Posted by: Donna
Will Saletan’s NYT critique of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is getting passed around quite a bit among my friends and acquaintances. We liberals find sociological and psychological explorations of those zany conservatives endlessly fascinating and I have no doubt Haidt’s book will be gangbusters with our crowd but there’s something about him that strikes me as, well, off.
This isn’t an accusation from the right. It’s a friendly warning from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who, until 2009, considered himself a partisan liberal. In “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature. Like other psychologists who have ventured into political coaching, such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen, Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational. If you want to persuade others, you have to appeal to their sentiments. But Haidt is looking for more than victory. He’s looking for wisdom. That’s what makes “The Righteous Mind” well worth reading. Politics isn’t just about manipulating people who disagree with you. It’s about learning from them.
Haidt told NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof that he became a centrist while writing the book. Erm, what? How does that work? He talked to a bunch of conservatives and, upon being impressed by the way the conservatives spoke about their values, moved away from his open-minded and compassionate liberal positions toward meaner and more authoritarian ones? I haven’t read his book yet but maybe he explains in it what positions he previously held that he changed as a result of working on it. And to evoke that famous aphorism of lefty blogosphere “what Digby said”, what Digby said:
I will have to read the book. I’m sure it’s full of interesting data that could be useful in understanding our ideological divide. But let’s just say I’m a little bit skeptical of an author who characterizes his work that way. After all, the country is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and we have a Democratic president who serves as a living symbol of liberal accomplishment. Are we to believe that the only voters who matter are those who don’t vote for them? They seem to connect quite well to certain parts of the electorate:
Barack Obama’s lead over [Mitt] Romney is attributable in large part to his wide advantage among women, younger voters, and nonwhites. Women favor Obama over Romney by 20 points – virtually unchanged from a month ago – while men are divided almost evenly (49% Obama, 46% Romney). This gender gap is particularly wide among voters under age 50. Women ages 18-49 favor Obama over Romney by nearly two-to-one (64% to 33%), while men the same age are split (50% Obama, 46% Romney).
But then those are the very people who tend to reject traditional values such as “loyalty”, respect for authority and sanctity since these values have tended to marginalize them.
Exactly. Haidt is basically aiding the Right in marginalizing other groups by putting conservatives and their values at the forefront of his argument. But Democrats don’t win elections and policy debates by tiptoeing around the tender feelings of butthurt reactionaries who will never vote for us anyway. There’s no reason to be tempted to do so since Democrats win when our voters, the ones who are already on board with some or most liberal ideas, turn out. And that’s a larger number of Americans than the conservatives whose innermost motivations Haidt insists liberals must worry about more. Republicans know that. It’s why they’re hard at work passing voter suppression laws all over the country. They can’t win without dampening Democratic turnout.
And I guess since conservatives are so tuckered out from worrying about sanctity and purity all the time that the burden for improving political discourse falls upon, guess who? From Saletan’s piece:
The hardest part, Haidt finds, is getting liberals to open their minds. Anecdotally, he reports that when he talks about authority, loyalty and sanctity, many people in the audience spurn these ideas as the seeds of racism, sexism and homophobia. And in a survey of 2,000 Americans, Haidt found that self-described liberals, especially those who called themselves “very liberal,” were worse at predicting the moral judgments of moderates and conservatives than moderates and conservatives were at predicting the moral judgments of liberals. Liberals don’t understand conservative values. And they can’t recognize this failing, because they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment.
Haidt isn’t just scolding liberals, however. He sees the left and right as yin and yang, each contributing insights to which the other should listen. In his view, for instance, liberals can teach conservatives to recognize and constrain predation by entrenched interests. Haidt believes in the power of reason, but the reasoning has to be interactive. It has to be other people’s reason engaging yours. We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s. Haidt compares us to neurons in a giant brain, capable of “producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.”
Well, it looks to me like he’s mostly scolding liberals. And the values of authority, loyalty, and sanctity are the foundations of bigotry and oppression. As for liberals supposedly not understanding conservative values, it’s cute that Haidt assumes right wingers answer survey questions about their motivations honestly and in good faith. I have to wonder where he’s been the last several years that he hasn’t noticed how much conservative activists and voters are coached to stick to scripts that disguise their true aims, especially when specifically asked to defend their positions. Has he considered that the “very liberals” might be ascribing motives to conservatives that more accurately describe their real, as opposed to stated, goals? I also have to wonder how Haidt could have missed the current ruckus over contraception, where many right wingers have demonstrated themselves to be utterly incapable of staying on script, when the argument is over something so fundamental to their worldview: punishing women for being sexual and wanting independence. What are we liberals supposed to be teaching right wingers when they alternate between lying and going flat out nuts? It’s like dealing with a domestic abuser. No, really, it IS dealing with a domestic abuser.
Haidt’s recent conversion to centrism leads him to put forth ideas intended to mitigate the much-vaunted (especially in elite circles) problem of “extremism on both sides”.
How can we achieve these goals? Haidt offers a Web site, civilpolitics.org, on which he and his colleagues have listed steps that might help. One is holding open primaries so that people outside each party’s base can vote to nominate moderate candidates. Another is instant runoffs, so that candidates will benefit from broadening their appeal. A third idea is to alter redistricting so that parties are less able to gerrymander partisan congressional districts. Haidt also wants members of Congress to go back to the old practice of moving their families to Washington, so that they socialize with one another and build a friendly basis on which to cooperate.
Instant runoffs and altering redistricting are good ideas and I guess it would be good for Democratic and Republican members of Congress and their families to socialize in DC (not sure how he proposes to extend that inter-party schmoozing thing to state legislatures, where much of the crazy rhetoric and legislation takes root). But from where I sit in Arizona the notion that voters here don’t have enough moderate candidates to choose from is absurd. They have plenty, particularly in Congressional and statewide races. They’re called the Democrats. And when Democratic voters show up, we win. So while it’s interesting and maybe useful to understand the thought processes of reactionaries, it’s not at all conducive to progress or good governance to give credibility to their horrid views.
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