, too. But only thinking institutionally, only thinking in terms of systems doesn’t actually get at the intrinsic truth, which is that everything actually starts with a few individuals. That was Gandhi’s big point. That was Martin Luther King’s big point. Martin Luther King didn’t start by going to the Department of Justice to try to break up racist institutions in the South. Martin Luther King got people together who said, I think that we can start making things better. We can act in a particular way. We can show steely courage with boundless love.
DUBNER: A lot of social scientists argue that when different groups are presented with a common enemy, they tend to unite. I heard a lot of smart people posit that Covid-19 would be that common enemy that would bring everyone together, that it would lessen contempt. I see no evidence that it’s done that. Why do you think not?
BROOKS: Bad leadership. You know, we had an opportunity and under appropriate leadership, the country could have come together, and it did in other parts of the world. Not perfectly. There’s still dissidence and there’s still problems and there’s uneven recovery. I get it. The fact of the matter is that the President of the United States used Covid to divide as opposed to using Covid to unite. Every leader’s got a choice. And when the President of the United States — I mean, it would have been great if the whole country said, “No, we refuse. We will come together. We will.” But the President of the United States has a lot of power. It was a classic case of dividing, contemptuous leadership — in our moment of need.
DUBNER: And what about Biden?
BROOKS: As the Chinese like to say, “Too soon to tell.” Of course, they said that about the French Revolution. It’s too soon to tell because the cycle is still really upon us. What I would love to see is Biden not being in thrall of the loudest voices on his own side. If you want contempt to be in the rear-view mirror, you got to stand up to people on your own side, because it’s the only place where you have credibility. And if Biden would start to appoint some good moderate Republicans to high-ranking positions and do really, really moderate things, which seems to me was characteristic of his political career up to this point, it would be enormously beneficial for bringing us together.
DUBNER: Here’s a sentence from your book that one doesn’t often read: “My admiration for politicians has grown enormously.” You go on to write, “They are some of the most patriotic, hard-working people I’ve ever met. They love America and hate our culture of contempt as much as you and I.” So, Arthur, if that’s the case, why are they, the players in that industry, not able to tamp down the contempt?
BROOKS: You have a problem of scale, where it’s one of them versus the entire infrastructure of media, the rest of politicians, the most powerful politicians. It’s a massive collective-action problem. Now, when I say my respect for politicians has risen, it’s true. Not all politicians. I mean, some are opportunists and some of them are really creating the problem wholesale. But the truth of the matter is that most that I’ve met, they’re smart, they’re interested in what’s going on, they want to make things better and they don’t know how. And just like the rest of us, they feel a lot of fear. And people act in suboptimal ways when they’re fearful.
DUBNER: How much time do you spend talking still with Republican candidates, Congresspeople, strategists and so on?
BROOKS: A lot. Not everybody. It’s not like President Trump is calling me. But I do have the pleasure of talking to a lot of people on Capitol Hill and what I’m talking about, the playbook that I’m trying to bring to everybody who will possibly listen, not just Republicans, but anybody who will listen, is we need a competition of opportunity. Look, we are still the same nation of ambitious riff-raff that we always were. We believe in the radical equality of human dignity. I’ve got the data: most people believe in this, absolutely. And we have different ways to make this agenda true and pure and good. And once we start fighting each other over that, “No, I want more opportunity,” we can get out of this crisis. I’ve got the ear of a few and, Stephen, I want more. I want more.
DUBNER: So what is the playbook for the GOP for 2022 and then maybe 2024 as well.
BROOKS: Well, 2022 is different than 2024. And the reason is because it’s midterm, it’s the first midterm for a new president. And so the way that Republicans like any political party, like the Democrats did in 2018, the way that they’re going to play that is “not Biden,” and “not the Democrats,” and they’ll probably pick up seats. That’s just standard operating procedure. And I would be shocked if they didn’t take that opportunity. 2024 is different because it’s going to depend on the character and the platform of the person who’s running for president on the Republican side.
DUBNER: When you talk to Republicans, either elected politicians or their strategists, who are on the fence about whether to continue to support Donald Trump or to accept support from Donald Trump in the upcoming midterms — how do you advise them?
BROOKS: It depends on where they are. But fundamentally, you’ve got to ask yourself, “What are you willing to fail for, Stephen?” One of the things that we find about the happiest people is they can answer the question, why are you alive and for what are you willing to die? Okay, so let’s take it to the level of our career. What are we willing to fail for? What are we willing to have the microphone taken away from us for? And so I ask my political friends: “You have a concept of what you think is right. It doesn’t mean it’s what I think is right. What are you willing to lose an election for?” And when my friends examine that, you start showing some courage. You start saying the things that you think. And then once you cross that Rubicon, it’s unbelievably liberating. You can be free. You can be free.
