Self-Righteous Minds

Why Political Polarization Is Not In Your Head

As a young man growing up in Canada, it seemed to me that Americans were always tackling the most important projects and having the most fun. Although I loved my own country, I was attracted to the dynamism of our neighbor to the south: its popular culture, its stirring postwar social upheavals, and its charismatic young president. Baby boomer nostalgia aside, my point is about how palpable American exceptionalism — the country’s distinctly manic and individualist culture in contrast to that of Europe and Canada — has been for the past half-century, even to a teenager living in a country frequently assumed to be America’s sibling, footnote, and, most recently, oil patch.

America remains exceptional today, but its mood has darkened. Although American universities and businesses still accomplish remarkable things, the collective American capacity to take on vital projects has waned — a development that took depressing shape in the debt-ceiling debacle of 2011. Americans seem crestfallen, expressing diminished faith in almost every institution: the Supreme Court (confidence down 7 points since 1973), public schools (down 24 points), religion (down 18 points), Congress (down 31 points), the press (newspapers down 11 points since 1973, TV news 19 points since 1993), and banks (down 37 points since 1979).

America is also, today, a nation divided against itself, some say more bitterly than at any time since the Civil War. As Americans have retreated into ideological enclaves, political polarization has risen dramatically and public discourse has become ever more rancorous. Americans have even increasingly segregated themselves residentially according to political attitudes.

Given this, Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind, came as a pleasant surprise. Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the New York University Stern School of Business, brings what we once would have called a typically American can-do spirit to this fractious malaise: there is an explanation, and there are solutions!

Haidt describes American liberals and conservatives as living in two separate versions of The Matrix: each engaged in a consensual group hallucination held together by psychosocial homogeneity and confirmation bias. People with different outlooks, sorted over the past few decades by regional politics and neighborhood-level self-segregation, have diminishing levels of contact with each other. Mostly, they hurl facts over the barricades — facts that are immediately dismissed by the other side as having been gathered by biased researchers or the otherwise ideologically polluted. To compound our natural tendency toward confirmation bias, Haidt notes, the over-supply of supporting evidence for any position, however loopy, is bottomless. Google “Obama Kenyan Muslim Terrorist.” The “evidence” from the 5.5-million pages returned will no doubt be an embarrassment of riches.

But what causes our political differences in the first place? Haidt grounds his explanation for America’s polarized political climate in profound elements of moral psychology, which he says are universal among humans. Our moral “reasoning,” Haidt convincingly argues, is more emotional than we tend to admit. His metaphor is that of an elephant (emotion) and a rider (rationality), with the rider being the servant of the elephant. When it comes to morality, Haidt says, we feel first and think later: we have a visceral reaction and then use our rational powers to explain and justify our righteous guts.

To support his claim about the primacy of emotions in our moral psychology, Haidt marshals evidence from experiments in which he exposes subjects to “moral dumbfounding.” He constructs scenarios to which it is difficult to have any rational objection but from which it is easy to get the willies. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead animal? Most people recoil from the idea, but it is difficult to show that the world is worse off for this unconventional act.

In much the same way, people are horrified by images of torture, say, or repulsed by the sight of two men kissing, and then reason their way to arguments about why each behavior is wrong. To build rational arguments to justify our knee-jerk reactions, we seek evidence from the world affirming that we are right to think as we do, vote as we do, live as we do.

While our gut, emotional reactions drive our moral reasoning, Haidt argues that our moral reactions are not all calibrated in the same way. He identifies six core moral concepts: authority, care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, and sanctity. Some people have moral “taste buds” that make authority more palatable, while others find hierarchy and deference relatively bitter pills. Conservative political messages in America tend to activate all six moral concepts to varying degrees, but with a special emphasis on sanctity, loyalty, and authority. Liberals focus almost exclusively on care and fairness.

This relatively narrow moral menu, he argues, is one reason that Democrats have been fighting an uphill battle in US politics over the past three decades. “Republicans understand moral psychology. Democrats don’t.” Conservatives have a “built-in advantage” because they serve a rich moral diet, while liberals offer the thin gruel of fairness and care. For this reason, Haidt suggests, liberals might not only learn something from conservatives about moral reasoning, but they might also be more successful politically if they opened themselves up to taking the full breadth of American’s moral sensibilities more seriously.


The title of Haidt’s book is cheeky. He plays to many readers’ likely expectation that a book called The Righteous Mind will be about the limbic systems of religious moralists. Surprise: the gold medal in righteous superiority goes to liberals, who are so profoundly convinced of the wisdom of their positions that they, in Haidt’s words, not only disagree with conservatives but pathologize them. People who hold conservative positions are being duped by oil billionaires or religious charlatans or are otherwise confused. They cannot be serious, gasp liberals. Haidt contends that not only are they serious, they are meeting cognitive needs that most members of our species share and respect. It is liberals who are deluded if they think they can convince people to ignore two-thirds of their hard-wired moral appetites.

