Transcript for Outrage 31 – How to be the adult in the room, no matter your age – Kevin Smith

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0:00:16 – (David): Welcome to Outrage Overload, a science podcast about outrage and lowering the temperature. This is episode 31.
0:00:51 – (Kevin Smith): Democracy is for losers.
0:00:59 – (David): That’s political science professor Dr. Kevin Smith.
0:01:03 – (Kevin Smith): And I really sincerely mean that, because if you lose, you don’t lose forever. You get another shot in a couple of years. And ideally, the way the system is set up to work is we lost. We need to recalibrate and figure out a way to connect what we want with a majority of voters, and we’ll get another crack at it in a couple of years. And if we don’t get it in a couple of years, you know what? A couple of years after that, we get another crack at it.
0:01:37 – (David): Indeed, as our esteemed professor suggests, the essence of democracy lies not just in victory, but in how we navigate the challenges of defeat.
0:01:45 – (Kevin Smith): Democracy is set up to allow that sort of evolution to happen, but for it to function, the loser’s burden is the biggest responsibility in democracy, if an election is free and fair and you get the outcome you didn’t want, you have to congratulate your opponent, or at least accept the outcome and move on.
0:02:12 – (David): However, in today’s polarized climate, the concept of gracefully accepting outcomes seems to be in jeopardy. Affect of polarization, the intense dislike and mistrust between political factions, and the erosion of shared norms are threatening the very fabric of our democratic ideals. And that’s what we’re going to talk about on this episode of the Outrage Overload podcast. I’m your host, David Beckmeyer, and Dr. Kevin Smith is our guest today because his research unveils the science behind political division and empowers us with practical tools to combat its corrosive effects and champion our individual responsibility in rebuilding a healthier democracy.
0:02:58 – (David): Kevin Smith is the Leland J. And Dorothy H. Olsen Chair and political science professor at the University of Nebraska. He has authored or coauthored ten books and more than 50 research articles that have appeared in political science, psychology, biology, and general science journals. In our conversation today, we aim to shed light on these pressing issues. More importantly, we seek to empower us all with a renewed sense of agency and individual responsibility.
0:03:25 – (David): Our discussion will not merely dwell on the problems, but will pivot towards solutions, offering practical tips for everyday heroism, cultivating hope, and unlocking the cumulative power of individual actions in this critical moment of our democratic journey. So ditch the apathy, dust off your cape, or maybe just your comfy listening pants, and get ready to join the conversation. This is about building a better democracy. One action, one voice, one empowered citizen at a time.
0:03:53 – (David): Let’s show the world that even the smallest spark can ignite a revolution with Professor Kevin Smith.
0:04:08 – (Kevin Smith): Hey, David, how you doing? Hey.
0:04:10 – (David): Is it okay if I call you Kevin?
0:04:12 – (Kevin Smith): Sure, absolutely.
0:04:13 – (David): Good morning.
0:04:14 – (David): Or I guess good afternoon in your case.
0:04:16 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah. Out here in the midwest, it’s afternoon.
0:04:19 – (David): Great.
0:04:20 – (David): Yeah. So thanks for making the time. I really appreciate it.
0:04:24 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah, no worries.
0:04:25 – (David): The main reason I reached out to you initially, know, I saw you give a presentation for the league of women’s voters. And one thing I appreciate about that talk, I like that your presentation had a number of things, one of which giving charity to the other side, and that democracy doesn’t work without conflict. Conflict is not a bad thing, but good conflict is what we need. We need good dialogue. Better dialogue is what kind of makes democracy work. And we’ve sort of lost sight of that. It’s like we just want to win all these arguments and not necessarily have a good dialogue. And also democracy is compromised, too.
0:04:58 – (David): And none of us really like compromise, but it sort of doesn’t work without.
0:05:03 – (Kevin Smith): The one thing that I would underline with what you just said, David, is democracy is a conflict management system. Its basic rule is we count heads rather than breaking heads. If you are looking for a system that imposes your ideology on unwilling constituencies, democracy is not your choice of polity. It is an imperfect system to deal with an imperfect world in a way that the majority has a hard time, or at least a harder time imposing their will on everyone.
0:05:48 – (Kevin Smith): And, I mean, I think increasingly that’s just hard for a lot of, for whatever reason or whatever reasons, I think it’s plural that just seems to be harder for people to accept these days.
