Gareth Cook of Scientific American introduces us to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt, he says, “is concerned, like many Americans, with the way our country has become divided and increasingly unable to work together to solve looming threats. Yet, unlike most Americans, he is a psychologist and specialist on the origins of morality. In his book, Haidt examines the roots of our morality, and how they play out on the stage of history. Cook asked Haidt what he made of the recent political conventions, and he said:
I was mostly struck by how much the culture war has shifted to economic issues. These days it’s fought out over the three moral foundations that everyone values: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, and Liberty/oppression. The Democrats say that government must care for people, and that government programs are necessary to make America fair – to level the playing field, and give people the basic necessities that they need to enjoy liberty, especially education and health care. George W. Bush once called himself a “compassionate conservative,” but Republicans in the Tea Party era don’t talk much about compassion. For them, government is the cause of massive unfairness – taking money from taxpayers (the “makers” and “job creators”) and giving it to slackers and freeloaders (Romney’s “47 percent”). Government is seen as the principle threat to liberty. The private sector is much more trusted.
This is a huge shift from the period between 1992 and 2004, when the culture war was fought out mostly between social conservatives, particularly the religious right, and the secular left. It was fought out primarily over the three moral foundations that we call the “binding” foundations, because they bind people together into tight moral communities: Loyalty/betrayal (for example, issues of patriotism and flag protection), Authority/subversion (for example, respect for parents, and whether parents and teachers can spank children), and Sanctity/degradation (which includes most bioethical issues pitting the sanctity of life against a more harm-based or utilitarian ethos). This older culture war re-emerged briefly with Rick Santorum’s turn in the spotlight, but then it faded away. The Republican Party in particular has changed, and the moral arguments made in this Republican convention were very different.
I can’t say I noticed that. Your thoughts?
Hat tip Andrew Sullivan.