What’s the best strategy for reducing polarization: changing the system or culture?, with David Foster

A talk with David Foster, who writes about polarization and media at and is the author of “Moderates of the World Unite!: Reworking the Political Media Complex.” Topics discussed include: the optimal approach for reducing toxic political polarization (cultural change vs systemic changes); defining the word ‘moderate’ and examining some of the negative connotations it has; the difficulty of making any changes in a polarized, high-animosity environment; why some conservatives dislike the idea of making systemic changes; the ideas in David’s book for improving the media environment and political discourse. A transcript is below.

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Zachary Elwood:

Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me Zach Elwood.  This is a podcast about psychology and behavior. You can learn more about it 

Sometimes this podcast focuses on America’s political polarization problem, as I think it’s our most serious problem and also a problem that, by its nature, prevents people from caring about solving the problem. I focus on it because I think not nearly enough people do. 

On today’s episode I talk to David Foster, who writes about polarization and the media landscape on his site and who recently released a book aimed at reducing toxic polarization titled Moderates of the World Unite!: Reworking the Political Media Complex. 

David and I talk about polarization and media, and we focus on the question: what’s the most optimal strategy for trying to reduce toxic polarization? Is it better to focus on making systemic changes, like passing legislation aimed at improving the media environment or other policies? Or is it better to focus on changing the culture; changing the way everyday people think and treat each other? 

David has focused more on the systemic aspects, specifically with regards to the media environment. In my work I’ve focused on more cultural change. So this talk might be interesting to you apart from polarization because the focus is on: how do we change culture for the better? What are the levers we have to pull? 

And for anyone interested in polarization I think this is a very important question that doesn’t get asked enough. Trying to figure out the best ways to spend our time is an important issue; we want to get the most bang for our buck, or for our effort. So it’s David and I’s hope this is of value for people in the bridge-building and depolarization space. 

And just a note that this is a video talk and the video version is on my People Who Read People youtube channel. So if you’re listening on audio and it sounds less edited than usual, that’s why. I’ve been trying to do more video talks. 

Okay, here’s the talk with David Foster, author of “Moderates of the World, Unite!”.

Zach: Let’s start out with, how did you get into this work? What drives your passion in this area? If you want to summarize that, I know that’s a big question.

David Foster: Yeah. Yeah, that is a big question. I mean, the motivation is probably pretty similar to yours and everyone who works in the whole problem of polarization and depolarization. I want to see this country have a more pragmatic problem-solving attitude towards everything. And polarization is making our government, especially the Congress, kind of dysfunctional and unable to do much of anything, as we are currently seeing in the Congress even in the past few weeks. That’s what’s driving me. I guess you could call it idealistic, but I’m really interested in… I think it’s a super important problem and it kind of gets in the way of solving other problems. Yeah, that’s what’s driving me. As you know, my career has been in online course development- eLearning- and my educational background even goes back into studying theory and cognitive science and computer science. I know a lot about learning systems, like technology-based learning systems, and I think maybe that gave me ideas about ways to approach the problem that not everyone would think of. And I rose to a pretty high level, I guess you could say, in that whole sector but decided five years ago that I want to work on this problem because it’s so urgent.

Zach: Is part of your frustration maybe like mine, where you feel a bit of frustration because people aren’t paying enough attention to these things as they should?

David: Yeah. Yeah, huge frustration. And it’s super daunting. You and I have talked a lot and I think we both feel it, you know? I remember a guy who was kind of a mentor who was coaching me, and he described it once, “Well, you know, David, what you’re doing is sort of like standing on the yellow line in between two lanes of traffic speeding in different directions. That’s kind of where the moderates and the people who want to work on polarization are.”

Zach: You need like a thin yellow line flag or something.

David: Yeah, definitely. [laughs] Definitely.

Zach: Maybe we can work on that branding. That might be good.

David: Yeah, that’s a branding opportunity for sure.

