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.

May 25, 2012

Conservatives Display Ignorance

While some authors are writing about how conservative minds are hard-wired to believe the way that they do (a really scary thought!), Eric Alterman writes about their ignorance. He doesn’t claim that conservatives are stupid; they just refuse to believe facts and reality. Maybe call it a “war on knowledge.” His position matches the survey last year that Fox watchers, known to be largely conservative, are not only much less knowledgeable but also more misinformed that those who get their news from other media.

Most of the people I know (other than a few family members) agree that global warming is a serious problem caused by human activity; 97 percent of climate scientists with credentials have the same opinion. Yet every one—yes, every one—of the 21 Republican candidates who ran for Senate in the last election deny any global warming. They call it “fraudulent science” (Sharon Angle – NV) or “sunspot activity” (Ron Johnson – WI). Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), on the short list for Mitt Romney’s vice-president said, “The climate is always changing.” Some claim a global “conspiracy,” although they may be closer to the truth of a conspiracy to not believe in it because most of them received lots of oil money for their campaigns.

Conservatives starting building this monumental ignorance when the Reagan administration considered defunding government support for social science through the National Science Foundation. People who formed the Consortium of Social Science Associations saved it, but conservatives are currently trying to eliminate all government funds for political science research. Newt Gringrich did manage to destroy the Office of Technology Assessment that provided Congress from 1972 to 1995 with nonpartisan analyses of complex scientific and technical issues.

Recently the House tried to abolish the American Community Survey—a crucial government data collection that has existed in various manifestations since 1850. As Catherine Rampell of The New York Times Economix blog explains, it “tells Americans how poor we are, how rich we are, who is suffering, who is thriving, where people work, what kind of training people need to get jobs, what languages people speak, who uses food stamps, who has access to health care, and so on.” The government uses this source to annually appropriately allocate $400 billion in government funds.

Showing the swelling ignorance of Congressional legislators, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) said, “This is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.” He obviously has no idea that scientific surveys are “random surveys.” Nor does he understand that law enforcement relies on this data to predict such crimes as meth production and private industry uses the results of the American Community Survey. In addition, the money that legislators think would be saved is then spent on the census because the annual survey makes the ten-year survey much cheaper.

These issues are far more serious than the ignorance shown by past potential presidential candidates such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) who thinks that the shot supposedly beginning the American Revolution was fired in Concord, New Hampshire, not Massachusetts. According to Bachmann, the authors of the Constitution in the late 1700s “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States” despite the fact that these were the men who agreed, in that same Constitution, that slaves were equal to three-fifths of free men for the purposes of a voting population. She also declared that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s passage of the “Hoot-Smalley Tariff” caused the Great Depression despite the fact that Herbert Hoover passed the Tariff, and the Depression started three years before FDR was elected. And on and on, including Bachmann’s declaration that global warming is “all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.”

Congressional conservatives don’t understand how computers work, as shown by the questions that they ask when considering blocking rights to websites. They don’t even understand how “babies are made,” as shown by their explanation of why they want to pass a “personhood” amendment to the Constitution.

The conservatives’ ignorance just doesn’t stop. “Asking a conservative pundit for advice on race is like asking an ayatollah for advice on preparing the Christmas ham,” said Leonard Pitts. Lawrence Krauss said, “It is not too late for the public to turn their back on candidates that turn their back on empirical reality and scientific progress.” (I really hope so!) Conservatives’ total ignorance this spring about women’s policies has inundated the media. Their only solution is to keep women from making any decisions.

Conservatives want others to be ignorant too. Although they sometimes talk about the importance of education, as Romney has done recently, they don’t want youth to have any sex education. They want teenage girls to get pregnant  and then force them to have the child in the conservative world where the government refuses to help the uneducated pregnant teens and the young mothers.

As for college, Santorum finally backed down on his comment about what a snob Obama is to want all young people to have some sort of higher education. Romney, on the other hand, sticks to his suggestion that young people who can’t afford college should join the military. He also goes along with the rest of the conservatives to make the interest for federal student loans twice as much as the interest on mortgages is at this time.

The ultimate ignorance that will destroy this country is the conservatives’ denial of the reasons behind our poor economy and the answers to solving it. Lack of regulations and far lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations have led to extremely high income inequity between the top 1 percent and the rest of the people in the country. This in turn has led to increased polarization between political views with the far-right refusing to compromise. The nation is moving toward the far-right because the wealthy can now afford to buy the deniers and the ignorant who make the economic situation worse by eradicating the middle class through their attacks on unions.

According to economists, austerity is not the answer, but conservative legislators refuse to recognize this fact. They stick to their misguided belief that lowering the taxes and make massive cuts to the safety net–certainly not the defense, though–will save the country, the same way that global warming will go away if people just ignore it.

The ignorant conservatives who refuse to recognize expert knowledge have one goal: to undermine government programs and move more taxes into the hands of the wealthy.

“Wherever people sacralize something, there you will find ignorance, blindness to the truth, and resistance to evidence.”—Jonathan Haidt. That’s the movement we have in the United States.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.


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