Point of View

Tribal Politics

Moral Issues are at the Heart of Elections

Magazine Issue
November/December 2012
Tribal 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.

RH: It’s no secret that most therapists are politically progressive and aware of the limitations of the right’s perspective.

What are the limitations of the left’s perspective?

Haidt: The basic principle of moral psychology is to begin by understanding someone’s concept of sacredness. Once you do, you’ll find an intense energy, as well as some blindness. If you know what a group holds sacred, you’ll see what most animates it, but you’ll also see places where it loses its perspective and can make mistakes in the name of politics.

An example would be the Obama administration’s position on forcing organizations to pay for contraception. Had there been organizations that were actively banning contraception, they would have been an understandable foe. Instead, the question became, “Should Catholic hospitals and schools, despite their moral position, be forced to pay for contraception?” When the Obama team went ahead and pushed that issue, it was totally unprepared for the outrage it triggered.

RH: Does it come down to the left and right just having fundamentally different ideas of how things should be?

Haidt: Well, both sides care about fairness, and both sides care about liberty–but on the right, their version of fairness is much more focused on catching cheaters and slackers. The idea of a person getting something for nothing really makes their blood boil. That’s why we had Republican Congressman Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” moment during Obama’s healthcare speech in 2009. It was over the question of whether illegal immigrants can get free healthcare–something that deeply offends the right’s sense of what’s morally correct. On the left, people approach that issue from the perspective of compassion: some vulnerable, hardworking illegal immigrant is here in America and gets hit by a car, what should happen to him? Are we going to let him die? It’s a fundamental difference of viewpoint, but rational debate leads nowhere because you can’t change people’s minds on moral and political issues with arguments and evidence.

RH: Why not?

Haidt: Political views aren’t like views about factual matters. If you believe that it’s faster to drive to the airport than take mass transit, and I give you evidence that mass transit is faster, there’s a good chance that I’ll change your mind, because your goal is actually to get to the airport more quickly. With political and moral questions, our goal isn’t “the truth.” That’s why it’s always vital to bear in mind the importance of group membership when trying to understand political differences. Political beliefs act as badges of membership, badges that say who we are and give us a sense of meaning and purpose. They’re badges that we display to show our moral character. So simply refuting someone’s views about global warming or needle-exchange programs or abortion or anything else will have little effect, because people aren’t going to betray their team because you show them evidence that they’re wrong.

RH: So why do we invest so much energy in debating politics?

Haidt: The goal is to be a good team member. We argue not so much to persuade as to show off our team membership. Blog debates on the Internet are really instructive about this phenomenon because it’s so clear there’s no chance of persuasion. People just get more and more extreme in stating their case and showing off how cleverly they can state their arguments. They’re really not interested in what the other side is saying.

RH: If we’re so fundamentally different, how do we peacefully coexist without getting more and more polarized?

Haidt: We first need to realize we actually do peacefully coexist. Things are very heated and getting worse by the decade, and yet political violence is extremely low in the United States, so we should thank heavens for that. As a social psychologist, I generally believe that the situation is extremely powerful, and that the context tends to swamp individual personality traits. So the most important single variable in your politics is the part of the country where you grew up. If you were born in rural Utah versus Boston, that’s probably more important than your score on the personality trait of openness to experience. Nevertheless, the big surprise revealed in research over the last 15 years has been that environment isn’t everything. There’s a growing consensus that temperament matters, and that political leaning isn’t somehow different from all the other personality traits.

RH: What’s the contribution of temperament?

Haidt: Our tendency to be on the left or the right is as heritable as anything else–around 0.5, depending on the measure. For example, our genes predispose us to seek change, diversity, and variety, or order, stability, and predictability. People with different brains will find different kinds of arguments and different social settings attractive. To understand political attitudes fully, you have to understand a range of factors, including genetics, neuroscience, childhood development, adolescent development, and cultural psychology.

RH: What do therapists need to know to understand the kinds of conflicts that revolve around political divisions?

Haidt: I’m not sure it’s especially helpful for therapists to empathize with people’s political beliefs per se, but I think they should be sensitive to the moral differences that are underlying cases in which ideology is dividing someone from a loved one on the other side of the political spectrum. I think we need to be respectful of both sides and recognize that both are really wise about the different kinds of threats that exist in the world. What the study of moral psychology can do is help everyone understand the other side and treat them with more understanding, even honor. The alternative is the kind of demonization that happens when our partisan reactivity activates the endless cycle of argument and rebuttal that we see too often these days.


Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at ryanhowes.net.