Crossing the Liberal-Conservative Chasm

Key ideas from The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Until a couple of years ago, I did not understand the left-right debate. Frankly, I didn’t care. It’s American politics and I am not American so it’s not my business.

I didn’t care until it did become my business. First, Trump got elected. I was a junior in college back then, rushing out of the library from preparing for finals to that gigantic Wellesley gym where we set up a celebration for Hillary Clinton’s victory, only to see students and alumnae crying on each others’ shoulders. Classes were cancelled the next day. I didn’t feel much except a sense of ridicule. As days went on, I started getting more and more impacted by the anti-immigration policies and the trade war with China. I felt rage, but because I couldn’t vote and therefore felt powerless, I did not seek to understand what’s happening.

I was well-sheltered in my liberal bubbles and remained a bystander until I dated someone who’s rather conservative. I still laugh when I tell my friends how we could have made the perfect couple in Chinese parents’ eyes, but deep down we fundamentally disagreed. I am sure we had more common ground than my righteous mind had assumed, but the reality was that we disagreed on almost everything that I cared about: feminism, affirmative action, environmentalism etc. We had many multi-hour debates on these issues and always ended on the same note:

Me: “did this make sense at all?”

Him: “well, not really… xyz.”

Me: eye roll

After two months, we parted ways. This New Yorker cartoon illustrated me as the father perfectly.

New Yorker, by Frank Cotham

Until recently, I thought I was the enlightened one and he was selfish and only cared about his in-group. He is wrong; I am right.

Then Covid-19 happened, together with a rise in prejudice against the Chinese. Just as I barely recovered from this grief, the #BlackLivesMatter movement started. I was devastated, almost wishing humanity would just die out so that those racist dumbasses (which actually include myself) could learn their lessons. Helpless, I sought refuge in spirituality, philosophy, and psychology, and realized that rather than finding solutions, I was becoming the problem. I was becoming a righteous lefty who wished ill on those who disagreed with me. I was creating more hate in the world while I wholeheartedly wanted to make it better.

I wasn’t alone in this. Research has shown that while conservatives are relatively accurate at predicting how liberals would respond to moral situations, liberals are terrible at predicting the conservatives (1). While we rush to social media telling the “world” that we are in rage for the mistreatment of the powerless groups, our messages do not speak to the conservatives, even if it somehow escapes our echo chamber. The social media outrage I’ve been seeing over the past month is exactly like my multiple failed debates with my ex. If the liberals don’t seek to understand the conservatives, we will never close the divide. The burden is on us.

In this essay, I hope to explain, through Haidt’s work, where the liberals and conservatives disagree. I also hope to make sense of what makes liberals “liberal” and conservatives “conservative”. I will end the essay seeking ways to bridge this gap. A disclaimer before we start is that the arguments in this essay belong to Jonathan Haidt and the hundreds of researchers he cited. I am no expert on this topic. I only intend to be a Plato to him, so that more liberals who are reading this article can gain insights without putting in 30 hours to digest his outstanding work filled with extremely dense information. I also do recognize that Haidt’s explanation is psychology-focused but to understand the divide, we also need to understand the entire historical background. Unfortunately, I think I need multiple PhDs to provide a full-picture view. While I don’t, here is what I learned from Haidt.

The divide

Haidt proposes that there are six foundational moral values for pretty much all human societies:

  • care/harm
  • liberty/oppression
  • fairness/cheating (refers to proportionality aka you reap what you sow, not equality. This is in fact a key issue liberals and conservatives are divided on, with the liberals caring about equality,related to the liberty foundation, and the conservatives caring about proportionality.)
  • loyalty/betrayal
  • authority/subversion
  • sanctity/degradation

When Haidt conducted research with liberals, libertarians, and conservatives, he discovered that they all care about these values more or less, but to different extents. This difference in values is the root of the divide.

The righteous mind by Jonathan Haidt

If you are one of the W.E.I.R.D ones, that is western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, chances are you are liberal. If so, “care for the victim of oppression” is your sacred value. Liberals, in particular, focus on “care” and “liberty”, and sometimes do not understand why “loyalty”, “authority”, “sanctity” are considered moral values. They might even consider the latter three values actively harmful to society (sexism, racism, homophobia etc). Liberals tend to be analytical and see the world as separate individuals instead of relationships that conservatives see.

The righteous mind by Jonathan Haidt

Libertarians’ sacred value is “liberty” and that’s basically all they care about. Compared to the liberals, their “care” foundation is particularly low, even lower than the conservatives. They do not like government interference and want to be left alone. When it comes to voting, the libertarians are increasingly voting republican because they see the government as a threat to liberty.

Conservatives have the fullest set of values. Their sacred value is to preserve the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community. Any large-scale organized group such as a nation state is a miracle. For that to last, the conservatives think we need rules, doctrines, traditions, even religions to regulate selfish individuals. The conservatives think individuals are flawed and don’t trust them to do what’s right for the group. The conservatives fear that if we remove the constraints and accountability we have today, it would result in social disorder. As a result, they see radical changes as dangerous.

Why this divide?

