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    Understanding Conservatives


    by Shariq
    18th March, 2009 at 5:55 pm    

    This Edge piece by Jonathan Haidt on ‘What Makes People Vote Republican’, is essential reading for anyone interested in winning political arguments. His main argument is that people vote for Conservatives not because of brainwashing or nefarious scare tactics, but because the ideas they put forward better represent their conception of morality.

    Haidt says that there are two universal aspects of morality which match up with liberal or libertarian ideals. Firstly, caring for the vulnerable and preventing violent harm (care/harm) and Secondly that, ‘people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to issues of fairness and reciprocity, which often expand into notions of rights and justice.’

    Unfortunately there also seem to be 3 other ‘psychological systems’ - Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect and Purity/Sanctity. Needless to say, these values don’t always fit in that well with liberalism. Haidt argues that as a result, messaging by liberal politicians doesn’t cross the whole spectrum of values and makes them sound less authentic than conservatives to swing voters.

    Interestingly, one of the things which made Haidt more responsive to the ‘other side’ of the culture war was living in India. He came to like the family that he lived with as people and as a result,

    rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I was able to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent. In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, and fulfilling one’s role-based duties, were more important. Looking at America from this vantage point, what I saw now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused.

    This is a fascinating article and I recommend that everyone read it.


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    17 Comments below   |  

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    1. pickles

      New blog post: Understanding Conservatives http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/3784


    2. Graeme Archer

      RT @pickledpolitics: New blog post: Understanding Conservatives http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/3784




    1. Ravi Naik — on 18th March, 2009 at 6:13 pm  

      Excellent post, Shariq. :)

    2. Don — on 18th March, 2009 at 6:58 pm  

      He liked his hosts and came to see their point of view? From what I can gather from the article the hosts he got to know were the dominant male group.

      I’m sure they were very nice. He was served by silent women and servants who were beneath the courtesy of a simple ‘thank you.’ It is not apparent in the article that he came to understand their, perspective.

      Haidt is no fool and his articles give food for thought whether one agrees or not. But on this point he seems to be accepting that the principal family value is that the dominant males get things to be exactly as they want them and everybody else had better fall into line.

      I’m sure that were I to travel back in time and spend a week as a guest of, say, Thomas Jefferson and his chums I would be charmed by their wit, intelligence and hospitality. Might have a problem with the slavery thing, though.

      Interesting article, but I’m unconvinced.

    3. Golam Murtaza — on 18th March, 2009 at 7:21 pm  

      Thanks for this Shariq.

      I see what Don’s getting at too though.

    4. Bishop Hill — on 18th March, 2009 at 7:53 pm  

      Don

      Presumably you’d have had a problem with Jefferson’s microscopic government thing too.

    5. cyburn — on 18th March, 2009 at 10:20 pm  

      to many what makes people vote Republican is watching FOX news

    6. Don — on 18th March, 2009 at 10:45 pm  

      Bishop,

      That went right over my head. No idea at all.

    7. Sunny — on 19th March, 2009 at 4:07 am  

      A few criticisms:

      But now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death.

      Too general unfortunately. Leftwingers, like rightwingers, have changed their arguments on issues in the past. Some lefties are pro-immigration for example, others anti because they prefer to preserve their local trade union rights. Some rightwingers are pro-immigration for business reasons, other anti for xenophobic reasons. Some leftwingers want to protect the environment, as do many rightwingers (for conservation reasons).

      What is true is that orthodoxies get established on both sides of the political spectrum. And besides, people also make the move from the left to the right and vice versa.

      Hence, this is too simplistic.

      In the psychological community, where almost all of us are politically liberal, our diagnosis of conservatism gives us the additional pleasure of shared righteous anger.

      True, but the left has done this too. We used righteous anger to fight for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, abortion rights etc etc.

      When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label “elitist.” But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?

