Scholar and Author Cass R. Sunstein

The Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard and author discusses top news of the day and his latest book, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler) and The World According to Star Wars. His revealing new book, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, shows how today’s Internet is driving political fragmentation, polarization, and even extremism—and what can be done about it.  


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Harvard law professor, Cass Sunstein. The author and essayist has for some time been writing about democracy in the internet era. He will join us to talk about his latest books. It’s called “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media”.

We are glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Harvard’s Cass Sunstein in just a moment.

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Tavis: Cass Sunstein is a Harvard law professor and author and essayist.  His latest text is called “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media”. He joins us tonight from Boston. Cass, good to have you back on the program, sir.

Cass R. Sunstein: Great to be here. Thank you.

Tavis: Before I get into the #Republic” text, it’s not lost on me that one of your other books which I have in my hand is a book called “The World According to Star Wars”. This, as we all know, is the 40th anniversary of “Star Wars” and I want to ask you specifically about the travel ban that President Trump reinstated today.

For those who’ve been following the news know that he reinstated the travel ban 2.0, as they’re calling it. He’s taken Iraq off the list. But he has reinstated the ban for all other refugees, which leads me to this book, “The World According to Star Wars” and whether or not there’s something that our government ought to learn from “Star Wars” 40 years later.

Sunstein: Well, I do think so. Whether you like President Trump or not, “Star Wars” is a very effective warning about the risks of a leader who is authoritarian maybe and who is popular because he carries a big stick.

So “Star Wars’ is a parable, but it’s an instructive parable, I think, about the importance of maintaining a system of checks and balances, maintaining separation of powers and making sure that liberty is alive and well.

Tavis: Are we witnessing life imitating art or art imitating life in the White House these days?

Sunstein: Well, it’s early in the Trump administration, so I wouldn’t want to say that the empire is striking back or anything like that. But it is the case that we’re seeing all over the world and, to some extent, there are signs of this in the United States of enthusiasm for a powerful leader who is maybe not as careful about institutional safeguards as, let’s say, democratic traditions standardly favor.

Tavis: And before I move on to the “#Republic” text, is there a lesson or lessons for we the people to consider from “Star Wars” 40 years later?

Sunstein: I think so. “Star Wars” is very clear that liberty sometimes dies to thunderous applause. That was in the much maligned, but excellent prequels, excellent at least in their lessons, I think, about what we’re now discussing. And to say that, if there’s thunderous applause because something may involve a travel ban, it may be something from a Democratic president that is catering, let’s say, to public mood, maybe hold the applause.

And think a little bit about Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and Martin Luther King and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, all of whom were in their different ways careful about thunderous applause and insistent that we the people value liberty and its blessings and our system of separation of powers more than we value catering to a mood on a Thursday or a Wednesday.

Tavis: Powerful insights. Let me go now to your book, “#Republic”. Our founding fathers created a republic that was supposed to be a deliberative democracy. We have anything but these days. It’s much more of a direct democracy. What do you make of the shift that we’ve made and the kind of democracy that we see afoot?

Sunstein: Well, you’re exactly right that what our Constitution is supposed to do is prize two things. One is accountability. That’s democracy as we now understand it. And the other is kind of reflection and reason-giving in trying to make sure that you have good grounds for doing something. That’s the deliberative part.

There is a risk these days that we have democracy in a kind of populist sense without prizing deliberation in a kind of what are the reasons for doing something.

So if the issue involves terrorist threats or if it involves regulation or it involves highway safety or if it involves diseases, to try to make sure that we are appealing to, let’s say, the better angels of our nature — that’s from Abraham Lincoln — and the better angels of our nature, often thinking, well, what are we actually getting out of this? What are we losing out of that?

And that often makes democracy, I think, its highest form a republic which is what Benjamin Franklin thought the founders had given we the people if, in is words, we can keep it.

Tavis: Is it your sense that we have a divided democracy, as your subtitle says, in the age of social media or has social media led to the divided democracy?

Sunstein: The idea of a divided democracy that actually goes back, of course, to the founding period where people didn’t agree on everything, and that was part of the virtue of the system that we could argue with each other.

But there are divisions which are kind of productive as Hamilton emphasized because they can lead to sense and wisdom and judgment. And there are divisions which can be either paralyzing or challenging for the very project of self rule.

