How Democracies Die (part 3)

June 29, 2018

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In the last chapter of their book, Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss the prospects for sustaining democracy in the face of the threats from Donald Trump and other such demagogues. They think it can be done, but it will take a lot of work.

The global challenge

The impression one gets from recent news is that democracy is in retreat all over the world. The authors do not think that the evidence supports that pessimistic conclusion.

The number of democracies rose dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, peaked around the year 2005, and has remained steady ever since. Backsliders make headlines and capture our attention, but for every Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela there is a Colombia, Sri Lanka, or Tunisia—countries that have grown more democratic over the last decade.

The bad news is that the election of Donald Trump appears to be a setback for democracy not only in the United States but around the world. The Western powers under the leadership of the United States have played a role in encouraging democratic principles and institutions since World War II (although I would add that our pro-democracy principles have often been compromised by self-serving economic policies). Trump’s “America first” nationalism is weakening the Western alliance and strengthening the position of undemocratic countries like Russia and China. I find it especially ironic that Republicans who in the past demanded unwavering opposition to our Cold War adversaries now look the other way while Trump offends our democratic allies and cozies up to dictators.

The future at home

The authors describe three possible futures for the United States after the Trump phenomenon runs its course. The most optimistic is that our democratic norms and institutions quickly recover from whatever damage his presidency does to them. That might be realistic if Trump alone were the problem. But as the authors have discussed, the deeper problem is the polarization of our politics arising from deep disagreements over race and religion, compounded by an economic system that is leaving too many people behind.

That raises a second and more troubling possibility, that the Republican party, having become the party of Trump, maintains its power with a white nationalist appeal. That would entail running the country primarily for the benefit of a shrinking population of white Christians, and resorting to undemocratic means of suppressing the more diverse majority. “Such a nightmare scenario isn’t likely, but it also isn’t inconceivable.”

The most likely future is “one marked by polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare–in other words, democracy without solid guardrails.” The authors point to the state of North Carolina as the best example of “what politics without guardrails might look like.” For those who don’t live here, I’ll just say that Republican legislators gerrymandered the state so that they could win 10 of 13 Congressional seats with only 53% of the vote, passed voting laws that targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision” according to a federal court, and reduced the powers of the governor right after a democrat was elected to that position. The state is hardly a dictatorship yet, however, since Republican efforts at one-party domination have been vigorously resisted by the opposition party and the courts.

Reducing polarization

Political leaders will either have to learn to cooperate and compromise despite the polarization, which the authors think is doubtful, or they will have to move beyond the polarization. Although the authors call on both parties to reconsider what they stand for, they put the main responsibility for change on the Republican party, since they consider it “the main driver of the chasm between the parties.” They see more of the obstructionism, partisan hostility, and extremism on that side of the aisle.

For Republicans, they recommend changes in both organization and constituency. The leadership will have to regain some control, relying less heavily on outside donors and right-wing media. And the party must become more diverse:

Republicans must marginalize extremist elements; they must build a more diverse electoral constituency, such that the party no longer depends so heavily on its shrinking white Christian base; and they must find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism, or what Republican Arizona senator Jeff Flake calls the “sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery.”

As for the Democrats, they should resist calls to focus on white working-class voters at the expense of their black and immigrant constituencies. But what they can do is address economic concerns that cut across race and religion. As I have argued before, they can emphasize universal benefits programs such as universal health insurance, basic income guarantee, job training, paid parental leave, subsidized child care and prekindergarten education.

Now I think I’ve been reading and writing enough for a while about the culture wars and the partisan divide. What I’m thinking about lately is the fiscal problem of how the country might pay for the more progressive public policies many Democrats advocate. Stay tuned.

How Democracies Die (part 2)

June 28, 2018

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Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have described Donald Trump as a demagogue with authoritarian tendencies. He has not yet done serious damage to our democratic system, but the threat is definitely there.

That’s only part of their story, however. Democracy was already under stress well before Trump’s election. “Not only did Americans elect a demagogue in 2016, but we did so at a time when the norms that once protected our democracy were already coming unmoored.”

