Nel's New Day

July 17, 2013

Conservatives Follow Tribal Leaders

Rachel Maddow sometimes refers to the “crazy uncle,” the relative who hates liberals but doesn’t have any support for his beliefs. The same thing happens with commenters on blogs, for example the person who responds to statistics about the dangers of “stand your ground” laws who fails to substantiate claims that these laws are vital and the country needs stronger self-defense laws.

As an idealist, I believe that I only need to provide supporting facts in a discussion to persuade others to understand my position. Not so, wrote 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.  The argument is about something other than the subject being discussed. Politics has nothing to do with facts, figures, and rational policy debate and everything to do with a person’s basic moral beliefs and group loyalties.

One question I continually ask my partner is how people can oppose something that will help them. Obamacare, for example, which makes health care cheaper and better for almost everyone in the country. Or the conservatives on food stamps  or Social Security who vote for politicians who will take these programs away from them.

Haidt has become more conservative, and the book can be simplistic at times. Yet he has some interesting points to make. He said:

“We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses, and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided.”

According to Haidt, six fundamental ideas provide the foundation for individual moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. With these principles, other related themes contribute to the moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin, and degradation.

Haidt explains that politics is “a tribal phenomenon,” in which belonging to a group is more important that individual need. The greater a person’s investment in an ethnic group, city, occupational group, etc., the more the inclination to vote for politicians who are thought to advance those interests.

Political beliefs give a sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose. Because they display a person’s moral character, people won’t change their minds about climate change or abortion because doing so would betray the tribe. Political debate shows a “team membership,” according to Haidt. Because of the focus on membership in a group, conservatives care primarily about their own tribe and are more indifferent to the people they consider outsiders. Helping people in another community isn’t natural, according to conservatives.

To Haidt, morality is like food: if something tastes good, we keep with it. If not, we reject it. In the same way, people may accept God, authority, and karma because these appeal to the moral taste buds. Conservatives find feminism and welfare distasteful while the themes of faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order appeal to them. Those on the left, conversely, focus on care and fighting oppression.

Much of the difference between people on the right and on the left lies in their separate perceptions of fairness. While the left focuses on equality, the right cares about whether people deserve the outcome. Social conservatives are convinced that poor people didn’t do the necessary things to overcome their poverty and don’t deserve bailing out. The left, however, has far more compassion for people who are suffering.


The conservatives’ rage comes from their desire to “catch cheaters and slackers.” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted out “You lie!” during President Obama’s 2009 speech on healthcare when the president said his healthcare reforms would not be available for people who are in the country illegally. Wilson could not believe he was wrong about people getting something that Wilson thought they didn’t deserve.

People on the left appear to show more compassion for the vulnerable, whether or not they are in the country legally. Rational discussion does not make the people on the right more compassionate or the ones on the left less caring about those who need help. Haidt explained the difference in this way:

“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.’”

Although where the person grows up is important to political views, so is genetics, according to Haidt:

“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.”

Despite his position that people don’t reason, Haidt believes that a person’s mind can change after two minutes of reflection on a good debate. There is less and less chance of debate, however, because the country suffers from severe partisan segregation. In 1976, 27 percent of people in the nation lived in highly partisan counties. That percentage increased to 48 percent in 2008.

The segregation also comes from the lack of communication in Congress. Haidt believes that returning to the practice of federal lawmakers moving their families to Washington, where they would socialize and build a friendly basis, would greatly increase cooperation.

Rapid globalization has begun to destroy such traits of a dispersed world as tribalism and righteousness. Unfortunately, the inability of people to adapt to this change is leading to greatly increased promotion of violence. The moral tastes for sanctity or authority may indeed destroy all of us.

It does appear that people in the United States are more connected to each other than with the people they elect as lawmakers. Using a recent American Values Survey, Don Baer and Mark Penn concluded that outside of abortion and the Second Amendment, people in the United States have a great deal in common:

“According to the poll, large majorities of Americans now say that contraception, interracial marriage, sex education in schools, unmarried cohabitation, stem cell research, gambling, and divorce are morally acceptable. Even pre-marital sex and having children out of wedlock are morally acceptable to the majority of Americans under 65, and homosexuality is morally acceptable to the majority under 45. While marijuana is still about a draw (47 percent morally acceptable to 51 percent morally objectionable), for the most part what used to be ‘counterculture’ is now, simply, culture.”

Baer and Penn also found from the survey that most people distrust corporations and oppose the wealth inequality. “Over 80 percent of Americans say that if we want to regain our unity, we need to shrink the gap between rich and poor.” Only 40 percent of people think that the rich worked harder than others, and a majority thinks that people who are elected are just working for the wealthy.

“Americans aren’t feeling divided by a failure to agree on a set of common values; they feel divided by the failure of our civic and corporate leaders to represent those values themselves.”

Yet the tribal belief will keep people voting for conservatives even if they disagree with how these lawmakers represent them. Unfortunately for the conservative tribal leaders, young people are largely developing a different moral taste.

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