Saturday, September 13, 2008

Jonathan Haidt 's "Why People Vote Republican": a must read for Democrats

Norman Rockwell's, 1950s America

There might not have been one single Republican voter in this picture, not even the owner of the café... But by now, the little boy saying grace might be a Republican. What has happened?

David Seaton's News Links
Thanks to Judith Warner's blog at the New York Times, I was able to discover this seminal essay by Professor Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, called "Why People Vote Republican", which should be required reading for all Democrats... In it is the secret of why they lose elections, and perhaps why they deserve to lose elections. This is what I have been driving at for months.

Here is a short but meaty excerpt from Professor Haidt's essay:

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.

A Durkheimian ethos can't be supported by the two moral foundations that hold up a Millian society (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity). My recent research shows that social conservatives do indeed rely upon those two foundations, but they also value virtues related to three additional psychological systems: ingroup/loyalty (involving mechanisms that evolved during the long human history of tribalism), authority/respect (involving ancient primate mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates), and purity/sanctity (a relatively new part of the moral mind, related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble). These three systems support moralities that bind people into intensely interdependent groups that work together to reach common goals. Such moralities make it easier for individuals to forget themselves and coalesce temporarily into hives, a process that is thrilling, as anyone who has ever "lost" him or herself in a choir, protest march, or religious ritual can attest.

In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. (You can test yourself at We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment. READ IT ALL
When I say that the Democrats have to reclaim as much as they can of the ground of William Jennings Bryant or lose all chance of creating a more just society in America, this is what I mean.

Don't underestimate how socially conservative most of the people who voted for FDR, Truman, JFK and Lyndon Johnson were.

People who were enthusiastic about WPA and the Tennessee Valley Authority might "speak in tongues" on Sunday.

Look up the term "solid south" in Wikipedia, to see how primitive many people who voted for FDR and JFK really were.

One of the most significant thing about Republican populist, Mike Huckabee, for example, is that he never plays the race card or "states rights" at all, or ever ties religion to race discrimination. He also got a Cato Institute "zero" for spending a lot of money on public education and infrastructure. In the 30s, 40s and 50s, Huckabee would have been a Democrat. DS


Anonymous said...

According to your link Williams Jenning Bryant was a supporter of popular democracy, a critic of banks and railroads, a leader of the silverite movement in the 1890s, a peace advocate, a prohibitionist, an opponent of Social Darwinism, and one of the most prominent leaders of Populism in late 19th- and early 20th century.

Except for the prohibitionist, does this in any way characterize conservatives today??.. whether they speak in tongues on Sundays or not... (In fact, what is not bewildering about the religious right is that they are only interested in two wrongs in the political realm: abortion and gays.)

I understand that religious organizations including the religious right were on the "front lines" in helping the people of New Orleans.... Did it cause them to question their support of the Republicans? How about the illegal war in Iraq? How about the planet earth? To me there is no moral high road with them.

We are giving them tax payer money because they apparently are more equipped to help the less fortunate in our society.. Really?? more so than a person who selects as their life work to be a social worker or the equivalent.

Every election cycle, democrats are told that they embrace something.. I don't know what about these groups. The separation of church and state and the concept of individual liberty and the equality of men were tremendous achievements. Read some European history the understand just how important they have been.

There are so many things wrong in this country and where is the outrage amongst those who vote republican... If any one is normless.. it is they.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

The question is why Bryant was a Democrat then and might be a Republican today?... Why was there no conflict between his being "creationist" and being a populist? We cannot know if Bryant would be anti-gay (probably) and anti-abortion (almost for sure), as these issues were not issues then and were not thrown into some multicultural package with social protection for the most vulnerable members of society, but we can be pretty sure that Williams Jennings Bryant would have been in favor of universal health care and would have voted against the war in Iraq.

The question is how did the Democrats get so fouled up, that that hard core evangelical social democrat type like Bryant doesn't fit them any more?

Anonymous said...

Who said that they don't fit. There are creationists and "right to lifers" in the democratic party. Obama was himself reaching out to the religious right and is from a church that is anything but mainstream. The democratic party is a diverse party with all kinds of views. I don't particularly like the dems after this primary but to paint them as anything but diverse is wrong.

I think that Jonathan Haidt's analysis is the usual nonsense that is resorted to during election cycles. I am left wing and I think of groups beyond the individual as being important in a moral sense.. We all belong to groups that advance our beliefs.. whether you can them moral values or just plain values.. supporting alternative media, environmental organizations, amnesty international, etc. We might not speak in tongues in these organizations but if they have to be called religious to matter as values groups, then we are in sad shape.

I have come to the conclusion that the US is a very unwell country that is sinking into a mire that will ring in history in a way not unlike the emergence of Nazi. The the republican party is leading the cause and articles like Haidt's muddy the bloody waters.

Anansi said...

There is an interesting comment from Roger Schank at the end of the comments on the Haidt piece. (

All of the comments are interesting but his struck closest to home as I have just returned to my home on Vancouver Island after a week long visit with my family in Michigan. My relatives range from rural farmers to city-dwelling professionals. Mr. Schank's synopsis of converstions and beliefs were much as I heard myself from my conservative relations. The others were democrats of the practical rather than the "liberal" school. Location and occupation were not reliable guides to their political convictions. It had much more to do with temperment and outlook.