Zach: Yeah. Maybe that’s a good segue to talk about, you know, you and I have talked about the two different high-level categories of how to approach this kind of work. You focused on the more systemic changes, like changes to media or policy, and I have focused more on grassroots convincing people of the need for it. Yeah, and I want us to be real frank here because I have my own doubts about whether I’m spending… We can all second guess if we’re spending our time on the right things, but maybe you could talk a little bit about why you have focused on the systemic changes as opposed to the more kind of grassroots mass mainstream convincing efforts.

David: Right. Right. Yeah, it’s a really good question and quite a dilemma. I have to caveat first by saying that I do see a lot of value in grassroots efforts and I admire the work that people are doing. And it can only be a net positive, you know? Even if it doesn’t change the world, every little bit helps. Also, the other caveat is we need multiple approaches. None of us knows which is going to have the most impact and so we should welcome all approaches as I do, and I’m sure you do as well. The analogy– or try out this analogy, I’m curious what you think– My belief is that there’s some value towards focusing on the system-level things in terms of efficiency and productivity and impact. An analogy that I would use is, when inflation is heating up, one approach would be to try to convince all the companies in the country to not raise prices, you know? Or the Fed can raise interest rates and it spreads through the whole system and it’s more efficient and scalable and all those good things. So the analogy in the face of escalating polarization, one approach is to try to convince individuals to work on their own contributions to polarization. And you’ll get some people to do it, for sure, and it helps. But my take on it is that why not, instead, go at the cause of it in the media environments and what’s really causing it? Because it’s my belief that the escalating polarization we’ve had in the last 20 years is not due to a change in human nature. That’s kind of the reverse direction of the causality, in my opinion, that when you’re trying to fix individuals, that’s trying to fix the effects. Whereas, in my opinion, the cause is primarily due to the change in the public media environment.

Zach: Right, environment. Yeah.

David: But not public media, just the media environment.

Zach: Right. Right. Yeah, and I’d say I’m with you in the sense that I don’t have any firm opinions. Actually, talking to you about this in the past made me update my book because I felt like I was downplaying systemic change too much. It’s not that I’m like… I think systemic changes are very good and very important. And like you say, I think we need everybody working on it. Because I think the way I think of what I’m doing or what other organizations who focus on convincing people of the need, I see it as some of those people we convince that it’s a big problem will help create the systemic changes and there needs to be some sort of pressure to work on those things. But yeah, like you say, it’s like I have doubts about what am I or what are any of these organizations really doing. Because if you change a few people’s minds, how much is it doing? But then you can also have those doubts about the systemic change aspect, where it’s like, “How can we really get this gridlocked Congress to pass a systemic change?” So to your point, I see them as [working a concert]. You have to convince enough people to even try it, too, whatever you’re going to try to do systemically. Yeah.

David: Right. Right. Yeah, it’s a chicken and egg problem, for sure. I think one of the things that the grassroots efforts aren’t doing enough of, you know, I agree that if enough people are sort of working on depolarizing themselves and learning how to be more civil and so forth, that could generate some pressure. But it’s not really getting them thinking about the media environment and about what’s… And so if no one’s really thinking about, well, what could Congress even do, that’s not going to put any pressure on Congress. Or at least that’s my concern.

Zach: Yeah. And to your point, I can imagine somebody could easily take… A Republican or a Democrat Congressperson could easily take an idea out of your book and make a bill around it or something, right? Theoretically, that could pretty easily get bipartisan support and could pass and you can make a big impact. So I see your argument that the effort of getting something through to draw attention or to change the immediate environment is theoretically a much bigger payoff for the effort, right? Because I have that sense, too, when say even a few thousand people read my book, for example, it’s like yeah, what does that really do? I think most of that effort is actually wasted but it’s kind of my hope that a few of those people will do something else. Like, a few of those people will be influential. That’s kind of my idea. That’s how I think of it. It’s like, maybe one of those people, for example, could be a congressperson who takes one of your ideas and makes it into a bill.

David: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Zach: That’s kind of how I view the interconnection there, you know? It’s all good stuff and I’m not convinced my approach is the most efficient either.

