I recently wrote a blog post titled “Conservatives good, Republican party bad.” There was quite a lot of reader push back, from left, center, and especially right. These readers have convinced me that my argument in the post was wrong, and that it was not very “Haidtian” of me to declare one side to be “bad” without a great deal of research, including efforts to solicit counterarguments. I seem to have gotten “carried away” by my liberal inclinations, as SanPete put it. I hope readers will at least allow me to turn this into a useful exercise in which I examine the episode from the perspective of The Righteous Mind.
First, as to why I wrote the post: I had just appeared on the Tavis Smiley show, and to prepare for it I had read Smiley and West’s new book “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.” The book includes many accounts of people in desperate straits, people who had worked all their lives and now, through no fault of their own, were out of a job and therefore out of health insurance, and in default on their mortgages. It’s heart-wrenching stuff, but I was particularly open to Smiley’s point of view because I was about to go on his show and talk with him, so the “social persuasion link” and the “reasoned persuasion link” of the social intuitionist model were working in tandem. I had stronger feelings of empathy than I normally would have.
The day before my talk with Smiley was taped (April 29) I read the Edsall column. I’ve talked with Edsall several times, and have a working relationship with him, so there too, I’m particularly open to being persuaded by him. And he was citing evidence on empathy collected on YourMorals.org – my research website – as analyzed by my friend and colleague Ravi Iyer. That same day I read the Mann and Ornstein essay in the Washington Post. I assumed (erroneously) that Ornstein was a conservative because he was at AEI, which gave the seemingly bipartisan team of Mann and Ornstein far more credibility in my eyes. So it all came together for me on that day – the feelings of sympathy for the poor and anger at Republican hard-heartedness, which put me into a “can I believe it” mindset, along with a powerful statement from what I thought was a bipartisan team saying that the Republican Party was the problem in Washington, which gave me permission to believe. I could feel my elephant and rider shuffling over to the left. The day after the Smiley interview aired (May 8), I wrote the blog post.
The reader reaction was swift, constructive, and (with the exception of one repeat-commenter) civil. Ben and SanPete pointed out that I was reading Cantor’s remarks in the most uncharitable way, whereas Cantor’s basic point — about the value of having “everyone in,” having everyone contributing even a token amount, is similar to one I made myself in a NYT essay about the value of “all pulling on the same rope” as a way of getting people to “share the spoils” of their joint effort. James Wagner, Tom, and The Independent Whig all pointed out that the Republican stance on “no new taxes” is very much a principled stance, once you understand their decades-long frustration with leaders in both parties who negotiate grand bargains, including spending cuts, but the cuts end up not happening, so spending keeps rising, government keeps growing, and bankruptcy looms ever closer. (I have been persuaded about the fiscal and moral damage done by our entitlement binge by Yuval Levin). So desperate measures, such as drawing a bright line at zero, are indeed backed up by a moral passion which I can respect. You really see that passion in Whig, backed up by a consequentialist analysis of what happens when one side keeps “caring” and spending.
Whig also linked to a point-by-point response to Mann and Ornstein that shows –as usual – the necessity in these complex matters of hearing from an advocate on the other side. One can make a case that the Democrats are the problem, or at least that the two sides are equally at fault for the dysfunction.
I’m not saying that both sides are necessarily equal; centrism doesn’t commit me to splitting the difference, or saying that both sides are always partially right in any dispute. But centrism does commit me to listening carefully to arguments from both sides, and taking my own biases into account, before trying to render any verdict. I didn’t do that. And my knowledge base as a social psychologist would give me no special skills in rendering such a verdict even if I were to put in the time. As James Wagner put it (in a separate email):
“you’re more of a descriptive than a prescriptive guy: I really want to urge you to stay more firmly with your competitive advantage, which is providing information and synthesis that the left and right can both hear well on why we act the way we do. You’re so incredibly good at that, and it’s exceedingly rare. Quite afield from current (or old) event analysis, which is not your bailiwick, which my brother-in-law does better than you.”
Point granted, chastisement accepted.
Well, even if I was wrong to write the original post, at least I can claim that I was wrong for reasons that can be explained by The Righteous Mind. And I hope this episode has an inspiring ending in that the entire debate was carried out so civilly, often with acknowledgment of points on the other side, and with such attention to making claims supported by evidence, that it did in the end change my mind. I never said reason is impotent. I just said that we’re bad at using it by ourselves to find the truth.From page 90:
We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.
Thanks to you all, for making this blog a reasoning social system.
I recently gave a talk at the American Enterprise Institute. Jonathan Rauch, who writes often on gay issues, asked me how moral attitudes could have changed so quickly on gay marriage. People often seem to think that if I’m saying that moral foundations are innate and evolved, then our moral beliefs are innate and can’t change. In response, I offered the example of sushi. For centuries Americans thought it was disgusting to eat raw fish. But once some people started doing it more visibly, and people habituated to it, the disgust factor decreased and sushi became OK. This short clip offers my general explanation of one way that morals change rapidly.
You can see the whole talk here, including the introduction from Arthur Brooks and commentary from Steve Hayward, Sally Satel, and Jonathan Rauch.Read More
[NOTE: IN RESPONSE TO THE CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISMS AND COUNTER-EVIDENCE OFFERED BY READERS BELOW, I RETRACT AND DISAVOW THE POST BELOW. I EXPLAIN WHY HERE.]
