Why shaming is one of democracy’s most powerful tools with David Moscrop

PodcastMarch 17, 2022

And this is what makes me extraordinarily nervous about the state of democracy. We're not moving fast enough. We're not moving in a way that includes everybody. And it's a recipe for absolute disaster.

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Intro

In this episode of The Decision Corner podcast, Brooke is joined by David Moscrop, political theorist and writer for the Washington Post. Moscrop’s expertise lies in political decision-making and democratic deliberation. This conversation details important points from his first book, Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones. Some of the topics discussed include:

  • The issues with democracy in the 21st century
  • How politicians have become increasingly shameless
  • How shaming can be used as a tool to restore power to the people
  • The soft and hard guardrails that should direct behavior 
  • What happens when voters feel left behind by elites

The conversation continues

TDL is a socially conscious consulting firm. Our mission is to translate insights from behavioral research into practical, scalable solutions—ones that create better outcomes for everyone.

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Key Quotes

Using shame as a guardrail for behaviour

Shame is going to patrol those boundaries and keep people in check. Well, when it stops doing that people become shameless. Then you've got a problem because all of a sudden the norms and what people call the soft guardrails of democracy break down. And all of a sudden these things that limit what we do and make sure that we can all cooperate together and play by the same rules and the concept of fair play starts to vanish.”

The impact of routinizing extraordinary measures

“Impeachment meant to me this extraordinary thing. For years, and years and years in the United States, it just simply wasn't used. It was - who else? - Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon. It was extraordinary for it to be used. And then of course it was used in the Clinton years. And then in the Trump years it was attempted twice.”

Shame and shamelessness among politicians

“You can be held to account by your colleagues as a politician, and that's a sort of elite elite. But you can also be held to account by the public - the public can shame you too.That's a different way of applying the same sort of rule. And it's extraordinarily important because elites can kind of come together and decide that they're going to do things a very particular way. And there can all, you know, coalesce around these practices and institutions and processes and think that's just fine. Well, it might not be fine. And then it's up to the public to say, actually, no.”

How marginalized people are often those also exploited

“I worry that that's going to pile on top of everything else and make the mess even worse because we see wealth inequality growing. We see the effects of climate change being born disproportionately, often by racialized communities, incidentally. And by women, globally. Right. And so we're risking it once this awful backlash we're going to have to manage. And the fact that the same old people are bearing the same old burdens, but worse. We've created this awful mess for each other, for one another. That being born disproportionately by those who can afford to bear at the least.”

The impact of giving power to the people

“What we find from the literature on democracy and citizens and assemblies and so on, is that when you ask people to do this, they do it. And they like it. And when politicians respect these processes and there's an uptake, then you build better communities and you build more trust and you build better outcomes. All this sort of good stuff happens. So there is a way to bring people in. But when I say people, I'm talking about 60 or 70% of the population that you might reach with this.”

How shaming can be a tool for restoring power among the people

“Imagine what a good government would look like. It would be egalitarian. It wouldn't be entrenched with career politicians. It wouldn't be bought and paid for by strategy. It would turn over. It would include participatory elements as well as typical representative elements, but above all, it would be fundamentally responsive to the community at large, right? The community at large would be in control of its own destiny. Material and symbolic. And politicians would be heavily sensitive to that community. But right now they're anything but. It's really, really hard for the population to agenda set and then to get uptake from politicians and that generates all kinds of frustration.”

Transcript

Brook Struck: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab. A socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brook Struck, Research Director at TDL, and I'll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is David Moscrop, Washington Post columnist, author of Too Dumb for Democracy: Why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones. In today's episode, we'll be talking about threats to democracy, bullying, shamelessness, and polarizing digital landscapes. Dave, thanks for joining us.

David Moscrop: My pleasure.

Brook Struck: Please tell us what it is about democracy in the 21st century that's keeping us all up at night.

David Moscrop: Oh, oh. Where to begin? I suppose. I mean a little bit of everything, really. This is part of the challenge is that we believe at sort of the late bit of the 20th century and perhaps even into the 21st century that we had reached a critical mass for democracy. Domestically in several countries, but globally. We've reached the end history, liberal democracy, and here we go. Now it's just a matter of tipping over the dominoes. And we very quickly realized post, certainly post 9/11, that that wasn't true. And that it had never been true that it was a sort of conceit largely in the part of the West and, and the liberal democratic world. And that now all of a sudden we had to grapple with the fact that democracy was fragile. But also that perhaps the form that we had imagined in the sort of consensus as being the form and the final form was maybe not so.

Since then we've seen a number of pressures on democracy and we've seen democratic backsliding. Democratic, what Larry Diamond called, a democratic recession. And we're having to grapple with that. At the same time that we're grappling with climate change, which I think whenever you're talking about democracy, you need to talk about climate change because it's an open question. Whether democracy can survive climate change. As well as can democracy properly manage climate change. I'm not saying autocracies are better at it. I'm asking a separate question, can democracies on their own do it? And that's an open question too. And so now we're facing all of that at once and the implications are extraordinary. So there's a lot of anxiety and frustration and fear around that. And that keeps everybody up. Alongside the rise of toxic variety of populism, you know, white nationalism and the violence that comes with that and so on, so forth. So, you know when I say everything I sort of mean it. Pretty much everything.