Paralyzing because you can’t get stuff done, which sometimes happened under President Obama and also under President Bush, and worse than that actually if people start regarding their fellow citizens not as people who are good, but have different views and maybe something to add, but as enemies who need to be silenced or at least not listened to because what they have to say is nonsense. I think, in some ways, social media have intensified the worst forms of social division.

Tavis: It’s hard to talk about this and not talk about President Trump, given that he is not just the Commander in Chief, but the Tweeter in Chief.

So let’s just take the most recent example of his tweets this weekend suggesting that President Obama was behind the wiretapping of his office in Trump Tower. I mean, just give me your sense of how the president using social media in that way is advancing the notion of deliberative democracy.

Sunstein: Well, that’s a very serious accusation for one leader to make about a predecessor. And probably the best way to explore a concern of that kind is not through a tweet, which can create enmities and hostilities and maybe cries of “Lock him up”. To use words like “bad” or “sick” to describe your predecessor, that’s not standard in the United States.

Of course, in campaign season, you can be very tough, but once you’re in office, you treat your predecessor with respect. So if there is a basis for an allegation — and so far as I’m aware, there is actually no basis for that allegation — it’s fair to try to engineer some process to get behind it.

But tweeting on something like that, that’s really not consistent with our traditions. You know, I got to work for President Reagan as well as President Obama. Let’s go back to President Reagan because maybe the fact that it was a while ago makes it less inflamed.

Whether you’re Republic or Democrat, that’s really not the Reagan style. The Reagan White House was much more evidence-based, at least by and large, not all the time. So the tweeting about accusations like that, that’s not what we the people most need.

Tavis: One of the ways that you suggest — and I want to get into other ways — but one of the ways, Cass, that you suggest that we can lessen and that we can do better around this notion of divided democracy in the age of social media is to get outside of our own bubbles, if I can put it that way, our own worlds and read the tweets of others, read the social media postings of others.

But if I’m reading the social media posts of others and they’re saying the kinds of things that Trump is saying, that Breitbart or other outlets are saying, how is that helping me decrease the divisiveness in our democracy just by reading the social media posts of others?

Sunstein: Okay. It is true that if you, for example, are a Democrat and you read something from Republicans that strikes you as baseless or crazy, it’s not exactly going to help you think of people who disagree with you respectfully. It might just intensify your thinking, oh, my gosh, who are these people?

But social media, one of the good things, is there’s a ton of stuff out there and, if a Democrat doesn’t have anything to learn from a Republican, that Democrat had better start thinking a little more carefully. Because Republicans, whether they are supporters of President Trump or supporters of Senator Cruz, they’re going to have some ideas that will teach you two things.

First, that some of your own judgments might be wrong, not on the wild stuff, but on policy issues. And they’ll teach you something about what some of your fellow citizens who are thoughtful and good people, what they think. And that’s instructive even if on reflection you conclude that they’re wrong.

So suppose the issue is what to do about highway safety or what to do about the environment? Republicans and Democrats have a lot to learn from each other. Democrats can learn from Republicans about the importance of proceeding in a way that is consistent with economic growth and doesn’t crush small business, for example.

And Republicans can learn from Democrats — and I’m speaking with a broad brush here — that, you know, you want to protect kids from asthma, you want to prevent older people from going to the hospital, then you want to reduce air pollution.

Once we start talking about these different sensible concerns, we can maybe start figuring out a path to something other than paralysis and maybe we can both save lives and promote economic growth.

Tavis: I can hear my grandfather, Cass, saying to me as he said so many times that numbers don’t lie, but people do. The numbers are the numbers of people, but people can manipulate those numbers and lie about them.

I raise that because where social media is concerned, the statement you’ve made now makes sense so long as one assumes that social media isn’t being used in a manipulative way, that social media is being used for a sincere exchange, and I’m not sure I buy that.

Sunstein: Oh, you’re completely right that some people just state numbers because they are inflammatory or some people state numbers because they read it somewhere even though it has no basis. But, you know, we’re all citizens.

And Supreme Court Justice Brandeis described that as the highest office in the land being a citizen, and there’s a lot of truth to that. And if you’re a citizen, you won’t necessarily just believe some number that’s out there. You’ll look a little bit to see if it has credibility.

I’ll give you a number that does have credibility, which is over 40,000 Americans died on the roads in 2016. That’s the latest figure from the Department of Transportation. 40,000 is a number. That doesn’t lie. Maybe it’ll be adjusted a little bit, but each one of those people was someone who had loved ones and who died under generally quite tragic circumstances.

