I was a guest today on a new MSNBC show, The Cycle, which is interesting because it features one conservative and three liberals discussing the days issues in a friendly way — I love it every time I see models of cross-partisan amity and constructive disagreement.
We talked about the role that moral values play in the campaigns. The hosts wanted to talk about what makes swing voters decide, but I preferred to talk about what energizes the bases. We haven’t had an election where both sides aimed for the middle since 2000, when George W. Bush ran as a moderate compassionate conservative.
[Forgive my big speech error of saying “right” once when I clearly meant “left.”]
I did a short video interview with The Economist, which is turning out to be the most tweeted thing I’ve done in a while. People seem to be interested primarily in the answers I gave when the interviewer, Roger McShane, asked me for specific advice for Obama and Romney. Normally I’m careful not to offer specific campaign advice. Political strategy is a game I know nothing about. All I can do is comment on when and why candidates connect, or fail to connect, with the moral concerns of various groups. So here’s what I said:
Q: How should the Democrats change their message to appeal to a broader base? How should Barack Obama change his message?
A: …The Democrats tend to focus too much on messaging and framing, as though if they can construct the perfect message vehicle, put it up into message space and send it out, it’s going to go into people’s ears, turn a key, like lock-and-key, and get the message across. That’s not the way persuasion works. You have to trust the messenger. Persuasion is not done very well directly. But if you use more indirect means… The bottom line is that if they trust you, they’re more likely to listen to you. And the Right, and especially businessmen… if the business community doesn’t trust Obama, doesn’t trust the Democrats, then when he makes an argument — and there’s some merit to the argument he’s making [in the “you didn’t build that” speech] — they don’t follow the argument carefully and try to understand its logic; they go right for what’s wrong with it.
…So if i had to give advice to the Democrats, it would be: stop focusing so much on how do you message each particular issue, policy, or rule, and think much more about the long term. What does the party stand for, what does it mean to be a liberal in the 21st century?
Q: Is there anything that Republicans should be doing differently?
A: I think the Republicans got their message straight in the 1980s, but… I think the Republicans have become too rigid, and too hard-hearted [in contrast to Ronald Reagan, who was often flexible.] George W. Bush tried to promote compassionate conservatism, I don’t think that really flew. But Mitt Romney really comes across as cold and uncaring. If you’re going to talk about capitalism, well, its weak spot is that it creates losers and victims. And if a governing party doesn’t care about those people at all, well, that’s going to alienate a lot of people. And frankly I think it’s the wrong position to take.
Just to be clear: I love capitalism, and I think that anyone who cares about the poor should love it too. It’s capitalism that generated such vast wealth in the West over the last 250 years that almost everybody was lifted out of poverty, and now capitalism is working its magic by cutting poverty at lightening speed in East Asia and South Asia. But come on, Republicans, read Charles Dickens. We can do better than that. Tell us how you’re going to protect workers from abuse, and protect the public from harmful externalities. Celebrate capitalism, but show us that you’re at least aware that it can cause massive suffering and environmental damage on its path to massive public benefit.
McShane then asked me what is unique about America that generates such high levels of political polarization. I mentioned some of the usual suspects, plus one that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, but have been thinking about recently. I talked about how the Founding Fathers set up our governing institutions to pit factions against factions, and to seek out balance between competing interests and institutions. They expected that there would be many cross-cutting divisions, such as the states vs. the federal government, and the three branches of government against each other. But in recent decades, the Left-Right divide has risen to such prominence that it suppresses all other divisions, and that is bad news for a tribal species such as ours:
Our moral psychology makes us very adept at having shifting teams and coalitions, and that can be healthy,* when you’ve got lots of cross-cutting divisions. And the founders of this country knew that. Unfortunately, all those cross-cutting divisions have been wiped away, and there’s just one giant chasm, one giant fault line, and all the institutions of government are lining up along that line. And so everything gets paralyzed, and within each [institution] you get more demonization, more hatred across the line.
Here’s the 7 minute video:
*note: I got the idea that it can be healthy to have multiple competing divisions and identities from an excellent book on our tribal psychology: Us and Them, by David Berreby.Read More
In my earliest research I discovered that people sometimes invented the facts they needed to back up the moral judgments they had just made. When I asked people about whether it was wrong for a family to eat it’s dog, after the dog was killed by a car, people often said “yes, it’s wrong, because…. um… if you eat dog meat you’ll get sick.” This finding became the First Principle of Moral Psychology in The Righteous Mind: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” Our gut tells us what’s true on moral questions, and our reasoning then kicks into high gear to justify that intuition.
