Party Lines

As always, there is a provocative exhange of views taking place over at the website It began with an essay by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt entitled Why Do People Vote Republican?

Haidt opens with a partisan salvo. We read:

What makes people vote Republican? Why in particular do working class and rural Americans usually vote for pro-business Republicans when their economic interests would seem better served by Democratic policies? We psychologists have been examining the origins of ideology ever since Hitler sent us Germany’s best psychologists, and we long ago reported that strict parenting and a variety of personal insecurities work together to turn people against liberalism, diversity, and progress. But now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: 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. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

There you are, then: liberalism, diversity, and “progress” being unquestionably good, the holding of conservative views is therefore reducible to the effects of various genetic and cultural pathologies.

But Haidt, who admits that as a liberal atheist he spent his formative years “despising Republican presidents”, acknowledges that his political passions may be getting in the way of objectivity, at least a little:

Diagnosis is a pleasure. It is a thrill to solve a mystery from scattered clues, and it is empowering to know what makes others tick. In the psychological community, where almost all of us are politically liberal, our diagnosis of conservatism gives us the additional pleasure of shared righteous anger. We can explain how Republicans exploit frames, phrases, and fears to trick Americans into supporting policies (such as the “war on terror” and repeal of the “death tax”) that damage the national interest for partisan advantage.

But with pleasure comes seduction, and with righteous pleasure comes seduction wearing a halo. Our diagnosis explains away Republican successes while convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground. Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies, and it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats. To see what Democrats have been missing, it helps to take off the halo, step back for a moment, and think about what morality really is.

Taking a step back, Haidt examines the variation of moral systems in terms of possible locations along five different axes:

First, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to suffering and harm, particularly violent harm, and so nearly all cultures have norms or laws to protect individuals and to encourage care for the most vulnerable. Second, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to issues of fairness and reciprocity, which often expand into notions of rights and justice. Philosophical efforts to justify liberal democracies and egalitarian social contracts invariably rely heavily on intuitions about fairness and reciprocity.

But now imagine society not as an agreement among individuals but as something that emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other’s selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free-riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy. The patron saint of this more binding moral system is the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness), and wrote, in 1897, that “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him.” A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for outgroups.

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.

This, then, Haidt argues, is the fundamental distinction between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives: liberals not only weigh these various axes differently than conservatives, but often ignore some of them altogether.

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.

Following on Haidt’s essay are responses by Michael Shermer, Scott Atran, and Sam Harris, among others. Shermer begins with a crisp riposte:

Two cheers for Jonathan Haidt’s essay. At long last a liberal academic social scientist has recognized (and had the courage to put into print) the inherent bias built into the study of political behavior—that because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease, a flaw in the brain, a personality disorder that leads to cognitive malfunctioning. Thus, Haidt is mostly right when he asks us to move beyond such “diagnoses” and remember “the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats ‘just don’t get it,’ this is the ‘it’ to which they refer.”

I allocate two (instead of three) cheers for Haidt’s commentary because I think he does not go far enough. The liberal bias in academia is so entrenched that it becomes the political water through which the liberal fish swim—they don’t even notice it. Even the question “What makes people vote Republican?” hints at something amiss in the mind of the conservative, along the lines of “Why do people believe weird things?” As Haidt notes, the standard liberal line is that people vote Republican because they are “cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death.” A typical example of this characterization can be found in a famous 2003 paper published in the prestigious journal Psychological Bulletin by the New York University social psychologist John Jost and his colleagues, entitled “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” in which they argue that conservatives suffer from “uncertainty avoidance,” “need for order, structure, closure,” and “dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity,” all of which leads to “resistance to change” and “endorsement of inequality.”

It is not the data of these scientists that I am challenging so much as it is the characterizations on which the data were collected. We could just as easily characterize Democrats and liberals as suffering from a host of equally malevolent mental states: a lack of moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, an inordinate lack of certainty about social issues, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naïve belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence that culture and environment determine one’s lot in society and therefore it is up to the government to remedy all social injustices. As all conservatives know, liberals are a bunch of sandle-wearing, tree-hugging, whale-saving, hybrid-driving, trash-recycling, peaceniks, flip-floppers and bed-wetters.

