Saturday, September 13, 2008

Liberal versus Conservative

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has an interesting new answer to a rather tired old question. Why, a generation of academic researchers have wondered, do so many relatively low-income Americans, especially in rural areas, keep voting for Republicans, even though their class interests requires them to vote for our boys? Why don't they recognize that we are the ones who can look after them? What's the matter with Kansas, anyway?

Standard answers to this question in the literature are that these voters are in love with hierarchy, rigid, fearful of change, worshipful of authority, or just plain stupid.

I've long wished I could point out to these researchers that another answer to this question is right under their noses: maybe these people don't vote for you and your boys because they don't like smug, patronizing, narrow-minded, stuck-on-themselves jerks like you. This is an amateur opinion, though, based on no empirical research, so no one has any reason to take it seriously.

Haidt and his fellow researchers have come up with an answer that is the first cousin of mine: This phenomenon is about differences in values and in moral character. They have come up with evidence that conservative voters and liberal voters tend to view life through ethical categories that are profoundly different.

Briefly, liberals tend to think of people as individuals bound together my consensual relationships. Morality is a entirely about how one treats others, and is governed by norms like justice and reciprocity. Conservatives think this way as well, but they also think of morality, Haidt says, as something the binds people together into groups. Conservative moral responses are often governed by norms like authority and loyalty, as well as sanctity, purity, and the sacred. Liberals are Millian, conservatives are Durkheimian. Liberals are individualists, conservatives to some extent are tribalists.

Liberals and conservatives, according to Haidt, fail to understand each other because they are speaking different moral languages. Conservatives tend to use more of the full spectrum of moral responses that are available to human beings, and liberal discourse accordingly often has a thin and tinny sound to them.

I find this fascinating, but I am a little worried that Haidt has not interpreted his findings rightly. He argues that liberals might be able to get more conservative votes if they use more of the full spectrum of moral concepts -- apparently including, if I understand him rightly, seeing the criminal justice system as having a "quasi-religious importance" and seeing the state as "guarding the precious coherence of the whole" of society. I don't think that this would be to speak to conservatives in their own language at all.

Let me put it this way. Suppose that he had asked his informants to rate from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree" a statement like Public officials have our best interests at heart, or maybe People who run governments are more likely to have good intentions and be well informed than people who head other sorts of organizations, such as families or business corporations. This is only a guess, of course, but I bet that liberals would agree with such statements more than conservatives. If that is so, I would take this to mean that liberals are the ones who are most likely to think of heads of state as a morally privileged priesthood.

It is true enough that conservatives sometimes seem to base policy initiatives on religious considerations. It is partly for religious reasons that they want the state to pursue, capture, and punish doctors who perform abortions (and perhaps the women who have them performed as well). Religious considerations might also be part of the reason why they are so interested in having the state torture and kill jihadists. But they don't think that these policies would bring more virtue into the world, nor that they would in any other way make the world a positively better place. These policies are purely negative moves against (as they see it) injustice and evil.

Of course the values they associate with the family are important to them, but that is why they have families. They want to get in touch with the sacred, but that is why they go to church. They don't go to the state for such things.

On the other hand, liberals do seem to see the state as closely associated with virtue and moral purity, and as a source of not merely happiness but to some extent of the very meaning of life itself. Conservatives often allow the state to overlap with the church, while liberals want the state to be a sort of church. I am just guessing here because, as may be obvious, I am neither a liberal nor a conservative myself. But this, from this outsider's view, seems to be part of the difference between them.

Photo by author: Ruined Bingo Grain Co. Silo, Oakaton SD.


Anonymous said...

"Senator Ranse Stoddard returns to the city of Shinbone in the Wild West, to go to the funeral of his friend, Tom Doniphon. To a journalist, who's wondering what the senator is doing in Shinbone, he tells how his career started as "the man who shot Liberty Valance". As a lawyer he came to Shinbone to bring law and order to the west by means of law books. When the stagecoach is held up by outlaws, he is savagely beaten by Liberty Valance. He survives the attack and is nursed by his future wife, Hallie. Hallie is being wooed by a local rancher, Tom Doniphon. Ranse teaches the people of Shinbone to read and write, all the while trying to find a way of bringing Valance to justice. He finally takes up a gun and faces Valance in a menacing shootout"...Internet Movie Data Base

The people of the small towns are just lke the residents of Shinbone and Obama is the fancy educated lawyer from the east trying to teach them their rights. Ironically Obama did the same thing when he worked in the Chicago South Side as a community organizer. They take for granted that they have to live under the rule of outlaws and powerful groups like the Cattlemen's Association.