Democratic norms

It takes more than a well-designed constitution to sustain a viable democracy. After the decline of colonialism in Latin America, many of the newly independent states based their constitutions on ours, but that didn’t stop them from falling into civil war and dictatorship. “All successful democracies rely on informal rules that, though not found in the constitution or any laws, are widely known and respected.”

Two very general political norms are fundamental. “Mutual toleration” acknowledges the right of rival factions to compete for political power and achieve it, as long as they do so through constitutional means. “Institutional forbearance” is a commitment to abide by the democratic spirit of the laws, not just the letter of the laws. When those two norms break down, one or more parties may use the laws in ways that were never intended, to destroy their opposition instead of competing with them fairly.

Political polarization

What is most likely to weaken or destroy the norms is political polarization based on socioeconomic, racial or religious differences.

In the history of U.S. democracy, the most polarizing issue has been race, but racial polarization has not been a constant. Race has been most polarizing at times when one major party has taken up the cause of racial justice, as opposed to times when both parties have been tolerant of racial injustice.

In the nineteenth century, it was the Republican rejection of slavery that brought the issue to the forefront, “investing politics with what one historian has called a new ’emotional intensity.'” (I find the reference to emotionalism interesting, considering that in our current era of polarization, social scientists have been “discovering” that politics is more emotional than rational.) After the Civil War and Reconstruction, some political peace was restored, but at the expense of the rights of the newly freed slaves. In one of the greatest assaults on democracy in our history, southern whites got away with restoring white supremacy.

Between 1885 and 1908, all eleven post-Confederate states reformed their constitutions and electoral laws to disenfranchise African Americans. To comply with the letter of the law as stipulated in the Fifteenth Amendment, no mention of race could be made in efforts to restrict voting rights, so states introduced purportedly “neutral” poll taxes, property requirements, literacy tests, and complex written ballots….Black turnout in the South fell from 61 percent in 1880 to just 2 percent in 1912. The disenfranchisement of African Americans wiped out the Republican Party, locking in white supremacy and single-party rule for nearly a century.

By keeping race off the agenda at the national level, the two major parties were able to find more common ground. For most of the twentieth century, they were both “big tents” that included many of the same kinds of people. Married white Christians constituted a majority of both parties. The Democrats had the southern white conservatives, but the Republicans had midwestern and western white conservatives. The Democrats had working-class New Deal liberals, but the Republicans had educated middle-class liberals.

Democratic support for civil rights legislation in the 1960s did more than anything to re-polarize the parties, as people of color embraced the Democratic Party but southern whites abandoned it. Declining support for traditional religion among Democrats contributed as well. “The two parties are now divided over race and religion–two deeply polarizing issues that tend to generate greater intolerance and hostility than traditional policy issues such as taxes and government spending.”

As for being “big tents,” the parties have moved in opposite directions. The Democratic Party has become more diverse, being a party of white and black, native-born and immigrant, religious and secular, gay and straight. The Republican Party has become less diverse, the home of the embattled white Protestant minority, the people who used to run the country but have been losing power recently. Levitsky and Ziblatt believe that the Republican party has led the way in weakening democratic norms in order to maintain their social and cultural dominance. Ironically, it is now the Republican party that is noted for trying to lock in single-party rule by suppressing the black vote.

While the authors focus mostly on race and secondarily on religion in this story, gender is also important. The Democratic Party has also become the party of women’s rights, while the Republican Party has become the party of angry men. That also is a reversal, since it was northern Republicans who originally supported the Equal Rights Amendment.

Erosion of democratic norms

Even in the twentieth-century period of relative political cooperation, democratic norms were challenged or violated by some leaders. Franklin Roosevelt exercised unusual power during the crises of Depression and war, running for president four times (legal but unprecedented), issuing over 300 executive orders a year, and trying unsuccessfully to expand the Supreme Court so he could appoint more justices. In the 1950s, attacks on Democrats by militant anti-communists like Joe McCarthy helped Republicans win the presidency and control of Congress. One of those red-baiting anti-communists, Richard Nixon, went on to use the presidency to attack the people on his “enemies list” in illegal ways.