Brook Struck: Yeah. All right.

David Moscrop: So off we go.

Brook Struck: Yeah, off we go. So, you know you mentioned there just in kind of the tail end, this rise of populism, and I think the most visible form of that is something that we see in the newspapers and something that we see on social media all the time. Because it kind of is this very visible flare up, which is this shameless behavior that we see. Now when I say shameless, what I mean is like shameless from the perspective of the view of liberal democracy, that once upon a time we thought was the end of history. So from that perspective there's this behavior that's like extremely shameless. Public behavior from politicians. We can start with just openly and brazenly lying. I mean there's a lot further to go from there, but you know that's a solid starting point. You've written about the risks to democracy if leaders are shameless in their behavior. How do you see shame playing an important functional role as a guardrail for democracy?

David Moscrop: So the concept of shame more broadly in our social structures and our social lives, acts as a guardrail and a check on our behavior, right? I mean it's meant to mediate and to limit what we do and to how we comport ourselves. And so, like, you feel shame for a very particular social reason. It's because you've done something you ought not to have done. And if it's, you know, there's a corrective function to it, it's that, okay, well, you don't do it again. And it sends a message to other people that they ought to not do it as well. And it's the same in politics. There's just some things that you shouldn't do. There's some things that you shouldn't do even though you're allowed to do them. And there's some things that you shouldn't do and you're not allowed to do.

And the idea is, okay, well, shame is going to patrol those boundaries and keep people in check. Well, when it stops doing that people become shameless. Then you've got a problem because all of a sudden the norms and what people call the soft guardrails of democracy break down. And then it's just, you're off to the races, right? And all of a sudden these things that limit what we do and make sure that we can all cooperate together and play by the same rules and the concept of fair play starts to vanish. And then forget about it because then it's just no holds barred.

Then you start to lose the foundation for democracy, which is the idea that we meet each other as equals at least theoretical equals or formal equals in the public sphere and then work out how we ought to live together. Well, then it's just bashing each other over the head however we might. I'm talking sort of procedurally.

And then, then that's it. And then it becomes very hard to reestablish order after that.

Brook Struck: So you talked about soft guardrails and kind of the formal versus informal institutions that are the bull works of our democracy. Let's really zoom in on those informal institutions, those soft guardrails. Can you give us some examples of those and how they kind of play out?

David Moscrop: Sure. I mean there's a bunch and the US is sort of the cherry pickable example of this because it's where we see a lot of this stuff at work. And one of them is sort of like, look, you could have for instance a filibuster. But it shouldn't be abused. Or you could have a cloture to shut down debate, but it really shouldn't be abused. Well, if you look at the history of the rise of the filibuster and the rise of cloture in the US, they've been ticking up over the years as toxic polarization has been ticking up. And the majority party, typically the Republicans abuse this the most, although not exclusively. Well, and sometimes minority party wi'll use it to try to finagle the legislative agenda. But then of course it encourages the other party to do the same. And then you can't get anything done. Right? It's the same thing like putting anonymous holds on bills. These, you know, the bills. These are things that should only be used extraordinarily, but then they become routine. And then of course then you can't get anything done.

Government shutdowns are another example of this, right? We don't have this in Canada because if the government can't pass a budget then we have an election. But in the US, it's not the case. The government can shut down and has shut down. And it's a good example of how the parties typically won't have showdowns on this sort of thing historically. Because they realize that there needs to be a budget. Well, that's gone out the window too. And then of course perhaps the most famously is Supreme court nominees, right? There's this idea that parties shouldn't be playing dirty pool with nominations.

Well, and around in the 1980s, that sort of changed a little bit. People cite Robert Bork as the turning point. It's a little bit more complicated on that, but certainly by the nineties partisan politicians were willing to abuse process around nominees to make sure the other party couldn't get anything done. And that, of course, with Merrick Garland in the Obama years, it looked like it had hit its apogee. But then of course, then the Trump comes along and you have the, we know the McConnell Rule, which is you don't nominate a Supreme Court justice and election year, except for when you do, right? When it's your party. And then what that led to the discussions of court packing. And there had been this idea in the United States that you can't just pack the Supreme Court because the constitution set the minimum, but not a maximum, right. You could sit in theory as many people as you wanted until you had a majority. But then that all of a sudden was on the agenda. But it was a huge norm violation, right? To do it. But this was being discussed. And then of course, this is where you hit that negative cycle that we talked about. Right. Because if you do it, then by God, the next guy's going to do it too. 

And then where are you? And so this is what happens. This is what emerges. And like I said before, it becomes really hard to break that cycle because why would you play by a different set of rules than the other team? You'd be foolish to. But when everybody plays by their own set of rules, you get nothing done.

Brook Struck: Right. So the emergency break becomes routine and then the game is on for what's the next emergency break. And furthermore, who's going to be the one who's going to routinize the use of that emergency break down the road.

David Moscrop: Exactly. Impeachment is another example of that. Right? I mean, impeachment meant to me this extraordinary thing. Right. And for years, and years and years in the United States, it just simply wasn't used. I mean, it was, who else, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon. He had, it was extraordinary for it to be used. And then of course it was used in the Clinton years. And then in the Trump years it was used twice, I think. Right? I mean, or attempted twice.