Lester Hunt said...

Ah, so they're stupid, and ungrateful too.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say stupid and ungrateful but afraid or they wait for the corporate farm to put them out of business, or Walmart to replace the small town stores or the corporation to close the local plant. Ranse Stoddard actually did shoot Liberty Valance because he had the courage to stand up to him. Alot of the "small town common sense" is just rationalized fear. As Obama said they'd rather own a gun or read a fundamentalist interpretation of the bible.

"In those days they will be buying and selling wives." Of course the wife was property and considered the basis for the family. Today the house is the same thing.

Lester Hunt said...

This, of course, is just the sort of thing that inspired my maybe-they-just-don't-like-being-patronized theory.

Anonymous said...

I agree Lester, they are alot smarter then the eastern establishment or democat liberals think they are. I think they know the gov't has alot to do with the global corporatization but the liberals want to perform too much social engineering and imposing of their values etc.; so they prefer the Republicans.

Michael Drake said...

"Conservatives often allow the state to overlap with the church, while liberals want the state to be a sort of church."

Percentage of party members who attend church:
Republican: 79%
Democrat: 71%

Whether or not accommodation to in-group loyalty or purity concerns "widens" ones moral perspective depends on whether one views those norms as moral, doesn't it?

Lester Hunt said...

Michael, As widening or narrowing our spectrum of moral responses: Don't get me wrong, on this particular issue I'm pretty definitely in the liberal camp. Mill says in On Liberty, the liberty-based arguments for cutting back the sphere of law and state also imply that morality itself should be cut back, and I have a lot of sympathy for that view.

Anonymous said...

Just consider the way people are talking about their presidential candidates. On one side (often sincerely, from my experience) many see their candidate as a messiah who will usher in a utopia. On the other, plenty are willing to admit that their guy is less of a drastic step in the wrong direction.

All questions about who is right (or less wrong) aside, one side seems to (very naively) have much higher hopes and expectations for what their guy will achieve.

Michael Drake said...

Right Lester, I'd sort of figured as much from your post on the topic of purity from some time back. It just seems to me worthwhile clarifying that Haidt is using normatively loaded terminology in a putatively descriptive mode.

BTW, as a musician, I can't help but note that Haidt's analogy to an equalizer* is similarly loaded, for he assumes that the most pleasing sound is that which uses each band more or less equally. But the bands on a stereo eq can be set flat with acceptable results only because the recording being input has already been carefully mastered to achieve a desired shape -- and that shape is not flat. (Besides which, nothing uses the full audio spectrum more "equally" than white noise!)

* "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."

Michael Drake said...

"one side seems to (very naively) have much higher hopes and expectations for what their guy will achieve"

Right - no naive hopes or expectations placed by conservatives on their "guy" this election, no siree.

Lester Hunt said...


As they say, "Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love." Thus the now-familiar phenomenon of the multiple Obasm.

Slanted Answer said...

Hi Lester,

Value differences may be at the root of this issue. I wonder, however, if the types of broad value considerations being examined here are what is at work.

I wonder if it's not something like the following. I grew up in rural Kansas where many poor people voted for Republican candidates, even though these candidates favored policies that economically disadvantaged the poor. The reason they voted for these candidates seemed to be because they agreed with them on social issues.

Many people where I grew up were vehemently against abortion and vehemently in favor of more religion in the public sphere: stances that would align more with Republican candidates than Democratic ones. Rarely did economic policy specifically come up. This is understandable I take it. Social issues are (at least superficially) easier to have an opinion about than economic issues, which can be (at least superficially) more difficult to understand. That's not to say that Western Kansans are stupid--no more stupid than anyone else--it's just that people tend to focus on social issues more than economic ones.

It's been awhile since I've read What's The Matter With Kansas, but I thought that was part of Frank's explanation which struck me as right.

Lester Hunt said...

Matt, That is no doubt part of it. But if this is the whole story, that would mean that these conservative voters don't have a libertarian bone in their bodies, which I doubt is true. There are two other possible factors that I didn't mention in my post and are generally ignored in these discussions. One is that poor farmers are after all business people and as such might understand economics better than the sociologists and psychologists who come up with these theories. They might accept familiar arguments to the effect that policies that are meant to favor the poor -- rent control and minimum wage being notorious examples -- fail to help and often hurt the very people they are supposed to help. In addition, they may be wary of taking government money on ethical grounds. (I can think of a Haidt-type reason for that: They might think if you need help it is better to rely on family, friends, or church -- on your "tribe" -- than on distant strangers who don't really care about you. Also, they might believe in self-reliance and paying your own way.)