The authors see a more ominous “unraveling” of democratic norms beginning in the 1990s. Newt Gingrich set the tone as he rose to the position of Speaker of the House, presenting a hostile, hard-line, no-compromise front against the moderate Democrat Bill Clinton. One sign of deviation from traditional practice was a dramatic increase in the use of the Senate filibuster to block majority-supported legislation. Democrats also made heavy use of it during the George W. Bush administration, while Republicans stopped following the practice of “regular order,” which had given the opposition a chance to speak on legislation and propose amendments. During the Obama years, so many of the President’s appointments were filibustered that Senate Democrats changed the rules to disallow the filibuster for appointments other than to the Supreme Court.

Until relatively recently, Supreme Court appointments by the President have rarely been rejected by the Senate. When President Reagan appointed arch-conservative Antonin Scalia, Democrats could have blocked it with a filibuster but instead supported it unanimously. But when President Obama appointed the moderate and highly qualified Merrick Garland, Republicans took the unprecedented step of refusing to consider the nomination at all. Then they changed the rules after the 2016 election to keep the Democrats from filibustering President Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the open seat, insuring that conservatives would keep their 5-4 majority.

So now we have a potential autocrat in the White House, leading a party of embattled conservatives desperate to maintain their hold on power. The “devil’s bargain” between this man and this party could be bad news for democracy.


We Were Eight Years in Power (part 3)

March 24, 2018

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In his final chapter, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on Donald Trump’s election, a tragic turn of events from his point of view.

Race trumped class

Many commentators on the Trump election prefer to explain it more by class than by race. Focusing on Trump’s slim but crucial victories in industrial states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, they tell a story of working-class voters threatened by trends like globalization, loss of manufacturing jobs, and the declining share of national income going to labor. Although there is some truth to this interpretation, Coates has some good reasons to be skeptical.

As I pointed out in my post “Why Trump Won” shortly after the election, Trump won Michigan by less than one percentage point, but he won Alabama by 28 points. This is no surprise to Coates, who finds that race and racial attitudes were better predictors of voting than economic class. Although enough Obama voters switched their allegiance to Trump to swing the election, the bulk of the Trump voters were the same whites who never supported Obama in the first place.

There are plenty of working-class people in all racial groups, and “deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality…have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people.” Yet it was primarily whites who went for Trump, by a 20-point margin according to the exit polls. Clinton won blacks by an 81-point margin, and she won both Latinos and Asians by 38 points.

One study found that “the most predictive question for understanding whether a voter favored Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was ‘Is Barack Obama a Muslim?'” This is not really surprising considering that Trump achieved political notoriety as a “birther” suggesting that Obama’s African birth disqualified him to be president. “Trump truly is something new,” Coates says,”–the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.” Trump’s election was impossible without eight years of white fear and resistance directed against Obama despite his moderation and careful racial neutrality.

Considering all the talk about the Trump campaign as a populist working-class movement, readers may be surprised to learn that on the average, Trump voters had incomes a little higher, on the average, than Clinton voters. And why shouldn’t they? Trump voters were predominantly white men, who are still the highest earning group in the country.

In order to predict how someone voted, the first thing I would want to know is their racial identification. The second thing I would want to know is how threatened they feel by the ascendancy of minorities and women. (I would also want to know if they are evangelical Christians threatened by the secularization of public policies on issues such as abortion and gay rights.) Only then would I turn to economic status for an explanation.

The politics of racial identity

Our ability to see race as an issue is affected by white racial dominance itself. If white is the norm and black the exception, then blackness is what is noticed. Problems concentrated in black areas, like a crack epidemic, are black problems, while problems concentrated in white areas, like opiate addiction, are just problems. The second type gets a lot more sympathy than the first.

Although many commentators have criticized “identity politics” for polarizing the country, they apply the term more readily to black identity than white identity. If a black female voter votes for Clinton, they can easily see her as voting her race or gender identity, and they can readily blame Democrats for playing “identity politics.” If a white male votes for Trump, they say he is voting his working-class interests. So Trump is the working-class champion, while Clinton must be the elitist out of touch with “real people.” Never mind that Clinton did better among voters who saw the economy as the most important issue, as well as voters who were most interested in having a president who “cares about me.” And never mind that she won the popular vote, which Democratic candidates have now done in six out of the last seven elections. If Trump voters were real people, what were Clinton voters, aliens? Trump’s suggestion that he lost the popular vote because of fraudulent votes from illegal aliens goes exactly in that direction.

