Saturday, September 13, 2008

Republican Motives

So check this out:

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? We psychologists have been examining the origins of ideology ever since Hitler sent us Germany's best psychologists, and we long ago reported that strict parenting and a variety of personal insecurities work together to turn people against liberalism, diversity, and progress. But now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.
Our diagnosis explains away Republican successes while convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground. Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies, and it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats.

Okay. Right. So these are some of the opening words of Jonathan Haidt's article "What Makes People Vote Republican" over at He does a pretty good job of briskly summarizing much of the recent work on right-wing Americans and their ideology (there's a lot of good work by Bob Altemeyer, who revisits Adorno's Authoritarian Personality; by John Dean, who used to work for Nixon, the president who really got the authoritarian politics of resentment rolling; by Thomas Frank of What's the Matter with Kansas; by Chris Hedges, who wrote American Fascists; and by a host of others). Haidt seems like a bright, well-meaning guy. But this opening bit of his drives me crazy. There's a real error here, a false dichotomy so naive I hope it's just a mistake, a matter of bad writing. It's this: Haidt tells us that we can't explain the right-wing's views with reference to social psychology because those views are honestly held. This is preposterous: often, we hold our views most sincerely, and uphold our preferences most honestly, precisely because we are psychologically motivated.

Of course the views of the left are as psychologically and socially motivated as the views of the right, so it doesn't follow, as Haidt says, that the linking of right-wing thinking to such motives gives the left the moral high ground. Unless you define the moral high ground as a place of tolerance, individualism, and curiosity. And the most interesting and challenging part of Haidt's article comes when he asks whether we should really look to individualism and tolerance and curiosity and the like as the primary virtues. Noting that "the moral domain varies across cultures," Haidt asks whether group solidarity shouldn't also play a role, as it does in so many societies. He cites Emile Durkheim, whose work I've admired, but read only in part. If I remember correctly, though, the kind of group solidarity Durkheim describes depends upon the constitution of an ingroup by definition against a despised and demonized outgroup. This may be a good way to maintain social order in relatively homogenous groups who don't actually have much contact with people unlike themselves. It may also work when an isolated group is being exploited by powerful outsiders. I'm thinking, here, about something James Wright once wrote about the great Peruvian poet C├ęsar Vallejo's upbringing in small mining town: "His home town was small and provincial," says Wright, "with an ancient and living tradition of large, affectionate families who were of necessity mobilized, as it were, against the physical and spiritual onslaughts of death in its ancient and modern forms: disease, undernourishment, and cold on one hand; the officials of the tungsten mines on the other..." I mean, I can certainly understand how the whole defense-of-the-ingroup vs. the hated outsiders thing would come about in a situation like this one. But — given that "the moral domain varies across cultures" — you've got to wonder about firm ingroup loyalty/outgroup hatred as an ethic for modern and postmodern societies, which are diverse, large, mobile, and in constant contact with other groups around the world.

I remember my own contact with the whole ingroup-vs-outgroup ethic, back when the neocons where just starting to ramp up their let's-go-to-war talk back in '02. I was on a committee at the college where I teach, a committee where representatives from all the college constituencies (faculty, students, staff, etc.) could discuss general topics. Someone asked whether we should in some way address the coming conflict. A faculty member suggested we should bring some Iraqi intellectuals to campus to get their view of things (from what I've read and heard from Iraqi intellectuals since then, I imagine we would have heard that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man with a very bad regime, and that invasion would lead to chaos). While this was being proposed, I saw a member of the coaching staff, who has since moved on to greener pastures, first furrow his brow, then set his jaw in stony determination. I don't recall him saying much else in that committee, but I vividly remember him getting up after the prof had finished, and saying "Why bring their side in? Why not bring in a vet of the Gulf War!" It puzzled me at first: the only Gulf War vet I know had told me he thought an invasion was a bad idea, and that Colin Powell had been right in stopping the first Gulf War from expanding beyond the liberation of Kuwait. But the more I mulled it over, the more it became clear to me: for the coach, we weren't proposing to get a full view of all sides of an issue — we were inviting the other team into our locker room. We were supporting the enemy. Liberal types valued the idea of critical discourse and individual judgement, but guys like this coach valued ingroup loyalty. To question, or even examine, national policy critically would be like refusing to execute the play the quarterback had called — it just didn't make sense.

The coach's mindset makes sense in a football game. I imagine it even makes sense in a lot of historical situations — but it strikes me as an older ethos that causes more harm than good in the diverse, globalized society we live in now. Ingroup feeling is still strong, and can be mobilized politically (to speak only of America, we can see examples in the McCarthy-era witchhunts, in the demonizing of gay people in the "defense of marriage" movement, or in the it-was-okay-when-my-ancestors-came-but-now-it's-different anti-immigrant hysteria we see from time to time). But it's a dangerous sentiment to exploit. I mean, I like football as much as the next guy with three degrees from Notre Dame, but life is more complicated than fourth-and-long.