This article in the Wall Street Journal by Holman Jenkins, about my friend Jon Haidt,is probably the most interesting take on the conservative/liberal political divide I have seen for a long time. Though as happens with articles, it doesn’t really do justice to his book ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Differ on Politics and Religion’ or to the depth of the research that emerged the Moral Foundations he talks about out of the data he collected world wide via his Moral Foundations Website.
Read this article, by a conservative interviewing Jon, with an open mind and it may help you think differently. Heck, when, as seems likely to me, the Democrats lose in the fall, it might be the start of the long postponed re-examination of why they lose.
(Personal Disclaimer: I read Jon’s book in manuscript and contributed suggestions to its editing)
Conservative or liberal, our moral instincts are shaped by evolution to strengthen ‘us’ against ‘them’. Jonathan Haidt, in an eye-opening and deceptively ambitious best seller, tells us why. The reason is evolution. Political attitudes are an extension of our moral reasoning; however much we like to tell ourselves otherwise, our moral responses are basically instinctual, despite attempts to gussy them up with ex-post rationalizations.
Our constellation of moral instincts arose because it helped us to cooperate. It helped us, in unprecedented speed and fashion, to dominate our planet. Yet the same moral reaction also means we exist in a state of perpetual, nasty political disagreement, talking past each other, calling each other names.
So Mr. Haidt explains in “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” undoubtedly one of the most talked-about books of the year. “The Righteous Mind” spent weeks on the hardcover best-seller list. Mr. Haidt considers himself mostly a liberal, but his book has been especially popular in the conservative blogosphere. Some right-leaning intellectuals are even calling it the most important book of the year.
It’s full of ammunition that conservatives will love to throw out at cocktail parties. His research shows that conservatives are much better at understanding and anticipating liberal attitudes than liberals are at appreciating where conservatives are coming from. Case in point: Conservatives know that liberals are repelled by cruelty to animals, but liberals don’t think (or prefer not to believe) that conservatives are repelled too.
Mr. Haidt, until recently a professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, says the surveys conducted by his research team show that liberals are strong on evolved values he defines as caring and fairness. Conservatives value caring and fairness too but tend to emphasize the more tribal values like loyalty, authority and sanctity.
Conservatives, Mr. Haidt says, have been more successful politically because they play to the full spectrum of sensibilities, and because the full spectrum is necessary for a healthy society. An admiring review in the New York Times sums up this element of his argument: “Liberals dissolve moral capital too recklessly. Welfare programs that substitute public aid for spousal and parental support undermine the ecology of the family. Education policies that let students sue teachers erode classroom authority. Multicultural education weakens the cultural glue of assimilation.”
Such a book is bound to run into the charge of scientism—claiming scientific authority for a mix of common sense, exhortation or the author’s own preferences. Let it be said that Mr. Haidt is sensitive to this complaint. If he erred, he says, it was on the side of being accessible, readable and, he hopes, influential.
As we sit in his new office at New York University, he professes an immodest aim: He wants liberals and conservatives to listen to each other more, hate each other less, and to understand that their differences are largely rooted in psychology, not open-minded consideration of the facts. “My big issue, the one I’m somewhat evangelical about, is civil disagreement,” he says.
A shorthand he uses is “follow the sacred”—and not in a good way. “Follow the sacred and there you will find a circle of motivated ignorance.” Today’s political parties are most hysterical, he says, on the issues they “sacralize.” For the right, it’s taxes. For the left, the sacred issues were race and gender but are becoming global warming and gay marriage.
Yet between the lines of his book is an even more dramatic claim: The same moral psychology that makes our politics so nasty also underlies the amazing triumph of the human species. “We shouldn’t be here at all,” he tells me. “When I think about life on earth, there should not be a species like us. And if there was, we should be out in the jungle killing each other in small groups. That’s what you should expect. The fact that we’re here [in politics] arguing viciously and nastily with each other, and no guns, that itself is a miracle. And I think we can make [our politics] a little better. That’s my favorite theme.”
Who is Jon Haidt? A nice Jewish boy from central casting, he grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y. His father was a corporate lawyer. “When the economy opened out in the ’50s and ’60s and Jews could go everywhere, he was part of that generation. He and all his buddies from Brooklyn did very well.”
His family was liberal in the FDR tradition. At Yale he studied philosophy and, in standard liberal fashion, “emerged pretty convinced that I was right about everything.” It took a while for him to discover the limits of that stance. “I wouldn’t say I was mugged by reality. I would say I was gradually introduced to it academically,” he says today.
In India, where he performed field studies early in his professional career, he encountered a society in some ways patriarchal, sexist and illiberal. Yet it worked and the people were lovely. In Brazil, he paid attention to the experiences of street children and discovered the “most dangerous person in the world is mom’s boyfriend. When women have a succession of men coming through, their daughters will get raped,” he says. “The right is right to be sounding the alarm about the decline of marriage, and the left is wrong to say, ‘Oh, any kind of family is OK.’ It’s not OK.”
At age 41, he decided to try to understand what conservatives think. The quest was part of his effort to apply his understanding of moral psychology to politics. He especially sings the praises of Thomas Sowell’s “Conflict of Visions,” which he calls “an incredible book, a brilliant portrayal” of the argument between conservatives and liberals about the nature of man. “Again, as a moral psychologist, I had to say the constrained vision [of human nature] is correct.”
