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
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
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.
Here’s a short essay I wrote for CNN on how I went from being an angry young atheist to being a psychologist who thinks that religion was a crucial part of our biological and cultural evolution for morality.
CNN also shows this short video interview with me, done at TED 2012, on tribalism in our political lives:
Robert Wright (author of Nonzero, and The Evolution of God), interviews me about the book. We largely agree about the evolution of religion, and about the New Atheists being fundamentalists. Bob is dubious about group selection. He acknowledges it could exist, but tries to come up with individual-level explanations for human groupishness. Bob and I co-taught a class at Princeton. We are on very friendly terms, and this allows our disagreements to be vocal without any risk of it descending into anger. Relationships help open-minded thinking and civil disagreement.Read More
Politics is so weird in part because voters are not pursuing their self-interest, they’re pursuing their group interest. And even for group interest, it’s often not about the group’s material interests, it’s about protecting their sacred totems. Circling around sacred objects helps a group cohere. So if you want to understand why we’re suddenly all talking about birth control and abortion at a time when economic matters are so much more important, follow the sacredness. I explain this in more detail in a NYT Review essay, here,Read More