*** A quick note here. I wanted to say that I think I was underselling cultural change work a little bit here. I don’t work on cultural change stuff only in the hopes that it gets people to work on more systemic changes. That’s underselling what I see is the power and goals there. I think it’s actually easier to change culture than we sometimes think. Sometimes all it can take is a few relatively influential people pushing back on certain behaviors to affect other people’s behaviors, to affect a lot of people’s behaviors. I think many of us have overly pessimistic and fatalistic views about the difficulty of changing culture. I think getting a decent percentage of people to think differently about politics and how we engage with other people can actually make a big difference, especially if some of those people have influential voices and are brave enough to speak up and push back on the incentives and the toxic polarization. I just wanted to clarify that a little bit as I felt I was doing a disservice to the cultural change work.

Okay, back to the talk. ***

David: Well, I’m probably jumping ahead and talking about specific ideas, but you said something about it would be easy enough for a legislator to take one of the ideas in my book and turn it into a bill. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. Like it’d be that easy.

Zach: Oh, not that easy? It’s possible, though. Right?

David: But it’s possible. Yeah. And unless people are sort of suggesting it, it won’t happen at all. We can get into this if you want but part of the problem is especially on the [unintelligible 00:16:15] who just doesn’t want a lot of people on the Right, who just don’t want the government to do anything. You can make your arguments about how, “Wait, this is fair to both sides what we’re doing here,” but yeah, there will be resistance.

Zach: Yeah, to that point. That was actually… It’s kind of obvious in hindsight, but that didn’t really strike me until pretty recently a few months ago, where I saw a conservative person on Twitter respond to an idea of a government-led depolarization effort. Like you said, they were very much against the idea for the usual conservative reasons of like, “We don’t want government solving this, government’s just going to make it worse.” I hadn’t really realized that but in hindsight, it’s like, yeah, of course, they’d be against a government solution. That’s not to say all conservatives or Republicans would be against that, because clearly Republicans have some government programs they like so if you could convince enough of them, then maybe it will go over well. But yeah, that was an interesting angle too that I hadn’t really seen until recently.

David: Yeah. No, definitely, that’s one of many obstacles and barriers. Yeah. Or headwinds. I don’t know what the right word is. [chuckles]

Zach: Yeah, I think the difficult thing with the gridlock and always thinking in the worst case framing is even if you arrived at something that in better times both sides would agree to mostly, how it often goes is one side will be like, “I think they’re getting a slight advantage,” so they are against it. That’s kind of how a lot of these things end up going, which speaks to just the problem of polarization in general. Yeah.

David: Yeah. But, you know, this is another one of these things where a large portion, I think, a large portion of the country is pretty tired and disgusted with the extreme partisanship and the gridlock. You could even maybe say that a lot of Trump’s base is motivated by the antipathy towards Congress and how they just aren’t paying attention to what they care about or what their needs are. And then there’s the exhausted majority kind of stuff, you know? So I think there’s a hunger for it, but it needs to get more focused. That’s one of the things I hope my book might be, in a small way, helpful in trying to do.

Zach: I do think there’s– even in Congress, I think even if there’s pressure to not talk about it, I think even many of those people want solutions. Right? Because I think many of them, even if they stay quiet for fear of hurting their side or whatever, I think many of them are sick of it.

David: Oh, for sure. Yeah. Oh, like there’s the Problem Solvers Caucus, which that’s kind of their mission; is to sort of bust through all that. But it hasn’t been easy. And no labels, you know? It’s been excoriated by Democrats. Because it’s a spoiler, it’s going to get Trump into office, and so forth. But in spite of all that, I think they have some base of support that wants to look for a different way.

Zach: That’s good to have. It’s like a trial balloon to see how much support those kind of third-party candidates would get. Do you want to talk about the… Let’s talk about your book, if you want to talk about, what were you most proud of when it comes to the proposals in there or what was the most unique ideas? Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

David: Yeah, no, definitely. That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?

Zach: If you’re willing.

