Politics on the Couch


Is Democracy Rational? A conversation with Steven Pinker

Season 1, Ep. 22

Human beings routinely make terrible choices but humanity still achieves amazing things.

How does this paradox work?

And is it still working when technology seems to amplify the worst in us.

In this episode, Politics on the Couch host Rafael Behr talks to Professor Steven Pinker about the constant struggle between evidence and emotion for control of the political agenda; whether truth and fact are winning the long war against superstition and falsehood, and why rationality always has the last word.

Professor Steven Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the author of a number of highly acclaimed and prize-winning books about psychology, cognitive science, linguistics and history.

His latest book Rationality: What it is; why it seems scarce; why it matters was published in September.


More about Steven Pinker:


Other books by Steven Pinker mentioned in episode

The Better Angels of our Nature


Enlightenment Now https://stevenpinker.com/publications/enlightenment-now-case-reason-science-humanism-and-progress

A couple of references in this episode that might be useful as further reading.

Michael Ignatieff’s book Fire and Ashes, about a failed career in politics


Jonathan Rauch’s book The Constitution of Knowledge, about the crisis of trust in institutions


Politics on the Couch has been chosen by Feedspot as one of the Top 25 UK Psychology Podcasts and Top 25 Political Science Podcasts on the web.



More Episodes

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Trapped! Democracy's struggle to cope with modern life and what we can do to help – a conversation with Professor Ben Ansell.

Ep. 36
On this edition Rafael Behr talks to Professor Ben Ansell about his new book Why Politics Fails: The Five Traps of the Modern World & How to Escape ThemBen Ansell is Professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. He was made Fellow of the British Academy in 2018, among the youngest fellows at that time. His work has been widely covered in the media, including in the World Bank's World Development Report, The New York Times, The Economist, The Times and on BBC Radio 4's 'Start the Week'. He was the Principal Investigator of the multi-million-pound ERC project 'The Politics of Wealth Inequality', is co-editor of the most-cited journal in comparative politics, and has written three award-winning academic books. Why Politics Fail is his latest book and his first for a wider audience.Link to buy Ben's new bookhttps://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/284663/ben-ansellLink to Ben's substackhttps://benansell.substack.comRafael Behr's first book was released Thursday 4 May, 2023**'Politics, A Survivor’s Guide,'** is all about the infuriating toxicity of politics, how it got that way and how to resist the slide into cynicism and pessimism that are so corrosive of democracy. It’s about the challenge of staying engaged without getting enraged; the need to empathise with people whose views we cannot share and how that is different to appeasement of politics we believe to be dangerous.Available from Waterstones:https://www.waterstones.com/book/politics-a-survivors-guide/rafael-behr/9781838955045Or, for those who are interested in signed copies, from City Books in Hove:https://www.city-books.co.ukPolitics on the Couch has been chosen by Feedspot as both one of the Top 25 UK Psychology Podcasts, and Top 25 Political Science Podcasts on the web.https://blog.feedspot.com/uk_psychology_podcastshttps://blog.feedspot.com/political_science_podcasts
Thursday, May 4, 2023

Kindness - a conversation about political empathy, its power and its limits, with Claudia Hammond

Ep. 35
Host Rafael Behr talks to Claudia Hammond about political empathy, its power and its limits.Claudia is probably best known as the presenter of BBC Radio 4's long-running show, 'All in the Mind' which covers psychology, neuroscience & mental health.She is also the Visiting Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Sussex.Her latest book, 'The Keys to Kindness,' looks at what constitutes kindness, effective strategies to build more of it into our lives and the benefits of being kind.She draws on the latest research from psychology and neuroscience, and her work in collaboration with the University of Sussex and the BBC, including the largest global survey ever undertaken into attitudes to kindness.Linkshttps://claudiahammond.com/the-keys-to-kindnesshttps://claudiahammond.com/the-kindness-testhttps://www.sussex.ac.uk/research/centres/kindness/indexhttps://www.sussex.ac.uk/schools/psychologyRafael Behr's first book is released today - Thursday 4 May, 2023'Politics, A Survivor’s Guide,' is all about the infuriating toxicity of politics, how it got that way and how to resist the slide into cynicism and pessimism that are so corrosive of democracy. It’s about the challenge of staying engaged without getting enraged; the need to empathise with people whose views we cannot share and how that is different to appeasement of politics we believe to be dangerous.The themes include migration, nationalism, family, identity, culture wars, technology, ideology, Europe, Brexit and a little bit of cardiology.Available from Waterstones:https://www.waterstones.com/book/politics-a-survivors-guide/rafael-behr/9781838955045Or, for those who are interested in signed copies, from City Books in Hove:https://www.city-books.co.ukRaf will be speaking at literary festivals, theatres, pubs all around the UK. Often he will be in conversation with fellow journalists and authors, hopefully also in conversation with you in the audience. Below is a list of places and times. Click on date for tickets. There may be more to come...10 May Brighton Festival17 May Bath Festival21 May Aye Write, Glasgow Book Festival23 May 1000 Trades, Birmingham25 May Hay Festival7 June The Elephant and Castle Pub, Lewes (no link yet)12 June Guardian Live, Kings Cross, LondonPolitics on the Couch has been chosen by Feedspot as both one of the Top 25 UK Psychology, and Political Science podcasts.https://blog.feedspot.com/uk_psychology_podcastshttps://blog.feedspot.com/political_science_podcasts
Saturday, March 4, 2023