American liberals (and perhaps even a few unctuous Canadians) may well deserve the scolding Haidt dishes out. Still, my own emotional elephant hesitates in the face of Haidt’s claim that it is mainly incumbent on liberals to try to understand the moral richness of conservatives’ positions and reform their own views accordingly. He notes, for instance, that because of liberals’ moral blind spots, the reforms they propose can inadvertently change the “stock of moral capital” and cause unintended negative consequences.

Haidt has a good deal less to say about the moral blind spots of conservatives, which he acknowledges only in passing. One might reasonably ask, for instance, whether the removal of all legal constraints on corporate political donations might have unintended negative consequences that conservative suspicion of government regulation might fail to reckon with, or whether moral taste buds better attuned to appreciate the virtues of authority and tradition might lead many conservatives to be more tolerant of rigid authority structures, such as my own Catholic Church, that have done a great deal to harm vulnerable people.

But if Haidt gives his fellow liberals an overly hard time, it’s all in service of a larger, and inarguably laudable, goal — getting his fellow blue and red citizens to better understand themselves and each other. Because our penchant for post hoc moral reasoning is unavoidable, Haidt suggests that we must be vigilant about our tendency for self-righteousness. Caught in the echo chambers of our respective silos, all we do is compound as a group our individual tendency toward error. We should seek out productive disagreements that result in a wider perspective and wiser decisions. For the crowd to be wise, it must be diverse, and it must have good ways of aggregating its ideas.

So concerned is Haidt with the degeneration of America’s national conversation that he even offers advice for how to socialize at an ideologically mixed cocktail party (assuming his balkanized readers could find one). “Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some other way established a bit of trust,” he suggests. “And when you do bring up issues of morality, try to start with some praise, or with a sincere expression of interest.” Elsewhere he laments that Republican and Democratic members of Congress interact little with each other, returning to their home districts on weekends and when Congress is not in session, in contrast to the past when they spent more time in Washington.

Who would not wish Haidt well in these efforts? And yet, who really believes that a little more empathy and a little more civility will achieve his ultimate goal — bringing wisdom back into politics? And even if Democrats and Republicans could speak to each other more productively, what of the four in ten, often more, who are disengaged from politics and do not vote? We assume that there is a polarized population and, yes, given two options by a pollster, nearly all Americans (who are sufficiently engaged to complete the survey) will pick one. But the plurality of Americans pick nothing. One wonders what those folks’ moral taste buds are craving these days.

My own view is that civil discourse is not enough. In a world of Super PACs, tendentious media coverage, balkanized approaches to education, politicized judicial appointments, and gerrymandered congressional districts, it is not at all clear that getting ordinary people to speak to one another more thoughtfully is sufficient to heal American politics.

The things that cushion us from the excesses of our cultural disagreements, and guide us in the moments when we are tempted to invest our moral capital in the wrong enterprises, are our institutions. Americans’ declining faith in nearly all their institutions (the military excepted) is a creeping problem
that makes less noise than polarized politics but might require more urgent attention­­.

Reforming public institutions in a society so famously wary of government is a tall order — and this brings us back to the question of American exceptionalism. Haidt acknowledges that America differs from other societies in important ways. America was exceptional at its founding and remains so today. Pew Center polls show that most American adults (53 percent) believe that you cannot be a good person unless you believe in God; fewer than one-third of Canadians believe this (30 percent). About half of Americans, according to social values research carried out by Environics Research Group, agree with the statement “the father of the family must be master in his own house” (48 percent), while only one in five Canadians (20 percent) agrees.

At the same time, Haidt sometimes comes close to generalizing about humanity based on the American experience. For example, his conclusion that “liberalism … is not sufficient as a governing philosophy” seems heavily influenced by the fact that most Americans currently find it insufficient. Yet, it strikes me that liberals offer roughly the same two-item morality menu in other developed societies, often with far better results.

For instance, six in ten Canadians chose center-left options in the country’s most recent election. Vote splitting led to a conservative victory, but the majority nevertheless chose the meager fairness menu over the moral six-pack offered by the Right. The French have recently elected a Socialist candidate who has essentially pledged generous state benefits and retirement at 60 as a national purpose — not exactly the stuff of soul-stirring sacredness: more old-time Socialism than old-time religion. In Scandinavian countries, it is not clear
that fairness and care can even be extricated from a concept like loyalty, so
firmly embedded are solidarity and egalitarianism in the collective identities of
those societies.