Identity politics is alive and well in both parties. Accusing the other party of narrowly appealing to blacks and women is an effective way of making one’s own narrow appeal to white men. And vice versa.

But class mattered too

Coates emphasizes that Trump was elected by a broad coalition of white voters–men and women, young and old, with and without college degrees. But his own numbers show that Trump won white college graduates by only 3 points, while winning white non-graduates by 37 points. No doubt economic issues played a role in that result, since people without college degrees are faring especially poorly in the new economy.

However, we cannot be sure that even people who are in the working class actually voted on the basis of their class interests. They could still be voting more as whites clinging to white privilege, as men with disparaging attitudes towards women, or as evangelical Christians hostile to gay rights. All of these tendencies are more common in the less educated white population, and especially in the less educated white Southern population. They may even be voting against their true class interests, if voting conservative on race, gender or religious grounds plays into the hands of economic elites pursuing their own agenda.

When less educated workers do vote their economic interests and insecurities, they may be drawn to an ugly, zero-sum, “beggar thy neighbor” kind of economics. The aim is to protect one group’s jobs at the expense of some other group, such as immigrants or foreigners or even U.S. citizens in other industries. Tariffs on steel may help U.S. steelworkers but hurt not only foreign steelworkers but workers in other domestic industries affected by higher steel prices.

Trump’s populist appeal continues a long tradition of appeals that do not so much help workers as a class as keep them fighting among themselves for meager benefits, while the interests of the wealthy are fully served. That’s a pretty good description of Trump’s fiscal policy, which cuts taxes primarily for the few while hurting programs beneficial for the many.

How to respond?

The fact that race and class are so entangled in our politics makes Coates’s emphasis on race both illuminating and limiting. How much to focus on race in our political discussions remains a delicate issue.

When Obama was interviewed by Coates, he said, “I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race.” He understood that calling his white opponents racists would only harden opposition to his policy agenda. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton couldn’t resist calling Trump supporters racists, sexists and xenophobes–deplorables, in short–and that didn’t help her cause either.

I would like to see politicians promote their policies with positive appeals to egalitarian values and the general economic good. For progressives, that includes sharpening their economic message to persuade people that progressive taxation to support investments in education, infrastructure and universal health insurance is better than more trickle-down economics. To those who say the country cannot afford these things, progressives should challenge them to explain how we can afford still more tax cuts, extravagant military expenditures and deficits.

As an educator, I realized that I had to gently lead my students to raise their consciousness about race and gender, so they could gradually acknowledge and transcend their own prejudices. I would like to think that a good political leader would also be partly such an educator. We must call out political operatives who manipulate prejudices for their own advantage, but we must also have some faith in the majority of Americans to achieve greater racial understanding. Coates admits that his own experience–and his experience of the Obama years in particular–has caused him to lose that faith. I understand his pessimism, but I cannot endorse it.



The Righteous Mind (part 2)

January 24, 2018

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Here I will discuss Jonathan Haidt’s perspective on liberalism and conservativism, informed by his evolutionary psychology of morality. He views these opposing views as “deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.” Both are influenced–albeit in somewhat different ways–by the foundations of morality that developed in the course of human evolution. While he sees liberals as placing primary emphasis on “caring for victims of oppression,” conservatives prefer to “preserve the institutions that sustain a moral community.” Haidt calls for a more civil, more empathetic politics, where each side opens their hearts, not just their minds, to the other.

If Haidt’s entire discussion were as even-handed as that, I would find little to criticize. But when Haidt compares conservative and liberal perspectives on each of his six moral foundations, the implicit conservatism I described in the last post comes out. So I want to do something unusual–first discuss how I wish he had approached this topic, and then describe what he actually says.

