A tantalizing article in The Guardian by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, offers us a theory about why the Dems are losing. It’s not the economy, but moral vision that is bringing them down.
According to Haidt,
politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It’s more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets) and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programs.
This “morality” of the GOP contrasts with Democrats/liberals in Haidt’s research
Across many kinds of surveys, in the UK as well as in the USA, we find that people who self-identify as being on the left score higher on questions about care/harm. For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.
But on matters relating to group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (treating things as sacred and untouchable, not only in the context of religion), it sometimes seems that liberals lack the moral taste buds… For example, according to our data, if you want to hire someone to criticize your nation on a radio show in another nation (loyalty), give the finger to his boss (authority), or sign a piece of paper stating one’s willingness to sell his soul (sanctity), you can save a lot of money by posting a sign: “Conservatives need not apply.”
This, according to Haidt, is a sign that Republicans/conservatives are more interested in the moral order than Democrats/liberals. It is an idea we have heard before, but Haidt’s claims are backed up by data collected in surveys (you can participate in one here).
The survey purports to measure
five psychological foundations of morality that seem to be found across cultures: 1) Harm/care, 2) Fairness/reciprocity, 3) Ingroup/loyalty, 4) Authority/respect, and 5) Purity/sanctity.
The hypothesis is
that issues related to harm and fairness are more sacred to liberals, whereas issues related to ingroup, authority, and purity are more sacred to conservatives.
In some ways, this seems like a sociology of the obvious: lefties care about fairness and conservatives care about authority. And of course the measures themselves are far from perfect. For instance, lefties are more willing to sell their soul than conservatives and therefore they measure as less concerned about “purity” but lefties also are far more likely to be atheists so of course we’ll sell our souls to any sucker who wants to pay for them. That doesn’t mean we’d sell our child’s kidney.
But Haidt’s research does offer some further evidence that the Democrats can only win if they can come up with a moral vision, one that plays on the left’s sense that it is the job of government to make things as fair as possible. Some of the Democrats’ ideas–like health care for all or even Obama’s evolution on gay marriage–are a start but they lack a coherent narrative, like a New Deal or War on Poverty. And although Obama’s “change” and “hope” worked to pull in many voters, the current campaign lacks even these buzz words.
“Better than Romney” or “It could get a lot worse” are not going to motivate the large number of voters that Obama’s 2008 campaign did. It is time for the Dems to think big, really big, and offer us a moral vision of the world and the country or they will very likely lose to the Republicans, who since Ronald Reagan have indeed offered Americans a “new day.”