It would be a gross understatement to say that the politics of 2020 have been turbulent and bitterly divided.
There have been mass protests over the persistence of systemic racism and police brutality, which in some cases have devolved into civil unrest and violence. Meanwhile, the world is going through a historic pandemic that has fundamentally altered the daily lives of people around the world. Amidst all this change and uncertainty, one of the few things that seems consistent in our society is the persistence of anger and strife. Politics is increasingly focuses on passion and emotion over issues that really matter, but this passion is rarely viewed by political opponents as anything other than vicious, self-serving lies.
How did it get this bad? Most people would agree, regardless of their political affiliation, that the state of the nation is quite abysmal. COVID-19 had definitely caused some of this, but many, if not most, of the problems we are facing concern issues that predate the coronavirus pandemic. Despite our country’s widespread agreement that there is a problem, it seems impossible for us to determine why.
To understand why political discourse has deteriorated so drastically, it is crucial to understand how these political fights play out at an individual level. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done extensive research on how humans make decisions on moral, political, and religious matters. Haidt has found that people ultimately have two influences that affect our moral judgements: our rational capabilities and our automatic predispositions. A helpful analogy Haidt uses to illustrate this concept is by comparing humans to an elephant and a rider. The elephant represents the automatic, predisposed intuitions on moral issues that influence the majority of all our moral decisions. The elephant when presented with a moral dilemma, will automatically lean one way or the other, and in most circumstances the rider, who represents our rational capabilities, will follow along and find reasons to support the elephant’s initial intuition. This makes it seem that the elephant is largely in control, but the rider has some important influence on the elephant. If the rider truly feels the elephant’s intuitions are indefensible, he will overrule the elephant.
In most cases, despite education or social class, people are not guided by cold, passionless reason, but by their own intuitions about moral situations. Haidt’s research identified five fundamental moral intuitions that determine our initial attitudes towards moral situations. These predisposed intuitions are concerning the issues of care and harm, fairness and cheating, loyalty and betrayal, authority and subversion, and sanctity and degradation. Each person’s intuitions about these topics are fairly heritable, though this does not mean these attitudes are set in stone.
Thomas Edsall has explained in the New York Times that these moral foundations play a fundamental role in political polarization in the United States. According to Edsall, there was a fairly balanced distribution of these five foundations in the two political parties before the Civil Rights era, partially because there was a more even mix of liberals and conservatives in both parties. This changed in large part because of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. This election strategy was able to bring many Southern Democrats into the Republican party by reorienting the party’s focus to Evangelical Christians, white identity, and business interest. This made the Republican Party more strictly conservative over time and the Democratic Party, in turn, more strictly liberal. Specifically, Democrats now tend to emphasize the issues of care and fairness while Republicans place greater emphasis on sanctity, loyalty, and authority.
As political parties became increasingly polarized around these fundamental predispositions, Edsall notes that other social identities like race and religion have also become confined to one party due to their close relationship to our fundamental morals. Such a stark division in ideologies like this places people in what Haidt has called “moral matrixes.” All issues become issues around morals, and it doesn’t take much for the opposite side to view opposing opinions as fundamentally evil. The clearest evidence for this is how “culture war” issues such as LGBTQ rights and abortion provoke fiercer and more engaged debate than more interest-based issues such as economic policy. These issues are immediately seen as more important to many because they threaten our socio-cultural identity.
In light of all of this, what can be done? Are we doomed to continue to hate the other side more and more? It is natural when dealing with issues like this to hope for some top-down answer that swiftly solves the problem. But the only way to really address something like political polarization is by changing people’s ideologies, and that change happens largely at an individual level. Haidt notes that one of the best ways to challenge your own moral intuitions is simply by talking with other people, and avoid simply justifying your own attitudes rather than finding the truth. By doing this, we can develop a greater appreciation for moral beliefs different from our own and approach opposing views with humility and openness rather than combativeness and stubbornness.
Benjamin Schnurr is a Collegian Correspondent and can be reached at [email protected]