Two sides of the six moral foundations

Recall that Haidt’s six moral foundations are:

  • care/harm
  • fairness/cheating
  • loyalty/betrayal
  • authority/subversion
  • sanctity/degradation
  • liberty/oppression

The paired terms suggest to me a simple way of distinguishing conservatives and liberals. Let’s start with Haidt’s quotation from John Stuart Mill: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” When these two parties react to the established social order, the party of stability will naturally appreciate its positive adaptive accomplishments (the first terms in the pair), while the party of reform will naturally criticize its failures.

  • On care/harm, conservatives may appreciate the care provided by the conventional family, while liberals may criticize the harm resulting from public neglect of the poor, homeless, mentally ill, medically uninsured, addicted, etc.
  • On fairness/cheating, conservatives may appreciate the rewards delivered by the market to those who are productive, while liberals may criticize the ways the rich and powerful rig the game to deprive others of a fair chance.
  • On loyalty/betrayal, conservatives may appreciate the social cohesion fostered by parochial loyalties, while liberals may criticize the betrayal of higher loyalties like democratic values or universal human rights.
  • On authority/subversion, conservatives may respect the contribution of legitimate authorities to the common good, while liberals criticize self-serving authority figures who abuse their positions.
  • On sanctity/degradation, conservatives may appreciate the social order for protecting what they hold sacred; to use Haidt’s own example, they may appreciate the role of Christian sexual morality in protecting the chastity of young women. Liberals are more likely to notice how the traditional sexual double standard allows men to degrade women, or how industrial capitalism degrades the environment.
  • On liberty/oppression, conservatives may appreciate existing liberties, while liberals react to the plight of oppressed peoples who are not yet free.

Note that if the focus is not on the established order but some proposed alternative system or policy, the tables can be turned, so that liberals accentuate the positive and conservatives the negative. For example, liberals are more likely to see the redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation as an increase in fairness (allowing children of all families to compete on a more level playing field), while conservatives see it as cheating (violating the rules of the game by letting the losers steal from the winners).

From this balanced perspective, we can easily understand how each group is seeking the good in its own way, with some good moral intuitions on each side.

A conservative advantage?

What Haidt actually does is a little different. He argues that conservatives have a distinct advantage in moral/political debates. This is not because they are better people, necessarily, but rather because they are more in touch with fundamental moral realities, the basic moral intuitions that drive moral judgments. The difference between being morally better and being morally more realistic is subtle, and I suspect that in Haidt’s scientific scheme of things they amount to very much the same thing. Much of the time, what he is describing seems also what he is prescribing.

Haidt says that conservatives are better moral psychologists, which may be just another way of saying that moral psychology as Haidt sees it has inherently conservative sympathies. “Republicans have long understood that the [intuitive] elephant is in charge of political behavior, not the [conscious, rational] rider, and they know how elephants work. Their slogans, political commercials, and speeches go straight for the gut….” While liberals blinded by the “rationalist delusion” are trying and failing to persuade people through rational arguments, conservatives are doing something more effective–making emotional appeals to people’s deepest moral intuitions. They are appealing to the elephant that is in control most of the time, not the conscious rider who only occasionally gets the elephant to change direction.

I have to acknowledge the large element of truth in this description. Of course it is easier to press people’s traditional moral buttons than it is to get them to think critically about their society. Of course emotional appeals to family, God and country are effective ways of shaping opinion. As well as race, by the way. Haidt’s example of a Republican message going “straight to the gut” is the Willie Horton ad associating a black criminal with a Democratic presidential candidate. I wonder why that wasn’t a bigger red flag for him. He acknowledges that conservatives are more parochial, but seems rather complacent about the obvious link between parochialism and racism. He even says at one point that parochial love “may be the most we can accomplish.”

Yes, critical thinking is harder, which is why so much of higher education is devoted to it. Study after study has found that more educated people are less parochial and racially prejudiced. Critical thinking about society is especially prized in sociology.

Conservatives may have the upper hand much of the time, but not all of the time. In times of social crisis, when established institutions are not working very well, consciousness tends to be raised and movements for liberal reform come to the forefront. Liberal views that are underdeveloped and poorly articulated in calmer times may suddenly burst on the scene. I find Haidt’s work stronger on past evolution than on contemporary social change, so he may have trouble seeing beyond the recent period of conservative success.