DUBNER: What are your very best ideas for fighting contempt? Let’s say we’re sitting next to each other on an airplane. You catch my attention totally by saying, “Yeah, we live in this contempt cycle, but I can fix it.” Fix me, quickly. We’re going to land in ten minutes.
BROOKS: No. 1, stand up to the man, like they used to say in the ’60s, stand up to the man. The man that’s manipulating you is the media that are telling you that you have to hate. No. 2 is start running toward contempt because this is your opportunity to show love and you don’t get that many opportunities to show love. I mean, this is mission territory, man. Why is it that all these religious missionaries, why do you think that they’re so happy all the time? You know what nobody has ever said in human life? “Oh, good. There’s missionaries on the porch.” And yet they’re happy. They’re happy because they’re actually bringing light where there’s darkness, in their view. Be a missionary. And one of the ways to do this, if you’re in a habit — this is No. 3: John Gottman says that if you’re fighting with your spouse, start carrying around a five-to-one list — where when you want to say something hateful or sarcastic or critical, you write it down on your list, but then you have to say five loving, nice, caring things first. And guess what? You won’t get to the sixth thing.
And so if you want to say something sarcastic on Twitter about President Biden or Trump or something, you got to say five positive things — you’re going to lose followers on Twitter, by the way, because it’s a contempt machine, but you’re going to be a different person. And what that’s going to do is you’re going to start finding yourself confronting the sources of contempt with love, with happiness, with light. And then finally, last but not least, you need to be more grateful. If you’re a Republican and you actually think that the biggest threat to America is Democrats, man you’re out of your tree. You’re just not looking at the facts. Are you kidding? You don’t have enough grasp on foreign policy, among other things. You’re drinking this Kool-Aid from cable T.V. and your Facebook friends or something and it’s crazy. And you need to be more grateful for the fact that you live in a country where you can say, “The President of the United States is an idiot,” and there’s no knock in the night and no jack-booted thug. And God bless America for that.
That’s Arthur Brooks. What do you think: does the love and warm-heartedness he prescribes stand a chance against the contempt machine that seems to be running our country?
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Ryan Kelley. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Arthur Brooks, professor of leadership at Harvard University.
- Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, by Anna Lembke (2021).
- “Partisan Divides in Media Trust Widen, Driven by a Decline Among Republicans,” by Jeffrey Gottfried and Jacob Liedke (Pew Research Center, 2021).
- “Leading Cable News Networks in the United States in July 2021, by Number of Primetime Viewers,” by Nielsen Holdings Inc. (Deadline, 2021).
- “Reading Too Much Political News Is Bad for Your Well-Being,” by Arthur Brooks (The Atlantic, 2020).
- Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, by Arthur Brooks (2019).
- “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” by Stephen Hawkins, Daniel Yudkin, Míriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon (More in Common, 2018).
- “Research Shows How Partisan Extremes Mask an Exhausted Majority,” by Tim Dixon (Sojourners, 2018).
- “How to Shorten the Lifespan of Trumpian Populism,” by Michael R. Strain (Bloomberg, 2017).
- “Republicans Pass Historic Tax Cuts Without a Single Democratic Vote,” (Axios, 2017).
- “This 75-Year Harvard Study Found the 1 Secret to Leading a Fulfilling Life,” by Melanie Curtin (Inc., 2017).
- “Chapter 8: Political Polarization in Congress and Changing Voting Alignments,” by the Brookings Institute (Vital Statistics on Congress, 2017).
- The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, by Arthur Brooks (2015).
- “Obamacare Overview,” by Ballotopedia (2014).
- “Grin and Bear It: The Influence of Manipulated Facial Expression on the Stress Response,” by Tara L. Kraft and Sarah D. Pressman (Psychological Science, 2012).
- Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, by Arthur Brooks (2006).
- “Democrat/GOP Vote Tally on 1964 Civil Rights Act,” by Clark L. Maxam and MaryCarol B. Maxam (The Wall Street Journal, 2002).
- “1935 Congressional Debates on Social Security,” by the Social Security Administration (1998).
- “The Duchenne smile: Emotional expression and brain physiology: II,” by Paul Ekman, Richard J. Davidson, and Wallace V. Friesen (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1990).
- “Why Is U.S. Media So Negative? (Ep. 477),” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).