A theme of The Righteous Mind and of The Happiness Hypothesis is that wisdom is found on both sides of any longstanding dispute. Morality binds and blinds, so partisans can’t see what the other side is right about. Studying moral psychology has helped me to step out of the “matrix” of my previous liberal team and appreciate the wisdom of social conservatives and libertarians.
But with that said, the last 2 weeks have pushed me to be more explicit about criticizing the Republican Party. First came the extraordinary Washington Post essay by Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, titled: “Lets just say it, the Republicans are the problem.” Mann is center-left and Ornstein is center-right, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. They are fed up with the press’s fear of seeming biased, which leads journalists to say that both parties are equally to blame for the dysfunction in Washington. But as long-time and highly respected congress-watchers, they believe that the Republican party since Newt Gingrich’s time is mostly at fault for damaging our governing institutions. Here’s a key quote:
We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
The essay comes from their new book: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. I hope this book is read widely. I don’t think there’s a way forward for our country until something happens that leads to a massive reform of the Republican Party. (This is what Mann and Ornstein said when I saw them speak at NYU last week.)
Mann and Ornstein have been friends since graduate school. I think this is an important point. As I say in The Righteous Mind, personal relationships open our hearts and therefore our minds. They allow us to listen to ideas, and I think this makes the team of Mann and Ornstein a national treasure. Their wisdom is likely to be greater than any partisan — or centrist — operating alone.
The second challenge to the “both sides equal” thesis came in Tom Edsall’s powerful NYT piece, Finding the Limits of Empathy. Edsall reviews data from my team at YourMorals.org, including data analysis by Ravi Iyer, showing that liberals and conservatives who DON’T care about politics are NOT different on their level of empathy, but as people get more partisan, the liberals go up on empathy and the conservatives go down — they get more hard-hearted.
Against that background, Edsall analyzes the recent comments by House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, suggesting that it’s not fair that 45% of Americans pay no income tax, and so perhaps it would be fair to “broaden the base” and make all people pay some income tax. (Even though the poor pay around 16% of their income in taxes when you bring in all the regressive taxes that they pay, from sales tax through wage taxes.)
This bothered me. I can understand that the Republicans are committed to fighting all tax increases. Many have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge, which even prevents them from closing tax loopholes. I can understand “no new taxes.” But Cantor (and rep. Pat Tiberi and others) are happy to consider raising some taxes on the poor, or of shifting more of the tax burden onto the poor.
It seems, therefore, that their stance against new taxes may not be a deeply principled stance. It may be self-interest: no new taxes on the rich. Or, as Edsall suggests, it may reflect a kind of moral class warfare in which the rich are seen as the good people — the providers — while the poor are condemned as the bad people — the lazy free riders. If Edsall is right then this would reflect the abandonment of one of the most cherished American ideals, shared by liberals and conservatives alike: equality of opportunity. Republicans traditionally favored a hand up, not a hand out. They may now favor neither, because they think the poor deserve to be poor.
I have been trying so hard to give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt, given that I spent my whole adult life as a Democrat and know that I am emotionally biased against the party of George W. Bush. But the Mann and Ornstein book, plus the Edsall article, have changed my mind. I now say explicitly that while I find great wisdom among conservative intellectuals from Edmund Burke through Thomas Sowell, I think the Republican party deserves more of the blame for our current dysfunction. (But I’m open to counter-arguments, if anyone can point to a good counter-argument against Mann and Ornstein.)
I first articulated my new position — Conservatives Good, Republican Party Bad — near the end of my interview with Tavis Smiley, below:
Anthropologist Tanya Luhrman has a great essay in Today’s NYT, explaining the difference between the secular liberal approach to morality (based on care, given by government) and the evangelical approach (based on self-improvement, carried out within the family and the congregation):
When secular liberals vote, they think about the outcome of a political choice. They think about consequences. Secular liberals want to create the social conditions that allow everyday people, behaving the way ordinary people behave, to have fewer bad outcomes.
When evangelicals vote, they think more immediately about what kind of person they are trying to become — what humans could and should be, rather than who they are. From this perspective, the problem with government is that it steps in when people fall short. Rick Santorum won praise by saying (as he did during the Values Voters Summit in 2010), “Go into the neighborhoods in America where there is a lack of virtue and what will you find? Two things. You will find no families, no mothers and fathers living together in marriage. And you will find government everywhere: police, social service agencies. Why? Because without faith, family and virtue, government takes over.” This perspective emphasizes developing individual virtue from within — not changing social conditions from without.
As I tried to explain in chapter 8 of The Righteous Mind, the utilitarian individualism of the secular left turns off most voters. The thicker, more binding morality of social conservatives is more broadly appealing. It may even be a better recipe for producing more virtuous, self-controlled citizens, who end up creating the best consequences for the nation as a whole. This is what I was trying to describe in chapter 11 as “Durkheimian utilitarianism” — it’s a way of maximizing overall welfare that takes human nature into account.
I was on Up, with Chris Hayes, talking with Chris Mooney (author of The Republican Brain), John McWhorter, and Michelle Goldberg, about the psychology of science denial. I think Mooney is summarizing the literature correctly in saying that conservatives are psychologically different from liberals, in ways that feed in to the current denial of science. But I point out that both sides deny science when it contradicts their sacred values. The two sides are not equal nowadays — the Republican Party is spinning away from reality, as Mann and Ornstein argue. But this is a recent development — not an eternal fact about conservatives, and it is to some degree a reaction to the increasing liberalism of scientists. I suggest that the best way to reach agreement is by indirect methods, creating trusting relationships first, before letting people discuss and debate across party lines.