So then the number of attempted impeachments goes up too. Now, Trump deserved it. But that's a different issue. So then of course this is what happens. And then you get things like the United States being added to the list of backsliding democracies because the democratic institutions begin to crumble. Because of course, you know, I joke that Trump deserves it. He definitely deserved it, but now you have this attempt against Biden coming from, hard line Republicans. And that's absolutely absurd on its face, but it's normal now.

Brook Struck: So let's shift from the sense of shame or shamelessness amongst politicians, as one guardrail to the people. And people standing up and crying shame towards their leaders when they act badly. Why is this so important and how does that gain traction in the formal and informal democratic guardrails that you've been talking about?

David Moscrop: Right. So there's a couple ways to think about this. You know, these sort of application shame where the boundaries of shame and one is elites. And elites, right? I mean, you can be held to account by your colleagues as a politician, and that's a sort of elite elite. But you can also be held to account of course, by the public and the public can shame you too. And that's a different way of applying the same sort of rule. And it's extraordinarily important because elites can kind of come together and decide that they're going to do things a very particular way. And there can all, you know, coalesce around these practices and institutions and processes and think that's just fine. Well, it might not be fine. And then it's up to the public to say, actually, no. Right. What you guys have decided is okay, is not okay.

And it can be on policy or it can be on process, but it's a way for the public to, another way for the public I should say, to check and balance their leaders. And that can take the form of protests, it can take the form of petitions. It can take the form of electoral campaigns or recall campaigns and jurisdictions where that's true. It can be the media applying it through columns and reporting. But if you look, if you think back to the climate marches or a few years ago, one of the common expressions of that was shame, right? I mean, people in the streets, it wasn't just initiated in a way by Greta Thunberg, but it was people in the streets were echoing this message of shame that their leaders had let them down and that they had been inadequate in dealing with climate change. But they were very specifically hitting the shame note. You know, how dare you. What's wrong with you?

You've let us down. You were meant to do this and you didn't, you failed. And that was a way of expressing not just disappointment with the policy agenda, but something beyond that. A deep, deep, deep frustration and anger and shame, application of shame. That was meant to say to them, you've failed on a moral level and you've got to do better. They didn't.

It shows the limits of this. Of shame and of protest too. Because of course it's got to cash out somewhere else. We can get into that later. But that's one of those examples as sort of an informal institution, which is protest. Applying pressure to a formal one. People have less access to formal institutions. \ There are formal institutions of occasional deliberative democracy or direct democracy, but they're pretty rare. Or petitions and so on. Petitions can be used to shame too. They're not particularly effective. Protests is typically one of them. And of course, elections as well. And again, the theme of shame comes up in elections all the time. But again, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But again, you don't want it to work all the time because sometimes it gets abused.

Brook Struck: So let's dig into that. Let's dig into that frustration, that sense of moral failure on the part of our leaders to actually, to serve us and to take care of us. And to have our best interests at heart. In some previous conversations you noted that democracy can tolerate liars, but not hypocrites. There's been some really interesting research about that in the last few years. Specifically looking at the conditions under which lying and especially like this kind of open brazen lying, where everybody knows that you're lying can actually make leaders more attractive to voters. Specifically when voters feel left behind by elites. So you talked about that before. This kind of gap that can open up between the agreement amongst elites about how they're going to conduct business and procedures in the political sphere and what the public feels accessible.

When voters feel left behind by that kind of arrangement, they'll support a candidate who openly like thumbs their nose at traditionally elitist institutions. Thumbing one's nose is perhaps a gentle description for the kinds of activities that Donald Trump and others undertake. But let's just stick with that for now. Specifically when they lie and they act in other ways that ought to be considered shameful. They are like symbolically expressing their disapproval of the system. And that's something that can really resonate strongly with voters. Can you walk us through some of that research and how that fits in with what we've been talking about up until now?

David Moscrop: Yeah. Well, I'm going to drag you into this. Because I want to hear from the work you've done. I'll just say very briefly. I mean, there was some work years ago that said what I had said earlier. That, or what you had mentioned me saying that people will forgive a liar, but they won't forgive a hypocrite. That if you, you know, it's one thing to lie. It's another thing to hold yourself with these lofty ideals and then live a different way. That sort of really lets people down. And that seems to echo in some ways how people feel about elite institutions, how certain people feel about elite institutions. That they really are trying to sell us one thing, but they're doing a bait and switch and they're, they're actually providing something very, very different and that angers them and frustrates them. And they think that they're all in it for themselves and they set up this, they bring the game for themselves. 

And then people say, okay, well, if it's all bull, then this person's going to come along and they're going to push back against it and they're going to do what they got to do. Because they represent a higher truth. And this is what the researcher says. That it's a different sort of truth. Or it's getting at a deeper point. And to me, thinking about it has a corollary in Plato and the idea of the noble lie, right? And the old idea of the noble lying Plato is that there is this shared untruth or this shared myth that binds the city together and that's come down to us in politics as well look. I mean, we've got a lie or mislead or obfuscate because that's how you maintain order in politics.

