The Psychology of Partisan Politics

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What is it

Are you a tax-raising, soy latte-drinking, Prius-driving, New York Times-reading, Daily Show-watching, corporation-hating liberal? Or a gun-toting, Bible-loving, Walmart-shopping, homophobic, climate-change-denying, immigrant-hating conservative? Why does it seem like all of American politics often boils down to these two absurd positions? Is it because of our particular political system, our culture, or deeper psychological impulses? John and Ken cross the aisle with Jonathan Haidt from NYU, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.

Listening Notes

Jonathan Haidt claims that morality is the operating system of our social life; it is what holds society together, and determines most of our interactions with others. His evolutionary theory of morality (borrowed from Darwin) claims that the ability to cooperate as a group – particularly as a group that could function without ties of kinship – was in fact an evolutionary advantage. However, this theory would also explain why there is so much partisan bickering: cooperation proceeds as a way of defeating the other group.

This basic trait of socialized animals can be experienced most easily in sports, with competition and cooperation being essential facets of almost any game. Haidt suggests that politics is much the same way. The difference? Today’s Congress plays dirty. Also, without a strong external threat (such as the Soviet Union), Americans have a more difficult time coming together under a single banner.

In analyzing the particular differences of liberals and conservatives, the guest must make reference to America’s history. He claims that, after World War II and with the 60’s generation, politics split up along specific psychological temperaments. Those who found moral value in the abatement of suffering, the rescue of victims, and the strengthening of empathy became liberals, while those who treasured religion, nation and family became conservatives. Neither side is inherently more moral; they simply have different interpretations of what constitutes, say, fairness.

Ultimately, Haidt does not have much hope for our current Congress. He thinks especially that “rational” discussion will go nowhere, as each side will merely reinforce their own sense of righteousness. Rather, Haidt thinks that an emotional communion must be reestablished; Congressmen must strengthen their personal ties, before any kind of rational discussion can proceed. In closing, he gives the example of Plato, pointing out that the very discussions which today serve as a model for “philosophical” or reasonable discourse, were simply a bunch of friends drinking wine together and sharing their opinions.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Skip to 5:41) - Caitlin Esch explores the raging politics of the blogosphere. Tune in to her report to hear bloggers on both sides of the aisle call each other names, point out each other’s flaws, and generally find each other impossible to understand.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (Skip to 49:09) - Politicians confuse us. We invaded Panama! Important questions clouded by media frenzy. Also happened in Bush v Gore – dangling chads? The “fiscal cliff” replaced by “sequester.” 

Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership, NYU Stern School of Business


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