One of my favorite publications, Skeptic has weekly online content called eSkeptic. This week’s eSkeptic linked to an article on one of my favorite sites, Edge.org, by one of my favorite thinkers, Jonathan Haidt. Needless to say, I was excited.
I blogged about Haidt in the past. Some of you may even remember the moral survey he created based on his theory of morality. If you don’t, it’s not too late to take his survey and many others (his is entitled “Moral Foundations Questionnaire”).
His new article is somewhat a suggested application of his Moral Foundations Theory. First, he identifies how psychologists have answered the question “What Makes People Vote Republican?” in the past.
…conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer “moral clarity”—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate.”
In other words, the electorate’s fears and simple mindedness are exploited by conservatives. I’m sure that you’d be shocked to learn that most psychologists are liberal.
Using Haidt’s theory, this is not the case at all. There are aspects of human morality that are completely ignored by liberals. These other aspects emphasize the role of the group in society over the role of the individual. The group is a tool with which individual selfishness is repressed and the good of society is promoted. For most conservatives, ‘the group’ is actually a number of interdependent entities such as the family, the church, and the country. Group cohesiveness is enhanced by in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and exemplifying purity.
Haidt’s research shows that almost all humans intuitively recognize these as moral virtues, but to different extents. Conservatives speak to these moral intuitions. You can see it in Republican policies – loyalty to the country in banning flag burning, respect for authority in their patriotic fervor, and purity in their stance on homosexuality. These policies resonate with people who see themselves not only as individuals but members of groups. That is why people vote Republican. It’s not fear or ignorance, as temping as it is to blame those things, it’s their moral intuitions.
“Duh,” you may be thinking. “We’ve known that ‘values’ voters tend to vote Republican.” That need not be the case, though. With Haidt’s theory, we have a way that Democrats can reclaim some of this moral territory. We Democrats can do so without compromising our ideals by simple re-framing our rhetoric. Talk about environmental issues in terms of keeping our bodies pure through clean air, water, and food. Promote labor unions as groups that promote the greater social welfare. And, just as FDR did, Democrats can promote in-group loyalty for the economically oppressed. The latter would be especially effective in this climate of economic uncertainty.
In any event, read the article and some of the responses below. I hope to write more about some rebuttals later.