It’s no secret that all political groups have echo chamber problems. Just recently, a group of former staffers at the conservative Heritage Foundation spoke out about the think tank’s “one voice” policy that forces scholars to align with the Foundation’s political lobbying team. The policy has led Heritage to contradict their own foreign policy experts on issues like American aid to Ukraine—as the Foundation’s one voice policy on Ukraine changed, so did the statements that Heritage experts were allowed to make.
Former employees reported being told to withhold negative press on Donald Trump and instructed to highlight negative press on Joe Biden, with the think tank going so far as to distance itself from prominent Republicans like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Senator Mitt Romney to avoid criticism over Milley and Romney’s disagreements with the former president.
While it is well within Heritage’s rights to pursue a degree of intellectual homogeneity, the conservative think-tank is facing a crisis over enforcing partisan parameters. This is hardly limited to Heritage. As someone who runs in many right wing circles, ideological homogeneity (enforced or otherwise) is an issue among conservatives every bit as much as it is among progressives.
The issue is additionally complicated by the difference between people’s actual beliefs and what they’re willing to say—to this day, there are still intellectuals, pundits, and activists who personally want the movement to move past Trumpism yet would never dare to voice such statements publicly for fear of backlash, losing friends, or missing out on a payday.
Echo chambers don’t just lower the intellectual level of the conversation, although they certainly do that. They allow popular but bad ideas to flourish by silencing dissenters, dissenters like you and me. While the question of how organizations avoid becoming echo chambers is a worthwhile one, it’s far more manageable to localize the issue: how do we preserve personal intellectual autonomy in a political landscape that doesn’t incentivize it? What do we do with the echo chamber?
The only lasting fix to ideological homogeneity is for people to commit to free-thinking, an act that at the individual level doesn’t have a great impact. Individual conservatives aren’t going to change the enforced ideological conformity at The Heritage Foundation any more than individual liberals can fix the modern left’s acceptance of cancel culture. Yet, neither of those propositions negate the responsibility to not put up with nonsense or lie about the things we believe in.
I’m willing to accept my culture-warrior friends’ premise that the divide between Right and Left has not only sharpened but taken on increasingly steep consequences. But what I’m not willing to accept is that such a divide strips the individual of their moral responsibility to reject absurdity. Claiming that the only way for a gender-dysphoric child to be happy is through a regimen of pills and surgeries is not kind, just, or moral. Similarly, claiming that terms like ‘critical race theory’ represent such a threat to America’s established order that we have to ban Norman Rockwell paintings in order to defeat it is not rational or ethical. These kinds of opinions occur when people get lost so deep inside their own echo chamber that they forget to touch grass on the other side.
This summer, I had the privilege to take a week off journalistic work to take part in an academic honors program sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, one of the best experiences available to college students in terms of nurturing intellectual diversity on a variety of policy and cultural issues. I ended up rooming with someone vastly different from me: Alam is a liberal at UChicago, and I’m solidly right-of-center hailing from a small college in Western Pennsylvania. He’s culturally Muslim, and I’m a practicing Christian. I was overjoyed to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and he had markedly different feelings on the matter.
Two politically opposite guys from completely different backgrounds had to live with each other for a week during a policy summit. While this may not seem like that big of a deal to some, it is more contentious than many college students are prepared for. A 2022 NBC poll found that almost half of college students (46) couldn’t see themselves choosing to room with someone who voted differently in the 2020 presidential election. The people that we disagree with represent something so hostile to our frame of being that living with them in the setting of a college dorm is simply unthinkable to half of American college students. This is the echo chamber at work. And now, for a week in the dorms of Catholic University, Alam and I had to manage a living situation that almost half of people our age say they’d never willingly undergo.
For what it’s worth, we argued. And argued a lot. Yet over the course of the few days we had at AEI, I realized we had something in common that transcended politics, background, or even religion: we liked each other as people. We were fundamentally at odds on many issues, yet Alam is one of the most interesting friends I have. When something big happens – like the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago or Roe v. Wade’s demise – he’s quite often the first person I want to get an opinion from. Not because I agree with him, but precisely because I don’t. Our differing priorities make friendship interesting. When we talk, our respective arguments for issues grow sharper, more coherent, and more persuasive—and we step out of the echo chamber.
This is what it means for diversity to be our strength. The ability to like and engage with others despite political differences is not just an indicator of a realistic outlook, it is a way to build character, maturity, and wisdom. Differences don’t necessitate silence.
Quite the opposite: those differences are far easier to navigate with the learned skill of liking people independent of their political leanings. Though we cannot throw out objective measures of correctness or pretend that our differences are merely superficial, being intellectually honest requires actively bucking our urges toward ideological homogeneity.
That’s not an easy message to sell. It involves a great deal of discomfort. It involves mourning the loss of truth even while partisans cheer in victory. It involves uncomfortable conversations and arguments. Yet it imparts not only a clean conscience but the personal fulfillment that comes with thinking freely. You don’t have to depend on a political party or a think tank or a friend group for the lens through which you view the world. There’s much to be done in the wider world of politics to restore intellectual freedom and resist enforced conformity, but it all starts with one moment.
It all begins the moment you personally decide to leave the echo chamber and take on the responsibility of making up your own mind. The door is open and the road is long—but you’ve always had the ability to walk through and take the adventure that comes. It is worth the effort.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of Cogitare Magazine, nor of Grove City College.