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Why Republicans and Democrats will never agree

Politics isn’t a rational conversation, says psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It’s time we faced what’s really going on.

Greg Klee/Globe Staff/-

In today’s America, it’s an accepted fact that we’re divided, often bitterly, by politics. We disagree about everything, from immigration to school reform to tax policy to abortion. We agree only about how much is at stake in our arguments: everything.

Beneath all the rancor, though, there’s a basic optimism. When we imagine democracy at its best, we think of it as a national conversation, with voters swayed by reasoned arguments and new information. That’s why we argue--to change each other’s minds (and, ultimately, each other’s votes).

Unfortunately, according to Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist who studies morality and politics at the University of Virginia, our minds might not work that way. In his new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Haidt (pronounced “height”) argues that we’re mistaken about what’s really going on when we disagree about politics. We like to think that our opinions are shaped by reason and information. But the truth, Haidt says, is that many of our positions are intuitive and irrational at their core--driven by passions that we didn’t choose, don’t understand, and can’t articulate. On some issues, coming to agreement isn’t really possible, and never has been; instead of arguing, Americans ought to look for ways to live with their differences.

In recent years, Haidt has emerged as one of the country’s best-known psychology researchers, using a combination of psychology and anthropology to understand how we arrive at our moral attitudes. One of his key insights is that we are much less rational than we think we are. We tend to make moral judgments intuitively and immediately. If asked, we can produce reasons for our judgments, and might even believe that’s why we made our decisions — but, in reality, these are just rationalizations for our intuitive hunches.


His new book turns this lens on politics, drawing on decades of research to offer a sometimes unsettling picture of how our political culture is shaped by our underlying dispositions. When Haidt looks at American politics, he doesn’t see a free-flowing, open-minded exchange of ideas. Instead, he sees a conflict between two profoundly different moral mind-sets--a conservative mind-set and a liberal one--that dictate where people stand on issues, and are unlikely to change.


Republicans and Democrats do have intuitions in common: the intuitions that fairness is a moral good, and that doing harm is a moral wrong. But, by asking thousands of people to take surveys and ponder moral dilemmas, Haidt — who identifies as a liberal — has found that conservatives live in a broader moral universe. To a much greater degree than liberals, they draw on moral intuitions about loyalty, tradition, authority, and sanctity. That difference explains why Republicans are more concerned than Democrats about patriotism and family values. And, in their moral breadth, Haidt has found, Republicans are more typical of people around the world; the more tightly focused morality of liberals is rarer.

Ultimately, Haidt argues, the differences between liberals and conservatives are both natural and inevitable. The rancor between the groups, he argues, comes from something else: a human tendency toward groupish self-righteousness that takes over, obscuring the ways in which our own beliefs are irrational, and making it all too easy to demonize people who see the world through a different moral lens. “Human nature,” Haidt writes, “is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.” A more practical and realistic political culture, Haidt believes, would accept and accommodate our natural moral differences, rather than seeking to eradicate them. Ultimately, Haidt argues, those differences should be objects of appreciation and curiosity, not anger.


Haidt spoke to Ideas while on his book tour.

IDEAS: Lots of us like to think about politics as a kind of “national conversation.” But you don’t think that’s accurate.

HAIDT: I would never call politics a conversation. Politics is much more like war than conversation. Conversation does all kinds of things: It brings people together to work together and explore things. Politics isn’t like that at all.

IDEAS: That’s pessimistic. In a war, nobody ever changes sides.

HAIDT: That’s right. If they do, they get shot! And of course that’s what happens in politics. In conversation, if someone changes their mind, it’s good. In politics, it’s flip-flopping, it’s treason.

IDEAS: And yet you’ve changed sides, in a way: You’re a liberal, but your work in moral psychology has led you to respect the conservative mind-set, to see it as a valuable part of human nature. How did that happen?

HAIDT: It came out, originally, of my [field work] in India, trying to understand people who were very different from me. Once I was able to understand these religious, patriarchal, socially conservative people, then I found that I could at least make sense of the religious right in America....Eventually, I realized that...wow, [conservatives] have got a number of very important pieces of the puzzle that liberals leave out, and which liberals are generally very uncomfortable with. That changed me.


IDEAS: You argue that the moral world is much broader than most liberals believe it to be.

HAIDT: Many people have tried to systematize morality with a single principle: harm reduction or compassion, or else fairness, rights, and justice....[Liberals] have long been drawn to monistic theories of reality, whereas conservatives...are more drawn to Aristotle, who thought about a variety of virtues. That’s why conservatives are interested in character education: because they see all sorts of different character traits, lots of different virtues.

IDEAS: Your claims about the narrowness of liberal morality must make people very angry.

HAIDT: Nobody wants to be told that they’re missing part of the picture--and that their enemies see part of the picture that they don’t!

IDEAS: You compare moral life to living in the Matrix. We think we see moral issues objectively and rationally; in fact, that’s an illusion.

HAIDT: We’re all born with certain traits. Even siblings within a family — one will be very compassionate when she sees animal suffering, another will be more competitive and not as concerned about, say, hurt feelings. Our dispositional traits, our lower-level personality traits are inherited, are products of our brains, which are products of our genes. And then as people develop, their personalities lead them into different relationships, into different universities, into different life experiences....And then many occupations appeal differentially to liberals and conservatives. So the military and the police are always going to be conservative institutions, while creatives, artists, professors, are always going to be mostly liberal. There’s nothing wrong with that — that’s just the way it’s always going to be.


So then there’s both selection and reinforcement....Afterwards, you come to feel that you simply see reality as it is.

IDEAS: And then the dynamics of team psychology, of what you call our “righteousness,” come into play.

HAIDT: Righteousness is a secret, it’s a trick that got us out of the jungle and into civilization. If we didn’t have tribalism, righteousness, judgmentalism, we would not have civilization today. Now...we’re trying to fine-tune it. We can’t eliminate it...righteousness is a central feature of who we are, it’s essential to the functioning of civilization. But we can take it so far that it interferes with public policy, with politics, with leadership.

IDEAS: Do you think that agreement about moral issues is even possible?

HAIDT: My goal isn’t to get people to agree....The competition of ideas is good, and competition in general makes people work harder; it actually brings out a lot of good traits. The problem is that, when competition passes a certain level, and becomes demonization, that’s when you get all the destructive effects.

IDEAS: So can moral psychology offer a middle ground?

HAIDT: When I switched over into studying politics in 2004, I did it expressly to help the Democrats beat the Republicans. I wanted to use moral psychology to help my team! But in the process of learning about all sides, and delving deeply into political psychology, I sort of lost the partisan fervor, and now I’m fascinated. That’s what I hope moral psychology can do for people — replace demonization with fascination.

IDEAS: It seems like you’re after an inner, almost spiritual change in the way we think about one another. Can you give an example of a way that moral psychology has changed your life?

HAIDT: Oh yes....It’s changed, greatly, the way I think about the military. When I was a teenager, I had the standard liberal reflex, which is that soldiers kill people, therefore soldiers are bad. [Now], I realize that their guiding ethos is service. That’s the virtue for them. They are there to serve, and they are making great sacrifices to serve. And that is honorable and beautiful. I love talking to military people now, because I can understand their moral worldview, and see beauty in it, in a way I couldn’t 20 years ago.

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman@gmail.com.