Political Diversity Readings

There are many kinds of viewpoint diversity, but the kind that we believe the academy most needs is political diversity. It is vital that students understand the long intellectual traditions that have animated politics and policy debates in Western democracies for more than a century. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it is increasingly clear that Americans need to understand each other.

Yet this is arguably the most threatening kind of diversity to encounter. Prejudice against people on the “other side” is now stronger, in the USA, than is prejudice across racial lines. And this prejudice (sometimes called “partyism“) motivates people to accept the worst possible version of the other side’s beliefs — and the most flattering version of their own side. Both versions are wildly distorted. And if students are not exposed to a range of political ideas–and actual people who hold those ideas–then they are at high risk of falling into group-think and orthodoxy. Anyone who wants to develop capacities for independent and critical thinking about politicized topics should begin with an accurate understanding of what each side stands for.

For simplicity, we discuss three main “sides” or philosophical traditions in American politics, which we call Progressivism (or “the left”); Conservatism (or “the right”), and Libertarianism (or “classical liberalism”). Please click on the quote bubbles below to see our suggested readings.

You might want to begin by watching any or all of these TED talks. In each one, the speaker tries to help and inspire the audience to appreciate political differences and the value of cross-partisan conversations.


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Arthur Brooks:

A conservative’s plea: Let’s work together

Jonathan Haidt:

Can a divided America heal?

Sally Kohn:

Let’s try emotional correctness




And if you have the time to delve deeper into the philosophical and psychological roots of political differences, we recommend these two books.  Each offers an integrative framework for thinking about all sides. One is written by a progressive (Lakoff); one by a conservative (Sowell). We suggest that students who lean left be asked to read Sowell, while students who lean right be asked to read Lakoff.

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff explains why people come to hold political beliefs as they apply their ideas about the family to the nation. Progressives see the ideal family as one led by a “nurturant parent,” while conservatives have a mental model of the family led by a “strict father.” Along the way Lakoff explains how people come to hold “mental models” or “frames” that make it easier for them to understand and accept arguments from one side or the other.

Economist Thomas Sowell offers an enlightening theory about the origin of the political divide. He shows how progressives have–for centuries–held an “unconstrained vision” of human nature: they think that human nature is fundamentally good, and that it is malleable enough that if we can create the right social conditions, we can approach ever closer to a perfect society. They generally favor removing “constraints” on people. Conservatives, in contrast, generally hold the “constrained vision” of human nature. They believe that human nature is morally mixed and morally flawed; people require social constraints in order to behave well. They believe that social traditions and institutions generally provide those constraints, and so they resist progressives’ efforts to change those traditions and institutions.