Me At The Tea Party Table

I have a lot more in common with the Tea Partiers than I think.

This is according to Jonathan Haidt, a prominent professor of Pyschology at the University of Virginia, who has written such pieces such as “What Makes People Vote Republican” and “What Is Wrong With Those Tea Partiers ?”.

I first became acquainted with Haidt in 2008. It was the year of Obama and Palin, two figures with ideas as opposite of each other as can be. I couldn’t understand the enamor Palin seemed to have on the conservative voters. Was it because the progressive base was as excited as it had ever been by Obama’s campaign and the conservatives had no charmismatic figure to look to or was it something else ?  More specifically, why do whites from lower socio-economic rungs so overwhelmingly support Republicans, given how detrimental to their own well being the Republican policies typically are ? For example, a recent AP-GfK poll shows that 58% of whites without four-year college degrees prefer Republican candidates while only 36% prefer Democratic candidates. I sought answers in books like Thomas Frank’s “What’s The Matter With Kansas ?” and in George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant” and Haidt’s essay on the online magazine, Edge, titled “What Makes People Vote Republican”.

The Kansas View Of Things

Thomas Frank writes:
That our politics have been shifting rightward for more than thirty years is a generally acknowledged fact of American life. That this rightward movement has largely been accomplished by working-class voters whose lives have been materially worsened by the conservative policies they have supported is a less comfortable fact, one we have trouble talking about in a straightforward manner.

According to Thomas Frank, the Democratic Party has in recent times made itself out to be the “other pro-business party”, courting the rich campaign contributions from the corporations while thinking that the working class poor and minorities have nowhere else to go, that they, the Democrats, would always be marginally be more attractive to these sections.

Further, Frank writes that the liberals assume that the working class has enough common sense and logic to see how Republican policies will work against them and not vote Republican. Truth and logic wins. Therefore, they refuse to engage in any discourse on the subject. For example, Obama frequently saysI am the eternal optimist. I think that over time people respond to–to civility and rational argument.” Liberals also spend less and less time building a grass roots movement or maintaining one (he writes that labor unions are only 9% of the private work force today compared to 38% in the 50s) while the right wing has been building an effective grass roots movement with a well defined, succinct message that is consistently echoed by their intellectuals (interestingly, Obama’s win in 2008 was credited to a successful grass roots movement that he helped mobilize).

The Family Model Metaphor

George Lakoff approached the problem from a linguist and cognitive scientist’s perspective. He writes that his interest in the problem started in 1994, a year not unlike this one. That year, the conservatives regained control of the House and Senate with a strongly conservative agenda in the wake of the wreck of Bill Clinton’s health care reform. Lakoff writes:
I was watching election speeches and reading the Republicans’ “Contract with America.” The question I asked myself was this: What do the conservatives’ positions on issues have to do with each other? If you are a conservative, what does your position on abortion have to do with your position on taxation? What does that have to do with your position on the environment? Or foreign policy? How do these positions fit together? What does being against gun control have to do with being for tort reform? What makes sense of the linkage? I could not figure it out. I said to myself, These are strange people. Their collection of positions makes no sense. But then an embarrassing thought occurred to me. I have exactly the opposite position on every issue. What do my positions have to do with one another? And I could not figure that out either.

As a linguist, Lakoff found his answer in the language that the conservatives used, especially in their refrain: “family values”. He says that the family as a metaphor for nation is a common one (for example, we use terms such as Founding Fathers). And the reason for the difference in perspective between the liberals and conservatives comes from their differing ideas on what an ideal family should be like. Progressives prefer the nurturant parent family model while the conservatives prefer the strict father model. Lakoff writes of the assumptions underlying the strict father model:
The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good.

What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is a moral authority who knows right from wrong. It is further assumed that the only way to teach kids obedience—that is, right from wrong— is through punishment, painful punishment, when they do wrong.”

And the nurturant parent model, according to Lakoff, is one that emphasizes empathy and responsibility, that assumes that the world is a good place and can be made better by working at it.

Lakoff constructs several examples of making sense of the position of conservatives and liberals using these two models of families. For instance, he says that because conservatives believe in the unquestioning moral authority of the father, then the US (as the father) has no interest in asking anyone else in attacking Iraq. He says that this was Bush’s (and his aides) thinking when they said that they didn’t have to ask the UN for a “permission slip”.

Lakoff also credits the Powell memo, written by Lewis Powell in 1970, two months before he became a Supreme Court Justice, with creating bodies within universities that ensured that the students did not come out of universities with an anti-business mindset, that the conservative viewpoint be developed and encouraged.

Haidt’s Morality

Haidt starts his essay with:
What makes people vote Republican? Why in particular do working class and rural Americans usually vote for pro-business Republicans when their economic interests would seem better served by Democratic policies?

Haidt’s conclusion is that the differing ideologies of conservatism and liberalism comes from their differing views on morality.  His quest began with disgust. Consider these two examples. Do you consider it morally wrong to cut up your country’s flag for use as a toilet rag because you were out of toilet rags ? How about cooking and eating your family dog that had become road-kill ? Haidt asked questions like these and others to 180 adults and 180 eleven year old children, one half of each in lower and upper socio-economic strata, in USA and Brazil. Most people, he said, found the actions to be morally wrong (the one exception being college students, more support for the WEIRD diagnosis), even when the actions hurt no one. He puzzled over the reasons for this.

