A Harvard Law Professor on Where the Political Center Went, and How to Bring It Back | Next Big Idea Club
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A Harvard Law Professor on Where the Political Center Went, and How to Bring It Back

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A Harvard Law Professor on Where the Political Center Went, and How to Bring It Back

Cass Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, where he is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. He served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012, and he is the single most cited law professor in the United States. He recently joined Next Big Idea Club Editor Jeremy Price to discuss the groundbreaking insights found in his latest book, the Next Big Idea Club Finalist, How Change Happens.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click the link below.

Jeremy: Tell me about how this new book of yours came about. Where did you first get the idea?

Cass: Well, it occurred to me that sometimes there is a law, like a law stopping people from smoking in public buildings, and it might not be enforced much, but society would go whoosh, and there would be no smoking in public buildings. Society can really move in a hurry—take Rosa Parks, who stood up on a segregated bus and said, “I’m not going to stand for this.” And at one point, communism was all over Eastern Europe, and then in a short time, communism was nowhere in Eastern Europe.

That kind of rapid change—which can involve very big things like the environment or civil rights, or smaller things like what’s happening in our town or workplace—got me pretty interested.

Jeremy: It seems like a lot of the ideas that you tackle in this book have an interesting resonance with another Next Big Idea Club book, which was New Power, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. They contend that as the world becomes more and more connected with things like social media and a globalized economy, the way that power operates is changing.

In the past, “old power” was wielded by very important individual people who could change everything, like Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood. Whereas now, “new power” is less localized to a single person, and more like an entire group process, like the #MeToo movement. It’s this wave of power that ripples throughout an entire community, and can create real change.

Do you think that the way that change happens has shifted as the world has become more interconnected? Or has it always worked in the same way?

Cass: I would be cautious about large pronouncements of that kind, and focus on the following very specific thing, which is a human universal: In our minds, we often have thoughts, and concerns, and hopes, and aspirations that we tell no one, or which we only tell our intimates. We may think, for example, that some unpopular politician is great, or that it’s morally obligatory to be a vegetarian, or that same-sex marriage is a very reasonable idea—but we don’t tell people.

“Political correctness and social norms often make people very quiet about what they really think about their country, their city, their family, or their workplace.”

What I’m trying to draw attention to is that political correctness and social norms often make people very quiet about what they really think about their country, their city, their family, or their workplace. Political correctness is all around us, and its real name is “social norms.”

Now, that is often a challenge, but also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity because people generally don’t know what thoughts are in the minds [of the people around them]. They might be thinking about the tax system, air pollution, or cleaning up crime in the neighborhood. The fact that people are often silent about those things creates opportunity for human beings to signal, “You’re not alone.” That signal is often a green light or a permission slip [to act on those thoughts].

The American Revolution is a case study. People all over the colonies were thinking that it wasn’t right how only people connected to a monarch got to rule. A lot of people were thinking that, but they had political correctness, and the social norms [caused them to] silence themselves. But the grant of a permission slip by a neighbor, or someone who was important, or someone who really wasn’t important at all—maybe your 17-year-old daughter saying that it wasn’t right—[that really got people talking]. That’s the sort of thing that happened everywhere, and it made the United States of America possible.

And that’s why the MeToo movement is signaling something really important at large: “What you think, me too.” What’s in people’s private minds is often in other people’s private minds; all they need to know is that other people think it, too.

Jeremy: So that permission slip allows people to express how they really feel, and open the door to social change. It sounds like that’s dependent on a lot of America’s core values—whether that’s democracy, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, anything that allows people to say what they really think. Would you say that those things are really tied to these permission slips?

“What’s in people’s private minds is often in other people’s private minds; all they need to know is that other people think it, too.”

Cass: Absolutely. In democratic nations like the United States, Canada, Germany, and Australia, the government is unlikely to put you in jail if you say what you think. Chances are very high that you’re going to be [legally] free, but there are cultural and social constraints on what you can say, and that might mean that you can’t object to something—not because you might be put in jail, but because you fear that your neighbors and friends will look at you and say, “Who are you?”