0:06:00 – (David): Yeah. Maybe touch on some of the other things that you were explaining when I first saw your presentation.
0:06:08 – (Kevin Smith): Well, one of the things that I think that people don’t fully consider is you have agency here. You don’t have to wait for the system to change. You can change yourself. And I don’t mean in big fundamental ways or anything like that, but it can be as simple as exercising a little bit of thought about your media consumption.
0:06:35 – (David): Yeah. And that’s a big piece of what you’re talking about, too, is this trust thing. We get narrower as to what we accept as trustworthy, and that becomes a problem, too, because now the only thing you trust is some really fringe site that’s not even allowed to post to YouTube anymore for the things they’ve done. And that’s when it really becomes a challenge, because how do you get those people to steer back towards more reliable sources?
0:06:59 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah. And just to build off of that one of the other things that I think can be done to at least have some marginal positive impact in terms of reducing the level of polarization that we have is that there is a responsibility that falls on people like me, on educators. Now, trust in educational institutions, like most other institutions, is eroded pretty precipitously. But I don’t think that necessarily relieves people like me, political science professors or civics professors or civics teachers at the high school level, from talking and training young people to think critically about politics.
0:07:51 – (Kevin Smith): One of the things that most people or a lot of people think is like, we’re pushing an ideology in the classroom. And maybe there are some people like that, but certainly myself and most college professors I know who are in this business genuinely don’t want to do that. One of the things that I’ve really seen in terms of a change in students over my 30 years of teaching is students today. You take the average 19 or 20 year old.
0:08:25 – (Kevin Smith): They absolutely can be forgiven for thinking that the norm of politics is the purpose of politics. The goal of politics is to destroy the cons or own the libs. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about policy, it’s not about governance. And pushing young people to, you got to get away from that. You absolutely got to get away from that. This is serious stuff. This is grown up stuff. This has impact beyond the next clickbait headline or the tweet that’s going viral.
0:08:58 – (Kevin Smith): And you need to think critically and analytically about this stuff and not just about the side that you disagree with. You need to take a lens to what you believe. And if you’re sort of like running around saying, well, my side is on the side of the angels and the other side is pick your pejorative of choice. As I said, you’re part of the problem. And sort of like, really emphasizing that message in the classroom, I think, is something that’s a responsibility that those of us who spend a good deal of our professional lives educating young people need to take deadly seriously.
0:09:43 – (Kevin Smith): You can be a principled liberal, you can be a principled conservative. You can be both of those things and actually like each other and disagree deeply on politics. But retreating into opposite corners and yelling at each other is a message we need to keep hammering on constantly is that doesn’t solve anything.
0:10:07 – (David): Right. The only option is for the other side to not exist. And you can see why they get there, too, from the camp. Well, not that young people are getting campaign emails, but it still trickles out. I mean, the campaign emails basically tell you that. I mean, they’re telling you the other side is so bad, we need to crush them. Kind of think constantly. That’s all they say, whether you’re on the left or on the right.
0:10:28 – (David): It’s the same strategy.
0:10:30 – (Kevin Smith): And actually it’s kind of interesting. This is something else that I talk about with my students is the more things change, the more they stay the same. I mean, in a fundamental way, what we’re talking about is the same issue and dilemma that James Madison was struggling with in federalist number ten. How do you set up a system that guarantees individual freedom where people won’t use that individual freedom to deprive others of their freedom?
0:10:57 – (Kevin Smith): And Madison considered the alternatives, one of which was, well, we could give everybody the same preferences, and that’s just not going to happen. It’s just never, never going to happen. So how do you set up a system where people are going to have differences of opinion on politics and governance? Sometimes really big differences, hard to see how they could be compatible, and you can reach compromise differences and a large heterogeneous republic.
0:11:28 – (Kevin Smith): And Madison had a pretty good solution to that. As I said, those institutions are still standing and still functioning. But if we’re going to erode the norms that underpin those institutions, those institutions are going to fall at some point. And let me tell you, building good, functional institutions is really hard. And putting them back together once you’ve pulled them down, that is even harder.
