Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Constructive Approach to Bridging the Conservative / Liberal Divide

The political polarization in the US is caused by journalists and politicians who are misleading the public. Research by sociologist Jonathan Haidt shows that all people throughout the world have the same five basic intuitions about morality. The differences between liberals and conservatives occur in slight preferences about which aspects of morality they think are most important. Liberals and conservatives have much more in common than they have differences. However, journalists and politicians gain personally by demonizing and dehumanizing people who disagree with them when they portray these differences as a matter of smart vs. stupid or good vs. evil. This is a scam. This hate mongering makes it harder to find solutions to problems because it leads discussions to rapidly degenerate into name calling and vilification. It breeds mistrust and keeps us fighting among ourselves which makes us susceptible to exploitation by demagogues and moneyed interests1. Good, intelligent people can disagree3. Every scientific controversy shows that the interpretation of facts is only an opinion. If people will stop being fooled by this deception, the hate mongers will become powerless and our society will be able to solve problems through civil discussions based on mutual understanding and respect. The politicians are not going to solve this problem until it is in their interest to do so. We the people have to come together ourselves and reject media sources and political candidates that persist in dividing and polarizing the country. As Milton Friedman said, we the people need to make it politically profitable for the politicians to do the right thing2.

Jonathan Haidt is a sociologist who studies morality and ethics. In the two videos below, he discusses his research which explains why liberals and conservatives should be able to come together in a positive, cooperative, working relationship instead of their current antagonistic mode of interaction.

Haidt's research identifies five intuitions about morality that people of all cultures recognize. Each moral factor is beneficial in certain situations. Haidt has found that that conservatives and liberals in the US have different opinions about which moral factors are most important and this minor difference is the essence of what differentiates conservatives and liberals.

Haidt himself is a liberal who has come to appreciate the good qualities in conservatism. He likens the relationship between conservatism and liberalism as like yin/yang. Both are a necessary part of the whole of humanity. This is a much more accurate and healthy way of viewing the relationship between the two outlooks than the antagonistic approach many people (particularly journalists and politicians) have. Haidt explains political differences not in terms of smart vs. stupid or good vs. evil but in terms of inborn traits and neither outlook is better or worse in its consequences. A society with both liberals and conservatives will be superior than a society of only liberals or only conservatives.

One of Haidt's interests is the political deadlock and polarization in the current US government. The implications of his research are that in the legislative assemblies in the US, legislators of each party should understand the positive contributions both liberalism and conservatism make to society and they should work together with mutual respect using this knowledge rather than taking an adversarial approach that the other side is stupid or evil. By understanding the different aspects of morality and which situations each is appropriate in, legislation and amendments can be justified on moral grounds - providing a rational, respectful, basis for discussion and compromise.

Electoral politics and commercial journalism seem to me to be a huge obstacle to this vision. Haidt thinks holding open primaries is a good way to improve the situation. I think it would be also be helpful if the political candidates and journalists understood this research and talked publicly about it so that it becomes part of our culture.


  1. Part of the problem we have solving problems in society is understanding what the actual facts are. Frequently, moneyed interests use media and internet savvy to create a false reality that fools most people including politicians, doctors and scientists who then spread the misinformation. Because of the acrimony caused by political polarization in society, it is very difficult for people to sort through these deceptions because attempts at civil discussions about the facts quickly descend into accusations of the stupidity and evil of those who disagree.

    This TEDx by Sharyl Attkisson explains how these false realities are created:

    In this eye-opening talk, veteran investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson shows how astroturf, or fake grassroots movements funded by political, corporate, or other special interests very effectively manipulate and distort media messages.

    The talk includes a discussion of how Wikipedia (3:57) has been complicit in the problem. Wikipedia contradicted medical research 90% of the time (5:31).

    Attkisson suggests how to recognize propaganda and astroturf (at 8:55):

    • "Use of inflammatory language such as crank, quack, nutty, lies, paranoid, pseudo, and conspiracy."

    • "Astroturfers often claim to debunk myths that aren't myths at all. Use of the charged language tests well, people hear that something's a myth maybe they find it on snopes... and they instantly declare themselves too smart to fall for it. But what if the whole notion of the myth is itself a myth and you and snopes fell for that."

    • "Beware when interests attack an issue by controversializing or attacking the people, personalities and organizations surrounding it rather than addressing the facts."

    • "Astroturfers tend to reserve all of their public skepticism for those exposing wrong doing rather than the wrong doers. In other words, instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority."


    These videos explain how some people manipulate the media to generate false news stories. False news stories are used to induce opponents to react in ways that make them look bad and make supporters more emotionally involved in the cause. The author, Ryan Holiday, expresses his political views which I am not endorsing, but both sides use these techniques and these videos and the link do a good job of explaining how they work.

  2. No we don't need to change congress. Excuse me. People have a great misunderstanding about this. People in congress are in a business. They're trying to buy votes. They're in the business of competing with one another to get elected. The same congressman will vote for a different thing if he thinks that's politically profitable. You don't have to change congress. People have a great misconception in this way. They think the way you solve things is by electing the right people. It's nice to elect the right people but that isn't the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.

    Milton Friedman:
    quoted at
    I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or it they try, they will shortly be out of office.

  3. Here are a couple of examples of how people can have different interests without either being stupid or evil:

    • Globalists think it is unfair that national borders keep people from fleeing war zones and prevent them from living where there is economic opportunity. Nationalists think national borders are needed to keep terrorists out, to prevent drug trafficking and human trafficking, and to prevent lower wage workers from displacing them in the work force or lowering wages.

    • High earners may often favor environmentalism and government regulation over economic growth because they don't suffer when the national economy performs poorly. However, for low earners, economic policy is not theoretical or philosophical, economic growth can mean the difference between having enough food for their children or not.

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