David: Absolutely. Well, I haven’t even said much about the book. So, just to kind of high-level it just to start, the book has two parts to it. One is, it’s kind of an analysis of the way that for-profit media just in the last two to three decades has influenced and caused really rapidly accelerating polarization in the country. Then the second half is, I attempt to provide a vision of several national-level initiatives at a scale that tries to match the size of the problem as a way to potentially turn things around. I can talk a little bit about some of the ideas, but the key theme, I guess, would be that it’s trying to change the national speech environment. And I think it’s going to require, not for every one of the proposals, but for a lot of them, some legislative action to make them happen. That will bring out the free speech or First Amendment absolutist saying, you know, you can’t do that. But a key is that none of the proposals are about any type of censorship or trying to control the content. All of the proposals have to be nonpartisan and have the right governance structures in them and so on.

And the goal is not to change the content of speech anywhere, but the speech environment. You know, the world has changed pretty dramatically in the last two decades. The speech environment, it’s nothing like anything the founders could have ever envisioned. And what we’ve seen is social media is destroying the economic model for journalism and it’s just become this terrible race for profitability, both the social media companies and the news media companies. If you heard the expression ‘cheap speech’ which was coined a few years ago, it’s kind of an acknowledgment that in the old days, there wasn’t very many ways to get speech out there; there was a few networks and so on. And in the new environments, with lots of different TV channels and of course with social media and blogs, we’re just drowned in speech. The founders could have never anticipated that. I believe that the Fourth Estate is supposed to facilitate democratic discourse and I think what we’re looking at is a massive market failure. That’s why I think who else but the government can come in and try to fix the speech environment. The speech environment, not speech. [laughs]

Zach: Right, the environment. Yeah. [crosstalk] Yeah, go ahead.

David: Let me stop there.

Zach: This is something I think about sometimes, I’m curious if you’ve thought a bit about it. I sometimes think about the immense demand for content that all these companies have and how that’s a factor in destabilizing us. It’s like in order to fill these airwaves, these many vacuum of airwaves, people need content. And what are we going to make for content? We’re going to make stuff that presses people’s emotional buttons, right? The demand to create all this to make money, basically, and fill this huge amount of bandwidth we have of content, they create all this stuff that polarizes us and divides us unintentionally, often. But I just see it as this machine for destabilizing us. There’s just so many narratives floating around, so many divisive polarizing narratives, and just so much content. Yeah.

David: Yeah, right. Well, I think in this new era, we should start regarding the really limited amount of attention that individuals have as a precious societal resource that we should stop wasting on sensationalism and polarizing rhetoric and stuff like that. It’s a really precious resource that we should be trying harder to make the best use of for everyone.

Zach: Right. Just think about the millions of hours that people spend on these meaningless shows and watching videos on TikTok. Anyway, I’m digressing and ranting a little bit, but it’s just… I mean, I do that a good amount myself, but… Maybe we can talk about one of your ideas that you’re most proud of. I think you had mentioned something about the– I can’t remember the exact name, but something involving silo. [00:27:06]

David: Yeah, yeah. That’s one I like to… That might be the one I’m proud of at some level, at least. I think it’s kind of creative. Yeah, that one is… In the modern media environment, we have these echo chambers, as they’re called. They may be sometimes overstated, but when you’re in an echo chamber, you only hear the version of reality on that political side. And what you do hear about the other side is mostly a straw man. It’s like—

Zach: Worst-case arguments.

David: Yeah, worst-case arguments. And when you’re in echo chambers, it also contends to push everyone to have more extreme views. Anyway… So the idea for this proposal is to pass a new law that requires all media outlets of all types– and this has never been easy for me to explain real quickly but I’ll do my best– requires all of them to allow a new technical scheme that injects on-the-spot counter-speech into every broadcast or article or whatever. The way that would be done is to register what I call a designated opposition person for each of those news outlets or– I don’t know how granular it would get. And there’d be on all screens, whether it’s a TV screen, computer screen for social media or for news websites, at the end of each associated with each content piece, there would be this recognizable button which I call OPPO, O P P O for opposition. No one’s ever encouraged or required to click on it, but anytime they do, they can get what an opposition person would have to say about that particular content. So can you see how it busts open the echo chamber in a way by inserting… Now, you might think that, okay, that opposition person is just going to spew propaganda and take apart everything that the speaker or writer has to say. Actually, I don’t think it would work that way. Because you know you’re in a unfriendly audience and it’s your job to appeal to them.

