Liberals Aren’t Un-American. Conservatives Aren’t Ignorant.

The demonization that mars our politics is a failure of moral imagination


| September-October, 2009



Liberals and Conservatives

image by Adam Niklewicz / www.illustratorusa.com

The following is part of a series of articles on reimagining politics beyond the pundits. For more, read  Post-Pundit America  ,  Not Everyone Is Out to Get You  , and  Daring to Accept Our Differences .

Jonathan Haidt is hardly a road-rage kind of guy, but he does get irritated by self-righteous bumper stickers. The soft-spoken psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the cars of fellow liberals: “Support our troops—bring them home” and “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

“No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, ‘Hmm . . . so liberals are patriotic!’” he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. “We liberals are universalists and humanists; it’s not part of our morality to highly value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic—or that we’re supporting the troops, when in fact we’re opposing the war—is disingenuous.

“It just pisses people off.”

The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these catch phrases are not only insincere, they’re also fundamentally wrong. Liberals and conservatives, he insists, inhabit different moral universes. There is some overlap in belief systems, but huge differences in emphasis.

In a creative attempt to move beyond red-state/blue-state clichés, Haidt has developed a framework that codifies humankind’s multiplicity of moralities. This model, which endeavors to explain behavior based on five basic moral impulses, is simultaneously startling in its stark depiction of our differ­ences and reassuring in that it brings welcome clarity to an arena where murkiness of motivation often breeds contention.

michael j contos
10/2/2009 10:55:58 AM

I am reminded of the "Golden Mean," espoused by one of the Greek philosophers; was it Aristotle that said, "all things, in moderation?" I see a middle of the road approach for both sides to coexist and also provide a much-needed respect for anothers' views when we look at those views from these 5 traits. We don't have to demonize the other side and treat everything they say as some plot to get their "narrow-minded" beliefs shoved down other peoples' throats. An honest belief that both sides are sincere and guileless can be a first step toward reconciling our positions. You may not win anyone over, but your view could be more palatable for a person to understand.


nathan_2
10/1/2009 1:33:04 PM

I almost didn't continue reading the article after Haidt disdain for the bumper stickers in the beginning of the article. Speaking for myself, as well as many people I have known in the peace movement opposing the the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would say that they strongly believe in the messages of “Support our troops—bring them home” and “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” If you believe that troops should only be sent into war under certain circumstances, in which the nation is threatened, then to support troops sent into an unjust war would be supporting them. If you believe that dissent is not only allowed but encouraged by democratic form of government -- historically and by principle -- then to express it using your First Amendment rights is indeed patriotic. Haidt's apparent disbelief that these messages could be genuine -- when they indeed can -- points to a lack of understanding of the political view of people. This puts his entire enterprise into question. Also, to divide people's beliefs up into such distinct and opposing groups, and maintaining generalist and stereotypical view towards all "liberals" and "conservatives" -- terms which do not adequately describe the diversity and complexity of political-ethical view in this country, a fact acknowledged by a good political scientist now for some years -- also calls into question that he has an adequate understanding of his subject. Yet, I will nevertheless check out the websites mentioned. Though I will be considering them with a big grain of salt.


nathan_2
10/1/2009 1:32:42 PM

I almost didn't continue reading the article after Haidt disdain for the bumper stickers in the beginning of the article. Speaking for myself, as well as many people I have known in the peace movement opposing the the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would say that they strongly believe in the messages of “Support our troops—bring them home” and “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” If you believe that troops should only be sent into war under certain circumstances, in which the nation is threatened, then to support troops sent into an unjust war would be supporting them. If you believe that dissent is not only allowed but encouraged by democratic form of government -- historically and by principle -- then to express it using your First Amendment rights is indeed patriotic. Haidt's apparent disbelief that these messages could be genuine -- when they indeed can -- points to a lack of understanding of the political view of people. This puts his entire enterprise into question. Also, to divide people's beliefs up into such distinct and opposing groups, and maintaining generalist and stereotypical view towards all "liberals" and "conservatives" -- terms which do not adequately describe the diversity and complexity of political-ethical view in this country, a fact acknowledged by a good political scientist now for some years -- also calls into question that he has an adequate understanding of his subject. Yet, I will nevertheless check out the websites mentioned. Though I will be considering them with a big grain of salt.


san_1
10/1/2009 12:24:09 PM

Interesting article. Extremism on either side of the spectrum is not good. I don't sport bumper stickers, and I don't always agree with the extreme liberals, but I never agree with the extreme right. I have my own sense of right and wrong and it is not only a combination of common sense, but what I feel is a responsible attitude toward our planet and its creatures, not only humans. Perhaps conservatives believe in stewardship but they have funny ways of showing it since they seem to support the global corporations that destroy our planet every day for the bottom line. Perhaps conservatives believe in family, but they have a funny way of showing it considering overpopulation is one of the major problems facing our planet and the human race. If all people don't come together and rise above their small focus on liberal or conservatism to address the immediate environmental problems we are facing, then I guess any discussion will be moot and just an exercise in self-centeredness.


san_1
10/1/2009 12:23:51 PM

Interesting article. Extremism on either side of the spectrum is not good. I don't sport bumper stickers, and I don't always agree with the extreme liberals, but I never agree with the extreme right. I have my own sense of right and wrong and it is not only a combination of common sense, but what I feel is a responsible attitude toward our planet and its creatures, not only humans. Perhaps conservatives believe in stewardship but they have funny ways of showing it since they seem to support the global corporations that destroy our planet every day for the bottom line. Perhaps conservatives believe in family, but they have a funny way of showing it considering overpopulation is one of the major problems facing our planet and the human race. If all people don't come together and rise above their small focus on liberal or conservatism to address the immediate environmental problems we are facing, then I guess any discussion will be moot and just an exercise in self-centeredness.


coralee
9/25/2009 12:12:29 PM

T Pruett seems to be in agreement with the article. The word patriotism appeals to the moral value of loyalty. The word dissent appeals to the moral value of fairness. The phrasing places more power with the word dissent and takes away from the strength of the word patriotism. Therefore, it is a direct attack on those who value patriotism or loyalty more than those who value fairness or dissent more. I think that you are right-on in saying that both these values are a part of a healthy democracy. I believe that is what Haid is working to show as well. It is difficult to see that they are both valued on a bumper sticker that clearly values one, especially if the value that you adhere to is the one under the negative light.


t puett
9/12/2009 12:10:19 PM

This article is interesting, yet fails to convey the richness of developmental psychology and the work of others in the field: Kegan, Wilber, Graves, etc... While I appreciate the 5 moral domains outlined, I think they are overly simplistic. For example, I believe that dissent and patriotism ARE part of a healthy democracy and that the more we fail to see that, the more narrow our vision is of a civic society. Dissent is part of the US Constitution in form, and is essential for the minority voice to be heard. I think this point is missing from the article.


wofford wilkes
8/23/2009 7:55:35 PM

I am not sure that Haidt is correct about conservatives. Government or the need for government arose out of the need of individuals and social groups to protect property rights. That government was likely the military force needed to protect the group from others. Loyalty and duty arose from this early social organization. Belonging is as old as the human family. Individual liberty was made possible by the force necessary to protect property rights. When government resulted in tyranny then it had deviated from its foundational role. Conservative thought seems to emerge from first principles whereas liberal thought seems to run counter to first principles or exists as a luxury in a wealthy society. The differences seem to center on the concepts of negative and positive rights. More important to liberals are positive rights which are granted by government only through the confiscation of private property this makes a mockery of individual liberty. Simple majority rule can force the grant of positive rights but at great social cost.