Brought to mind a quote from Francis Bacon-
"the human understanding, once it has adopted an opinion, collects any instances that conform to it, and though the contrary instances may be more numerous and more weighty, it either does not notice them or else rejects them, in order that this opinion will remain unshaken."

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

It's not really the problem that Americans are especially bad or stupid, they are not. The problem is that America is too powerful and projects itself too much. America is populated by people or the descendants of people that wanted to "get away" from the world. Americans have an "asteroid" mentality. Washington's Farewell Address outlined what America's relation to the world should be: it still make sense today.

RC said...

Haidt's explanation is full of holes.
Principally, let's remember that about the last two cycles, 2000 and 2004, at the presidential level, the 2000 race was a popularity contest, with the Supremes judging the winner, and the 2004 contest was a fearfest.
Presently, we have arrived at some kind of Wonderland set of events.
Democrats do quite well at the state level. I'll forego getting into more detail {no time, the economy is free falling at another channel} but I am sure that very shortly the Haidt story will deflate and sink.

Marshall said...

In the 30s, 40s and 50s, Huckabee would have been a Democrat.

And a total racist. (Believe me, I am from the South and old enough to remember the way it was, and it wasn't pretty. Of course, it's largely still there, just a little disguised. And Republican.)

Any analysis of American voting patterns that doesn't recognize the power of racism is not worth the electrons it is embedded in.

Anonymous said...

dwight d. eisenhower won some southern states before intergration was in full swing. he was a republican. the idea that republicans (and americans) are more racist is silly. when has their ever been a brown prime minister in europe EVER? you would think with all the muslims moving into europe that they would have some representation in the legislative branch. instead their only outlet is to burn cars.

what democrats like to try to forget is their complicity in jim crow before the sixties. rutherford b. hayes won the presidency in a situation similar to 2000 when he lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote. so the democrats traded the presidency for an end to reconstruction in the south and abandoned the former slaves to another 100 years of oppression, supported by democrats of course.

the reason democrats lose is becuase they are dominated by the far left, which is atheist. jut look at the comments about palin's beliefs. democrats are more interested in insulting her intelligence than attacking her experience or record. maybe the way for democrats to win is to keep their mouth's shut until Nov. 2, but we all know that'll never happen.

much as i respect george washington, he couldnt forsee the world we live in today.i admit we dont have that much experience dealing in world affairs, but so what? is anyone in the old world willing to stand up for human rights? it's kinda like trey parker said when he was talking about making the movie Team America, we're the one's with the guns and money so we're the ones who have to do it.

the fact that we're so bad at it is the real tragedy, cuz' no one else has the balls to do it.


forensic econ said...

I recommend George Lakoff's books on framing the issues. He said something pretty similar; said the "frame" is that the Democrats are the "mommy party" and the republicans are the "daddy party". In times of danger we need a strong daddy to protect the whole family, so republicans do well when the country is thought to be in danger.

Song of the South --

Cotton on the roadside, cotton in the ditch
We all picked the cotton but we never got rich
Daddy was a veteran, a southern democrat
They oughta get a rich man to vote like that

Well somebody told us Wall Street fell
But we were so poor that we couldn't tell
Cotton was short and the weeds were tall
But Mr. Roosevelt's a gonna save us all

Well momma got sick and daddy got down
The county got the farm and they moved to town
Pappa got a job with the TVA
He bought a washing machine and then a Chevrolet

Sing it...

Song, song of the south
Sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth
Gone, gone with the wind
There ain't nobody looking back again

Stephanie said...

"Democrats do quite well at the state level. I'll forego getting into more detail {no time, the economy is free falling at another channel} but I am sure that very shortly the Haidt story will deflate and sink."

Winning at the state level tends to be more a matter of retail politics. Winning at the Presidential level involves other issues, some tangible, some less so.

It may very well be the case that total economic meltdown is what saves Obama (although that doesn’t say much for him or the Democratic Party, if that’s what it takes), but what Haidt is writing about isn’t going to go away.

That Roger Schank comment at the end of Haidt's article is indeed worth looking at, although I don't mean that as a compliment.

sue said...

I was anxious to listen to Jonathan Haidt on TV just now discussing this topic, thinking that for someone to write this book you'd have to be non-partisan. But 5 minutes into it, I thought, oh shoot - he's definately slanting to the right and just then, he was asked that question on TV and he said he was Republican. I was really disappointed. I'd love to read a book on this subject by someone who isn't partial to one side or the other, as we could really learn from someone like that. If you slant to one side or the other it just becomes more political propaganda....and we have enough of that.

sue said...

I was anxious to listen to Jonathan Haidt on TV just now discussing this topic, thinking that for someone to write this book you'd have to be non-partisan. But 5 minutes into it, I thought, oh shoot - he's definately slanting to the right and just then, he was asked that question on TV and he said he was Republican. I was really disappointed. I'd love to read a book on this subject by someone who isn't partial to one side or the other, as we could really learn from someone like that. If you slant to one side or the other it just becomes more political propaganda....and we have enough of that.