Zach: Yeah. You don’t want to drive them away. [crosstalk]

David: You don’t want to drive them away. Yeah. Right. So I don’t know, is that a good explanation? [chuckles]

Zach: Yeah. I think people would have a lot of questions about how the specifics of— [crosstalk]

David: Absolutely. Buy the book and you’ll find out. [laughs]

Zach: Okay. But that idea, it kind of gets to the heart of how I view these things. Because to me, it’s like this divergence of narratives, right? These narratives are growing apart.

David: Oh, yeah.

Zach: So it’s like anything you can do to get people to start considering the better aspects of the other narrative will draw the narratives a little bit closer together. Right?

David: Yes. Yes.

Zach: And that’s how I think about a lot of the stuff I write about. If you engage with the better arguments on the other side, it draws the narratives together. Yeah, to your… I was going to bring up, too, a good example of the whole bubble phenomenon recently was when the Supreme Court was, you know, everybody knew the Supreme Court was going to weigh in on the Colorado ruling to remove Trump from the ballot. That was a good example where in the liberal-leaning sphere, I saw these people act as if it was a certainty that that was a good ruling Colorado made and the only reason the Supreme Court would vote against it would be Conservative bias or pro-Trump bias. Versus I read Tangle News– which I just interviewed Isaac Saul who started Tangle News recently– and I had a much better idea that, oh, from reading that and reading the arguments, I was almost certain that the Supreme Court was going to rule against it and why and what the good reasons were. But the thing I saw in the Liberal-leaning sphere, including people I knew, they spoke as if you had that opinion that that was going to happen or if you thought that those were good arguments, that you were pro-Trump or you had Conservative bias. I think that was just a good example where everyone was shocked, like, “What do you mean that was a unanimous Supreme Court ruling? I was expecting it to be split amongst the usual.” That was just a good example where if your example for your solution for that would be on CNN, there would have been somebody explaining the better arguments and even why Liberals and Democrats should want that because if they went the other way, it could be used against a Democrat president. These kinds of better arguments which I just don’t think many people are exposed to for many of these issues on either side. Yeah.

David: Yeah, we’ve talked about this before. We both believe that most political thinking is in the form of narratives. A term I use a lot in my book for it is ‘talking points’, which are the manifestations in public discourse that sort of create and activate and reinforce narratives—

Zach: —in the pieces of the narrative. Yeah. [crosstalk]

David: Yes. Right. Right. Right.

Zach: Gotcha.

David: I also– I don’t know if this is the ideal place to stick this in but since you brought up the liberal bubble, I just wanted to plug your book. I think it’s so great your approach or your taking of just focusing on one side, for this book anyway.

Zach: Oh, the latest one. Yeah.

David: Yeah, your new one. Right.

Zach: Yeah, to a liberal anti-Trump audience. Yeah.

David: Right. Because there’s so many liberals and progressives who think, “Oh, it’s just that side’s problem,” and they don’t see the way they’re contributing to the polarization themselves. And the way that liberal sanctimony just really pisses people on the Right off to such a deep, deep degree.

Zach: The righteousness.

David: And righteousness. Yeah. Not that there’s not some of that going the other way too, but it’s not totally symmetric in my opinion.

Zach: Yeah, I do often think about the… I mean, there’s all sorts of asymmetries, which I think is an unexamined part of examining American polarization or any conflict as these group asymmetry. It’s like the fact that liberal-leaning people dominate the mainstream media and the Hollywood and academic world, it’s like that is an asymmetry that has effects on how the conflict plays out. And I don’t think those kinds of asymmetries are talked about enough, but…

David: Right.

Zach: Do you want to… Is there anything we haven’t gotten to that’s important that you want to touch on?

David: Well…

Zach: Oh, I was going to ask you about your book title. The word ‘moderates’ can be kind of off-putting to some people because some people are like, “I have views that some people would consider extreme.” I don’t want to be a moderate, you know, but there’s different approaches of explaining or defining what a moderate is. So, maybe you could talk a little bit about how you view that word.

