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Tribal Politics: Moral Issues are at the Heart of Elections

By Ryan Howes

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."

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  • Comment Link Friday, 04 January 2013 10:12 posted by Barbara Rogers

    If you look at this map of the US states that still permit physical punishment in schools:
    it's clear where such fear, lack of compassion and the intense drive to punish others have their deepest roots. It's hard for me to understand how a book about political beliefs, written by a psychologist, ignores people's childhood and does not take into account what it means for the development of a human being to grow up in a culture where public humiliation in form of physical beatings of children is accepted. The US needs to ask itself the question: what kind of people are created when they were inhumanely punished and degraded in such cruel, violent and barbaric ways as children?
    All physical punishment of children is inhumane and wrong, no matter who perpetrates this crime.
    Corporal punishment in schools has been outlawed in Canada, Kenya, Korea, South Africa, New Zealand and nearly all of Europe. It remains legal in some parts of the world, including 19 states of the USA. All corporal punishment of children has been officially outlawed in 32 countries. (wikipedia)
    The USA has a long, long way to go.