Counting and measuring moral foundations

According to Haidt, conservatives have another advantage in building on the evolutionary foundations of morality. “Liberals have a three-foundation morality, whereas conservatives use all six.” Because liberal philosophy sees society as a collection of autonomous individuals, liberals have a narrower morality that is short on loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Republicans since Nixon have had a near-monopoly on appeals to loyalty (particularly patriotism and military virtues) and authority (including respect for parents, teachers, elders, and the police, as well as for traditions). And after they embraced Christian conservatives during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and became the party of “family values,” Republicans inherited a powerful network of Christian ideas about sanctity and sexuality that allowed them to portray Democrats as the party of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Notice, however, the traditional ways in which Haidt has described loyalty, authority and sanctity. For example, the conservative advantage would be less clear if he had made reference to alternative authorities, such as scientists, federal regulatory agencies, or international law. The historical sociologist Max Weber distinguished between “traditional authority” and “rational-legal” authority; the latter would surely command more respect from liberals.

The conservative way in which Haidt conceptualizes these moral foundations also affects how he measures them with his “Moral Foundations Questionnaire.” If you are a social conservative, many items give you a chance to express your views of loyalty, authority and sanctity:

Questions about what considerations are relevant to judgments of right and wrong:

  • whether or not someone conformed to the traditions of society
  • whether or not someone acted in a way that God would approve
  • whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency
  • whether or not someone’s action showed love for his or her country

Statements calling for agreement or disagreement:

  • I am proud of my country’s history
  • People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong
  • I would call some acts wrong on the grounds that they are unnatural
  • Men and women each have different roles to play in society
  • Chastity is an important and valuable virtue
  • If I were a soldier and disagreed with my commanding officer’s orders, I would obey anyway because that is my duty

If, on the other hand, you are a liberal with a strong sense of moral obligation to protect the environment, you’re out of luck. The questionnaire has no place to express a reverence for nature, or a belief in climate science, or respect for the rule of law, or support for international climate agreements. Because of how he thinks about these things, Haidt has inadvertently constructed measures of loyalty, authority and sanctity on which conservatives can hardly fail to score higher.

Conservative morality on the defensive

Still another problem is that recent history has called into question Haidt’s simple distinction between individualistic liberals and sociocentric conservatives, and his clear preference for the latter.  The distinction may work pretty well for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when liberals were indeed promoting rational individualism in rebellion against such traditional institutions as absolute monarchy, mercantilism, hereditary aristocracy and church-state theocracy. But as Haidt acknowledges toward the end of his book, twentieth-century liberals split into two camps, often called libertarians and progressives. The libertarians are the main proponents of the old individualistic liberalism, especially the pursuit of self-interest in the free market (think of the Koch brothers and the writings of Ayn Rand). The progressives actually share many of Haidt’s own moral concerns about laissez-faire industrial capitalism, and they are often the ones advocating for more social responsibility.

To upset Haidt’s intellectual apple cart further, most libertarians have joined a conservative Republican coalition, in cooperation with most white social conservatives. The libertarians seem especially influential in that coalition, since they have more money and often get their way on low taxes and less regulation for corporations and the wealthy. But social conservatives keep voting Republican in the hope of legislating their “family values,” especially a return to strict abortion laws.  Haidt’s somewhat rosy view of conservative morality overlooks the fact that religious conservatives have cast their lot with the rugged individualists, who press their moral buttons to get their vote, but then do things that should make a Christian blush, like trying to throw millions of children off of health insurance.

Today the conservative coalition provides the core support for that great exemplar of morality, Donald Trump. Where does he stand on Haidt’s six moral foundations? Is he more noted for care or harm? Fairness or cheating? Loyalty or betrayal? Authority or subversion? Sanctity or degradation? Liberty or oppression? Hmm, I guess I would associate him with liberty, although he values it primarily for himself and his rich friends and family. In general, his amoral egotism is an embarrassment to conservatives who would like to claim the moral high ground.