Haidt resolves this contradiction in a rather unusual way. In a sense, Haidt turns American exceptionalism on its head, arguing that the traditional and religious strains of US culture — those preoccupied with loyalty, authority, and sanctity — are precisely unexceptional: aligned with the moral outlooks of the great preponderance of humanity and out of step only with a handful of eccentric­­ countries in western Europe. To describe these countries, he relies on the acronym WEIRD: western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. It’s a catchy mnemonic, and to be fair, Haidt did not invent it. But in Haidt’s book it does sometimes serve as a rather convenient and off-handed way to avoid fully reckoning with those societies that do seem to find liberalism more or less sufficient.

WEIRD nations may well be exceptional when one considers the broad sweep of human development, but that seems almost beside the point when comparing the United States and Europe. Developed societies, are, by definition, exceptional. Few nations anywhere in the world, and anywhere throughout history, have achieved the levels of wealth, education, industrialization, and self-governance that have been achieved in these societies.

Given the present members of the WEIRD club, the United States does indeed appear exceptional. Perhaps, as other societies around the world join the club, the American example will appear less so. But at present, such speculation is exactly that. The moral outlook of China, India, and other emerging economies may well evolve differently from that of western Europe as these societies become increasingly educated, industrialized, and rich, and indeed probably will.

But while I wouldn’t bet that China, for example, is likely to evolve into a liberal social democracy as it develops, I’m also not sure I’d wager that China’s Confucian and communitarian tradition will look anything like America’s highly individualist culture as the Chinese people become increasingly prosperous and educated.


All this is to say that Haidt’s moral foundations are illuminating but do not explain political priorities in a straightforwardly universal way. Other Western countries are populated by self-deluded, self-righteous human brains; other countries have obnoxious bloggers and mouthy talk-show hosts; other countries have massive deficits and diverse populations and major economic problems. And yet, American political groupishness seems to take on exceptionally bitter tones, and American moral taste buds seem to demand a unique diet. The righteous brains of Americans might operate like brains the world over, but the political climate in America sure looks different to those observing the American experience from a distance.

At the risk of abusing Haidt’s diagnostic tool, I would like to suggest that Americans (and others, but perhaps with less pain and surprise) are facing a kind of dumbfounding on a massive scale. The forces by which people are buffeted today — notably, wild economic swings, radical technological change, and sci-fi-like ecological scenarios — are well beyond the full understanding, let alone the firm control, of most politicians and experts. Some Americans sense that the world has become too complex and interdependent for one authority — even the United States — to assert itself successfully.

When politicians do make efforts at control, the results often range from tragic to pathetic. Wean the United States off Middle Eastern oil with offshore drilling? Deepwater Horizon. Get at the roots of terrorism by imposing democracy on Afghanistan? Quagmire. Emphasize quiet diplomacy over military might? WikiLeaks. In the global village, we know too much and can do too little. The United Nations seems only barely better than the League of Nations, and it is hard to know whether it is more depressing to see meaningless, toothless resolutions passed, or to see even the most urgent and obvious resolutions — these days, on Syria — fail to rally the necessary consensus.

As when they are told of the amorous encounter with the dead beast, Americans do not like what they hear on the news. For a nation accustomed to winning wars and making the world safe for democracy, coming to terms with its own impotence in the face of a world that it is increasingly unsure how to navigate can only be unsettling. The most honest souls are at pains to say what exactly is wrong or what to do about it (although many an opportunist is all too willing to name a villain). In this dumbfounding context of fear and vulnerability, perhaps Americans give their emotions and their rhetoric freer rein than they otherwise might.

It would appear that the appetite for each of Haidt’s six basic moral concepts varies from culture to culture and context to context. If the existence of these categories is in fact universal, their relative importance across different societies and different eras would appear to vary greatly. Why should functioning social programs, decent laws, a flag, and a few sports teams satisfy Danes but not Delawareans? Why did Republicans, throughout the entirety of the postwar era, mostly support an expansive role for government and an expanding social safety net that they today see as anathema?

The terms liberal and conservative don’t even mean the same things in different places. “American conservatism is now very different from the British kind,” noted the Economist’s Bagehot column, after a recent visit by British prime minister David Cameron to the United States. Meanwhile, when many Europeans speak of liberalism, or liberalization, they are actually speaking of laissez-faire, market-based economic policies that are more identified with conservatism in the United States than with liberalism. At the same time, the far Right in France and elsewhere have become vigorous defenders of a generous social safety net, at least for the native born.

Haidt may be right that American liberals are fighting an uphill battle because they do not activate enough moral taste buds. And liberals should certainly not dismiss the values of their conservative countrymen. But neither should they assume that their own ideals, which achieved so much and resonated­­ so strongly with the public during much of the 20th century, are now hopelessly and permanently incompatible with the appetites of the electorate.

As Americans work to find their way back from two grueling and ambiguous wars, a devastating recession, and a period of disillusionment with most of their leaders (both public and private), a carefully expressed vision of care and fairness might yet win some votes. WEIRDer things have happened. /