That’s something that we ought to be focusing on. How do we get that number down? So the numbers on social media are frequently not reliable, but at least they can start a conversation.

Tavis: I take your point. My point was not so much just about the numbers, but about whether or not, or put another way, how it is that we engage in a democratic exchange that is fair and that is free when the people using that particular medium are using it to in fact manipulate the audience rather than to have a sincere exchange?

So put another way, I’m open to using social media, but if what I’m reading is being put forth to manipulate me, if Donald Trump puts stuff out to deliberately manipulate me, if Donald Trump as he did over the weekend suggests that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower?

And before we can even get to a real conversation, people are taking sides already on whether he did or whether he didn’t, now Donald Trump, after he makes the statement, asks Congress to look into it, I mean, that’s like the tail wagging the dog here. So in the midst of all that, how do you have a legitimate exchange in social media?

Sunstein: Well, you’re right. The best moment in the history of the American presidency was not President Trump’s tweet about being wiretapped by his predecessor. That was not a very good moment for our system. But you can see tweets from quite sensible and interested people that involve not accusations about people who disagree with them, but concerns.

So you might see a tweet that says, you know, gosh, if we increase the minimum wage by a very high amount, we’re going to freeze people out of the employment market, and then a link to some study that suggests that.

Now for those who like the minimum wage, that’s an informative thing to think about. Or you can see someone tweeting there’s a level of, let’s say, police misconduct in some part of the United States which has actually put people at risk, their liberty and in some cases their safety at risk. Then it’ll link to something that actually shows that.

And whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, that’s something that’s really important, and it might be true. So the sheer diversity of things on Twitter and Facebook is both a problem for the reason you give that there is manipulation out there, but it’s also potentially a source of something that Hamilton could never have dreamed of.

I refer to Hamilton because he was the great thinker about the virtue of a lot of diversity out there. Jarring of parties was his idea, that jarring of parties would promote deliberation. It won’t if there’s manipulation and falsehood.

But it can and every day for all the awfulness of the, let’s say, rage and fake news, there’s stuff that is actually informing people and getting localities, whether it’s in Oklahoma or Connecticut or Nevada, people who are involved in running those localities thinking, hey, we got a problem here. What are we going to do about it?

Tavis: When Hamilton uttered those powerful words that you referenced a moment ago, there were at least two things to my mind, Cass, that he could never have imagined. One is that he’d be the subject of a hit play on Broadway and, number two, he couldn’t have imagined that, in the era of social media, people could say whatever they want with anonymity, throw a rock, as it were, and hide their hand.

I come back to this notion of how we have conversations that are meaningful, how we have a less divided democracy when the citizenry — and you were right. When Justice Brandeis, when you quoted him, that being a citizen is the highest office in the land.

But those of us, too many of us by the millions, who hold that highest office go on social media, we do it anonymously. We throw rocks, we hide our hands, and I don’t know how that advances democracy.

Sunstein: Oh, it’s not a great thing. I just add a little point that fortifies your concern, which is if you get people who are anonymous and, let’s say, full of rage and manipulating or trying to push something and they end up creating a little information cocoon.

Or maybe it’s a huge information cocoon in which hundreds or thousands, in some cases, millions of people are basically looking in the mirror at each other, likeminded types, that can be extremely destructive.

And I think we are witnessing that where some people, let’s say, who are on the right are just talking to people who think like them in thinking, for example, that the idea of combatting racially-motivated police misconduct is horrible rather than part of making our system better.

And you can see it on the left too where people are just talking to one another on certain issues and increasingly seeing people who are conservative, not as people with different views, but as people who are on Mars or something.

And from Hamilton’s point of view, that really is a nightmare. We can even give it a name: Hamilton’s nightmare. Because what Hamilton thought was, if you got the jarring of parties, his term, you can promote circumspection and reflection. And if you have these echo chambers, your information cocoons are not going to get that.

But for every day that we have something horrible along those lines happening, on that very day, something beautiful is happening where people are learning from one another or seeing, oh, my gosh, there’s a problem in the United States I hadn’t been aware of. What am I going to do to fix it?

So I think the imperative really for the next year and years is to reduce the extent to which the social media themselves — and I’m including Facebook and Twitter here — are using their own platforms to create echo chambers and division.