Haidt says that “conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital,” which he defines as a community’s stock of “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.” But just as financial capital can be squandered on bad investments, moral capital can be squandered by standing up for the wrong things. Many social commentators are expressing consternation that the religious right is turning a blind eye to Trump’s misbehavior, especially in light of the new allegations about paying hush money to a porn star to cover up an extramarital affair. Family values indeed. Yesterday, Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that he no longer wants to hear from evangelical Christians at all, since they have now lost their moral authority.

Meanwhile, progressives are building their moral capital by redefining social responsibility and standing up against  harm, cheating, betrayal, subversion (of democratic institutions and values), degradation and oppression. There is an historical process going on here that Haidt’s sweeping generalizations are poorly equipped to handle. One would never know from reading The Righteous Mind that America ever had a religious left, but it has played a strong role in social reform in the past, and may be about to do so again.

In evaluating the book as a whole, I am deeply ambivalent. Haidt has made a reasonable case for the evolution of human morality, and that part of the book may stand the test of time. His political analysis is flawed by overly broad generalizations about conservatism and liberalism and his tendency to favor one over the other without regard to the historical situation. Now that the moral ground is shifting beneath our feet, his argument doesn’t seem as compelling as it may have been just a few short years ago.


The Righteous Mind

January 22, 2018

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Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012

Here it is 2018, and I’m just getting around to reviewing this thought-provoking book from 2012. Waiting this long does have one advantage, however. Recent political events provide additional context for evaluating Haidt’s view of moral conflicts between liberals and conservatives. In the age of Trump, some of his ideas are already starting to seem a little dated.

This is in a way two books, one on the evolutionary origins of human morality and the other on contemporary political conflict. As an evolutionary psychologist, Haidt makes a pretty good contribution to the first topic, but I found him much less convincing on the second. I will deal with these two sides of his argument in separate posts.

Intuitions come before reasons

Haidt is fond of animal metaphors, like “the rider on the elephant” and “the intuitive dog and its rational tail.” His central metaphor for Part I of the book is that “the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” The rider is our conscious reasoning, which serves much deeper and more extensive mental processes most of the time. Moral judgment is mostly a matter of reacting quickly and intuitively to situations. Reasoning is secondary, and consists mainly of giving reasons to justify our intuitions in the eyes of others.

According to Haidt, most Western philosophers have had it wrong, accepting Plato’s “rationalist delusion” that reason ought to be the master of the passions. Hume was an exception, saying that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Haidt sides with Hume, although he qualifies his position a little later.

Haidt also criticizes developmental psychologists such as Kohlberg for exaggerating how much children can figure out morality for themselves through increasingly advanced reasoning. He sees such views as an expression of a Western liberal tradition of rational individualism. Most of the world’s people, including the less educated within Western countries, are more sociocentric. They react to moral dilemmas by simply and unreflectively applying the intuitions that thousands of years of biological evolution and cultural experience have built into them. Haidt likes the acronym WEIRD for the Western, educated, industrial, rich, democracies, indicating how far out of step they are with the world’s moral majority.

Is an unreflective conformity to moral tradition a good thing? I don’t know that Haidt is entirely clear about that, even in his own mind. Sometimes he claims to be just describing, not prescribing, but social scientists have a way of sliding from is to ought. Haidt seems a little too comfortable with a world in which most people stick to their past adaptations and traditions. He does acknowledge the parochialism of the righteous mind, and he would like different social tribes to respect one another and perhaps learn from one another. But he displays no confidence in an expansion of individual consciousness or critical thinking. He claims that the philosophy he studied in college was no help in figuring out the meaning of life. (For a lover of both science and philosophy like myself, that was a red flag.)

Evolutionary origins of moral intuitions

In accounting for people’s powerful moral intuitions, Haidt tries to balance nature and nurture, the innate and the learned. “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises….’Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means ‘organized in advance of experience’.” Social experience further organizes what evolution has already organized.

