Cass Sunstein: “Identitarianism can be a problem for democracy, but it doesn’t have to be”

Cass R. Sunstein (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1954) has invented, co-invented or resignified a good number of expressions, some of which found a place in academia, public policy and ordinary readers.

“Nudge”, for example, was the concept chosen to title a volume published in 2008 and translated into Spanish as The little push. The boost you need to make better decisions about health, money and happiness. Co-written by Sunstein and the future Nobel Prize in Economics Richard H. Thaler, the cover and subtitle flirt with self-help, even if the work has had a variety of scope: for now, it inaugurated a design of public policies based on behavioral studies (Nudging offices were created in countries like Chile) and it was the headline publication of the presidential candidate Barack Obama, who once in the White House appointed Sunstein as director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).

It is not the only concept of occasion in the noted book of this militant democrat and conspicuous academic of the law. There is also talk of a “libertarian paternalism” that seeks at the same time “to make it easier for people to follow their own path” and that the “architects of decisions [otro concepto de los autores] try to influence people’s behavior to make their lives longer, healthier and better ”.

Now, rarer than inventing concepts is that concepts are coined that include one, as is the case here with the “Sunstein number”, which describes the degrees of separation between the academic and a variety of legal authors like him.

By far the most cited in his field, according to Wikipedia, Sunstein has dealt with legal philosophy, social rights, freedom of expression, risk regulation, animal rights, taxation, marriage (supports its repeal , as well as civil unions), conspiracy theories and even the saga Star Wars, the subject of a book of his from 2016, The last mythology: one of nearly 50 who has written, alone or in co-authorship, from feminism and political theory to the power of social influences and groupthink.

But neither the uniqueness of their concepts nor the diversity of their concerns explain, by themselves, what those who participated yesterday in the “We have to talk about Chile Fest” found, organized by the eponymous platform for citizen participation promoted by the universities of Chile and Catholic. His theme, according to Sunstein himself in the promotional video of the activity, was “democracy, polarization and division”: analyzing how societies come to divide, continues the speaker in the advertisement, “makes it more likely that we live together in a better way and let’s help governments to function better ”.

The three themes announced by Sunstein are closely related to each other, as he explains to Third: “For a democracy to work, people must be able to talk to each other. In my comments I emphasize what makes this difficult, how it can separate people. I also explore solutions: what can help people to talk and work together ”.

How threatened or weakened do you see democracies today?

Many democracies are doing very well, and many others face challenges. Those challenges include serious divisions and, at times, a kind of enmity between people. We should be able to disagree without thinking of each other as enemies. Much of the burden to improve things falls on the leaders, and some of it definitely falls on each of us. And social media is contributing to the problem, no doubt about that.

About RR.SS. and the internet does not elaborate on Sunstein in this interview, but the matter has been occupying him for decades, which has even given rise to a particular bibliographic development. If in 2001 he published, in 2007 came 2.0 and, 10 years later, #Republic. Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media: In the core, the book is the same, but its author could not help but record the issues and problems that have been added over the years. “In a well-functioning democracy, people do not live in echo chambers or information cocoons,” the 2017 volume reads.

Here is a problem that facilitates extreme attitudes and polarization. And, clearly, it is far from the only one that challenges contemporary societies. Still, Sunstein seems to see the bright side of things, even as he himself defies certain generally accepted criteria. There, for example, where he is regarded as a liberal, in the progressive sense of the term in the US, he had no trouble supporting certain policies of Republican President George W. Bush. Nor did it complicate going against a certain planetary sentiment regarding Covid-19 (“many people are more scared than they should be” and have “an exaggerated sense of their own personal risk,” he wrote on February 28, one month after the pandemic is declared).

In #Republic he says that what we know about individual behavior “supports the view that most people hear the echoes of their own voices louder and louder.” To say the least, he adds, “this is undesirable from a democratic point of view.” What would be desirable?

It is desirable and important that people hear other voices and that we learn from each other. Whatever we think, we know less than we should, and humility is a good attitude. I think we can all show humility and listen more, so I’m optimistic.

Did you see the Trump-Biden debate? What made you think about the state of democracy in America?

It was not the best time for democracy in the United States. There were too many interruptions from President Trump, too much hostility and discomfort. We can do much better, and most of the time we are doing much better, even in 2020, which is a challenging year.

How would you describe a divided society?

The division is a matter of degree. A society can be a little divided or very divided. The problem arises when people cannot talk and work together.

Democracy, does it imply universalism? If identitarianism is understood as the opposite of universalism, do you see it as a threat to democracy, or rather as a different way of understanding it?

We would have to define the terms. We are all universally human, and that is the right place to start. If we identify with our ethnic group or with our religion, it is very good and for many people it is very important. It can be a problem for democracy, but it doesn’t have to be, as long as people treat each other with kindness and respect.

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