0:11:57 – (Kevin Smith): And we really want to avoid this. These sound simple, trite messages. Right? Like, you know what? Your side lost the election. Deal with it, you get another shot in a couple of years. We really need, especially young people to embrace that norm.
0:12:16 – (David): Yeah. I mean, the norm busting has been a big concern. Yeah. Because our whole system is basically held up by norms more than laws. You can’t really legislate half the things we need to do. You can’t legislate morality and things like that. We need to have norms that work. And that’s a big thing that has been bothering me over the years.
0:12:36 – (Kevin Smith): One of the things that concerns me is in some of my own surveys that I’ve taken, is people increasingly starting to use the we and they to describe different political tribes. And I just think that’s. Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good development. I don’t think that’s a good development at all. There was a speaker of the House, I believe the name escapes me, but was talking to someone and they were talking about the opposing party in that House of Representatives as the enemy.
0:13:16 – (Kevin Smith): And the speaker of the House stopped them and said, oh, no, they’re not the enemy. They’re our opponents. The enemy is the Senate. And I just really like that. It’s sort of like the institutional difference that is the meaningful one, not the difference between the political parties.
0:13:37 – (David): Well, and trying to identify and have people agree on these sort of superordinate things we agree on. This sort of superordinate threat kind of thing has been a challenge because this animosity is so high, it’s hard to realize that we’re both Americans and we both do want good things for the country, even if we kind of disagree about what good things are, what the good things are. But the end result is we want sort of that same thing and we don’t believe that anymore. It’s hard to believe that the other side is also looking at the best interests of the country.
0:14:10 – (Kevin Smith): And that’s the big challenge because there are a number of people and groups in our society that have strong incentives to stoke that animosity. They profit off of that in one way or another, electorally, or getting a bigger audience or getting more clicks or what have you. And this is something that I’m extremely conscious of when I’m urging people. You have individual agency. You don’t have to buy into this.
0:14:45 – (Kevin Smith): Obviously. I strongly believe that’s true. But I also realize, given the environment that we live in, it ain’t easy, baby. It really ain’t easy, right?
0:14:55 – (David): I mean, there’s some research talking about how once that animosity level reaches a certain level, there’s no way to transfer knowledge. Once you’ve gotten to that point where you think they’re so bad you couldn’t possibly transfer knowledge anymore. And so your whole knowledge base now is only going to be filtered through that one lens. And it is very hard. You don’t even know you’re doing it. But it’s like you’ve got these psychological behavior going on.
0:15:22 – (Kevin Smith): Well, that is the big danger in the path that we are on. If politics becomes so polarized that we become truly tribal, there’s no middle anymore, that we view our opposition to the other political tribe on the basis of first principles, and there’s no compromise. Democratic processes will not resolve our differences. If we gain control, we’re going to ram our preferences down their throats, whether they like it or not.
0:15:59 – (Kevin Smith): And if they gain control, they’re going to do the same to us. And there’s just no figuring out half a loaf in the middle when you get to that. Politics is morality when you get to that sort of stage, democratic processes start to break down. You have to shift to non democratic systems. And this can be judicial. But in extremists, this spills over into civil unrest. The other side won. That’s got to be illegitimate. What they’re going to do violates my first principles, and no amount of democratic legitimacy is going to lead me to believe that I shouldn’t take action against these people who are now in charge.
0:16:52 – (Kevin Smith): Effectively, I give up the loser’s burden. That’s the nightmare. Right. We’re quite a ways from that right now, but we’re a lot closer to it than we were 20 years ago, that’s for sure.
0:17:08 – (David): Right. It feels like you can see that we’re there to a degree now. You see people feeling like when one party comes in, they do a bunch of things, and then if the next party gets power, they kind of try to undo those things or do more things. And compromise is seen now as it’s unacceptable. It’s an unacceptable emotional loss. Even compromise, it’s not an acceptable thing anymore. And it hurts so bad even to compromise. Forget losing, right? Just compromising hurts.
0:17:42 – (Kevin Smith): Well, and I mean, one of the challenges of following my advice in terms of act individually, make your own little contribution is it’s easy to enforce the norms on the other side.
0:17:58 – (David): Right.
0:17:59 – (Kevin Smith): And point out what they’re doing wrong. It’s a tougher road, a ho. To enforce the norms on your own side. And that’s what we really all need to be doing is these are our democratic principles and we apply those equally to our side as well as to the other side.
