What Makes People Vote Republican

Jonathan Haidt writes a great article on why people choose political parties that align with their moral beiiefs. There is a lot here to digest and understand, and a lot of it aligns with how I’ve recently been thinking about society and governance systems.

I’ve got some strong feelings about some of the items he writes about, and they’ve been on my mind quite a bit. Things like the value of individuality and how individuals make up societies. The need for “productive” individuals, etc.

I’ve been thinking about how to write a post about a wide variety of social topics that I feel fit around this general topic. Every time I try it seems overwhelming because there’s so much more I need to understand before I will feel I have my head wrapped around all the issues involved.

So instead of trying to put together a magnum opus, I’ll just quote and respond to what I found interesting.

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. People vote Republican because Republicans offer “moral clarity”—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate.

I know there’s been more than one study of actual functioning difference in the brains of liberals and conservatives, but here’s one that I found that provides a decent synopsis. I’d love to see more of the research he’s summarizing here though.

…it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats.

I’d like to know what is leading Jonathan to this conclusion. Obviously a lot of things go into making political decisions, and moral dimensions are certainly one of them. Jonathan is making a case in the article that conservatives believe that moral order is in some ways foundational to social order, so I’m willing to let this slide. But there is a good point here. Conservatives have been offering a very attractive view of the world to their voters. They tell a story that reminds you of the most nostalgic parts of our lives, and they do it very well.

But I think it’s important to note, that at least amongst the liberal folk that I hang out with, liberals don’t generally offer much of a moral order. I almost never think of the world in terms of morality. I often consider treating people fairly, and about not hurting others, but I honestly don’t think about those things as morals, and I don’t know many liberals who would. I would also never judge someone as immoral or moral. I often think about social order, justice, governance, but never morality. It’s just not a lens I view the world through.

First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation.

If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

Turiel’s description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups

It’s important to note here that the “elite” (often a synonym for highly educated) are capable of overriding their unconscious desire to justify their disgust and instead use reason to temper their emotional reaction. Presumably they are capable of this because they have been trained to do so

I would contend that democrats have been all too aware of the issue, but have lacked both the science and discipline to deal with it constructively. They treated everyone like they would like to be treated, but the gap was just too large, and the dirty tricks played by the other side kept people too charged with emotion to engage those parts of their brains.

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.

I know that Jon isn’t advocating for these values, but I’m a little surprised by how strong my reaction to this paragraph is. And it’s not because I have a problem with the moral model presented. There is value in cohesive groups serving a higher purpose. The problem is, who gets to say what the purpose is? Who gets to make the decisions and who has to follow them without question? There is a reason that our country was founded on the idea that all men are created equal. This moral model is the model of servants, subjects, serfs, and slaves. There is a reason that “Elites” don’t subscribe to it.

I would also wonder how many of the participating members of this world he describes wouldn’t leave it immediately given a genuine opportunity.

Here’s my alternative definition: morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.

This is an interesting definition, and I think selfishness is an interesting choice of words. There’s a basic assumption at play here, and one that in some ways I agree with: Individualism decays social cohesion. Another way of saying this is: … that work together to suppress or regulate expression of individual difference in the interest of social order.

Makes it sound different huh?

In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally

This in part plays to another article that I’ve been thinking about writing. You’ll notice how many of the above dimensions are considered by US courts. Granted, as Jon says, our system is largely based on european enlightenment principles, but I think it’s instructive that we place the majority of our serious conflicts in the hands of those considering only those two dimensions.

Why is that important? Because the US is wildly diverse. Almost everyone from any culture can agree on the fairness and harm/care dimensions. But imagine being judged against the standard of some strange tribal grouping that the other three create and encourage. If you want diverse cultures, you can’t have those three.

Jon then goes on to talk about how liberals can appeal to people who value these three principles. I think the next step is to actually try these techniques out in a scientific test to see if those who vote conservative can actually be made to vote liberally.

The responses page is great. James Fowler’s piece is an important one to read. One of the core questions is why do people vote in the first place. He goes on to talk about both genetic and social influencers of voting, and it’s fascinating.

But I also encourage you to consider Sam Harris’ response as well, as it almost perfectly echos what I was going to originally write, but does a far better job. The title of the original article could have been accurately extended to be “What makes people vote republican… when it’s so demonstrably bad for their well being”.

As Sam says, we can most certainly test the outcomes of social policy, and by almost any measure dedicated to the well being of people in general (individual or collective), this conservative vision of morality is clearly inferior. There are many reasons for this, but partially it’s because great evil almost always comes out of believing that people aren’t equal. And as Jonathan has observed, that belief is at the core of the conservative morality he has described.

Ultimately this is a daunting topic, and as Scott Atran points out on the commentary page, we have probably evolved to create societies that include individuals who encourage sacrifice of self interest in the short run, and people who encourage individual interests in the long run. One very real answer may be that we have a wide variety of inclinations toward social structure because it’s helped us survive and thrive as a species.

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