      Again, a bit simplistic. Take the Labour party. Both the Democrats and Labour grew out of the labour movement, when the rightwingers were seen as elitist. In fact, the Tories still are (‘toff’).

      I think lefties have things they hang on to too, especially their emotional attachment to protecting marginalised groups, abortion rights, labour rights etc.

      —-

      I was able to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent.

      Well, yes, there is a way to justify everything. For example the caste system is also a good way to keep control in society and ensure people are happy with the kind of work they do, and to ensure that people know the best they can achieve.

      It’s the idealised Ramayana world: man is strong, and looks after the woman. She cooks, cleans and looks after him maternally. Unfortunately, if either party doesn’t fulfil their obligation properly (quite common, since people are fallible) then the men win out all the time.

      So my point is, you can justify it all. It still means there are gross inequalities. What about the women who want to do something big and different with their lives but have to stay at home as housewives?

      If Democrats want to understand what makes people vote Republican, they must first understand the full spectrum of American moral concerns.

      The problem with this thesis of course is that it fails to recognise that in the last 4 out of 5 elections - the Democrats actually won the popular vote.

    8. shariq — on 19th March, 2009 at 10:36 am  

      Don, I don’t think that Haidt was endorsing the Indian values he came across but trying to understand them better. For instance there has been some great discussions on here about the role of women in enforcing patriarchy and this may help to explain that.

      Sunny, I think the mistake you’re making is looking at left v right, solely in terms of political parties rather than people’s personal beliefs. The Democratic party used to be very conservative when they dominated the South.

      Also, I think the Trade Union movement is interesting because it seems like a classic example of people with high Ingroup/Loyalty which would also explain why a lot of them are anti-immigration.

    9. shariq — on 19th March, 2009 at 10:47 am  

      Btw, I completely agree with your point about women but then that’s perfectly understandable as its appealing to my Fairness/Reciprocity sensibilities.

      The trick is how to use different language and understanding to try and counter conservatives views on Authority/Respect and Purity/Sanctity.

      Finally, the popular vote thing is a red herring given how many votes Ross Perot won.

    10. Ravi Naik — on 19th March, 2009 at 10:50 am  

      Too general unfortunately. Leftwingers, like rightwingers, have changed their arguments on issues in the past. Some lefties are pro-immigration for example, others anti because they prefer to preserve their local trade union rights.

      Actually, I do think that Jonathan Haidt is spot-on.

      While on the surface things seem to have changed, I don’t think it has really - progressives have always been fond of individual rights, equality and relative truths, and conservatives of hierarchy, absolute truth and as consequence intolerance.

      What has changed is the definitions of Democrat, Republican, Left-wing, Right-wing and their respective policies. But the core framework hasn’t changed.

      The problem with this thesis of course is that it fails to recognise that in the last 4 out of 5 elections - the Democrats actually won the popular vote.

      But as you well know, the presidency is decided by the electoral college not popular vote, which makes the article relevant. Democrats have been traditionally weak in the South and have lost elections because they decided to forge certain regions - the ones with such “narrow, religious mindset”. Obama did talk about bridging this gap from the beginning, including embracing evangelists like Rick Warren, who is openly anti-gay. John Kerry and Al Gore decided to ignore those states.

      But on this point he seems to be accepting that the principal family value is that the dominant males get things to be exactly as they want them and everybody else had better fall into line.

      I don’t think he is accepting such view. His point, in my opinion, is that we often dismiss people all together on the basis of our values - or some of those values, and this amplifies the misunderstandings between both parts. Some issues are deeply polarising, like abortion, gay rights and the role of religion in society - it really does not mean we need to demonise the other part.

      Understanding does not mean accepting it. You and I despise slavery, but this does not mean we can’t appreciate the life of Thomas Jefferson or the political manoeuvres of Abraham Lincoln, and understand that they are men of their time.

