Are cognitive differences at the root of our political differences?

When George W. Bush was president, as much as I hated and loathed him, I often needed to remind myself that it seemed like he was very nice to his wife. When I was a kid, I assured myself that school bullies probably all had “bad home lives.” I often find myself reading right-wing websites searching for something that will help me understand and empathize, at least in some way, with what these people want and where they’re coming from.

Because I cannot accept that anyone is “just mean” or “just stupid.” According to many psychological studies, this impulse is pretty much the exact reason I’m a liberal.

As we’ve become a more polarized nation, there has been a lot of interest in what it is, exactly, that makes someone progressive or conservative, and what this means in other aspects of our lives. One study showed that even parenting styles–whether a parent values creativity or obedience–can determine political allegiance.

It’s hard for me to understand why someone would be opposed to gay marriage. Or why anyone would even care about making kids pray in school, or having “In God We Trust” on things. Or why anyone would be opposed to light bulbs that are more environmentally friendly. Or why anyone wouldn’t want everyone to to have healthcare, and food, and a place to live. Or why anyone would feel so very importantly about getting to live in some Ayn Rand-ish/ Social Darwinist type world, or what satisfaction they would get from that.

But, honestly, I’d like to understand.

The best thing I’ve seen lately on these psychological differences is the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, interviewed last week for Mother Jones, and whose work was discussed in an article today on Raw Story.

Haidt posits that while progressives value “preventing harm” and “fairness,” conservatives value “purity,” and “authority” and believe in karmic justice over social justice. So, while I am upset by the idea of someone dying of starvation or because they can’t afford healthcare, a conservative will feel that this person essentially “earned” their death, and that the government interfering with that is a travesty of justice. While someone on the right isn’t entirely immune to empathy or compassion, and may be empathetic in their general life (for instance, really nice to their dog), they just don’t value that as much as they value the idea that people should “get what they deserve.”



Haidt posits that the what the Tea Party wants, most desperately, is a kind of official policy of karmic law.

Via Mother Jones:

“My analysis is that the Tea Party really wants [the] Indian law of Karma, which says that if you do something bad, something bad will happen to you, if you do something good, something good will happen to you,” says Haidt. “And if the government interferes and breaks that link, it is evil. That I think is much of the passion of the Tea Party.”

To me, this explains a lot. Because when I read things from these people, it always seems to me like someone who just stubbed their toe and is in such huge amounts of pain that they are unable to think clearly or rationally about anything other than how much pain they’re in, or explain to anyone else what just happened and why they’re screaming.

Haidt also mentions that the dramatic polarization isn’t the result of both sides of the aisle becoming more extreme. While the Republican party has moved very far to the right, the Democratic party has essentially remained pretty centrist and has not moved further to the left in recent years.

Because conservatives tend to value “ingroup” and “authoritarian” models, they are inclined to move further and further to the right as time goes on. The fact that they cannot be immediately granted any kind of Ayn Rand Objectivist utopia is going to frustrate them even more, because anything other than that appears to be failure. The problem with that is, most people in this country don’t actually want to live in that kind of society, and that’s something they don’t want to have to deal with, and don’t believe they should have to deal with.

I believe in freedom of association. If I had the ability to give these people the country they wanted, I would do it. I would gladly let them secede. Have a theocratic society with no taxes, as many AK-47s as they pleased, with no birth control, no social safety net, no health care, white history month, and all the voter restrictions they could imagine. I would actually like to see them be happy, I would like them to get everything they want, so they could be stop feeling so viscerally hurt.

I just can’t live in that country myself. It’s not fair to me, it’s not fair to all the other people who have to live here and don’t want that. I accept that they don’t want to live in my personal utopia either, which is why I sometimes have to compromise and accept that I can’t get everything I want.

If they can’t learn to compromise, if they can’t learn that they can’t always have their own way, this is what they’re going to have to do. They’re not “We The People”– we are all “We The People” and if they can’t handle us being the people too, I don’t know what to tell them.