This is a crass, unfair, and inaccurate characterization, of course, and that’s my point. Once you set up the adjectives in the form of operationally defined personality traits and cognitive styles, it’s easy to collect the data to support them. The flaw is in the characterization process itself.

Suggestions that Republican voters are duped into voting against their own best interests are greatly exaggerated, Shermer contends:

… 44 percent of people who reported being “conservative” or “very conservative” said they were “very happy” versus only 25 percent of people who reported being “liberal” or “very liberal.” A 2007 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Republicans versus only 38 percent of Democrats said that their mental heath is “excellent.” One reason may be that conservatives are so much more generous than liberals, giving 30 percent more money (even when controlled for income), donating more blood, and logging more volunteer hours. And it isn’t because conservatives have more expendable income. The working poor give a substantially higher percentage of their incomes to charity than any other income group, and three times more than those on public assistance of comparable income—poverty is not a barrier to charity, but welfare is. One explanation for these findings is that conservatives believe charity should be private (through religion) whereas liberals believe charity should be public (through government).

Why are academic social scientists so wrong about conservatives? It is, I believe, because almost all of them are liberals!

Shermer concludes:

Why do people vote Republican? Because they believe their lives — and the lives of all Americans — will be better for it. And as often as not they are right.

There is a fair amount of partisan rodomontade in this collection of essays, but much of value as well (Atran and Harris also make particularly worthwhile contributions). If we wish to understand not only the philosophical question of what sides we ought to take, but also the empirical question of why we do take the sides we do, this is the sort of conversation we need to be having. There is a growing academic appreciation of the adaptive and utilitarian importance of “traditional” concepts of, and attitudes toward, religion and morality in the flourishing of human groups; liberals who sneer at these traditions without understanding their role in the stability of societies (as I had been inclined to do my self most of my life) do so at their own political and existential risk.

Read the series here.

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  1. JK says

    I did read the main parts, the response, your insights and I seem to consider your final observation quite sound.

    Might I ask, since I’m not bothering just now to read all the stuff. (Ike’s winds have reached my little corner of Arkansas.) Does the psychologist fellow have any take on “why people choose to-well I know you can’t actually vote so-call themselves Independent?”

    Posted September 14, 2008 at 4:43 am | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    Would a good scientist take concepts like “illness” or “pathology” and give them a moral valence? Let’s grant for a moment that thinking/voting Republican is an illness or pathology. Can a researcher claim that “pathological,” which I assume is a value-neutral clinical term, equals “bad,” which is a moral term? Is there an unseen leap from “is” to “ought” going on here? I mean, sure, a person could argue that “pathological” equals “dangerous” or “potentially harmful,” but those terms, at least, remain in the realm of the descriptive without moving sneakily into the prescriptive.


    Posted September 14, 2008 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    I should point out that “pathology” is my term here, not Dr. Haidt’s. But he does use the term “diagnosis”, and when he says “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”, he surely isn’t describing it in value-neutral terms.

    Clearly he sees the progressive, (modern-day)liberal position as morally superior, and obviously so to anyone of sound mind. Although he does his best to understand how anyone might have a conservative mindset, clearly he sees it as a deficiency; the best he can offer is to try, by positing various cultural and genetic influences, and citing anthropological and evolutionary research, to get Republican voters off the hook as far as responsibility for their stunted worldview is concerned. I should think that conservatives like William Buckley, or for that matter William Vallicella, would find his approach rather offensively patronizing.

    Posted September 14, 2008 at 9:53 pm | Permalink
  4. Kevin Kim says

    “cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death”

    I’ve heard the above applied to people who wish to join monastic orders, both Buddhist and Christian…funny thing is, a lot of folks who enter those orders vote liberal. Plenty of living examples: priests and monks who lead disciplined lives in accordance with a Rule, yet who often lean strongly leftward in their political convictions, can be found at Catholic University, Washington, DC. For starters.

    On the meta-level, I always find it amusing that both sides, liberal and conservative, accuse the other side of being irrational while their own side is the guardian of rationality.


    Posted September 15, 2008 at 1:23 am | Permalink