And that's okay because that's a noble thing to do. And it's very patronizing, right? The pushback against that on the liar side has been okay, well, we're going to have... A liar's going to come along like Donald Trump or whoever might be, and it's going to tear all that nonsense down. And that's okay because we're just playing by their rules. Because it's all crooked anyway. They're going to drain the swamp. Nevermind they come along and it's swamper than ever. This is our guy. And so you've written about this and I'm curious how you see it playing out and where it comes to me on specifically, you've written about myths. And is it, so do you see it as the lie and the myth being co-equal then?

Brook Struck: Yeah. So let me unpack a little bit of the lie and the myth and this kind of deeper truth and like this noble lie. Some of the work that you're talking about here that I've done in the past few years is looking at what it is that we're talking about in terms of this deeper truth. Like how can we have something that is both clearly false on its surface, but somehow true. Like how can that truth and that falsity coexist? And essentially what I explore there to cash out this apparent inconsistency or this apparent conflict or impossibility. Is the idea of epistemic truth versus expressive truth. So epistemic truth is what are the facts of the matter. Like if there's data that can be collected, what does the data say about whether the surface level literal interpretation of the phrase. Is it true or false?

The facts in the world that that phrase purports to pick out, are those facts actually true? Is it actually the case? But on the other hand, you've got this more expressive thing that's expressive in contradistinction to epistemic. This isn't about like, it's not about facts. It's not about data. This is about identity. It's about a statement of who I am. And that's really where this deeper truth comes from. What the populist taps into, that deeper truth, is a statement of my identity. And especially like an identity of feeling left out. Feeling like I'm being treated like a fool or treated like a chump. By this entire elite institution that just works by its own logic. They cry these crocodile tears once every four years and both sides do it. And they both participate in this exercise of trying to show that they're in touch with real people.

Then as soon as you get out of that cycle, they're like, okay, now back to real business, which has nothing to do with people. Like if that's the way that a citizenry feels about its political sphere, and that is allowed to fester to such an extent that people start to build their identity around that. Then we end up in these kinds of situations where the conditions are ripe for a populous to come along and express that epistemic lie. Like I'm going to say something that is not true. I know that it's not true. And I'm saying it openly anyway. I'm going to lie openly to your face. And it actually doesn't matter all that much what the lie is about. Some are more incendiary, some are more effective than others. But the real important point is that by lying openly to your face, what I'm doing is flaunting those institutions and those setups that you, the elites have built up to make we the people feel like outsiders in our own democracy.

That's the deeper identity that's being truly expressed through that lie. And that's something that can resonate really strongly with people. And if I think about specific examples of where we see that, like this idea of the basket of deplorables and that phrase being intended as of like an exclusionary idea. It's something you shouldn't want to be, but all of a sudden you see this ground swell of energy around people saying like, "Yeah, that's me, you're talking about, I wear this label proudly. I am proud to be labeled a deplorable by somebody like you." When you get into that kind of situation, you've really got a bunch dry tinder sitting there and you're just waiting for the right spark.

David Moscrop: Yeah. And again, not only can they lie as mentioned, you can benefit from it, right. Because not only is it not a liability, it becomes an asset. And again, once that starts, it becomes very, very difficult to stop it. Especially when it's an identity, I mean, you mentioned identity. And the foundation of all of this is the idea that we are in fact much less rational, much more emotional than the sort of typical enlightenment tale tells us. Right? You know, the story of the enlightenment individual that has come down to us is that we are rational, dispassionate calculative machines. We weigh the evidence, we weigh the policies. It's strictly about, you know, there's some character evaluation there obviously, but it's about, okay, who are these people? Who are they really?

And what can they do? What are they promising? And let's tally it up and let's see. When in fact it's often much more, okay, well, how do they make me feel, right. Do they hate the people I hate? Are they angry about the things I'm angry about? Do they make us feel better about diminished status, right? There's a lot of global hegemony grievance politics and white grievance politics that comes up in this stuff. And can they make us feel that sense of nostalgia that says, okay, no it's okay, we can go back to the way things were. You know, make America great again. And it's completely, if you have sort of weigh the evidence and look at the track record, it's complete bollox. 

But it still makes you feel good. And then that's okay. Right? And so part of understanding all this is disrupting the idea that we have of who we are as human beings. Which is hard because we want to think of ourselves as those rational machines, calculative machines. But we're not, we're fundamentally emotional. Right. And it's, if anything, it's that reason interrupts the emotion rather than as the default state in a lot of cases. Especially these days where we're constantly an autopilot, because we're just overwhelmed by stuff. And that's again, has created a kind of perfect storm for these folks to come and abuse that.

Brook Struck: Yeah. I liked one of the points that you said there about reason interrupting emotion. There's an amazing book that was actually written in 1945. The book is called The Myth of the State. And essentially it's a diagnosis of how did we end up at this position where following the enlightenment again, as you say, we all thought that we were just these rational creatures who were really good at going out and collecting the evidence and figuring out the balance of evidence and then making informed choices. And then in the face of that, you've got the rise of Nazism, right? You've got this being credibly powerful expression of mythic identity. That breaks through this facade of apparent rationalism. And the myth of the state is all about how did we get to this point where we believed this idea about rational man, and what are the conditions under which it breaks down.

