Saturday, September 20, 2008

What Makes People Vote Republican?

...the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label "elitist." But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?

Amazingly, after eight years of one of the worst presidencies in a long, long time, the lowest approval rates of a Republican president since Nixon, American Democrats still face potential defeat in the '08 election. Their chances at winning, subtleties brushed aside for simplicity's sake, are roughly only 50/50. If they really were to lose then that would be a case of 'snatching defeat from the jaws of victory', if I've ever seen one.

JONATHAN HAIDT is Associate Professor in the Social Psychology area of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia and has researched the burning question: "why don't Democrats get 'it'?"

Well, I'm not usually a great fan of 'psychological research' (which is rarely up to par with its harder counterparts in the natural sciences) but Haidth's essay impressed me mucho.

For one, I recognise in Haidt's conclusions the sort of brick walls I often experience when trying to discuss political or social issues with so may of my respectable conservative (here not necessarily intended in the political sense of the word) friends and acquaintances.

The essay in question is long and detailed (even though it only represents a summary conclusion of Haidt's work - see at the bottom of this post how you can personally contribute to his research) and I will only reprint a few highlights of this highly interesting text. The full version can be found here.


What makes people vote Republican? Why in particular do working class and rural Americans usually vote for pro-business Republicans when their economic interests would seem better served by Democratic policies? We psychologists have been examining the origins of ideology ever since Hitler sent us Germany's best psychologists, and we long ago reported that strict parenting and a variety of personal insecurities work together to turn people against liberalism, diversity, and progress. But now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.


I began to study morality and culture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987. A then-prevalent definition of the moral domain, from the Berkeley psychologist Elliot Turiel, said that morality refers to "prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other." But if morality is about how we treat each other, then why did so many ancient texts devote so much space to rules about menstruation, who can eat what, and who can have sex with whom? There is no rational or health-related way to explain these laws. (Why are grasshoppers kosher but most locusts are not?) The emotion of disgust seemed to me like a more promising explanatory principle. The book of Leviticus makes a lot more sense when you think of ancient lawgivers first sorting everything into two categories: "disgusts me" (gay male sex, menstruation, pigs, swarming insects) and "disgusts me less" (gay female sex, urination, cows, grasshoppers ).

For my dissertation research, I made up stories about people who did things that were disgusting or disrespectful yet perfectly harmless. For example, what do you think about a woman who can't find any rags in her house so she cuts up an old American flag and uses the pieces to clean her toilet, in private? Or how about a family whose dog is killed by a car, so they dismember the body and cook it for dinner? I read these stories to 180 young adults and 180 eleven-year-old children, half from higher social classes and half from lower, in the USA and in Brazil. I found that most of the people I interviewed said that the actions in these stories were morally wrong, even when nobody was harmed. Only one group—college students at Penn—consistently exemplified Turiel's definition of morality and overrode their own feelings of disgust to say that harmless acts were not wrong. (A few even praised the efficiency of recycling the flag and the dog).

This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like "it's wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick" or "it's wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet." These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume's dictum that reason is "the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them." This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.


First, imagine society as a social contract invented for our mutual benefit. All individuals are equal, and all should be left as free as possible to move, develop talents, and form relationships as they please. The patron saint of a contractual society is John Stuart Mill, who wrote (in On Liberty) that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Mill's vision appeals to many liberals and libertarians; a Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other's rights and band together voluntarily (as in Obama's calls for "unity") to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good.

Psychologists have done extensive research on the moral mechanisms that are presupposed in a Millian society, and there are two that appear to be partly innate. First, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to suffering and harm, particularly violent harm, and so nearly all cultures have norms or laws to protect individuals and to encourage care for the most vulnerable. Second, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to issues of fairness and reciprocity, which often expand into notions of rights and justice. Philosophical efforts to justify liberal democracies and egalitarian social contracts invariably rely heavily on intuitions about fairness and reciprocity.

But now imagine society not as an agreement among individuals but as something that emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other's selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free-riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy. The patron saint of this more binding moral system is the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness), and wrote, in 1897, that "Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him." A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one's groups over concerns for outgroups.

Continue reading.

Test your morality:

Find out where you are on the moral spectrum by contributing to Jonathan Haidt's research. Take part in various quizzes regarding your morality.


At 6:38 AM, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

I heard on the radio, an expert who tracks independent voters. He said that they don't pay attention to an elecction until close to voting day. Ads on TV directed to them should be visual, since they don't listen anyway. He called those people simply stupid.

At 12:22 AM, Blogger Wally Banners said...

George Bush has hurt the United States of America more than Osama Bin Laden ever did. From his Failure to Avenge America from 9/11 to his incompetence in New Orleans. Now our Economy is back to the Great Depression Era. The GOP shoves some senile lifetime Senator in front of the Public and demands that we trust it. GOP can't win wars, GOP can't handle the Economy,GOP doesn't care about the People. GOP = American Al Qaeda.

At 4:32 PM, Blogger Shane said...

The two-party system in the US creates such an illusion of polarity that people get it in their heads that Republicans are like this and Democrats like that, when the truth is that not much seperates them ideologically. The elections will always come down to a flip of the coin in November:

At 11:40 AM, Blogger Gert said...



It's a deeply human trait that we accentuate and aggrandise the differences between various part of humankind (we do that on left v. right, male v. female and a whole plethora of other 'issues') rather than focus on and accept our similarities. In particular in the US, where all politics are decided right smack-bang in the centre, the cut-throat business of a Presidential election would have one believe, completely illusory, that this really is a tale of two very different tribes...

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

I think those of us who passionately believe in one or the other political ideology are absolutely confounded by the fact that we completely neutralize one another, and end up becoming mere specatators in the crowd cheering on the apathetic and indecisive to look our way while they make decisions based on last minute whim.


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