Michael Drake said...

Setting aside the economic acumen of "poor farmers" (such as it is), farmers in general make up about 1-2% of the population. Arguably, then, their importance and representativeness are if anything frequently exaggerated.

Also, the notion that conservatives (whether due to ethical principles or to robust "self reliance") are particularly loathe to take money from strangers doesn't seem to hold water.

Anonymous said...

I think a good way to sum it up is: Life gets complicated enough without the Gov't and outside "experts" sticking their two cents in.

Lester Hunt said...

Michael, That map is very interesting indeed. The interesting question here is, why do the red states win the welfare-state game (getting more from the feds than they give them) if they don't vote with the more welfare-statist ideology? I think the answer is that ideology and voting behavior isn't what really governs in a modern welfare-state, other political dynamics being more important. What I am discussing here is not "why do things happen as they do" but "why do people have the ideologies and the voting-behavior that they do."

Michael Drake said...

Lester, I think you're right that there are a lot of causal currents at work in the "welfare state game," and that how much suckling-at-the-federal-teat occurs at the state level is only very weak evidence of individual mores regarding the charity of strangers.

But what other evidence do we have? It's certainly not my experience that poor Bluestaters are any more eager to rely on a handout than their Redstate brethren. That being so, I'm inclined to view speculation to the contrary as one of those pleasing stories partisans tell themselves to buttress "their unshakable conviction of their own virtue."

Lester Hunt said...

I thought that what we were trying to explain here is why these people seem to not vote for policies that favor the poor, even though they are (relatively) poor. You point out that the red states, which are the poorer ones, actually get more money than they spend. If the idea is that this is because they do vote for these policies then you are denying the existence of the explanandum. There is nothing to be explained. But at least for the moment I think there almost certainly is.

Michael Drake said...

Lester, that's a subtle point, but too quick, I think. If we assume arguendo that red voters R of state S routinely vote for politician P who promotes legislation that runs against the economic interests of R (explandum), there's no prima facie contradiction if R welcome federal largesse and reward P for procuring it.*

On the other hand, it does seem at least prima facie contradictory to say that R welcome federal largesse but disdain handouts.

* For instance, P might sponsor legislation L1 aimed, say, to secure the support of certain VIPs, even if L1 runs counter to the economic interests of R, as long P can persuade R that L1 is on the whole better policy; but there's no reason P wouldn't also sponsor legislation L2, aimed at plucking some extra silver from the federal coffers to be spent in the interests of R. XYZPDQED!

(BTW, I hope it's clear I'm not assuming Frank-style "bad faith" explanations for the behavior in question. Perhaps R comprises rational risk takers, or perhaps they put "country first.")

Lester Hunt said...

"If we assume arguendo that red voters R of state S routinely vote for politician P who promotes legislation that runs against the economic interests of R (explandum), there's no prima facie contradiction if R welcome federal largesse and reward P for procuring it."

I thought getting government largess (eg., "free" medical care) is what we were assuming for the sake of the argument is in R's economic interests. That of course would indeed make this contradictory.

"On the other hand, it does seem at least prima facie contradictory to say that R welcome federal largesse but disdain handouts."

What I was assuming was that they don't seek (as many) handouts. My position would then be that they get them without seeking them, which is not contradictory.

I suspect that what is really going on here is that, believe it or not, the welfare state actually does what it is supposed to do: the poorer regions get more from the Feds than they pay because that's what the system is designed to do. I bet African-American neighborhoods and Indian reservations are also net tax-consumers rather than net tax payers. (How much good it really does them is of course another matter.)

Michael Drake said...

"I thought getting government largess (eg., "free" medical care) is what we were assuming for the sake of the argument is in R's economic interests."

Healthcare benefits might be one form of largesse, but so would earmark monies, like farm subsidies. Exactly what the map shows, then, turns on what monies flow automatically to the red states due to the structural features you cite vs. what monies are lobbied for by red state politicians.

In any case, part of my point was that it was possible that red voters are motivated by economic self-interest, but only recognize economic benefits when presented in a certain way -- a sort of political Hesperus-Phosphorus distinction. (Of course it's also possible that red staters are correct on the policy argument, in which case blue staters are suffering from a converse conflation -- say, thinking that 'gold' designates both aurum and pyrite. Okay, maybe I'm pushing the Fregean analogies too hard...)

Lester Hunt said...

I was thinking one way that red-state voters might vote for largess without violating there (I assume) conservative principles is certain pork-barrel projects, especially military bases. Bases are I believe a major part of the reason Alaska comes out ahead as a net tax consumer.