And the conclusion that's reached in that book is we can't allow material conditions to break down to such an extent that people become desperate enough that they will just jettison reason and go kind of full bore on myth. I think one of the things that we're seeing now is that it's not just a breakdown of material conditions. Actually, there's a breakdown of trust and legitimacy that can also lead to that. There's a piece of research that I found fascinating looking at some of the indicators of who switched from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. And this idea of economic desperation was not such a factor in the switch. One of the strongest factors, as you mentioned before, was around identity. And this idea of the hegemony of the US in the world being threatened and also the hegemony of whites in the US. So it was these two vectors of identity threat that were the primary predictors of who was a jump from the Democrats of 2012 to the Republicans in 2016. So that, to me really speaks to this idea that we can't allow for a material breakdown on the epistemological side. But we also can't really afford a mythic breakdown or an identity breakdown on the kind of expressive symbolic side either.

David Moscrop: This is, I mean, this is the fundamental problem that we have set up for ourselves almost like on housing policy. An impossible situation where we've got to break down patriarchy, we've got to break down white supremacy, we've got to breakdown class dominance, all of these things. As we do, it's going to be absolutely awful. Because you're going to get the grievance politics. You're going to get the backlash, you're going to get all of that stuff. And like you said, it's simultaneously, like there are material conditions that are key here, but you know, a lot of it is status domination, right. And status. It's not economic anxiety quote/unquote. It's racist who don't want to lose their position, their privileged position. But, and they ought to, but it's going to be absolutely wretched as it happens, because you're going to get the worst sort of things coming out of it. And yet it has to come down. 

I draw that housing analogy because it's one of those situations where people have earned something, quote, unquote, that they will not give up even though they're not sort of due it in a broader sense. And nobody wants to touch it because it's such a powder keg. And so now we're staring this down and but it's going to happen. It absolutely going to happen. But the question is, how do you manage it, right? How do you make it as manageable as possible? And I think the material conditions then become pretty important. I mean, they're always important, but in this case, we have to get the material stuff right. Because underlying all of this is the fact that there's a lot, there is certain class solidarities there. Where people are being marginalized and they are being exploited.

And we need to find a way to make sure that their base material needs are respected and met and that people have control of their lives. Right. And I worry that that's going to pile on top of everything else and make the mess even worse because we see wealth inequality growing. We see the effects of climate change being born disproportionately, often by racialized communities, incidentally. And by women, globally. Right. And so we're risking it once this awful backlash we're going to have to manage. And the fact that the same old people are bearing the same old burdens, but worse. What we we've created this awful mess for each other, for one another. That being born disproportionately by those who can afford to bear at the least. And then what are you going to do about that? And honestly, I don't know. I. I don't think we're ready for this. I don't think we have a plan.

Brook Struck: Yeah. So you mentioned the importance of navigating the material waters there. How do we shore up the fact that so many people and kind of predictably the same kinds of people over and over again, don't get a fair shot at a comfortable life. But the other thing is, is managing the symbolic side of that. Like, how do we manage the narrative? How do we manage that conversation about changing the terms of what's considered acceptable and what's considered fair within our society. That's not just a managerial challenge. That's a leadership challenge. Because what you need to manage there is a change in identity. It's a change in who we are.

David Moscrop: I'm still barely hanging on as someone who believes that formal democratic institutions can do a large part of that work. There are days I wake up and think, you know what? No, it can't. But then I come back as the day progresses. Once the sun comes out and I've had breakfast and gone for a walk, so I've come back around. But my response has always been look, we need democratic systems that include direct action, protest, resistance, civil disobedience, and so on. But also include formal participation by citizens. And that that work can go a long way in bringing people in. And when I talk about that, I'm talking about citizens assemblies. I'm talking about participatory budgeting. I'm talking about community involvement where people get together as individuals and can chart their own course when they want to. I'm not talking about every single person becoming a politician or a citizen politician.

I'm talking about people being given opportunities to have a direct say in how their community, their province, their country, so on is managed through these formal institutions. When they want to. And what we find from the literature and deliver of democracy and citizens and assemblies and so on is that when you ask people to do this, they do it. And they like it. And when politicians respect these processes and there's an uptake, then you build better communities and you build more trust and you build better outcomes. All this sort of good stuff happens. So there is a way to bring people in. But when I say people, I'm talking about, you know, 60, 70% of the population that you might reach with this. There's always going to be 20 or 30% of the population you won't reach. There's just not going to happen. Right? There's a certain segment of the population that's pretty much unreachable or at the very least the marginal returns and trying to reach them are so low that you're better off doing a herd inoculation.

There's always going to be an unmanageable section of a population who are so deeply sexist, deeply racist, deeply homophobic, deeply distrusting of the state and so on and so forth. I mean you can't get everybody. But you can get enough people to build stronger institutions, but it takes, as you mentioned, leadership. Politicians have to want to do this. And the fundamental problem is it requires politicians to give up control and power a little bit. And they don't like doing that.

Brook Struck: So let's go back to one of the earlier themes of our conversation with the context that we've just been discussing here. And I think that that will lead us in an interesting way back to what we've just been talking about, which is building up more of these structures of participatory democracy. So how does this discussion that we've been having around material threats and identity threat and this kind of thing, and the populist conditions that that sets up. How does that help us to understand a bit more about the work that you've been doing on shameful behavior and the importance of shaming leaders up... When we were discussing them initially, we were really talking about them as a bug in the system. Should we be viewing them instead as a feature?