His research led him to India. He went to Bhubaneshwar, the capital city of the state of Orissa, a renowned Hindu temple town. As a Western liberal atheist, he was horrified by the stratified, religious and male dominated society that he saw there. The shock soon waned and he writes:
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.

From all this, Haidt concludes that morality is not just about how we treat each other (the maxim: “free to do what I want as long as it harms no one else”), but also about building a shared group identity and leading a noble life. He mentions the five foundations of morality: reciprocity/fairness, harm/care, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity. Haidt says that liberals are governed only by the first two foundations, while the conservatives pay attention to all of them. As he writes:
We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.

He says that this dependence on group loyalty and purity are what lead the conservatives to rail against multi-culturalism, diversity, Chomsky and gays.

And So The Link Between Me and The Tea Party

In a more recent essay, published in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, titled “What the Tea Partiers Really Want”, Haidt writes that what unites conservatives and libertarians alike is their belief in an American version of karma. They both think that the government has gone too far in protecting people from the consequences of their choices: be it from risky financial dealings (for libertarians, read bank bailouts) or from premarital sex and crime (for conservatives, read abortion, sex education, Miranda Rights).

But he notes that libertarians are closer to liberals compared to conservatives in their moral outlook. He writes that in a recent survey conducted on 3600 Americans where they stated their political preference and answered the question: “Everyone should be free to do as they choose, so long as they don’t infringe upon the equal freedom of others.”, he found that self-described libertarians most agreed with this statement, followed closely by liberals. He writes that self-described social conservatives were the most lukewarm in their agreement to the statement. Similarly, self-described conservatives were most enthusiastic about the statement: “Employees who work the hardest should be paid the most.” while the liberals and libertarians were similar and less enthusiastic, and in response to the question: “Whenever possible, a criminal should be made to suffer in the same way that his victim suffered.”, liberals strongly rejected this sentiment, libertarians mildly rejected it while conservatives were slightly in favor of it.

Building on his five foundations of a morality (fairness, care from harm, ingroup loyalty, respect for authority and purity/sanctity), he writes that libertarians and liberals are strikingly close as shown by the responses to questions that address loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (see figure) but diverge in the first two foundations.

Interestingly, the blog on Haidt’s research website,, concludes instead that tea partiers are more like social conservatives with a libertarian-like emphasis on the economy.

And To Conclude

While there is some truth to each of the stories, they are also simplistic in some cases and quite a stretch of imagination in others. Missing in this discussion, I think, is inclusion of other aspects of the environment we function in. For example, people have no time to calmly reflect on issues and in an urge to to blame somebody for their ills, focus on the incumbents, never mind doing some root cause analysis. The role of money is not discussed much, money that is being poured into the anti-Obama campaign is stunning (look at the money poured in by the libertarian Koch brothers or the conservative group led by a resurgent Karl Rove). Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision to allow corporations to anonymously finance ads directly in support or in opposition to political candidates, Wall Street and other businesses, angry with Obama’s policies, are pouring money into the election to influence voters away from the Democrats.

I think there is a lot of truth in Frank’s opinion that neither party addresses the real concerns of the working class any more. With that playing field levelled, voters focus on wedge social issues.

Michael Shermer, in his critique of Haidt’s essay on Edge, says that the framing of the question shows their bias. Why is Haidt’s essay titled “Why People Vote For Republicans” ? Why is something not wrong with the Democrats and who they chose to support ? Or if Democrats like PJ O’Rourke’s characterization of their lofty ideals: “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it”, then Republicans like the characterization: “Teenagers and Democrats are happier spending other people’s money”.

One telling point that Haidt makes is that the first rule of moral psychology is that moral judgements are quick gut reactions, not well thought, carefully considered positions. He, among others such as Tom Gilovich, say that we humans are adept at first taking a position and then seeking facts to support our position, rather than the other way around. Haidt writes: “So when passions run high, as they do among tea-partiers, their reasoning doesn’t get turned off. Rather, their reasoning is working overtime, and very elaborate belief structures (such as conspiracy theories) can be constructed out of the flimsiest materials (such as rumors about forged birth certificates). This is normal, and readers on the left should ask themselves how often they searched for counter-evidence that would have contradicted the worst things their friends said about George W. Bush.

But, I still can’t understand what’s wrong with those tea partiers!

Also See:

Image credit: WSJ.

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  1. The Independent Whig

    RE: “Michael Shermer, in his critique of Haidt’s essay on Edge, says that the framing of the question shows their bias. Why is Haidt’s essay titled “Why People Vote For Republicans” ? Why is something not wrong with the Democrats and who they chose to support ? ”

    The answer to these questions is that liberals don’t “get” conservatives, but conservatives do “get” liberals. It’s liberals who need to have their eyes opened. Also, Haidt is a liberal who would like to see them do better in Presidential elections. He suggests that if they are to do so then they need a better understanding of conservatives so that they can do a better job of appealing to them, thus the title “What Makes People Vote Republican?”

    See Haidt’s paper titled “Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality,” in which he says “We present data supporting [Moral Foundations] theory, which also shows that liberals misunderstand the explicit moral concerns of conservatives more than conservatives misunderstand liberals.”

    Also see his paper titled “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals May Not Recognize,” in which he says “Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns. When conservatives talk about virtues and policies based on the ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity foundations, liberals hear talk about theta waves.”

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