0:18:22 – (David): Yeah. I mean, even the article we were talking about at the very beginning right there, you have trusted scientists, well renowned scientists, sort of using affective polarization language, sort of doing the thing that they’re talking about right there. So it is easy to fall into.
0:18:42 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah. And again, though, it’s understandable because there’s strong incentives to use that kind of language. That’s what’s going to get your attention. That’s what’s going to stoke attitudes and motivate behavior. I mean, it is understandable, but it’s not particularly conducive to civility and a norm based running of our system. And so how do you get around that? And the options that are floating around is like we need massive institutional reform. We need to blow up the institutions and start again. And there’s a scary amount of support and certainly rhetoric on both sides about that we need to elect this person or that person and somehow they’re going to magically make everything better.
0:19:36 – (Kevin Smith): That’s not going to happen. The direction that we’re sort of like on is not a particularly salutary one. So how do we slow it down? How do we slow it down? And the thing that I keep coming back to is we can all play a part in this. We’re not helpless. You don’t have to sit there in front of your Twitter feed and doom scroll and join in. You can make a conscious decision to be. I mean, the bottom line, David, being a reasonable, moderate person in politics is effectively a revolutionary act these days if you’re willing to say to your friends and family who you agree with politically.
0:20:28 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah. What our side is doing here is just not, we need to be better than this. That’s kind of a radical act these days.
0:20:38 – (David): It’s an act of heroism, basically.
0:20:40 – (Kevin Smith): Right. The thing that I would strongly encourage people to do is, however hard it is, is screw your courage to the sticking poles and engage in these kind of like everyday heroic acts. Because not to be exaggerated too much or anything, but the public depends upon those acts in no small way.
0:21:04 – (David): Yeah. And it’s like you say, it’s so easy to direct those criticisms at the other side, but I mean, it’s like for everyone, you direct the other side, you should try to find ten that you direct at your own side.
0:21:14 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah. And I mean, one of the things that I think people can do is find someone who disagrees with you politically, but you like, and don’t be judgmental. Listen to them and get them to listen to you. Two of my favorite students over the past decade of my teaching, one was a very conservative Christian, conservative Republican, and one was about three steps away from a socialist, went to work for the ACLU after she graduated.
0:21:49 – (Kevin Smith): And the reason why they were two of my favorite students is they were genuinely curious about why people thought differently from them and they were not judgmental about students in the class who had very different opinions from them. And I loved having them in class because all you need is a couple of people like that in a room, effectively grown ups in the room, even if they have very strong political views from one end of the spectrum or the other, is, it’s amazing how much reasonableness can break out.
0:22:29 – (Kevin Smith): And especially if you look at social media or media media, there’s not a lot of reasonableness breaking out on those platforms right now.
0:22:39 – (David): Yeah. And like you were saying earlier about when you’re using the term sort of moderate in some of those conversations or some of those descriptions, we’re not necessarily saying centrist. You can still hold.
0:22:51 – (Kevin Smith): No, I mean like moderation of language.
0:22:55 – (David): Exactly.
0:22:57 – (Kevin Smith): Moderation in your emotional opposition to the people that you disagree with. I think you can be the two students that I was just referring to, they were nobody’s ideas of centrist. Absolutely not. But even though when I had them, they’re 219 year olds in a classroom, they were adults in the room. And I really wish more people could be like that. And more people can be like that. As I keep coming back to this point, we do have individual agency.
0:23:39 – (Kevin Smith): You can choose to be a reasonable, moderate person and moderate in the way that we’re discussing it now. Not in the same sense of being a fence sitter in the middle of the field of politics.
0:23:53 – (David): Exactly. To that point. It’s not inevitable. The sort of bad things we’re saying aren’t inevitable. We have agency, as you say. And that’s probably the biggest thing to remember because it’s easy to fall into that, that, well, it’s just all going to happen and I can’t do anything about it.
0:24:11 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah. And I think we do have, I mean, we still have examples of, you know, like Obama and I think, you know, conducted themselves in that fashion. I mean, there are still examples of these, know, floating around in politics. They just tend to get less attention these days. It’s AOC on the left and Marjorie Taylor Green on the right. I mean, these are the people who know, consuming most of the oxygen and media coverage sorts of things.