David Moscrop: I think it's a feature very much so. It's part of a toolkit and ideally you wouldn't need to use it at all. But I don't think that's, we're ever going to each a point where we don't have to use it. And in fact if you go back, the history of politics is full of this. This is in part what ostracism was about in the ancient world. People could vote to expel... When incidentally, by the way, how fun would it be to bring ostracism back? [I don't know, I'm not sure where you'd send people these days, but I guess maybe outer space. That's the next frontier. But back in the day, way back in the day, you could vote as a community to ostracize someone. Which is to expel them from the community. And that was a way of basically saying you've done something that we can't tolerate and out you go. Typically against politicians, of course it got abused. Was used against reformers and so on. So I say a tongue in cheek because these tools often get turned against the population and used to control them.

But this would be a tool, the toolkit, shame, not ostracism. That would be used when other institutions fail. And so I think of this as a sort of break or a check that is used in extremists when the other things fail. And so I see it as complimentary to these participatory institutions, which to me ought to be the first line of defense alongside a responsive government. So imagine what a good government would look like. It would be egalitarian. It wouldn't be entrenched with career politicians. It wouldn't be bought and paid for by strategy. It would turn over. It would include participatory elements as well as typical representative elements, but above all, it would be fundamentally responsive to the community at large, right? The community at large would be in control of its own destiny. Material and symbolic. 

And politicians would be heavily sensitive to that community. But right now they're anything but. It's really, really hard for the population to agenda set and then to get uptake from politicians and that generates all kinds of frustration. And I think you're really going to see that pick up soon. Climate change is going to be one of them. Shifting global powers is going to be part of it. The pandemic is dragging on. People are getting cranky about that. And inflation is becoming an issue. And we've sort of ignored inflation or said, okay, it's just transitory and so on and so forth.

Well, interest rates are going to go up soon. We have a problem in this country when it comes to housing. And when it comes to personal debt. We're going to see a lot of pressure. That's the material thing we spoke of earlier, which can produce a lot of nasty stuff. So we've seen these intersections things that aren't particularly welcome that could create a lot of problems. And I keep saying, look, we need to build these institutions now. You know, there's an old line that JFK used to use, "The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining." Well, the clouds out, we're past that. Clouds are above us. So the second best time to fix the roof is now. Before the delusia. It’s sprinkling. The delusia's coming, the flood is coming. The heavy rains are coming. And now's the time to do it because if we wait much longer, we're going to be in big, big, big trouble.

And analogy applies across things too. I mean, it's symbolically true. It's also literally true. We need to build infrastructure now. Look at what's happening in British Columbia, right? We've seen what extreme weather's going to do to our infrastructure. It's going to be awful. You know now is the time we need to be doing double time and addressing all this stuff, but we're not. And this is what makes me extraordinarily nervous about the state of democracy. We're not moving fast enough. We're not moving in a way that includes everybody. And it's a recipe for absolute disaster.

Brook Struck: So on the topic of disasters, one of my favorites, of course. How bad does it have to get before we say enough is enough and decide to turn back? And I'll just raise one example in that, in that optic or along that line. Which is, I think that there's been a very conscientious effort from Biden and his administration to really set themselves up as walking back from the extremes of Trumpism. But I mean, that's just starting to scratch the surface. Like it's about some changes here and there, but it's not a deep full fledged change to address the challenges that made Trumpism possible in the first place. So how bad does it have to get before we say, "Okay, enough is enough. Now we, we are not just going to kind of fix these surface level things. We're going to really start addressing some of these deeper systemic issues."

David Moscrop: I don't know. I mean, I genuinely don't know. You think that we would be past the point at which it was so bad that you had to. But the problem is the worse it gets, the more you sort of incentivize people to dig in. Right. And to continue in the way that they've already been continuing. You know, tit for tat, right. We know this from experiments where certain populations are playing rational choice games. That we will cut our nose to spite our face. We are one of the few species that will do that. Right. Say this is an experiment, I'm paraphrasing this class of experiment. But say, you and I are given, I'm given $100 dollars to share with you and I can apportion it however I please. But it's take it or leave it. If you reject it, neither of us, you know, we don't, you don't, you get nothing. And I give myself $80 and I give you $20, you're going to say, "To hell with you."

Brook Struck: Yeah. And I'll reject the offer and neither of us will get anything. It's not just, I'm rejecting my offer. It's I'm rejecting the offer for both of us.

David Moscrop: Exactly.

Brook Struck: From a rational perspective I should take anything. Right?

David Moscrop: Of course, of course. And exactly. And yet you won't. Right. And rightfully so, you'll say, "Well to hell with everyone." And we're one of the few species that will do this and we do it all the time. And we get to a point where that compounds and then forget about it. Right? It's just that things are so bad that it just decays and it collapse and and our history as a species is just full of those examples. And we're not past it. I mean we're not smarter or more evolved than that. We are very much the same as we were before. Our institutions are better. Our technical know-how is better. Those can make up for a certain amount of shortcomings, but not all of them. And it makes me think of that clip from The Godfather, the bad one. Just when thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Right. You can try to get out of that sort of politics, but they'll pull you back in so fast because all it takes is one person. Or one block to try to do it. And then everybody gets dragged back down. And we're seeing that globally. I don't know how bad it needs to get. I'm in fact, I worry that the worse it gets, the harder gets to get out of it.