I was privileged to work in the White House, and I had a position by which I was [going to be] confirmed by the U.S. Senate. I have a daughter who rides horses, so one day I wrote something that was very positive about animal welfare. And it created terrible trouble for me—I almost couldn’t get confirmed by the Senate. I got death threats. I don’t have extreme views—I just think that if animals suffer, that’s not a good thing. But a lot of people don’t like that kind of talk.

And I confess, I have been more cautious about talking about animal welfare, not because there’s any law against it, but because I might get death threats, or I might get anger—anger, by the way, from good people. People with whom I worked in Washington, who I really liked, were enraged at me because of things I said about animal welfare. This is just my personal example, but we all have our example.

And that’s where the opportunity exists. In authoritarian nations, the reason they are so vigilant at policing dissent is that they know that the people will rebel if they get a permission slip. But for all the dramatic differences between authoritarian and free societies, the challenges for agents of change are broadly similar, and that little spark or little nudge can fuel something extremely dramatic.

Take people using opioids—on balance, that has not been a very good green light. For some people it’s a necessary pain relief, but for many others it’s like a death sentence. And it has happened in a hurry—permission slips were given both to doctors and patients. The [opioid crisis] is not a good thing, but the fact that it happened so quickly is actually encouraging, because it suggests that reversal is highly likely, and also possible in the near future.

“That little spark or little nudge can fuel something extremely dramatic.”

Jeremy: I’m glad we’ve been talking a bit about politics, because I wanted to ask: It’s no secret that we’re living in a really polarized political climate, so how does group polarization work, and what can we do to cultivate more of a middle ground in this country?

Cass: Okay, so let’s say you get a group of people together—they’re in Los Angeles, and they think that the people in New York are snobby, and terrible, and focused on money. Those people in Los Angeles talk to each other, and they’re going to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they originally thought about people in New York.

If like-minded people talk to each other, they tend to end up more extreme, more unified, and more confident. That’s how group polarization comes about. If like-minded people are in a room, or on Twitter, or on Facebook together, their mutual interactions will drive extremism—and if this is happening on the left and the right, then the left is going to go far to the left, the right is going to go far to the right, and they’re going to have a hard time understanding each other.

I did a little study in Colorado. We had citizens of Boulder—a left-of-center place—talking about climate change with each other, and people in Colorado Springs—that’s a right-of-center place—[also talking about climate change]. The people in Boulder ended up going way to the left on climate change, unanimously, and the people in Colorado Springs went way to the right on climate change, unanimously. Colorado Springs and Boulder ended up living in different political universes, and that’s kind of like what’s happening in many countries now.

So I think the best response involves “architecture,” e.g. a media outlet that structures information such that you see lots of different things. That can produce humility, and an understanding that your own view isn’t all there is. And it can produce a sense that people who disagree with you are not only decent but, at least on some issues, right. And that emotional cool-down can help create more productive solutions, and the occasional sense of, “Oh gosh, I was wrong on that one.” That can be a great facilitator of compromises, and even better than compromises, agreement on what to do that is spurred by a sense that each of the competing sides has a good idea.

“If like-minded people talk to each other, they tend to end up more extreme, more unified, and more confident.”

Jeremy: In your book, you write a lot about the relationship between social norms and the law, and I’m curious to get your thoughts on this dynamic specifically with respect to climate change. Because in the last few years, government leaders haven’t taken a whole lot of steps toward reducing carbon emissions. But on the other hand, it’s been encouraging to see that on the ground, social norms do seem to be shifting a little bit, where the conversation around climate change is becoming more mainstream, and people are starting to act on it.

Given what you know about that relationship between the law and social norms, how do you see this playing out in terms of climate change? Will change come from the law, or bottom-up shifts in social norms?

Cass: When I was in the Obama administration, I spent a lot of time on climate change. And one thing we did was work on energy efficiency requirements for household appliances, and that involves refrigerators, microwave ovens, washers, dryers, and more. And the result of the energy efficiency mandates has been to save consumers a lot of money—because the machines are much less expensive to operate over time—and also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quite significantly.