I cannot help but ask what makes the liberals liberal, the conservatives conservative. Apparently, income is not the reason because liberals and conservatives are distributed among both the rich and the poor: the rich industrialists are likely to be conservative while the tech billionaires are likely to be liberal; the rural poor is likely to be conservative while the urban poor is likely to be liberal. Haidt proposed that the divide happened through a three step process.

Our genes already predispose individuals to be liberal or conservative. Research has shown that two neurotransmitters might be responsible (2). The first one is glutamate and serotonin, which regulate threat/fear response. The conservatives’ brains are more sensitive to threat responses than the liberals’. The second one is dopamine, which corresponds to an individual being open to experience. The liberals are more open to experience than the conservatives.

Dispositional traits are only a starting point and don’t predetermine anything. It becomes powerful when people around the children start adapting to the children’s dispositions. For example, parents might be more likely to send the child who is predisposed to like new experience to extracurricular classes instead of letting them play at home. The teachers might give the child more chances to talk and therefore help her build up confidence. Gradually, the child builds up strong characteristics and self fulfills. The more confident she becomes, the more likely she will seek new experiences. Soon, she starts to travel whenever she gets a chance and ends up choosing a university in a coastal city instead of attending a state school. There, she is enmeshed in an environment with other liberal students, and becomes more and more liberal. A child who has more fear for the unknown might get more protection at a young age from parents, might seek comfort in religion, and might eventually choose to stay near home for school and for work.

Humans are story telling machines. Our life consists of many unrelated moments; but being the human we are, we explain away our life choices using post hoc fabricated stories. Suppose that the liberal girl tries to make sense of why she decided to leave her hometown for university, the story she would tell herself is she has always been curious about what’s outside her world. This then influences her future behaviors to seek more adventures and be even more open to new possibilities of thinking and acting.

Haidt’s explanation not only makes sense to me, it also shows me neither the liberals nor the conservatives are bad people. We all have families; all have our hopes and dreams. We are just made and brought up differently. Our common ground shows us that it’s possible for us to get on the same page. Since none of us are going away anytime soon, we have to work something out.

The dance of the Yin & Yang

Both the liberals and the conservatives have stuff they get right, stuff they get wrong. The debates between the liberal and the conservatives isn’t about finding the winner, but about the dance of the yin and the yang, seeking that perfect balance.

The liberals are right in saying the government should restrain corporate superorganisms. If you have taken economics 101, you know the concept of externalities. If we leave the market run as it is, no one will be paying for these externalities. Liberals are also right in arguing some problems really can be solved by regulation, such as regulating the financial markets to prevent another 2008. What the liberals struggle with is making sure the changes they propose are effective. We cannot overthrow the old system while not having made sure the replacement is better. We also risk changing too many things at once which results in degrading the moral capital — individuals start acting selfishly instead of contributing to the larger whole. As a result, the overall welfare in the society might go down and this might actually hurt the vulnerable the liberals were originally intending to help.

The libertarians are right in believing free markets are miraculous. Too much regulation in the free market might hurt efficiency. What the libertarians often fail to see is the externalities of the free markets. Without regulations, we might all get screwed in the end and disadvantaged groups tend to get hurt more. Think global warming.

What the liberals get wrong is what the conservatives are getting right. The conservatives argue “you can’t help the bees by destroying the hive”. Patriotism and parochialism can often be good things. They help us maintain our moral capital in society and help a group of selfish individuals move like bees. Together, the group can achieve miracles. Unfortunately, being fixated at preserving the values and the institutions today could result in failing to notice the victims, failing to limit the power of mega-corporations, and failing to change as time changes.

Having the conservatives around might be a blessing. They can help keep liberals in check to make sure the policies do what we intend them to do. A good society, it turns out, requires the collaboration between the liberals and the conservatives.

Cross the chasm

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

To make society better, we cannot divide America into north and south because it effectively results in a breakdown of the country. This is in fact already what America looks like today, with 48% of the Americans living in landslide counties (3). If we do not seek to mingle, our differences will continue to enlarge. To change the situation, we need to start making sure groups consist of individuals with diverse sets of values and ideologies. In these groups, the ones who can reason well can influence the claims of others.

If you are a W.E.I.R.Do like me, we are the statistical outliers. We are the well-educated ones in society and hence carry disproportionate responsibilities to make it better. To cross the chasm, we not only need to open our minds but also to open our hearts. We need to actively seek to understand and humanize “the other”. We need to listen to why others disagree and ask questions. We need to stop debating using reason and address the emotion and the intuition that’s talking in the other person. Maybe we are all the same in the end, hoping to be healthy, safe, and loved.

As I reached the end of the book, I found myself wondering the following questions. I do not have answer today, but I want to leave them here for the readers and my future self to ponder:

1. Can humanity ever unite as “one” without “the other”?

2. What’s the effect of individual spiritual enlightenment on society? Can this be the driving force in an increasingly atheist world?

3. Diversity seems to be both good and bad: good for a group to improve its values, bad for social cohesion and might result in degradation of moral capital. Should we promote diversity but at a slower pace so that people have the space and time to integrate?

Would like to hear your thoughts, especially if you disagree with me!

1, 2, 3 all from The Righteous Mind. I will dig out the original research later :)

PM in the day, Philosophy at night. Wish to open, awaken, and strengthen minds.