The innate part consists of six universal foundations of morality. These are “adaptations to long-standing threats and opportunities in social life. They would draw people’s attention to certain kinds of events (such as cruelty or disrespect), and trigger instant intuitive reactions, perhaps even specific emotions (such as sympathy or anger).” The situations that trigger these reactions today can be very different from what may have triggered them earlier in our evolutionary history, allowing for considerable variation in cultural experience and cultural norms.  Unlike some earlier evolutionists who fell into the trap of biological determinism, Haidt is sensitive to the need to reconcile evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology.

Perhaps the most obvious of the moral foundations is what Haidt calls “care/harm.” The human species is noted for its large-brained but extremely dependent offspring, who require prolonged protection and care. Humans who didn’t have a strong impulse for care would be out-reproduced by those who did. Once a foundation was laid for caring behavior in human evolution, the caring impulse could be extended and applied in many different ways, depending on the cultural situation.

Haidt relates each of the moral foundations to the adaptive challenge it evolved to meet in the course of building reproductively-successful human groups. The challenges and corresponding foundations are:

  • protecting and caring for children (care/harm)
  • reaping the benefits of two-way partnerships (fairness/cheating)
  • forming cohesive coalitions (loyalty/betrayal)
  • forging beneficial relationships within hierarchies (authority/subversion)
  • avoiding contaminants (sanctity/degradation)
  • avoiding domination (liberty/oppression)

Rationality and politics

In Haidt’s “social intuitionist” model of morality, intuitions come first and reasoning second. When moral reasoning does occur, its function is not primarily to figure out what is right, but rather to “help us pursue socially strategic goals, such as guarding our reputations and convincing other people to support us, or our team, in disputes.” In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon argue over which is more important for happiness, being just (Socrates) or appearing to be just in the eyes of others (Glaucon). Haidt agrees with Glaucon that “people care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality.” And he says, “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.” That description leads to this prescription: “Make sure that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.” Thus Haidt pins his hopes for moral improvement on tighter social control, not on moral education.

Haidt does try to avoid taking his disparagement of moral reasoning too far, as he admits that Hume did. He allows that “elephants are sometimes open to reason.” People can sometimes question their intuitive moral reactions, especially when people interact with others whose reactions are different from theirs. In fact, better reasoning is very likely under certain conditions:

But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

Perhaps if Haidt had taken that ball and run with it a little further, he would have had a little more respect for Western liberal rationalism.

A more rational society?

Once one has acknowledged that “good reasoning” can be an emergent property of a social system, contributing to better public policy, then why not also acknowledge that a society can move in that direction in an historical process? Isn’t that exactly what one would expect of a modern, pluralistic democracy? Isn’t Haidt’s own scientific psychology and his critical thinking about prevailing psychological theories a product of such a society? Western societies are in need of reform, to be sure, but rejecting their rationality as WEIRD seems to me to be overkill.

Haidt’s position seems implicitly conservative because he is more interested in how morality evolved in the past than how it continues to evolve culturally in the present. What else besides critical thinking can evaluate traditional morality in the light of new experience?  For example, trying to restrict sexual activity to heterosexual, reproducing couples made a lot more sense when death rates were high, and high birth rates were needed for group survival. Today, societies with low birth rates but prosperous economies flourish, and they do so less by out-reproducing their competitors as by sharing their culture with them. Innovations like contraception and same-sex marriage are not a threat to such societies.

In his discussion of the “sanctity/degradation” moral foundation, Haidt expresses his appreciation for conservative sexual morality, especially the idea of chastity, while he portrays liberals as individualistic hedonists. He fails to appreciate the emerging morality expressed in such ideas as safe sex, mutual respect and mutual consent. Isn’t today’s #MeToo movement a moral crusade to hold men accountable for their behavior toward women?

In dismissing Kohlberg’s developmental psychology as too rational, he overlooks the significance of Kohlberg’s “post-conventional” moral stage. Haidt’s conception of morality is so focused on conformity to society that he fails to grasp how a rapidly changing society requires some post-conventional thinking in order to adapt to changing times.

All of this is relevant to Part II of the book, which praises conservatives for being the superior moral politicians. They win a lot of the political arguments by appealing to more of the evolutionary foundations of morality than liberals do. Or so it would seem. That will be the topic of my next post.