0:24:50 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah.
0:24:50 – (David): And you even have somebody that a lot of people on the left really despise, like George Bush doing a very reasonable and effective transition to Obama. Right. And it wasn’t hostile. It was very civil. And likewise, even Obama, the transition to Trump, we lost that with Trump. We didn’t get that. But people forget that that’s a tradition, that’s a norm. There’s no rule, there’s no law that says you have to do, you know, but it’s part of our, if you talk about an institution, one of them is the peaceful transfer of power. Right.
0:25:28 – (David): And that’s just been a norm forever. And even, like I say, people that could be seen as pretty politically extreme by some people still upheld that norm.
0:25:39 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah. And I mean, I feel perfectly comfortable in saying that for a president of the United States not to support a peaceful transfer of power with a modicum of civility and comedy at the end of what all the evidence suggests is a reasonably free and fair election, that is not a good thing. That is a violation of a norm within our system that sets a really bad precedent. And, I mean, I don’t think that is a particular partisan or ideological thing to say. I think that’s a fairly neutral thing to say about the health of our democracy and its ability to function effectively in the future.
0:26:27 – (David): Yeah. And if that becomes a partisan thing, if you can’t say that and it’s considered partisan, that’s kind of a scary situation. You even had Al Gore with the Florida shard thing when it was settled by the Supreme Court. He didn’t really like that thing. But as you say, he accepted the loser’s burden at that point, right?
0:26:47 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah. Hillary Clinton did the same thing in 2016. Clearly not happy about the outcome of the election, but accepted it as the process worked, as it’s supposed to work, and I lost, and I don’t have to like it, but there you are. Look, let’s just hope that that was a one off thing, that that’s not setting any precedent. I mean, there are some worrisome trends, though. I mean, I think Kerry Lake kind of did a similar thing.
0:27:22 – (Kevin Smith): And the Arizona race. Let’s just hope that that doesn’t spread.
0:27:27 – (David): Well, the positive note from the Carrie Lake piece would be that it wasn’t very successful. She never really built much support about it, which I take that as sort of a good sign. Well, so I know we’ve covered quite a bit, and we ran a little long. Is there anything sort of upbeat besides what you’ve already said you’d like to sort of finish with? I know the biggest one seems to be this agency thing, which is sort of the fundamental premise of this podcast.
0:27:51 – (Kevin Smith): Yeah. I mean, I think there are reasons to hope. There are reasons to be cheerful, and maybe this won’t sound too cheerful, but one of my constant lines my students could repeat to you is that in a democracy, you get exactly the government you deserve. Ultimately, in a democracy, it is the voters who hold sovereignty. And if you act in a way that promotes comedy and civility and a respect for norms, what’s the worst thing that can happen?
0:28:34 – (Kevin Smith): There’s no real downside to that, or at least no systematic downside that I can see. And maybe it won’t save the world, but it might marginally push it in the right direction a little bit, so why not do it?
0:28:52 – (David): Yes, I like that. I love that, actually. I often say and hear a similar thing, but I like what you’re saying better. I often say we met the enemy and it’s us. But I like what you’re saying better because that’s very can.
0:29:05 – (David): What’s the harm?
0:29:07 – (Kevin Smith): What’s the downside?
0:29:08 – (David): Yeah, what’s the downside? Well, again, I really want to thank you for coming on. I really enjoyed this conversation. I think there’s some great content here. I really enjoyed it, and I got a lot out of it.
0:29:20 – (Kevin Smith): Okay, well, thanks for the invite, David. I enjoyed chatting to you.
0:29:24 – (David): All right, take care.
0:29:25 – (Kevin Smith): All right, talk to you later.
0:29:26 – (David): Bye bye bye.
0:29:37 – (David): That is it for this episode of the Outrage Overload podcast. We’re always tweaking and tinkering to make outrage overload the best it can be for you. But we can’t do it without your brilliant mind. Whether you’re a new listener or a veteran outrage warrior, we’ve got a survey waiting for you at It’s short and quick and totally anonymous, so don’t hold back. Your honest feedback is what we’re looking for.
0:30:01 – (David): Let’s build a better outrage antidote together, one survey at a time. That’s Okay, watch for a new episode in a couple of weeks.

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