And also for each of us who aren’t running the platforms or using the platforms to think, you know, if I’m living in an echo chamber, I’m getting really furious at someone, I might be wrong. The spirit of liberty, as another American judge, Learned Hand, said, “The spirit of liberty is that spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”

Tavis: If I said to you, all things considered, social media is not good for democracy, how would you disabuse me of that notion?

Sunstein: I guess I’d say that paints a little too broadly. So whether you’re in a country that isn’t democratic and is kind of trying to be, or a country like ours that is, though it has some challenges, you can learn in an instant from your Twitter feed or your Facebook page something about, let’s say, food safety or something about how the Senate is working this month or something about something wonderful that President Obama did that you didn’t know about. So the capacity to learn things so quickly, that’s a big advantage for democracy.

Now I wouldn’t say, having said that, that on balance social media is a plus for democracy. And the reason I wouldn’t say that is that that’s a pretty broad brush too. It’s like automobiles which are so fantastic in many ways, but in some ways, not so great. On balance, we’re better off with automobiles.

I think on balance we’re better off with social media, but to rest content by saying, you know, you can connect with your friends, you can learn stuff, is to become oblivious to the kinds of problems we’re talking about where the worst, I think, is people often learn very quickly that what they already thought before was not just true, it’s fantastically true. And the things that they thought were not right or not just not right, they’re horrible and kind of satanic, that’s Hamilton’s nightmare.

Tavis: We’ve had this conversation, Cass, for the most part centered around those of us who use social media and how it is that we can be better users of it in terms of making our democracy a little less divided. But you raised something a moment ago that I want to ask about now.

You mentioned Facebook and Twitter specifically as I recall, and I want to ask you how they, that is to say, these companies who are giving us this stuff to play with, giving us this stuff by which we are further dividing our government, how are they as actors? What role are they playing in either helping our democracy or hindering our democracy?

Sunstein: Well, Facebook a little while ago published something about its news feed in which it suggested we really want you to have a personalized feed that picks out the stuff that is of special interest to you. And in a way, that sounds really good and it’s consistent with a business model that Facebook has at times had.

But you could imagine Facebook thinking — and I think there’s some thought from the public statements that Facebook might be heading in this direction — which is our democracy doesn’t mean that you get the news that, you know, fits your own thought about what you’d like to see now.

But you get news that is educative and is going to promote learning, which you probably also care about. Not by throwing in your face topics and points of view that you despise, but broadening rather than narrowing your horizon.

So I think with respect to Facebook in particular, to rethink the news feed so that their core ideals aren’t, you know, you, John Jones, get exactly what you would like to see if you could — but instead, something like you, John Jones, you’re an American and here’s what we’re going to show you, a few things. That’s kind of a general direction with maybe some opposing views, maybe some topics.

Twitter, it’s a little more complicated because Twitter, you know, you got to follow exactly the things you like. But I think it would behoove Facebook well to think, you know, what are we doing here exactly? How are we serving of a system that is the American system which is, in many ways, uniquely challenged these days?

And the creativity and ingenuity of the technology crowd is a promise here. And we’re seeing some entities grow up interacting with Facebook which are actually providing people now an opportunity to see different stuff and a lot of Americans actually like that. I think we’re kind of in the early adolescence of social media and, as it gets older, I hope it will fulfill our democratic ideals a bit better.

Tavis: I think I’ll offer this as the exit question. And that is that whatever Facebook does in the future, I’m not certain of and we will see what becomes of what you’ve just laid out. But if democracy is about anything, it is about choice.

It has to concern you that, given the choice that we have, so many of us in social media choose to listen, choose to watch, choose to follow, those things that undergird, that confirm what we already believe anyway.

Sunstein: Completely, and we might think, you know, in an individual life or a city or a neighborhood, you will see a lot of serendipity and I think we need to prize serendipity much more than we have in our thinking about social media.

That is, you might on a day in a neighborhood see people who are doing completely different things from you or you go around a corner and you see an activity that will change your day and maybe your month and possibly even your life.

And to think of how we can have an architecture of serendipity in our social media rather than an architecture of complete control, I think that would serve our democracy. And for Americans to think, as we have in our history, you know what I choose? I choose serendipity.

Tavis: The latest text from Cass R. Sunstein is called “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media”, was a top official in the Obama administration, now back at Harvard where he joined us tonight from Boston. Cass, good to have you on. All the best to you, sir.

Sunstein: Great. All the best to you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Goodnight from L.A. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: March 7, 2017 at 4:55 pm