So when Todd Akin said that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy because, um… “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down…” I was both horrified and delighted. Delighted only because it offered such a vivid demonstration of the First Principle in action.
By coincidence, my colleagues at Yourmorals.org, Brittany Liu and Pete Ditto, have just published an article showing how exactly the process works when people invent or inflate facts. Ditto and Liu talk about the need for “moral coherence,” which they describe as “the tendency for people to fit their factual beliefs to their moral world-view, so that what is right morally becomes what is right practically as well.” The apply this perspective to the Akin case in a blog post at the YourMorals blog. Here’s an excerpt:
We suggest that people’s desire for moral coherences initiates a motivated cost-benefit analysis in which the act that feels the best morally becomes that act that also leads to the best consequences. So, if a particular act feels morally wrong, moral coherence processes lead people to try to maximize the costs and minimize the benefits associated with that act. Likewise, if an act feels morally acceptable, people will minimize the costs and maximize the benefits associated with that act. By changing their factual beliefs about the costs and benefits of various actions, people emerge with a coherent moral picture in which their factual beliefs fit perfectly with their moral evaluations.
Applying this logic to the Akin case, strong opponents of abortion, like Akin, argue that abortion is fundamentally immoral and should be prohibited. But what if the pregnancy results from a rape? This creates a problem for a principled moral position on abortion. Isn’t abortion always wrong? But is it right to make a woman live with a baby conceived in from a violent, traumatic act she did not consent to? One way to resolve the conflict is to convince oneself that pregnancies from “legitimate” rapes are exceedingly rare. If this is true, then prohibiting abortion even in the case of rape really has relatively few costs because it occurs so infrequently. Thus, it is easy to see Rep. Akin’s views about rape and pregnancy (views that are held by many other anti-abortion activists as well) as emerging from his struggle to construct a coherent moral position on abortion that refuses to make exceptions for rape and incest.
Pat Moynihan is reported to have once said that we are each entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. Unfortunately, partisans tend to create their own facts, most of which are not so outrageously and obviously wrong as Akin’s. Left and right in America today live in different moral “matrices,” and the search for moral coherence, satisfied by cable news networks, gossip, and the internet, allows us all to live in gated moral communities, each one grounded in its own set of facts.
I came across this (tongue in cheek) lament about the hypocrisy of the other side, on Volokh Conspiracy (but it’s floating around the internet):
Why is the other side of the debates I’m on always so hypocritical? They always jump on what my side says, and yet they willfully ignore all the faults on their own side. Let’s be honest about the double standard: The other side gets away with stuff that my side would never get away with. It’s just like the other side to be so deceitful: They’re always looking to score any advantage they can. People like that drive me crazy, and it seems like most of the people on the other side are just like that.
It’s a perfect distillation of the main point of Ch. 4 of The Righteous Mind (and ch. 4 of The Happiness Hypothesis). But blogs being blogs, people then set out to debate it. One commenter offered the perfect summation of what happens in maybe a third of all arguments about things that Obama (or any president) does:
It isn’t just a matter of each side claiming that the other side is hypocritical, and you have to figure out which (or both). The following often happens:
1) Right criticizes Obama for doing X
2) Left (correctly) points out that Bush did X, and Right didn’t care then
3) Right (correctly) points out that Left cared when Bush did X, but don’t now.
Of course, the same happens in reverse with the Left initiating the first complaint. Essentially, both sides are actually admitting hypocrisy, but for some reason they only care that the other side is hypocritical. This is a truly horrible form of discussion, and a neutral observer does not need to think hard to figure out which side is “right,” because both sides are wrong.
Amen. It is indeed striking that the response to the charge of hypocrisy is rarely apology, it’s usually “but, but, but… you do it too.” That’s what you’d expect if we all carry around in our heads a little inner press secretary, or inner lawyer.
