Thursday, September 11, 2008

Democrat Jonathan Haidt on why people vote Republican

Jonathan Haidt is an associate professor of psychology at University of Virginia whose field is moral psychology.  A self-declared liberal Democrat, he has written an article based on research in his field titled WHAT MAKES PEOPLE VOTE REPUBLICAN. 

Haidt discusses the evolution of his research from the late 1980's, when he began examining Berkeley professor Elliot Turiel's dominant definition of morality as properly referring to"prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other." 

Haidt then describes his experiences in a Hindu community in the late 80's and early 90's in a hierarchical society with clearly defined gender and class roles. This gave him insight into why Christians in his own country might be attracted to similarly ordered social structures. 
On Turiel's definition of morality ("justice, rights, and welfare"), Christian and Hindu communities don't look good. They restrict people's rights (especially sexual rights), encourage hierarchy and conformity to gender roles, and make people spend extraordinary amounts of time in prayer and ritual practices that seem to have nothing to do with "real" morality. But isn't it unfair to impose on all cultures a definition of morality drawn from the European Enlightenment tradition? Might we do better with an approach that defines moral systems by what they do rather than by what they value?
Here's my alternative definition: morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.It turns out that human societies have found several radically different approaches to suppressing selfishness, two of which are most relevant for understanding what Democrats don't understand about morality.
He goes on to discuss two models relevant to the way Democrats and Republicans view the world, contractual society as envisioned by John Stuart Mill (Democrats) and an inter-bonded society as envisioned by sociologist Emile Durkeim (Republicans).  He writes:
A Durkheimian ethos can't be supported by the two moral foundations that hold up a Millian society (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity). My recent research shows that social conservatives do indeed rely upon those two foundations, but they also value virtues related to three additional psychological systems: ingroup/loyalty (involving mechanisms that evolved during the long human history of tribalism), authority/respect (involving ancient primate mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates), and purity/sanctity (a relatively new part of the moral mind, related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble). These three systems support moralities that bind people into intensely interdependent groups that work together to reach common goals. Such moralities make it easier for individuals to forget themselves and coalesce temporarily into hives, a process that is thrilling, as anyone who has ever "lost" him or herself in a choir, protest march, or religious ritual can attest.
In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. (You can test yourself at We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.
In The Political Brain, Drew Westen points out that the Republicans have become the party of the sacred, appropriating not just the issues of God, faith, and religion, but also the sacred symbols of the nation such as the Flag and the military. The Democrats, in the process, have become the party of the profane—of secular life and material interests. Democrats often seem to think of voters as consumers; they rely on polls to choose a set of policy positions that will convince 51% of the electorate to buy. Most Democrats don't understand that politics is more like religion than it is like shopping.
Religion and political leadership are so intertwined across eras and cultures because they are about the same thing: performing the miracle of converting unrelated individuals into a group. Durkheim long ago said that God is really society projected up into the heavens, a collective delusion that enables collectives to exist, suppress selfishness, and endure. The three Durkheimian foundations (ingroup, authority, and purity) play a crucial role in most religions. When they are banished entirely from political life, what remains is a nation of individuals striving to maximize utility while respecting the rules. What remains is a cold but fair social contract, which can easily degenerate into a nation of shoppers.
The whole article is excellent.  I may regain my respect for liberal academics if I continue to see examples like this of folks who can see past the noses on their faces. The world is more complex than those who demonize Christians and Republicans imagine.

Thanks to Eric Ewanco at christifideles for the heads up on this article. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article indeed. And I agree that hives are thrilling, but so too are they dangerous -- which is why I'm not much of a joiner! I find much to agree with in those academics' ideas of how people divvy up. I am not a tribalist...TBW