The Righteous Mind
By Jonathan Haidt
Why, for the past generation, has conservatism become the default position on the American political dial? And why has this usually been the case for most of the planet?
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is an old and able hand at delving into the big questions. His first book, The Happiness Hypothesis, examined the wisdom of the ages from which he developed an interesting formula to determine how happy you are, and what you can do to improve your score. It's brilliant and will put a smile on your face.
For his second book, Haidt turned to a subject that made him very unhappy. The lifelong American liberal was frustrated with the Democratic Party's continuing inability to connect with a broad constituency in election after election. What was wrong with middle and lower-class voters that they fell into line with the Republicans who espoused policies favoring the rich and apparently at odds with their own interests?
Haidt points to two life-changing events that began to change his perspective on morality. The first was a trip to India nearly 20 years ago where his mind opened to the existence of a broader moral spectrum, and he came to the understanding that western progressives leading the charge to a secular and rational world were the odd ones out.
In fact, they're WEIRD - Haidt's shorthand for western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. And they have a rather daunting sales job in front of them.
That's because morality is a stew composed of six ingredients in varying degrees. Haidt determined that these include attitudes toward care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. He found that while liberals are most focused on care, liberty and justice, conservatives are the full meal deal, embracing all six, and include the heart-and-soul staples to boot: patriotism and religion.
Haidt calls this "the conservative advantage" - the Right simply does a better job of pushing all our buttons. They also appeal to the gut and as Haidt's research demonstrates - often to humorous effect - people are better equipped to tell you that something is immoral or wrong than eloquently explain why.
"Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason," he concludes.
The other turning point for Haidt was reading Conservatism by historian Jerry Muller and appreciating "that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances."
He asked himself: "Was there a kind of conservatism that could compete against liberalism in the court of social science? Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?"
After the defeat of liberal U.S. Senator John Kerry at the hands of George Bush in 2004, Haidt challenged the Democrats to reconsider their strategy and assumptions before the next presidential contest.
"I advised Democrats to stop dismissing conservatism as a pathology and start thinking about morality beyond care and fairness. I urged them to close the sacredness gap," he writes.
He also invited liberals to reconsider their assumptions of an ideal world, pointing to the haunting lyrics of John Lennon's Imagine.
"Imagine if there were no countries, and no religion too. If we could just erase the borders and boundaries that divide us, then the world would 'be as one.' It's a vision of heaven for liberals, but conservatives believe it would quickly descend into hell.
"I think conservatives are on to something."