Religion & Liberty Online

Jonathan Haidt: Why Good People are Divided by Politics (and Religion)

Two weeks ago I attended a lecture at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) by Jonathan Haidt, author, among many other books and articles, of the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt is a social psychologist whose research focuses on the emotive and anthropological bases of morality. His talk at GVSU for their Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies and Business Ethics Center, focused mostly on the question of the roots of our political divides in the United States and how to move our public discourse in a more civil direction.

He began by noting that in academia he encountered very little conservative political and moral writings. Why not educate people in both? he asked. Good question. His talk at GVSU was, at least, one preliminary contribution. While it did not systematically get into the specifics of liberal and conservative perspectives, it aimed to help people understand the moral and psychological bases of both.

Next, he framed his presentation by offering some good news and some bad news.

The Good News:

  • Extreme poverty is disappearing. Really. Haidt began with what has been called the “hockey stick of economic history.” Basically, while economic growth has been mostly stagnant for the majority of human history, since 1800 we have seen a remarkably new trend in sustained economic growth. This skews graphs of economic growth through human history to look like a hockey stick on its side, hence the term “hockey stick of economic history.” Things have been especially good since 1950 since countries like China and India have become more economically liberalized. Literally over a billion people were raised out of extreme poverty in the last fifty years. And according to Haidt, “when poverty plummits, people get rights.” The good of this good news is not limited to the material.
  • Democracy is triumphant. This might seem like romanticism, but he gave the impression that he was referring to the close of the Cold War. Whether or not ostensibly democratic countries are actually so would be another question, but nearly everyone today at least wants to look democratic.
  • Genocide is nearly gone. Haidt acknowledged that there have been isolated (if terrible) cases, such as that in Rwanda, but the scale of this evil has been much smaller and less frequent.
  • Rape and homicide are down in the U.S.
  • No more threat of nuclear apocalypse. Millennials like me might laugh at the idea of drills in school where children were taught to take cover under their desks, but this was serious for Baby Boomers. A nuclear attack miles away could have sent dangerous rubble crashing down upon the heads of unprepared schoolchildren. No such fears are the norm today.

He concluded his good news by saying, “We should be dancing in the streets!” But, then, there is the bad news….

The Bad News:

  • Happiness is relative. That is, people evaluate their own situation not based upon where they are compared to bygone ages but compared to others in the present and to their former selves in the near past. 1 billion people lifted out of poverty? That’s great, but I really wish I could afford that new iPhone….
  • Our political parties in Congress have become increasingly polarized. This is a major change since 1980 especially. Going back even further to the 1960s, Haidt pointed out that at that time there were several conservative Democrats, liberal Republicans, and a significant base of centrists in both parties. Today, judging by votes along party lines, Congress is more polarized than it was in the years directly following the Civil War.
  • At the same time, citizens are more polarized. Whereas religious affiliation used to be the most decisive topic in our country, this has been far surpassed by political affiliation today.
  • Trust in our government is down. This has been bad since the 1960s and 1970s, due in part at that time to the unpopularity of the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal, among other factors. On average distrust for government is actually one thing that people of both parties have in common, though Republicans (and not just the Tea Party) fluctuate more depending on whether or not their party controls Congress or the White House.

So what happened? Before directly answering that question, Haidt outlined some of his own research and presuppositions:

  • He is an intuitionist, which he defined as agreeing with David Hume contra Plato et al. that “reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions.” He quoted Benjamin Franklin as saying that human beings use their reason to justify just about any emotion or conviction. In his experience, he claimed that his research supports this perspective.
  • He identified six topics that can be found in all human morality across cultures and history:
  1. Compassion vs. harm. In human beings, unlike most other animals, both males and females are geared toward nurturing and many moral concerns take care feelings of compassion as their foundation.
  2. Fairness and justice. Haidt emphasized that this is not simply a matter of equality but proportionality. It is the combining of fairness and compassion, prevalent in on the Left, that tends to foster an emphasis on equality. On the Right, fairness is taken more strictly as proportionality and tempered by other factors as well as compassion.
  3. Liberty vs. oppression. On the Left, this looks like Occupy Wall Street. On the Right, this is a widespread concern for limited government.
  4. Loyalty vs, betrayal. Respect for the flag of the United States would be an expression of this.
  5. Authority vs. subversion. Respect for elders, teachers, religious figures, and so on fall into this category.
  6. Sanctity vs. degradation. Those who value sacred spaces and even topics (such as chastity, for example) exemplify this topic.

Interestingly, Haidt claims that while the Left highly values #1 first of all, then #2 and #3 secondarily, the Right seems to more consistently incorporate all six foundations. The Left tends to reject the importance of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, though he did later note some near exceptions. Topics such as same-sex marriage and environmentalism have a sort of sacred quality to the Left, according to Haidt, though he cautioned that even so this is not the same or as strong as how that foundation is built upon more broadly by the Right.

In summary, he noted that large scale cooperation is actually quite rare in nature, but we (and bees) are an exception. The way we do it (lacking a hive mind) tends to be as follows:

We circle around sacred objects and principles, creating “a moral electromagnet.” That is, when two groups of people with differing sacred objects and principles come into contact the result tends to be a Manichean polarization. All on the outside are regarded as heretics, traitors, and apostates. Morality both binds and blinds.

So, again, what happened in the United States? Why are we so polarized today. Unfortunately, Haidt ran out of time when he came to this part of the discussion, but he did manage to get the following points across:

  • After 1965, our political parties have undergone a process of realignment and purification. In Eisenhower’s time, for example, most Republicans were centrists. Since the 1980s, Republicans have moved “far Right,” especially in the House of Representatives.
  • Generational and cultural changes. The Greatest generation was united by WWII. Baby Boomers have done okay, but not as well. However, today things are very bad in this regard. One possible explanation he gave was that since under Newt Gingrich our representatives have not been required to live in Washington, DC. The result has been that they do not have to send their children to the same schools and otherwise interact with one another as neighbors and, indeed, as friends. He called this “the death of friendship in DC.”
  • Changes in Congress.
  • Changes in American media.

Unfortunately, that was where he had to stop. He had about four more items and barely touched on even the last two above (which is why I have no more notes). I would really have loved to hear how he could tie all these things together as a cause of polarization. I found myself wondering if these were simply more symptoms of polarization — their explanatory power was left unclear.

As for what we can do now, on an individual level he gave the following advice for upcoming Thanksgiving dinners: The worst conversation strategy when speaking with someone who holds a different political (or religious) view is the point-by-point rebuttal. A better approach is to find common ground — get the other person to say “yes” before suggesting any alternative perspective. Haidt himself did a good job of modeling what he was advocating: staying neutral while pointing to areas of common ground.

Lastly, he tried to address whether there is any hope for Washington, DC. First of all, he emphasized that DC is “in its own world.” Currently, they have no feedback mechanism for policy decisions other than what makes them money. The way we run elections favors extremists. Campaign finance reform will be difficult with the current Supreme Court. In short, the next 5-10 years do not look very good.

Rather than becoming despondent over that, however, he recommended that citizens take matters into their own hands. Depolarization begins at Thanksgiving dinner, not the voting booth.

For more on this and other subjects, check out Jonathan Haidt’s webpage here.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.