Liberals have had their suspicions about the source of all the rage and anger regarding the Tea Party Movement, but can social science finally lend some credence to them? According to author and journalist Chris Mooney, it can.
Mooney sat down with Moyers & Company to discuss the seething rage and anger at the core of the hard right-wing movement, and how they differ in a sociological perspective from the rest of us. One of the most basic differences appears to be that conservatives in general but hard right-wingers in specific have a very different moral compass form the rest of us. Citing from a Jonathan Haidt study on the psychology of politics, Mooney notes that liberals tend to feel more strongly about the moral foundation of “harm.” Now, this moral foundation encompasses emotions that relate to empathy and compassion; according to Mooney, harm is “measured by the question of how much someone is suffering and how much that suffering is a moral issue to you. How much is caring for the weak and vulnerable a moral issue to you?”
He notes that the issue isn’t that conservatives lack empathy — although given their electorate and the actions of their legislature, I see no reason to think otherwise for the vast majority — it’s that “they don’t necessarily feel it as strongly. They feel other things strongly.”
This goes a long way in explaining the health care debate; according to Haidt, liberals see it as a harm-care-compassion thing. Conservatives, meanwhile, have a different type of morality. In fact, conservatives are more bothered by someone getting something that they don’t deserve, than giving people help. To them, it’s better that a million people suffer poverty than one risk one person getting something they “don’t deserve.” According to Mooney, that’s where the clash is: Liberals place a high value on mitigating harm towards others, while conservatives don’t really care, and they’re more worried that someone is going to cheat welfare, cheat disability insurance, or cheat SNAP, to get something they “don’t deserve.”
The real irony here is that the conservatives routinely line up to defend the real cheaters — that tax dodgers who hemorrhage this country dry and siphon that money into overseas tax havens.
“Harm” is just one of seven different morality types; the other six include “Fairness,” “ingroup,” “authority,” “purity,” “economic liberty,” and “lifestyle liberty.” Below is a graph comparing the three different identifications in this country — liberal, conservative, libertarian — charted out to show the responses in regards to the different morality foundation.
It should be noted that Conservatives care more about “harm” than libertarians do. This means that, according to this social science study, “f*ck you, I got mine” is an accurate descriptor of the libertarian outlook after all. Not that it comes as surprise to anyone.
I wish they would’ve split up “liberal” into different groups; for instance, I consider myself a liberal socialist and a technoprogressive. That’s liberal in the European sense, not the American sense. I straddle a number of lines, but I’m pretty solidly parked over here on the left. People like me don’t even being to fit in this graph.
That said, however, the graph rhymes pretty well with what I feel, especially on certain moral issues like “authority,” “purity,” “ingroup,” and “fairness.” There, you’ll see the greatest discrepancy between what conservatives believe is important and what both liberals and libertarians believe is important. For conservatives, harming people doesn’t matter as much as ensuring purity, respecting (proper) authority, and ingroup loyalty.
Purity covers things like sexual purity, which also includes abortion. The “jokes” about conservatives wanting to punish women for having sex aren’t jokes. By this graph and probably by your experience, that’s how they actually feel. Liberals and libertarians don’t place a huge value on purity, that’s why abortion, female sexuality, sex before marriage, sex ed, and other sex-related elements of society don’t bother us as much. According to Mooney:
Purity is basically whether you feel moral emotions when someone does something you view as disgusting or indecent. A lot of this is going to involve your judgments about what’s sexually proper, but it could be other things that are disgusting. Basically, this is a way of measuring the emotion of disgust, and what this shows — this is the most striking disparity of all of them — is that liberals and libertarians really don’t sense disgust very much. And they’re together on that completely. There’s an amazing number of things that liberals and libertarians are together on. But conservatives feel it much more than either of them. And so this can explain a great deal in politics — it’s most regularly invoked to explain gay rights and how people respond to that, which I think is very appropriate. But I think it also gets into a lot of bioethical issues.
It also explains why the conservatives are currently working to shift gears and attack transsexuals and transgendered folk — the “T” in LGBT — and why they oppose stem cell research, genetic modification, transgenics splicing, and whatever new biotech is coming down the pike.
The good thing about this is that Mooney notes that while someone may be predisposed to feel a certain way, the brain is a very elastic (and very weird) organ. Those “circuits” can be reinforced or weakened depending on life experiences. Humans, however, have a tendency to gravitate towards the extreme anyway; for instance, they touch on the asymmetry in what they note is “motivated reasoning” and how authoritarian personalities discard cognitive dissonance. Motivated reasoning especially pushes us towards an extreme position.
At the end of the day, though, the plastic nature of the human mind means that even the most entrenched circuit can be broken and new habits and beliefs can be reconstructed. However, the more entrenched it is, the more self-fulfilling it is, the more dramatic a shift in a person’s life it’ll likely require in order for them to see that they were wrong.