The Gulf of MoralityBy THOMAS B. EDSALL
“There’s a gulf as wide as the ocean between the average politically active conservative and the average politically active liberal. We don’t just have political differences; we view the world through very different eyes.” So wrote John Hawkins, who runs Right Wing News, at the beginning of the year.
He’s right. The left thinks so too. George Lakoff of the linguistics department at the University of California at Berkeley argues that “conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don’t think government should help its citizens. That is, they don’t think citizens should help each other.”
Rush Limbaugh counters that “the left, the Democrats, can do anything — they can employ strategy and policy which is destructive — and be excused for it on the basis that they had good intentions. And, by the way, that’s how they skate on virtually every bit of destructive policy, which is every policy they have.”
I could go on, but you get the idea. Left and right look at each other with disdain and incredulity: what planet are these people from?
Perhaps the most illuminating examinationof these differences in values can be found in the work of Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, and a number of his colleagues, including Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California.
Using extensive data collected from online surveys, Haidt, Iyer and their colleagues have found that self-identified liberals and conservatives differ by very large statistical margins on questions of policy preference and political allegiance.
The liberal mind-set is defined by favorable responses to a variety of statements touching on economics, war and crime. Liberals agree that it feels wrong “when an employee who needs their job is fired”; “that it’s morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing”; and they describe themselves as often having “tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”
Those on the left also agree that “peace is extremely important.” They believe that they have “understanding, appreciation and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature” and they feel “close to people all over the world.” Liberals generally “believe that offenders should be provided with counseling to aid in their rehabilitation.”
On all of the above statements, conservatives — no surprise — disagree with liberals. They believe that employees who “contribute more to the success of the company” should “receive a larger share” of the pie and they value “social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.” The differences of opinion on war and peace are extreme, reflecting the importance of the hawk-dove split between the parties. Many on the right agree with few qualms that “war is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict” and that “there is nothing wrong in getting back at someone who has hurt you.”
Conservatives believe “that ‘an eye for an eye’ is the correct philosophy for punishing offenders,” and they endorse the view that “the ‘old-fashioned ways’ and ‘old-fashioned values’ still show the best way to live.” It feels wrong to them when “a person commits a crime and goes unpunished.” From the beginning, “respect for authority is something all children need to learn.”
This might all seem obvious, but actually seeing how the world looks to the most representative members of the left and the right helps us understand why the gulf between the sides is so deep. They talk right past each other. Analyzing the hurdles facing Democrats, Haidt attempts to explain to progressives why roughly half the population votes Republican in presidential contests.
People who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the ‘harm/care’ and ‘fairness/reciprocity’ foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ‘in-group/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. 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.
Conservatives and liberals speak different languages, so much so that they can hardly hear each other. “We have a moral responsibility to address the problems we face. That means working together to cut spending and rein in government,” John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, told the National Religious Broadcasters on Feb. 27. “We have a moral responsibility to deal with this threat to freedom and liberate our economy from the shackles of debt and unrestrained government.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House Minority Leader, argued from a diametrically opposed position. “This legislation will destroy American jobs while harming middle class families, young adults, seniors, and yes, even our veterans,” she said:
Consider what the Republican legislation we debate today would do to diminish our investments in education, halt innovation, destroy good-paying American jobs and make our neighborhoods less secure. Indeed, not even homeless veterans are spared by the Republicans. Our federal budget, as I said, must be a statement of our national values.
While there are obviously many Americans who fall between the poles represented by Boehner and Pelosi, strong views animate primary voters, the most ideological partisans. Candidates facing primary constituencies — Democrats as well as Republicans — must signal agreement with positions held by their most ideological supporters, moderating as they approach the general election. Republicans will be pushed to embrace compassion just as Democrats will be compelled to advocate national defense and ‘personal responsibility.’ Whoever makes the better case will pick up the center.
But moral reasoning is inhospitable to “split-the-difference” pragmatism, and never more so than when material benefits are at stake. Electoral politics determine the distribution of valuable resources, and moral commitments can mask otherwise naked resource competition.
Voters on the left and right can now use social-cultural issues as signifiers for their positions on distributional policies. Opposition to abortion or gay marriage is a way to identify office seekers who oppose progressive levels of taxation, just as support for reducing penalties for the possession of crack cocaine or advocacy of a ‘low-carbon future’ mark a politician who will vote for more generous unemployment compensation and higher wages for women.
The intensification of disagreements over moral values not only makes compromise difficult to achieve, but sharpens competition for scarce goods at a time when austerity dominates the agenda. If, as is increasingly the case, left and right see their opposites as morally corrupt, the decision to cut the benefits or raise the taxes of the other side become easy – too easy — to justify.
Thomas B. Edsall, a professor journalism at Columbia University, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.”