David: Sure. Well, the definition that I use is… There’s a lot of different interpretations. And some of the interpretations of what a moderate is aren’t too complimentary. They’re people who are wishy-washy, indecisive, low information… And that’s true for some people, for sure. So the definition I used in my book, and it’s not a standard definition, but it’s people who despise both the hard Right and hard Left; who are resistant to sort of one-sided grand-sweeping narratives that come from either side.

Zach: When you say despise, you don’t have to hate them as people, just dislike their ideas and approach. Right?

David: Yeah. Well, yes, except for I have a special place in hell in my book for propagandists who intentionally manipulate the system. Most of what’s going on in the system is just economic forces. And I don’t blame journalists or social media companies or anyone, generally, the one bad actors or one category of bad actors are those propagandists.

Zach: You got your nine levels of polarization hell.

David: [chuckles] Exactly. But to your larger point, no, I never despise the people who are in a lot of cases pawns of a lot of this. But, yeah.

Zach: Although I will say the thing that strikes me is some of these people who I think are some of the most, in my mind, honestly kind of gross and despicable people– I’m not going to name any names right now, I talk about them elsewhere– but some of these people are to me like it’s really hard to separate their propaganda from the true belief. Because some of these people, to me, are like their minds have been deranged by conflict. They really do think that they’re in an us versus them battle. And I guess that gets into where they’re willing to the-ends-justify-the-means kind of approaches where they’re like, “Yeah, we’re willing to bend the truth or even even lie because the ends are so justified and…” Not to excuse it, but it’s like some of these people I think have been deranged by conflict. Which I think is the bad thing about conflict and extreme polarization, is that it deranges more and more people to be that way. Right?

David: Sure. Definitely. Yeah. And if I thought the planet was going to be destroyed if I didn’t win, I might be willing to lie too. So your point is well taken. But I will name one name just as a counter-example.

Zach: I’m willing to name some names, you know? I just didn’t want to derail it. But…

David: Oh, well, I’ll just name one. Although I won’t go so far as to say that I know what his true beliefs are. But Christopher Rufo, do you remember that ignominious tweet that he did about three years ago about how he was programming the world to understand the words ‘critical race theory’ in a specific way?

Zach: Yeah, it’s basically like lifting up the curtain and saying, “Here’s my approach to ruining this word and making it toxic in a manipulative deceptive way.” Right?

David: Yeah. He didn’t even… There was no hint of apology, or any sort of self, or any kind of justification. It painted a picture that he regards conservatives as rubes, you know? That the general public, on the Conservative side, is so manipulable and that I can program their thinking and they won’t be any other wiser. I just find that so reprehensible.

Zach: It’s a strange thing, too, because disagree or not, there’s plenty of ways to denigrate those CRT ideas or whatever ideas in the Left, there’s plenty of… You don’t have to do that to demean someone else’s ideas, there’s plenty of legitimate ways that you can disagree. So, yeah. But yeah, to your point, it’s like… I’m pretty sure I mentioned his book. Oh, yeah, I’m pretty sure I mentioned his book about the Marxist ideology on the Left in my recent book as an example of like– I might have taken it out because it’s more for a liberal audience now, but an example of how both sides in conflict will reach for these really elaborate extra pessimistic narratives that go back in history and help build up this narrative of the immense badness and scariness of the other side. And then there is some truth to it, right? Far-left ideas do appear in these dangerous scenarios and there’s been all sorts of bad things and the horrors of communism and stuff in some of these countries. But it’s like to build this narrative, which is what the Left does about how everything on the Right is linking back to this racism and this elaborate narrative, right? Not to say it’s the same, we all have our views about who’s doing it more than the others and who’s doing it worse, but there’s just this tendency to build these elaborate narratives, which is what I see Rufo and these other people doing. And whether he believes it or not, to your point, it’s like he could be doing it purposely as a means to just destroy the brand. Not that he really needs it, because there’s plenty of other people doing it, too. But he could be doing it and painting that picture purposefully, or he could really believe that’s the scariness that he spews on the Left. And it can be hard to say but to your point, yeah, his tweet about kind of saying here’s my strategy for painting these things really negatively kind of shows you where his mind’s at.