A lot of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and the world come from the transportation sector, and what we did was have very ambitious fuel economy standards for both cars and trucks, which dramatically decreased greenhouse gas emissions. President Trump is rethinking and trying to freeze the fuel economy standards, but there’s been significant progress in making cars more fuel-efficient in the United States, just in a short period. With respect to the power sector, there are restrictions on new power plants that would be bad in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and those are basically sticking for a combination of regulatory and economic reasons.

So if you put all of this together—appliances, the transportation sector, and energy sources—there’s been a lot done at the national level. Most of it had bipartisan support, and many of the standards have been very popular. So there’s room to do a whole lot without dividing people, and the public is pleased because their energy bills are lower.

“When we have a daunting problem—it could be poverty, immigration, or climate change—better is good.”

A lot of progress can also be made if each individual decides to do something that’s a little less damaging to the climate. So if you can afford it—and sometimes it’s actually better for your pocketbook—get a hybrid rather than a conventional car. Or if you’re getting a conventional car, get one that’s a little better on fuel economy. Since there are tens of thousands of vehicles sold in a relatively short time in the United States, if everyone thinks like that, you can actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions a fair bit.

There’s a phrase that people in government have used under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and it’s very simple: “Better is good.” When we have a daunting problem—it could be poverty, immigration, or climate change—better is good.

Jeremy: I really love that. I’ve certainly been motivated to start eating less meat, for example, because I know that that’s a big contributor when it comes to greenhouse gases.

You’ve mentioned how social norms can obscure people’s true beliefs and who they really are, and one of the first things that made me think of was high school. I remember being in a high school where the norm was generally a lot of negativity, and condescension, and speaking poorly about other people. And yet interestingly, while everyone was really negative and unkind in group settings, whenever I was speaking one-on-one to anybody in my class, they were perfectly lovely people. How does that discrepancy come about?

Cass: So I think there are a few different things going on. One-on-one, you’re seeing someone as a particular person. You’re looking them in the eye—there’s a natural impulse to treat them with respect and dignity, and to establish some degree of commonality. The only person you’re interacting with or signaling to is that person, and so to treat them with cruelty would make you hate yourself. It would be like, “Why am I doing that?”

Whereas if you’re in a group—and it could be high school, or the workforce, or anywhere—to [call out] someone as pathetic, or ugly, or deficient in some way can be a signal of something that is valued within the group, such as [the speaker’s] confidence or superiority, or being a dangerous person. And going back to evolution, being a dangerous person—or being perceived as a dangerous person—can be attractive. It makes people feel scared, maybe even admiring. But doing that one-on-one just makes you seem like a creep.

“Speak up if you have a clear conviction. If you think that something’s not right in your family, or your workplace, or your town, let people know.”

So there are lots of reasons why unkindness in a group would be socially rewarded, or at least perceived that way. Whereas in an individual setting, kindness would be socially rewarded—if there’s cruelty, the person is just going to walk away, and no one’s looking, so why would you feel proud of yourself?

Jeremy: I love that answer. But then that begs the question of, who are you really? Is it the way that you act, or is it what you believe, but don’t act on?

Cass: You could say that who you really are depends on the context. There are people who are lovely and supportive in a one-on-one setting, and are vicious and uncaring in group settings. They’re both, not one or the other.

To go in another, perhaps more uplifting direction, you could say that who they really are is who they are in the one-on-one setting—that in the group setting, they are bracketing their true self, because they want to present themselves in a certain light. I’m not sure which is the right answer, but I prefer the second.

Jeremy: I think I do, too—it’s a bit more optimistic.

We’ve talked a lot about these big-picture problems that we’re facing, whether it’s political polarization or climate change, and then also some of these smaller issues, like just getting through the day as a high schooler. My last question for you is, what is one thing that we can all start doing today to create positive change in our communities?

Cass: Speak up if you have a clear conviction. If you think that something’s not right in your family, or your workplace, or your town, let people know. Do it with a sense that you might be wrong and your complaint might not be justified—but if you are silencing yourself about things that really matter for you or people you care about, do it 10% less.

Ready to learn more about Cass Sunstein’s How Change Happens? Join the Next Big Idea Club today!

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