    11. Jai — on 19th March, 2009 at 11:58 am  

      You and I despise slavery, but this does not mean we can’t appreciate the life of Thomas Jefferson or the political manoeuvres of Abraham Lincoln,

      2 excellent books I’d like to recommend to everyone:

      - Team of Rivals — The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Basically a biography of Lincoln coupled with an overview of the American Civil War and an analysis of Lincoln’s leadership style. Apparently one of Obama’s favourite books, and he’s made this recommended reading for his own White House staff.

      - America, Empire of Liberty — A New History, by David Reynolds. Includes Jefferson, the War of Independence etc, but the historical overview and analysis starts considerably before that and includes the Native Americans, the various advanced Central & South American civilisations, and so on. The book is obviously quite idealistic about the United States’ fundamental inspiring principles but it’s also simultaneously brutally honest about where the on-the-ground politics, policies and actions fell far short of these ideals. Very readable in its style too.

    12. Arif — on 19th March, 2009 at 7:15 pm  

      Thanks Shariq, I found that a really interesting article and it made sense to me - although I think I have a different set of prescriptions.

      I think it would be a useful experiment to think about how our arguments express the five different principles, particularly in a dialogue to understand one anothers’ points of view (1 to 1).

      One thing it made me reflect on is that I interpret Sunny’s negative preoccupation with enforcing a form of Britishness as an argument appealing to ingroup/loyalty - but justified by a discourse of care/harm, and my seemingly opposing preoccupation in protecting heterogeneous social identities is also based on an understanding of the importance of ingroup/loyalty - but justified by a discourse of fairness/justice.

      So confusion as we both think the other is trying to impose some kind of totalitarian dystopia, when something a bit more complex is going on.

      We will, of course, never agree.

    13. shariq — on 19th March, 2009 at 8:20 pm  

      Really interesting comment Arif. Like you, I see myself using these categories to try and explain a whole range of stuff, including my opinions. Right now I’m going to do his test and see what I come up as. Will also post a link to it for others to try out. Let you know how it goes.

    14. Refresh — on 19th March, 2009 at 10:59 pm  

      Shariq, I did read a little while back of a psychological study that found (in the US) that there was a tendancy of the less confident, more anxious personality being more prone to being conservative.

    15. The Queen of Fiddlesticks — on 20th March, 2009 at 4:41 pm  

      I can never understand when morals are bing questioned, “roles” are always separated by gender?
      Growing up in an Italian family I witnessed life in quite the same way as has been expressed in this writers experience. For women to be educated at all in a world where her only role is to cook, clean, pop out children and wait on men is absolutely pointless.
      Not only that, but I always thought these “morals” also did more to objectify women in a way to prove status than create family units …meaning how good of a woman you got was a reflection of what a good man you were.
      Honestly I can’t say I noticed much of a relationship at all going on, out side of the “roles” they played.
      The flip side to it is the same .. it really puts a lot of pressure on the men in very shallow ways …
      I wonder though how the changing roles of woman affect male egos and make them question their own traditional “roles”?
      As a woman I have personally experienced some very conflicting attitudes … from men I have both been expected to be equal in everything ..like changing my own flat tire, chopping fire wood, etc (basiclly left on my own in every way)…. to having a screw driver literally ripped from my hands. From other woman its the same battle …
      I can’t figure who thinks this stuff up …. since when do americans have no family values? I’ve been doing some research into the generational divide … ( X -vs- Y)it really shows a view completely opposite to what is (for some reason) popular opinion of life in mainstream america…
      I will agree on most of the observations made here about cultural relativism …. though what he says is neither new nor original.
      Step outside the box people …
      I still prefer greek philosophy. I hope one day we can be discussing Platos republic and how it could be applied or translated into modern society …
      and also start looking at the cultures we once labeled savage.
      Other “family” centered belief systems like in south america with a heavy catholic and socialist influence … obviously leads to crime, poverty, and the down fall of community.
      I’m tired of republicans/ democrats, marxist blah blah …can’t anyone come up with anything new?

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