David: Yeah. Well, I could say more about it because, you know, I do have a section of my book that kind of drills in– kind of like you did in your first book– drills into specific topics and sort of explores the talking points on each side and how quickly they fall apart if you just look at them briefly. But I talk a bit about Rufo and critical race theory. He has this briefing book that that he puts together for use by, I don’t know, in schools or parents or what have you. And you just look at it and it’s like straw man, straw man, straw man, straw man, one after the other. It’s so transparent. And this thing about– I think we’re going off here a little bit– that Marxism or that critical race theory is Marxist. Who cares? Why should I care about that? [laughs] Marxism is a scare word and it’s just…

Zach: Yeah, there’s all sorts of… It’s quite easy. That’s the thing, getting back to the narrative idea, it’s like the importance of stories. It’s so easy to build… I think that’s a really key fundamental aspect of understanding polarization, too, it’s just so easy to build stories. We can build stories out of nothing, basically. So it’s like, you give us two or three data points so we can build this story around it tying all this stuff together, you know, the story about the threat you’re facing or how bad your enemies are, right? It’s just so easy for us to—

David: Oh, it’s easy to do. Yeah. I mentioned in my book, Daniel Kahneman talks about what he calls the illusion of knowledge. The principle is that we just latch on to these stories, and the world isn’t really as explainable as it seems to be. And in fact, the less you know, the more certain you can feel that your story is a reflection of reality.

Zach: Yeah, I just want to throw in. I’ve been reading this philosopher Kevin Dorst’s work, he’s got a Substack and he talks about basically rational polarization and how we can have both these sides, on any issue, can have these rational narratives and they were reached rationally, and be completely divergent. And it’s all about how you sample information in a complex system because you can’t absorb all the information, you just pick and choose. It’s not to say everybody’s, you know, clearly there’s a lot of irrationality but he’s talking about for a lot of these issues that we argue over, there’s various rational narratives you could put together, but then you add on top the toxic polarization which makes us veer towards the irrational for some of these things. But do you think he’s talking—  He’s talking about a pretty important key part of it, where it’s the fundamental ways that we can rationally diverge on a lot of these complex issues.

David: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s one thing that I, deep in my soul, look around and think, “Where’s the intellectual humility?” I’d love to teach people about how little they know and how much they shouldn’t rely on what they think they know. But that’s a tough one. I got a lot of that out of studying cognitive science and the way that people make inferences and the values that are hidden underneath a lot of it, and so on and so forth. There’s been a lot of great researchers and scholars who’ve written about it, but…

Zach: We need a PBS show or some kind of public service show every day reminding people that they’re idiots, you know? [David laughs] It’s like—

David: “You Are so Dumb” could be the name of it. [laughs]

Zach: It’s like, “I’m an idiot, we’re all idiots, so let’s just walk through how badly we get stuff wrong. That’d actually be a pretty good show.

David: Yeah, I’d watch it.

Zach: Somebody’s probably done something like that. Do you want to talk about anything you feel that we really missed that is important about your work that you want to throw in?

David: Yeah, thank you for asking. Kind of to pull in stuff when we were talking at the very beginning. So, this bust open the silos national initiative that I described earlier, that’s one of seven that I have in the book. The theme is finding ways to help people learn about politics and about political argumentation. But not through anything formal, just in daily life through ways that don’t require any effort or willpower or study. That’s a theme through several of my proposals. But like I said, some of them would definitely require legislative action, which is pretty tough. I just wanted to talk a little bit about… I don’t think we can go straight to any of these proposals. And the route that I have in mind– and it’s partly why I named the book the way I did, you know?

Zach: “Moderates of the World, Unite!”

David: Yes, yes.

Zach: Thought I’d mention it again.

David: Thank you. There could be pros and cons to that title. But a serious part of it is that I think for any of this to happen, it’s going to require a critical mass of engaged moderates to stand up and start demanding change of Congress. And so where my focus is going to be next is to work on ways to create educational materials that even include describing these proposals to people so that they can start to get a vision, not only that, “Oh, there’s ways we could improve it,” but also to get a better sense that, “Gosh, how did we get into this? This is not how the Fourth Estate is supposed to work in theory, even.” And so my hope is that through creating educational materials for college level and even for public spaces, I can play some small role in starting to help develop that critical mass of engaged moderates, you know, that will lead to greater amounts of advocacy. And kind of as a compliment the grassroots depolarization efforts that you and others are working on.