Brook Struck: Right.

David Moscrop: And if we're not doing it now, I don't know if we're going to be doing it in five or 10 or 15 years, and maybe we are staring down a collapse. And then from the collapse, you rebuild and you just start the process over again. And maybe that's what we are as a species. Just a rise and fall. And that's how it's always going to be. We don't like to think that way, because it's not very encouraging or hopeful. But history sort of suggests that that's how we do things.

Brook Struck: But it's also very much post-enlightenment of us to believe that. Right? It's like the arc of history is always pointed upwards. Things are only ever getting better and better. When we see these occasional back slides, it's like, oh, well these are just kind of aberrations, but we don't take them seriously. We don't consider that maybe things actually are going to get it worse. And that that's-

David Moscrop: Oh yeah.

Brook Struck: A possibility in the grand scheme of things.

David Moscrop: Well, one of the things I like to say, I mean, I wrote an essay on progress a few years ago. And one of the questions I asked was look at all of the statistics that people use to measure quote/unquote progress. And who come to believe rather sort of whatever it was, 60 degree arc towards perfection. Whatever it was. Take all that stuff and take it for granted and ask yourself this question. If we do all of that and then we hit a point at which climate, the effects of climate change, bring it all crashing down. Will we have looked back on the past that preceded and said, that was an era of progress? To me that's an era of regress that it led to collapse. That's not progress, right. If you only measured in the moment, sure look. But you got to look ahead. And so what the question I asked myself is isn't, are we going up? Yes or no? Is, are we moving in a sustainable fashion that is inclusive?

To me the answer was obviously no, right? So when we think about progress, I think we need of it in terms of inclusivity and sustainability. And if you're not thinking about it in those two terms, then you're looking at a mirage. And I think that's what we're looking at right now. And so that's what worries me. Is that we're going to head for that collapse because we're taking the, our view of progress now as a mirage. And it's deeply unsettling.

Brook Struck: Let's talk about a electoral politics for a moment here. What's the playbook? When there's this situation of status threats and identity threats that's really creating the opportunities for populists to really work the citizenry up into a ladder kind of thing. How does someone gain electoral advantage by pivoting back from that? What's the framing, what's the messaging that's effective in pitching the populist as this canary in the coal mine. That like, yes, this thing happened and we've seen the error of our ways and now we need to pivot back. Like we have dabbled too much in the excesses of what democracy will allow and now we must do otherwise less the whole thing collapse.

David Moscrop: Well, I mean, I think you do it by including people. Look, because here's the thing, not everybody is going to feel the politics of grievance and to give into the sort of toxic authoritarian populist. The bad news is it doesn't take that many people to give into it, to make a mass, right. It doesn't have, right. That's something we learned time and time again. But the good news is, there are a lot of people you can win back by genuinely being inclusive and meeting their symbolic and material needs in less toxic ways. And I think you do that by doing it. You know what I mean? I mean the Biden campaign is a bit of an example of how that can work. It was pretty close. He's been less successful as a president, but that is in part his fault and in part the fault of his party and the Republicans. Right?

I mean again, that the American situation is so bad. Those institutions are so rotten that it makes it hard for anybody to get anything done. I think by and large Biden has actually done better than you might've expected a couple years ago. Because it was that bad. But again, the efforts that the Biden administration has made is an example of what you would want to do. You to try to be inclusive. You want to try to meet people's material needs. They haven't gone nearly far enough. But that's sort of what it looks like, right? It's like, okay, how do we actually bring people involved into our institutions. How do we make sure that they've got money in their pocket? They can afford a home. They can afford to go to school. They've got a pension, they work in safe environments.

I mean that's how you do it. You do it by the rubbers got to hit the road. Again, that's going to meet the material requirements. On the status grievance thing, again, there's just some people you're not going to get. Because they believe fundamentally that this unearned privilege that they have is something that they are fundamentally due. And that taking away from them is a crime. You're just never going to get it. You've got to raise people who don't believe in that, right? You've got to create a generation of people who don't believe in the sort of gender or racial or sexual orientation hierarchy that they believe that we are a community in which every single person needs to be involved in charting the course and deciding how we ought to live together. And to some extent we are doing that now, right?

We've got to keep on that course while continuing to hammer on that message and meet material needs. And I think that is our best shot at turning this around. With again, the huge asterisk of double time and attention on climate. Because already, we're seeing the disproportionate effects of that. Financially in terms of infrastructure, in terms of actually having to weather the storm, the literal storms and the literal heat waves. We know who these things are harming and killing. Again, disproportionately born. You know, you've got to address that, especially because the sort of climate anxiety, climate anger, climate grief, and climate exploitation is already high. It's only going to get higher. So you've got to do all those things while also paying attention to this. It's an extraordinary feat that we're staring down, but what's the alternative? It's breakdown.

Brook Struck: Yeah. Yeah. So you've talked about inclusivity and I wanted to, to push you a little bit on that and ask you to unpack a little bit around participation as well. Not just that people feel that their interests are represented, but that they are actually participating in something. They are contributing to something, like they have an active role in building the next thing that's going to come and replace what we currently have. That we're so unhappy with that we're willing to be swayed by these populists. Is there a participatory turn that matches the inclusion turn?

