WHY DEMS ALWAYS LOSE: A Q&A With Righteous Mind Author Jonathan Haidt

[Illustration by Johnny Selman]

You’re smart. You’re liberal. You’re well informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans vote Republican. You figure they’re being duped. You’re wrong.

So begins William Saletan’s recent book review of Jonathan Haidt’s Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion in the New York Times. Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, argues that the left will continue to fail to capture the sympathies of the Great American Middle until it begins to understand what motivates ordinary people. Haidt argues that contrary to the conventional widsom most Americans don’t simply vote their pocketbooks, that in fact there is something about conservative touchstones such as religion, patriotism and law and order that connects to something deep and primal in the American electorate and guides the ballot box choices it makes. Prior to starting work on the book, Haidt identified as a classic liberal, now he’s not so sure.  In advance of his appearance at the Philadelphia Book Festival at 2 PM on Saturday, we got Haidt on the line and asked him to explain himself.

PHAWKER: Please summarize the primary argument you make in Righteous Mind.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Okay, so the book is about moral psychology, which is what I study – what I studied at Penn for my PhD. It’s about how our moral judgments are mostly based on gut feelings which we then justify post-hoc, and this explains why our moral life is so weird, why we think other people are stupid or crazy and not open to reason. Because they’re making up reasons, and we’re arguing with their reasons and we’re amazed and angry that they don’t see the reason of our reasons. Once you understand that morality is based first and foremost in these intuitions, then you have a new avenue to understanding politics and religion, because both of them are really efforts or ways in creating moral communities – they’re very ancient. My book is titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. What I’m suggesting is that if you understand a little bit of moral psychology, you can understand politics and religion.

PHAWKER: How did you arrive at these conclusions?

JONATHAN HAIDT: I began studying moral judgment in 1987 at Penn, and I would interview people down at the Penn community, and I would interview people down at Penn’s Landing and ask them about various scenarios that feel intuitively wrong, but there’s no harm in them. So, an example is that a family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house and they heard that dog meat is delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked and ate it for dinner – what do you think about this? Most people say this is wrong, and they say it right away. When I would ask them why, they would say, ‘Well, you know, because they would get sick. You’re just not supposed to eat dog meat.’ When I would point out that as long as the meat’s cooked than no germs would survive and that it’s perfectly safe, people would rarely change their minds and say, ‘Oh, that’s okay.’ Rather, they would then find a new reason to justify why they said it was wrong. So that was a nice introduction to moral psychology, that when our gut feelings and our reasoning conflict, we tend to go with our gut feelings.

PHAWKER: Okay, now to borrow a phrase from George W. Bush, is this not ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’? I mean, essentially it sounds like what you’re saying is that voters are being led around by their lizard brains: Fear, anger, arousal. I mean, essentially this sounds like the moral equivalent of liking things that taste good because the human palette is wired to crave salt, sugar and fat. Which is all well and good but if you only consume salty, sweet and fatty foods you’re on a fast track to an early grave.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That’s right. Yes, the view of the nobler, higher view that you’re suggesting is the view that philosophers have had since Plato, and many of them hold to Plato’s metaphor in which reasoning is the charioteer who can and should control the passions – which are the two horses. But the empirical findings over the last twenty years strongly suggest that reasoning simply is not capable of doing that. For example, the research on everyday reasoning shows that people with a high IQ are much better at arguing and reasoning than people with a low IQ, but all they do is that they find more reasons that are on their side. They’re not any better at looking at both sides. None of us are any good at looking at both sides – we need other people to do that for us. So, my argument in the book is that each of us is flawed, each of us is a poor reasoned when either self-interest or group interest is at play, but if you put us together in the right way so that other people in our group can challenge our thinking, then good reasoning comes out. So, no one of us is very good at being a charioteer controlling his passions, but some institutions such as science or a well constituted jury can actually bring out quite rational thinking.

PHAWKER: So, essentially you’re refuting the central argument of that infamous book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? You’re essentially saying that, in fact, the Republicans are not duping white middle class people into voting against their own best interest.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes, I am saying that. Now, let me be clear that Karl Rove did set out very strategically to talk about gay marriage to bring out certain votes. So, I’m not saying that the Republicans were innocent and were just making a good moral case and the voters responded. No, there’s plenty of duplicity in the Rove campaign. Let me just point out that the Democrats do that routinely with Medicare. The simple fact is that Medicare is so far from being sustainable. It’s a joke, but the Democrats will scare senior citizens with Medicare. Back to the voting against self-interest view, that argument only makes sense if you think that voters can and do choose the party that will give them the best programs for them. So if you think that voting is shopping, and you think that the Democrats offer a better deal to white working class people, then you can conclude that they’re voting against their self-interest. Most people don’t think that. Most Americans don’t want their President to be just the guy who gives them the best programs for them. That’s kind of a greedy and selfish view of voting. The fact is that politics is much more like religion. People vote for a view that they find inspiring about their country, about the moral order, and you cannot say that people who reject the Democratic vision, the Democratic set of social programs, you cannot say that they’re voting against their self-interest – they’re voting for the kind of country that they want.