Zach: And eventually you can create a moderate militia to kick off the moderate revolution.

David: [laughs] Go ahead, make fun of me.

Zach: No, you said your book title was supposed to be a little little funny, right?

David: It is. Yeah.

Zach: Moderates revolting.

David: Yeah, workers of the world unite.

Zach: Yeah, yeah. I just wanted to clarify, I wasn’t mocking it. But did you also want to mention, because I really liked your idea about the responses to specifically polarizing tweets or other posts. Did you want to mention that idea really briefly here? In case anyone watching it might, theoretically, someone watching it might want to contact you about the idea or something.

David: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. That’s one issue I’ve started prototyping, and it’s one of the one of the seven proposals in the book. I’m calling it right now at least ‘the schoolmarm’. The vision is to have a large, nonpartisan organization that… The focus, just a backup a little, is on polarizing rhetoric on social media, of which there’s a lot. [laughs] Of course. Not so much about factual falsehoods, and of course not like the illegal stuff which the platform’s themselves are responsible for taking care of and taking down. But the platforms have no incentive to do anything about polarized rhetoric on their platforms and certainly no business interest in doing so. But an external organization could go in and selectively go in and find polarizing posts. And when it does, attaching a little bit of educational material right next to those posts. Of course, it’s not going to get everyone. But if you get enough of them that people start seeing this once in a while even, it’ll raise consciousness and people, when they see polarizing rhetoric, they’ll sort of slow down a little bit and maybe some users will try to temper what they say online a little better. And it’ll just kind of reduce the status of dunking and… So, that’s the schoolmarm.

Zach: Yeah, like that. Getting back to the idea that there is a real demand out there for reducing these team-based ways of thinking and high contempt ways of engaging, I do think you’d see people respond to that. That was one of the… I kind of took a similar small-scale approach with my Twitter, that was basically what I was doing. I was just responding and doing a little bit of that. But I do think there’s a hunger there for it, and I think a lot of times people just don’t even know what that path looks like so they’re looking for, like, “Oh, that’s how this works!” Like, that’s how we do it. I think a lot of people want that, but they just don’t even know how do we get better. You know, what does better discourse look like? Or what do we have to push against exactly? I think that would be… I’m a fan of that. Even just people listening who want to do that on their own, I think that’s like encouraging people to be like, “Hey, go examine why this person’s speech is unreasonable and polarizing,” and not an insulting way, but a persuasive way, to say like, “Hey, can you see how this leads to the toxicity and such?”

David: Right, right. Well, and just to pile on that, Christopher Bail at Duke who’s studied this a lot has measured that the more extreme people on social media are the ones that post by far the most and get promoted the most. And moderates just… They don’t even speak up, you know? It’s too intimidating, they’re going to get… You know? And so people don’t even see moderates. Well, not none, but there’s not that much in the political realm. There’s not that much moderate speech right now. And if there were ways to encourage them to feel comfortable to speak and just bring the temperature down on social media.

Zach: Right. That’s the thing. Yeah, it really does work. I mean, I’ve seen just in my personal life on Facebook with a few friends, it’s like somebody shares something kind of unreasonable and everyone’s like, “Yeah!” And then you make a point about poking a hole in the logic gently, and everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re right. It’s a good point.” [crosstalk] It’s like it doesn’t actually take that much. But to your point, it’s like so few people feel like getting into those caustic interactions and it’s just not… It takes effort, it takes time, it takes a headache, you risk offending people you know, etc, etc. So there’s always reasons but…

David: Yeah, right. Right.

Zach: Okay. Yeah, this has been great, David. I appreciate it. And yeah, best of luck getting the book out there.

David: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me on your show.

Zach: Sure. Thanks. That was a talk with David Foster. You can learn more about him at his site I’ll include links to some of the things we talked about, including his book at the entry for this episode on my site, And you can learn more about my soon-to-be-released new book on polarization at Thanks for listening. Music by Small Skies.