'The world's a stage' - politics and storytelling with James Graham

In this edition, Rafael Behr talks to England's most prodigious political screenwriter and playwright - James Graham. He's probably most well known for writing the recent BBC1 hit drama 'Sherwood', which aired on BBC One in 2022 to rave reviews, and will return for a second series. James also wrote Quiz (ITV) in 2020, which was one of the most watched UK television dramas of the year; and Brexit: An Uncivil War, which garnered huge public attention and critical acclaim in 2019. It was broadcast on Channel 4 and HBO, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie, and a BAFTA for Single Drama. In this episode James talks to Rafael about how narratives are fundamental to political storytelling, what they are, why recently parties on the right seem to be better at them, where James draws his inspiration from for writing, and what his next play is about. News update For Apple podcast listeners we're now trialling a subscription service - where once a week you'll get an exclusive bonus episode which will either be: Raf ruminating on the week's politics or looking forward to what's coming up; or Some bonus chat with Raf's guest of that week; or Raf answering any questions you have about politics, writing, art, life etc The first bonus episode is Rafael and James chatting about their shared love of Star Wars, and its many political and democratic themes and metaphors. And you should be able to find here with a two week free trial. https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/politics-on-the-couch/id1507787935 Why are we doing this? We're doing this because it takes a huge amount of work to put these epsiodes together, and Phil the Producer's wife is starting to complain that he's never about, plus he's also missing out on paid work. So, if you enjoy these free episodes do help us to make this a sustainable endeavour i.e. keep it going on a regular basis! **Why are we doing this just on Apple? We'd like to make these episodes available on all platforms and we're doing just on Apple for now because (in theory) the infrastructure is all in place, it should be a frictionless process and about 60% of our audience listen on this platform. ** How else can you help? Longer term, we'll probably look for a show sponsor - if any listeners are interested or know any colleagues or friends might be interested do get in touch. Also, let us know whether you can access Apple or have any questions about the show, or have a guest suggestion. philip@larchmontfilms.com More about James For theatre, James’s play Best of Enemies, about the political debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr., opened at the Young Vic in 2021, and is currently playing on the West End. It has been nominated for an Olivier for Best New Play, and won a Critics’ Circle Theatre Award. His new musical, Tammy Faye, with music from Elton John and lyrics from Jake Shears, opened at the Almeida in 2022. Ink - about the early days of Rupert Murdoch - opened to huge praise at the Almeida before transferring to the West End in September 2017, where it played in the theatre next door to James’ other new play – political romantic comedy Labour of Love - creating theatre history. James's breakout play This House premiered at the National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre in September 2012 and transferred to the Olivier in 2013 where it enjoyed a sell-out run. It garnered critical acclaim and a huge amount of interest and admiration from current and former MPs for his rendition of life in the House of Commons. The play went on to have an Olivier-nominated sell-out revival in...
Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Procrastination - the politics of putting off hard choices and why it's so bad for democracy

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Tuesday, February 14, 2023

'Putinophilia' - how America's radical right fell for a Kremlin strongman, a conversation with Anne Applebaum

One year on from Russia's Invasion of Ukraine, host Rafael Behr talks to Anne Applebaum about why so many US Republicans and conservatives are still seduced by Putin’s anti-West rhetoric and tropes. Anne, a Pullitzer-prize winning historian, is particularly well positioned to discuss this, and associated issues, given that her most recent book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism looked at why some of her contemporaries had abandoned liberal democratic ideals in favor of strongman cults, nationalist movements, or one-party states. Anne Applebaum Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for The Atlantic and a Pulitzer-prize winning historian. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Agora Institute, where she co-directs Arena, a program on disinformation and 21st century propaganda. A Washington Post columnist for fifteen years and a former member of the editorial board, she has also worked as the Foreign and Deputy Editor of the Spectator magazine in London, as the Political Editor of the Evening Standard, and as a columnist at Slate as well as the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. From 1988-1991 she covered the collapse of communism as the Warsaw correspondent of the Economist magazine and the Independent newspaper. She has lectured at Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Columbia Universities, as well as Oxford, Cambridge, London, Heidelberg, Maastricht, Zurich, Humboldt, Texas A&M, Houston and many others. In 2012-13 she held the Phillipe Roman Chair of History and International Relations at the London School of Economics. She received honorary doctorates from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and Kyiv-Mohyla University. Anne Applebaum was born in Washington, DC in 1964. After graduating from Yale University, she was a Marshall Scholar at the LSE and St. Antony’s College, Oxford. This podcast is hosted by ZenCast.fm