When I was contemplating the political mind, I imagined that you could devise a test that had nothing to do with politics and economics, and on the basis of the answers have a fairly good idea what the politics of the test-taker were. Turns out, of course, that many others had already done extensive studies on the subject, and I just needed to find them.
I came across Jonathan Haidt and his ideas when he was referenced in an article by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times (I previously commented on the article 20 Oct 2011; you can find the article here.) His views on the five foundations of morality were for me an exciting introduction to the field.
In today’s New York Times (18 Mar 2012, in the Review Section), Professor Haidt writes that individuals don’t usually follow their self-interest when they choose political positions. “The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book, or god, and then treat that thing as sacred.” Follow the sacredness, he proposes, if you want to understand how people choose political positions; they vote what their group values.
Professor Haidt delineates the narratives that coalesce liberals, and conservatives. The liberal narrative is the “heroic liberation” narrative. Inequality and exploitation have been overcome, and African-Americans, women, and other victimized groups who have benefited from this liberation are the sacred objects at the center of this narrative.
For modern conservatives, Ronald Reagan had a large role in the making of the narrative: liberals and government subverted our traditional American values; the sacred objects for conservatives are the Bible, the flag, the military, and the founding fathers.
But most interestingly, Haidt notes a tension at the heart of the conservative narrative between a libertarianism which emphasizes liberty, often economic liberty; and the need to enforce traditional values and a moral order on the country. By making liberal activist government the enemy, Reagan united these two forces.
Professor Haidt’s injection of sacredness into the discussion of our political discourse adds yet another dimension to this attempt to comprehend the conservative, and the liberal, mind. If many of the beliefs we externalize are as much an acceptance of the values of our group as they are an internal conviction, it will be interesting to see if we can tease apart those beliefs which are core to liberals, and to conservatives, from those which are peripheral and have a potential to change. And if the goal is to improve the quality of the discourse between conservatives and liberals, perhaps we can move some beliefs into an area where they can be common, and give us all a more solid ground on which to work together.