Update: By amazing coincidence, Ramesh Ponnuru published yesterday a much more extensive and deeply insightful version of the “they’re all hypocrites” rant. His (tongue in cheek) rant should be required reading for all citizens. (hat tip to Independent Whig, below)
Update #2: By even more amazing coincidence, A. Barton Hinkle of the Richmond Times Dispatch, wrote an essay similar to Ponnuru’s the day before his was published. This one’s called “The Wrong Side Absolutely Must Not Win”. (Hat tip to Brian Keegan, below)Read More
I just found a wonderful tool at CapitolWords.org which shows you the frequency with which any word is used in the congressional record since 1996. (Hat tip to Emily Ekins.) You can see which party uses each word more often, and which Senators and Representatives use the word most often. It offers a quick check on the claims I made in The Righteous Mind about how the Left owns Care and Fairness (as Equality), whereas the Right owns the rest of the moral foundations. I’m ignoring the line graphs plotting changes over time (there are hardly any) and I’ll just present the overall pie charts here:
1) THE CARE FOUNDATION
Conclusion: yes, Dems use these words more often.
2) THE FAIRNESS FOUNDATION
Conclusion: Yes, Dems use these words more, especially “equality.” The words “proportionality” and “equity” rarely occur; there’s no clear word to get at fairness-as-proportionality, which I claim is a concept more valued on the right.
3) THE LIBERTY FOUNDATION
Conclusion: Yes, Republicans use these words more. It’s a sign of trouble for the liberal party when liberalism forfeits the word liberty.
4) THE LOYALTY FOUNDATION
Conclusion: No, contrary to my prediction, Democrats use the words loyalty and patriotism slightly more often than do Republicans.
5) The Authority/subversion Foundation
Conclusion: No difference on “authority” (which has a great many non-moral uses in a legal and legislative context) but yes on “obedience.”
6) The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation:
Conclusion: Republicans use these words much more often.
Overall conclusion: This crude measure offers some support for the portrait I painted in chapters 7 and 8 of Righteous Mind: Democrats own the central words of the Care and Fairness foundations, Republicans own the central words of the Liberty and Sanctity foundations. Republicans used one of the two central words of the Authority foundation more than did Democrats, and contrary to my predictions, Democrats used two of the central words of the Loyalty foundations slightly more than did Republicans.
Of course, all of these words are used in many ways, and the next step would be to examine word usage in context. Are Democrats really using the word “authority” in ways that show that they deeply respect authority? For example, the most recent uses in the congressional record on the day I did this analysis are Democrats talking about “a leading authority of Islamic culture” and “Congress has delegated much authority to the D.C. government…” These uses shouldn’t really count. When Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I last did a linguistic analysis of church sermons, we found a similar picture: most of our predictions were supported by raw word counts. But once we analyzed words in context and only counted the cases that truly endorsed a foundation, then all predictions were supported.
[Note: in my original post on Aug 9, I used the word “respect” instead of “obedience,” and it showed a trend toward Democrats. But in response to Anwer’s objection below, I tested out “obedience,” which has fewer non-authority uses, and swapped it in above.]
Do swing states really swing? Are the presidential campaigns right to focus so much time and money on a small set of swing states?
Brad Jones, a graduate student in political science at U. Wisconsin, has produced some extraordinary graphs in a blog post at CivilPolitics.org, showing that states used to swing widely from election to election, particularly in the decades after WWII. Knowing how a state voted in one presidential election didn’t usually give you a strong basis for predicting its vote in the next few elections. So it would make sense for candidates to pour huge amounts of money into the few states that could plausibly be shifted.
But as political polarization has increased since the 1980s, the states have begun to lose their individual personalities and assume their place in a single ranked list, based (I assume) on the percentage of the population that is liberal or conservative. In other words, if you know how liberal or conservative a state is, you can predict with high accuracy how it’s presidential vote will turn out. As Jones puts it:
politics has become increasingly nationalized as it has polarized. This nationalization would explain the stable rankings and uniform shifts that have characterized recent elections. The shifts in election results are not concentrated among the handful of states that receive endless barrages of campaign advertising. Rather, all of the states have tended to move toward the candidate who ultimately wins the election.
You gotta see the graphs to believe it. One really interesting finding: this same pattern of extreme predictability is not new. Jones shows that it also held during the last period of extreme political polarization, in the late 19th Century. Polarization does weird things to our democracy. It makes one moral fault line become highly stable and salient, rather than having multiple possible fault lines and shifting coalitions, which I think is a healthier situation, less prone to demonization.