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Have You Ever Wondered What Compels Your Conservative Relatives to Vote the Way They Do?

Jonathan Haidt on why seemingly decent people are so divided on politics.

By the time you’re reading this, the 2012 election will have been decided, and we’ll all have had our fill of the partisan rancor that’s become commonplace in politics. Perhaps you yourself have had the experience of getting lost in an argument in which you became exasperated that people on the other side couldn’t see what was so obvious, despite your best efforts to reason with them.

When caught in the stalemate of a political debate, the advice of Jonathan Haidt, author of  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and a social psychologist in the New York University Stern School of Business, is to save our breath–or at least recognize that what we think we’re arguing about isn’t really what we’re arguing about. Haidt believes that most political debates, at least the way they’re usually conducted, are useless because the underlying issues aren’t what they appear to be on the surface. Politics, he says, is ultimately about our stance on fundamental moral beliefs and group loyalties–things that aren’t usually influenced by facts, figures, or rational policy debate. In the interview that follows, he offers a perspective on why we vote the way that we do that differs from what you’re likely to read about in our mainstream election-season coverage.


RH: Your book is based on the idea that most of us don’t understand the true roots of political differences. What are we missing?

Haidt: People often assume that politics is primarily about self-interest. They wonder why someone would vote for a candidate who’s going to raise their taxes or cut their benefits. But politics, especially at the presidential level, is more like religion than a shopping excursion. Despite all the individualism and materialism within our culture, our group affiliations matter deeply to most of us. Politics begins to make more sense when you understand it as a tribal phenomenon.

RH: So, in politics, group membership trumps individual need?

Haidt: Yes. The more we care about our ethnic group, our city, our state, our occupational group, the likelier we are to vote for politicians who we believe will advance those interests, even when they diverge from our individual interests. For example, it’s striking how many liberal parents with children weren’t more opposed to forced school bussing in the 1970s. Politics is largely about moral missions for the nation, and the president is expected to be the high priest of the American civic religion. It can be illuminating to see the left and right in this country as practicing different civic religions, and looking to very different high priests.

RH: From a moral standpoint, what’s the difference in the outlook of the left and the right?

Haidt: To begin with, left and right have different understandings of fairness. The left tends to focus on equality, with an emphasis on equality of outcome. In contrast, the right cares exclusively about proportionality of outcome: if outcomes are equalized when deservingness isn’t the same, they consider that an abomination. This is why welfare is such a contentious issue. When social conservatives look at people who might have contributed to their own sorry state, they’re deeply offended by the thought of bailing them out, but on the left, compassion for those who are suffering is more widespread. There’s a basic difference in moral attitude about how each side thinks about “fairness.”

RH: But fairness is often raised by both sides in debating social-justice issues, like gay marriage.

Haidt: The left tends to focus on victim groups–on people whom they see as being treated badly and denied opportunity. We’ve had several civil-rights revolutions in this country since the ’60s, first for African Americans, then for women, and then the disabled. Gay people are pretty much the last group against whom it’s legal to discriminate. That’s become one of the central issues for the left in recent years.

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