That is, our moral instincts are tribal, adaptive, intuitive and shaped by evolution to strengthen “us” against “them.” He notes that, in the 1970s, the left tended to be categorically hostile to evolutionary explanations of human behavior. Yet Mr. Haidt, the liberal and self-professed atheist, says he now finds the conservative vision speaks more insightfully to our evolved nature in ways that it would be self-defeating to discount.
“This is what I’m trying to argue for, and this is what I feel I’ve discovered from reading a lot of the sociology,” he continues. “You need loyalty, authority and sanctity”—values that liberals are often suspicious of—”to run a decent society.”
Mr. Haidt, a less chunky, lower-T version of Adam Sandler, has just landed a new position at the Stern School of Business at NYU. He arrived with his two children and wife, Jane, after a successful and happy 16-year run at the University of Virginia. An introvert by his own account, and never happier than when laboring in solitude, he nevertheless sought out the world’s media capital to give wider currency to the ideas in the “The Righteous Mind.”
Mr. Haidt’s book, as he’s the first to notice, has given comfort to conservatives. Its aim is to help liberals. Though he calls himself a centrist, he remains a strongly committed Democrat. He voted for one Republican in his life—in 2000 crossing party lines to cast a ballot for John McCain in the Virginia primary. “I wasn’t trying to mess with the Republican primary,” he adds. “I really liked McCain.”
His disappointment with President Obama is quietly evident. Ronald Reagan understood that “politics is more like religion than like shopping,” he says. Democrats, after a long string of candidates who flogged policy initiatives like items in a Wal-Mart circular, finally found one who could speak to higher values than self-interest. “Obama surely had a chance to remake the Democratic Party. But once he got in office, I think, he was consumed with the difficulty of governing within the Beltway.”
The president has reverted to the formula of his party—bound up in what Mr. Haidt considers obsolete interest groups, battles and “sacred” issues about which Democrats cultivate an immunity to compromise.
Mr. Haidt lately has been speaking to Democratic groups and urging attachment to a new moral vision, albeit one borrowed from the Andrew Jackson campaign of 1828: “Equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none.”
Racial quotas and reflexive support for public-sector unions would be out. His is a reformed vision of a class-based politics of affirmative opportunity for the economically disadvantaged. “I spoke to some Democrats about things in the book and they asked, how can we weaponize this? My message to them was: You’re not ready. You don’t know what you stand for yet. You don’t have a clear moral vision.”
Like many historians of modern conservatism, he cites the 1971 Powell Memo—written by the future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr.—which rallied Republicans to the defense of free enterprise and limited government. Democrats need their own version of the Powell Memo today to give the party a new and coherent moral vision of activist government in the good society. “The moral rot a [traditional] liberal welfare state creates over generations—I mean, the right is right about that,” says Mr. Haidt, “and the left can’t see it.”
Yet one challenge becomes apparent in talking to Mr. Haidt: He’s read his book and cheerfully acknowledges that he avoids criticizing too plainly the “sacralized” issues of his liberal friends.
In his book, for instance, is passing reference to Western Europe’s creation of the world’s “first atheistic societies,” also “the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have very few).”
What does he actually mean? He means Islam: “Demographic curves are very hard to bend,” he says. “Unless something changes in Europe in the next century, it will eventually be a Muslim continent. Let me say it diplomatically: Most religions are tribal to some degree. Islam, in its holy books, seems more so. Christianity has undergone a reformation and gotten some distance from its holy books to allow many different lives to flourish in Christian societies, and this has not happened in Islam.”
Mr. Haidt is similarly tentative in spelling out his thoughts on global warming. The threat is real, he suspects, and perhaps serious. “But the left is now embracing this as their sacred issue, which guarantees that there will be frequent exaggerations and minor—I don’t want to call it fudging of data—but there will be frequent mini-scandals. Because it’s a moral crusade, the left is going to have difficulty thinking clearly about what to do.”
Mr. Haidt, I observe, is noticeably less delicate when stepping on the right’s toes. He reviles George W. Bush, whom he blames for running up America’s debt and running down its reputation. He blames Newt Gingrich for perhaps understanding his book’s arguments too well and importing an uncompromising moralistic language into the partisan politics of the 1990s.
Mr. Haidt also considers today’s Republican Party a curse upon the land, even as he admires conservative ideas. He says its defense of lower taxes on capital income—mostly reported by the rich—is indefensible. He dismisses Mitt Romney as a “moral menial,” a politician so cynical about the necessary cynicism of politics that he doesn’t bother to hide his cynicism. (Some might call that a virtue.) He finds it all too typical that Republicans abandoned their support of the individual health-care mandate the moment Mr. Obama picked it up (though he also finds Chief Justice John Roberts’s bend-over-backwards effort to preserve conservative constitutional principle while upholding ObamaCare “refreshing”).
Why is his language so much less hedged when discussing Republicans? “Liberals are my friends, my colleagues, my social world,” he concedes. Liberals also are the audience he hopes most to influence, helping Democrats to recalibrate their political appeal and their attachment to a faulty welfare state.
To which a visitor can only say, God speed. Even with his parsing out of deep psychological differences between conservatives and liberals, American politics still seem capable of a useful fluidity. To make progress we need both parties, and right now we could use some progress on taxes, incentives, growth and entitlement reform.
Mr. Jenkins writes the Journal’s Business World column.
A version of this article appeared June 30, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: He Knows Why We Fight.