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We’re more partisan than ever. Now what?

Jeremy Adam Smith, Editor, Greater Good Magazine | November 7, 2012

This morning my colleague at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, Jason Marsh, talked with Righteous Mind author Jonathan Haidt about how psychological differences between liberals and conservatives fueled this election’s partisan divide — and what we can do to overcome it. Here is an excerpt; you may also wish to read the entire Q&A at Greater Good magazine.

Obama won. Romney lost. Now what?

Now, of course, begins the hard work of actually tackling the country’s many social and economic problems — a task made even harder by intense partisanship. How can liberals and conservatives respond to climate change and fix the economy when it doesn’t even seem like they can have a civil conversation?

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt

To get at an answer, we turned to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. For years, Haidt, the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at the New York University Stern School of Business, has studied the psychological bases of our moral and political views. He has been especially interested in why morality varies across cultures—and even within the same country. This interest has led him to consider whether ideological differences between liberals and conservatives in the United States reflect deeper psychological differences between them.

Through studies with tens of thousands of people, Haidt and his colleagues have identified six distinct “moral foundations” that underlie the moral and political judgments people make around the world. And, sure enough, Haidt and his colleagues have concluded that liberals and conservatives build their political views off of these foundations in different ways.

Liberals, studies show, place greater value on the moral foundations of care for others and fairness; conservatives, on the other hand, care more than liberals about the moral foundations of group loyalty, respect for authority, and “sanctity,” meaning an aversion to unpure or disgusting things. (Both groups rely on the foundation of liberty, though in different ways.)

So does this simply mean that liberals are from Mars and conservatives are from Venus, doomed to conflict and misunderstanding? Not necessarily. Along with highlighting our differences, Haidt’s work has also suggested how liberals and conservatives can bridge these differences and learn from each other—ideas he explores in his recent book, The Righteous Mind (and which he also shares in a New York Times op-ed published today).

I spoke with Haidt this morning to get his morning-after-Election-Day analysis of how the country can move forward in the wake of an intensely partisan election year.

Greater Good: You’ve written extensively about liberals’ and conservatives’ shortcomings in understanding the moral psychology of the other. In light of what you saw this past election year, do you believe liberals and conservatives are getting better or worse at understanding and talking to each other?

Jonathan Haidt: I’d say worse. The survey data on what people think about the other side shows a consistent downward trend. Liberals have always thought negatively about conservatives and vice versa. It wasn’t so bad up to the 1990s, but then it started going down, and it’s actually gotten much worse in the Bush and Obama years. There’s no sign of improvement, and there are plenty of signs that things are getting worse.

GG: Why do you think that is?

JH: It all begins with the purification of the parties. The two political parties were not liberal versus conservative until after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and that started a long process of purification, when the Republican party became all conservative and the Democratic party became all liberals. Once the two parties became pure, then it became much easier to hate the other side because they really were different.

Now, for the first time, the two parties are really different sorts of people with different personalities and different values—it’s not just collections of interest groups, it’s really much more of a clear moral split than it ever was before.

GG: You’ve said before that you think liberals are worse at understanding the moral psychology of conservatives than the other way around. Is there any evidence from this election year that has made you reconsider or feel more certain about that assessment?

JH: No, no sign that it was wrong. The reason why I say that is not that liberals are more narrow-minded. They’re not. They’re slightly better at perspective taking than conservatives in general. But in this case, because conservative morality rests on moral foundations of group loyalty, respect for authority, and sense of sancity — these are three moral foundations that many liberals reject, or just cannot simulate in their own minds.

Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, and I ran a study testing this, and we didn’t know how it was going to come out. But it really came out clearly that people on the far left were the worst—they could not pretend to be the other side. Moderates and conservatives were the best at pretending to be the other side.

Now what’s happened is that the culture war used to be about loyalty, authority, and sancity, up until the Tea Party. So this lack of understanding really put liberals at a big disadvantage. Now, the culture war has shifted to more economic issues — issues of fairness — and there the problem is not simply that liberals can’t understand what conservatives mean. Put it this way: Now the liberal difficulty of empathizing with conservatives is less of a problem on economic issues than it was on social issues.

GG: For conservatives waking up today to another Obama administration, what advice do you have about how they can communicate their ideals effectively to liberals — to make themselves understood, feel less culturally and politically marginalized, and try to create a less partisan political climate?

JH: Well, I think that the polarization in Washington, at least, has been very asymmetrical. The Democrats went through a period in the 70s and into the 80s where they spun out into left field in a moralistic spiral that made them more blind to reality. But they came back to earth in the 90s.

