Jim Fleming: With all this thinking about crosstalk, we started to wonder what gets lost in translation here in the US. The first, the most blurring and perhaps most important divide that came to mind , was the divide between the political right and left.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt told Steve Paulson why democrats and republicans seem to speak different languages.
Steve Paulson: My sense is that your analysis of the political divide has very personal roots. You say you were a solid liberal at least until you really started looking into the underlying moral values of liberals and conservatives, which made you re evaluate your own core political beliefs. What happened?
Jonathan Haidt: I guess you could say that a lot of my research has been driven by moralistic anger or even hate. I came to political consciousness during the Nixon and Ford years. I spent my young adulthood hating republicans, watching as the democrats seem to just blow it in election after election. In 2004 I actually turned to politics in part because I wanted to help the democrats understand about conservative morality. As I got deeper and deeper into it, I realized that they are actually right about many things just as liberals are right about many things.
Paulson: You actually go further than that. In your book you say that Republicans understand moral psychology and Democrats don't.
Haidt: I think most Democrats if they look back on the story of party in the last few decades, will shake their head in agreement with that. The republicans have just done a much better job of making appeals to the God, making appeals that resonate emotionally rather than cerebrally. And politics, like so much else in life is not a matter of calculation, is a lot more like religion.
Paulson: You are saying that we actually develop our core beliefs not through rational deduction, we don't sort of work it out in our head and figure out what is right. Mostly it is some God reaction and then later on we justify it.
Haidt: That is right, you need some first principles, you need some start point. And as much as we want to think that we steer by own moral compass. The finding in social psychology show that we are much more like lemmings than we are like mavericks, able to do whatever they think right. We are not very good at reasoning to weigh up all the pros and cons and decide which policy will dealt the best results over all
Paulson: What that has to do with politics, specifically the way conservatives as opposed to liberals, approach politics
Haidt: Much of my research has been to map out what are the taste buds of the moral mind. We find that liberal cuisine tends to rest most heavily on care or care harm, compassion, suffering all these sort of issues. With also a fair amount of fairness and liberty, where liberty is fighting against depression. So there is a set of moral concerns, and then policies grow out of that. Conservatives have all of those moral taste buds, they are not quite as compassionate, not quite as bleeding heart, but they have some others that liberals don't use as much. Specially group loyalty, respect for authority and a sense of sanctity or purity
Paulson: So you are saying those moral messages stick more with conservative voters?
Haidt: You can trigger quite a lot of hanger on both sides. What are the unique things about national politics; the president is the high priest of the nation and my view, is that the Republican Party, and conservatives more generally are more constitutionally better suited to play that religious role.
Democrats are more likely to treat it like a policy question. And that is not really what presidential politics is all about.
Paulson: If candidates should not appeal mainly to the policies that they are espousing. What should they appeal to?
Haidt: Well, let's take the central issue of this election. We are in huge trouble in this country, we are so vastly overspent. We got a hell of a debt we have to raise taxes, and we have to do more cutting than raising. Now, the republicans come along, and they say: Well we are going to do it all with tax cuts. I think that is crazy, you can't. But Obama should be saying, we all have to give here, we are in big trouble, we all have to give. This is what great leaders do, once in charge they did not come in and say: I promise you that 90% of you won't have to suffer, when we fight the Germans, but the other 2% are going to give blood, sweat and tears. And Obama has been saying: We are in big trouble here and don't worry, everyone I am going to protect all of you, but we have to raise taxes on the rich. That is a divisive appeal. I wish he would say, we all have to give. And that means the middle class too.
Think of it as sort of a button very deep in our heads, which is the 'We are in big trouble, cooperate as long as everyone else is cooperating', that is the button that Obama is not pushing, it is a button that Bush didn't push after 9/11. By part is a failure to appear to a better nature I think.
Paulson: As you light out these different mindsets. Do you see yourself as a kind of cultural translator? Showing people how they can talk to each other, how they can talk across the political divide?
Haidt: Yes, that is exactly what I am hoping that my book would do. We try to confirm whatever that is that we started off believing. And we are always able to do that. The only way that you can think: Wow! Is if you can have other people on the other side to disconfirm your pet theories. Our thinking, our good thinking, requires talking openly and listening to people on the other side. All these good ideas that you never even were exposed to, because you are locked in your own sort of gated moral community
Paulson: And yet it is so hard to talk across this divide. People are more polarized than ever. How do you break through?
Haidt: First... things were really, really bad in the 19th century, leading up to the civil war and afterwards. There is president in our history. And we have gotten through it. The danger is that now for the first time in our history, the parties are not coalitions . Party were coalitions of interest groups . Now for the first time, we have a perfect psychological split. All the people with a liberal personality and liberal values that go with it, are in one party. All the people with a more conservative personality or disposition, actually libertarian and conservative. Those two dispositions are in the other party. And that means, for the first time, the people in the other party really are different, they think differently from each other, they value different things, they are really different cultures. And that is dangerous, because it makes it extra easy to demonize them
Paulson: It seems to me that the task here. I mean if we really care about civil discourse and ultimately about a healthier political scene, is not just to beat the people, but to figure out how to talk with them meaningfully.
Haidt: That is right, and that is why I think the way to do this is to think about indirect methods. There are some efforts to try and bring people together over food. Food is one of these deep things, when you eat with people at the same table, it activates ancient circuits of trust. You are saying, we are like family. I suggest indirect methods focused on relationships first, and then gradually introduce policy questions or other political questions. So rather than just coming at them and say: Why do you believe X if you also believe Y? And that is the standard form of political attack. Rather than that, "If you are going to say conservatives are really concerned about personal responsibility, tell me about that. Do you see both parties as fostering that? " And if you make that sort of opening which shows that you are not attacking, you are trying to understand, you often are met with a reciprocal gesture in which say, your brother in law might say: Yes, you know the democrats, they have always been against personal responsibility. But then he might soften and say: You know, but on the other hand, the republicans, they way they bail out the banks, they haven't been so good at it either. You have to get reciprocity and acknowledgement working for you, don't just recreate the normal fork of political engagement, which is a fight.
Fleming: Steve Paulson talking with Jonathan Haidt, his book is called " The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion". You can hear more of Haidt talking about legislative politics and voting against our own interests on our website ttbook.org