PHAWKER: They’re not just having their irrational fears and prejudices manipulated?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Well, they are having those manipulated. Both sides do that. You could say that the Republicans and the Democrats both do that. So, I’m not denying that that happens, but I am arguing that the Left has a very significant blind spot because it has difficulty understanding appeals based on group loyalty, based on authority and social order, and based on ideas of sanctity that are widespread in America. My empirical findings from my research site at YourMorals.org with my colleagues there, our empirical findings is that everyone understands moral appeals based on care, fairness, and liberty, but liberals have more difficulty understanding moral appeals based on loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Republicans since Reagan have been able to speak…their appeals hit all six octaves, you might say – or hit all six taste buds. So, I think in part what’s going on here is not so much Republican trickery as it is Democratic misunderstandings of morality.

PHAWKER: Okay, and then to keep it framed as a Republican/Democratic thing, what do the Democrats need to do to win more?

JONATHAN HAIDT: The first thing is that they’ve got to stop committing so much sacrilege. A basic rule that I offer in the book is follow the sacredness, and around it you will find a ring of motivated ignorance. If you know what people hold sacred, and you know what they cannot think straight about, then you know where you’ll find very bad thinking. Since people on the left tend to hold victim groups sacred, that means they have difficulty thinking straight about policies related to victim groups. For example, women’s contraceptive access. Women are one of the groups, historically, that the Democrats have fought for. I mean, essentially they’re all in favor of that. But, that means that they’re prone to doing things, like mandating that Catholic hospitals pay for birth control, which is just so obviously offensive. You know, couldn’t they have found some sort of compromise beforehand? For example, if an institution won’t pay for it, well that’s their choice but then they just have to give a discount and let the women buy it on the open market. So, the Democrats over and over again commit sacrilege. They say things that they don’t even..

PHAWKER: Well, hang on. If, as the polling indicates, 98% of Catholic women say they use birth control – who finds that offensive? The priests? The Vatican hierarchy?

JONATHAN HAIDT: No, the issue isn’t about using birth control. Had there been a question about whether women can use birth control, of course. You know, if Rick Santorum objects, everybody should just overrule him. It wasn’t whether it’s legal – the issue was who should have to pay for someone else’s. To force Catholic churches to pay for a product is very different from saying that women have a right to buy it. I mean, of course most Catholics use birth control and support the right to do it, but why force Catholic institutions to pay for it for their employees?

PHAWKER: Have you been approached by people from the Democratic party to discuss your findings?


PHAWKER: Interesting. Have you been approached by anyone from the Right?


PHAWKER: It says, I read in your bio that until 2009 you considered yourself a partisan liberal, what happened?

JONATHAN HAIDT: In writing the book, I mean, I spent so long trying to convince Democrats that the Republicans are not crazy and you just had to understand them. Because in my early research I got into this to help the Democrats. I really hated George Bush, I think he was the worst President we’ve ever had. I thought he was destroying the country and I still think that. I wanted to help the Democrats but after five years of trying to make sense of conservative views, I began to realize that they’re really not so crazy or evil. They are fighting for moral goods that the Left may not share, but they’re not crazy ideas. I came to the view that we need both sides – it’s really that Left and Right are like yin and yang. Both sides are able to see certain threats, they’re able to see certain possibilities, and they’re blind to others. That’s what morality does to us – we’re all blind.

PHAWKER: Are you suggesting that there should be a third way beyond the age old Left vs Right debate?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Well, I don’t think that any one party can stand in the center. The center tends not to recruit people that are passionate. I’m not advocating that we need a third way that gets it right. I’m advocating that we need two parties that are a little healthier and saner. Right now, the Republicans are going off into a moralistic spiral in which they’re really kind of crazy. The Democrats did that in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s with identity politics. They went through their crazy period and they alienated a lot of people. For example, the Reagan Democrats, the working class whites who used to vote Democrat and the Democrats just lost them. Now the Republicans are going through their moralistic spiral. They’re saying crazy things, like everyone, if you’re running for office you must declare that global warming is a hoax, evolution is not true, and that you will not raise taxes. And now it’s not even taxes – you will not raise revenue, which is just insane. So, I think with both parties, I would like more sanity and openness to prevail in both parties. We need to fix our political institutions. They’re doing terribly. They’re all clogged up by demonization and moralism in Washington. I’m hopeful that the book will at least help people tone down the anger, so they can at least work together or disagree more productively.

Jonathan Haidt will be discussing his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion at the Free Libary tomorrow at 2 PM as part of the Philadelphia Book Festival

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