And now it’s the Republicans turn. The Republicans have spun out into a moralistic spiral that puts them at a disadvantage in understanding reality. And I think they’re going to have to stop that. They’re going to have to have some kind of reform movement. There are very few Republican moderates left, but until they’re given a voice, I think the Republicans are going to be marginalized, and will deserve their marginalization.

GG: When you refer to a moralistic spiral, what are you referring to specifically?

JH: So a basic principle of morality is that morality “binds and blinds,” and the more a group circles around its sacred value, the blinder it goes. So when the left was circling around civil rights and women’s rights, that made them unable to think about empirical findings—for instance, about sex differences.

The Republicans are now in that kind of crazy moralistic spiral. For example, they’ve got certain economic assumptions that are just false—like, if you give tax breaks to the rich, they will stimulate the economy. That simply is false. But they’re circling around it, and until they give that up, they will neither have their ideas heard nor deserve to have their ideas heard.

Read the rest of the Q&A at Greater Good magazine…

Comments to “We’re more partisan than ever. Now what?

  1. I don’t agree with your description of the differences between liberals and conservatives. I think your description of conservatives as having “group loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity” describes only one segment of conservatives, the religious right, who do not represent the majority of conservatives, but who have become “squeaky wheels” in the more recent past.

    The differences, in a nutshell, are this: liberals believe that government should be given the role of “caring” for its citizens and their ideas of “fairness” tend toward believing in equal prosperity and leadership roles; conservatives believe that individuals should largely be responsible for “caring” for themselves with the help of limited government and their ideas of fairness tend toward believing in equal opportunity to develop one’s own prosperity and leadership roles. Problems between parties arise when liberals try to expand government (creating higher taxes) or conservatives try to reduce government (restricting helpful government programs). As long as we stay toward the center and politicians act respectfully both sides are represented and can work together.

    So when did this extreme partisanship and hostility develop? It was when Nanci Pelosi became Speaker of the House. She is extremely partisan and contentious, stopping at nothing to achieve her political goals (think back room deals and vote buying). Being the “leader” she set the tone for working relations in Congress which persists to this day. If there had been good leadership of the House (be it liberal or conservative) things would be different now. Both sides would feel included,respected, and heard. Both sides would be able to work together.

    It takes much more than political ideology to be a good leader.

    • Leigh: While I agree that Nancy Pelosi is a partisan leader, she is neither the first nor the last Speaker to be a partisan. Newt Gingrich was as partisan a Speaker as there ever has been, in my opinion. Nancy Pelosi was an effective speaker, getting much of the Democrats’ agenda through the House and that is her job. Newt Gingrich and the Republicans wasted much of their time and effort on trying to impeach and convict Bill Clinton which, in my opinion, did not serve the public interests. So to point to Nancy Pelosi as the cause of partisan division in Washington is to ignore much of the past 30 years. At least she accomplished something worthwhile.

      • Stephen: I totally agree that Nancy Pelosi is neither the first nor the last Speaker to be partisan. In my opinion, both parties can be equally partisan, although people typically like to think their party is more saintly than the other.

        But this article is not about a 30 year span. It is about the intense state of partisanship now, within the broader context of ideological differences (Obama won. Romney lost. Now what?”)

        I feel this current state of hyper partisanship is a result of Nancy Pelosi taking advantage of House control to push Democratic agendas through the House without trying to work with Republicans or work out compromises. As a result, to keep her in check, Republicans became entrenched in blocking mode. And I’m not saying Republicans haven’t or wouldn’t do what Pelosi did. I’m not saying one side is good/right and the other is bad/wrong.

        As I said above, “Problems arise when Liberals try to expand government(creating higher taxes) or conservatives try to reduce government (restricting helpful government programs”. Ideally there should be balance and compromise.

  2. I respect Jonathan Haidt’s analysis on the differences between liberals and conservatives. I believe the escalation in division was mainly during the Bush era when Republican’s were willing to compromise their own beliefs in order to protect the Republican party name. In short, “group loyalty” over their own values has isolated many conservatives. I believe this maybe a reason why more and more people who were once conservative are now identifying themselves as Independents.

    During the Bush era, the notion that if you disagree with the President suggesting you lack Patriotism was an attack on American common value of Liberty in much the same way as President Nixon. In Contrast, during President Obama’s adminstration, it was not the Democratic party which questioned Republican Patriotism. Instead, Republican congressional leaders question President Obama Patriotism. I believe it is one thing to value group loyalty, but there are certain boundaries where it threatens our Liberty.

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