Sabato's Crystal Ball

What Is Wrong With Those Tea Partiers?

Jonathan Haidt, Guest Columnist February 4th, 2010

The truth has triumphed, at least for those attending this week’s Tea Party convention in Nashville: Obama is a socialist fascist communist statist Muslim whose healthcare “reform” would destroy the world’s greatest healthcare system and force Americans to wait in long lines so that their medical requests could be reviewed by death panels. This is not truth as you and I know it, but this statement (or at least parts of it) is believed to be true by the millions of Americans who coalesced into the Tea Party movement of 2009, which reinvigorated the political right just a few months after it had been declared dead. “What is wrong with those people?” ask so many people on the left. The answer from research in moral psychology is: Nothing.

Moral psychology historically confined itself to the study of altruism and justice. When morality is defined as being nice, then the angry rantings of right-wing protestors seem to have nothing to do with morality, and psychologists have long searched for non-moral explanations of conservatism. (Frustration? Racism? Fear of change?) In contrast, the righteous anger of left-wing marchers for peace and “social justice” was sometimes held up by social scientists as the pinnacle of moral development. But the new synthesis that has recently occurred in moral psychology—merging social psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary theory—gives us a new set of tools for understanding political movements, which are always moral movements, whether left-wing, right-wing, or something else. This new moral psychology is based on three principles, each of which can help outsiders understand the tea party movement:

1) Intuitive Primacy. Moral judgments, like aesthetic judgments, are best understood as quick gut feelings, not as products of reasoning. We have feelings about people and ideas within the first second of encountering them. We engage in reasoning too, but reasoning is slow, spread over many seconds or minutes, and it takes place within a mental workspace that has already been pre-structured by feelings. So if one third of Americans had negative feelings toward Obama on election day, and if many independents developed negative feelings as talk of tax increases and Wall Street bailouts escalated, then, by the summer of 2009, more than 40% of Americans were emotionally ready to receive the narrative about socialism and statism being formulated by conservative talk radio hosts such as Glenn Beck and Mark Levin.

2) Moral Thinking is for Social Doing. People are extremely bad at solving simple logic problems that are unconnected to their interests, but we are all geniuses at justifying our prior actions and at making the case for propositions we favor. We are intuitive lawyers gunning for victory, not intuitive scientists seeking truth. In fact, research on everyday reasoning finds that people are largely incapable of searching for evidence that contradicts their initial hypothesis. So when passions run high, as they do among tea-partiers, their reasoning doesn’t get turned off. Rather, their reasoning is working overtime, and very elaborate belief structures (such as conspiracy theories) can be constructed out of the flimsiest materials (such as rumors about forged birth certificates). This is normal, and readers on the left should ask themselves how often they searched for counter-evidence that would have contradicted the worst things their friends said about George W. Bush.

3) Morality binds and builds. Morality, like politics, is really a team sport. Western philosophy often reduces ethics to the individual level (“How should I act?”). But many researchers now join Charles Darwin in believing that human morality was shaped in part by the competition of tribe vs. tribe. One of the main “tricks” that human tribes developed was the psychology of sacredness—the positing of a god, a person, a piece of land, or in more modern times a book or an idea, which was perfect, and which united a group in its defense. The left made racial equality its sacred principle in the 1960s, which led them to sacralize oppressed minorities. (Sacralization means that an object becomes perfectly pure, good, and unassailable.) It is a taboo on the left to “blame the victim,” and the left is therefore still prone to charging its opponents with racism. But the right chose freedom (understood as freedom from oppressive government) back in the days of the cold war, and it began to sacralize free markets in the 1980s (under Reagan and Thatcher). Is it any wonder, then, that that the right now uses “statist” and “socialist” as its all-purpose epithets? Is it so irrational to apply these labels to Obama? He does, after all, want to increase the government’s role in regulating healthcare, Wall Street, and anything that produces carbon dioxide.

Liberal readers may object that 1) Obama has been governing more as a centrist than as a left-wing collectivist; 2) George W. Bush was the real enemy of liberty with his contempt for civil rights, and 3) Healthcare costs and global warming are looming catastrophes for which vigorous action is a necessity. All true, in my opinion. But that’s the funny thing about moral psychology: it compels people on opposing teams to believe in conflicting and incompatible truths. Everyone on both sides asks: What is wrong with those people?

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. His work can be found at www.JonathanHaidt.com