David Moscrop: I mean, there hasn't been really, but there could be. I mean there... We do have incidents of civic assembly, citizen assemblies, participatory budgeting, and so on around the world. I mean it's... You can go to Participedia, which is a joint effort, it's Wikipedia for democratic engagement and see all the projects. There's tons of them. It absolutely can be done, and has been done. And it needs to be done more. And the model or the underlying principle of it is this idea in academia called the all affected interests principal. Archon Fung has written about it a bunch and others. I wrote about it a little bit with Mark Warren, who was my supervisor at UBC. The idea is every person who's affected by a decision ought to have some say in that decision. Everyone who's affected ought to have a say in it.

And now that isn't necessarily a one to one, you might say, look, some people are more affected than others, right? So they need to have more of a say. I used the example of, in a paper that I wrote with Mark saying, look, if you're building a freeway through a community and you're going to have consultations or a citizen assembly on this freeway. You ought to be weighing the positions and the concerns of the people in that community higher than someone who's going to use the thing once a month. The freeway once a month, right? Cause the impact on this community is much higher. So we need to scale, but that's the fundamental and meeting principle. Well, we could say we want to build institutions that are fundamentally based on this all effective interest principle. And that bring people into it. And then that would be a model to do it.

And again, it has been done. We know how to do it. We just need the political will and encourage to do it. And then to ensure that there's uptake. It's actually not that complicated. You know, there's a lot of talk about democratic innovation and so on and so forth. And I'm a bit conservative on this and say, I think we know what we need to do and how to do it. We've kind of known it for 2,500 years, right. You know, more, it's hard to innovate a lot of these things because they've always, they've already existed in one form or another. You can do a Zoom, you could do [inaudible 00:54:27] with a particular algorithms. You can tweak the particulars. You can, Tali Mendelberg and Chris Karpowitz have written on gender and deliberation sort of like how many women you want in the room versus men to balance out a conversation.

There's a sort of golden ratio, slightly more women than men, but not too many is what they've find. Because basically men are trash often. And so you got to manage it. They find too many women and the men try to peacock. Too few when they behave poorly. Like you got to get... But this is also sort of, you know, this is working at the particulars of how we do what we know we've needed to do for 2,500 years. Which is bring the community in. So it's a matter of actually just doing it and then following through.

Brook Struck: So I think that that's a nice point for me to kind of land this question. For someone who's just been listening to this and eating it up and saying, oh my gosh, this helps me to crystallize so many things that have just been floating around and I haven't had the words to just express it clearly. What's the most impactful thing that they can do tomorrow morning to start working towards these things?

David Moscrop: Oh, well. I mean it depends. I think we need to build the infrastructure for democratic participation. I think that's fundamentally, necessary. And part of that is getting politicians to want to build participatory infrastructure. That's step one, to say, look, this has got to be on the agenda. We need a national citizens assembly, standing citizens assembly. That's going to set part of the political agenda and I'm... And damn well, we're going to do it. But that to me has been part of my project. I've found politicians, not particularly receptive to that. It's hard to get people to care about that because it's abstract, right? That would be one way. But another ways is find something you care about that is again, based in this idea of inclusivity and sustainability. Then go work that issue because it's not just about citizens assembly. And citizens assemblies aren't going to save us on their own.

We need to apply that lens to all issues. And for individuals who are listening, everyone's going to have one issue or two issues or three issues they care about for whatever reason that they want to do something about. And I'd say go and do it. And do it with a lens of, of inclusivity and sustainability, whether that's climate or housing or childcare or whatever. And go through the avenue you think is best for you. Because when you think about democratic systems, you think in terms of a democratic system that includes all kinds of sites of politics, where stuff is happening. And we need that action across them, whether it's a legislature or the courts or the streets, right. And in that way, it's not a one size fits all thing. It's about becoming an active citizen that is holding power to account while respecting norms and just doing it through the lens of again, sustainability inclusivity.

And that's a great way to do it. And I'll close on this point. But do it in the community. I mean there's so very little, you can do as a rule, as an individual. As a community though, there's often a lot you can do. You'd be surprised. And if you can find like-minded people or join like-minded people who believe in this stuff, you can actually get a lot of stuff done still. And maybe we can turn all of this around. Ultimately I choose to be an optimist, even though it doesn't sound like it here, maybe. Because it's just a better choice to be an optimist. You don't get anything by being... You might be wrong. But you might get something. You might be right and get something. You get nothing but being pessimist. You lose before you start. So I choose to be a sort of cautious optimist. And that's why I always like to end these conversations on that note. I like to sort of do down to the valley, but then up again, you know?

Brook Struck: Yep. Well, Dave, thanks for all of this. It's been a very wide ranging and insightful conversation, and I think it's given me certainly, and I'm sure listeners and readers out there are a lot to think about in terms of how it is that we run our societies. And how it is that we're going to face up to the big challenges that we've got coming in in the years and decades and centuries ahead.

David Moscrop: It's absolutely my pleasure. And I like that you're optimistic too. Because you said centuries, so.

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About the Guest

David Moscrop

David Moscrop

David Moscrop is a political commentator, columnist, podcaster, and author who examines democratic deliberation and political decision making. He is a contributing columnist for the Washington Post. In 2019, Moscrop published his first book, Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones. He has a PhD in political science from the University of British Columbia.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Director, Research

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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