Tag Archives: Jonathan Haidt

Maybe it’s not just the economy

19 Mar

Tennessee does not have a state income tax. In fact, it’s the figurative third rail of state politics, the surest route to electoral oblivion for any politician. For example: a once-popular Republican governor, Don Sundquist, left the governor’s mansion all but ostracized from the party for even mentioning it.

I’ve puzzled over that attitude for a long time because it’s been established that a state income tax would have a net benefit to the state (which near the nation’s bottom rung for education spending), it would be almost a wash on middle class tax burdens, and it would actually ease the tax burden on poor people. (I’ve lived in four states, two with and two without state income tax. Being severely middle class, our total tax bill in each place was roughly the same.)

Yet voters reject it time and again. The state legislature is even on the brink of passing a “no income tax, ever” amendment in the state constitution.

Why do Tennesseans vote against their own best interests, I’ve wondered.

One hunch I’ve had — no proof, no hard evidence, no studies to back me up, just a hunch from talking to people and listening to the no-income-tax rhetoric — is that Tennessee’s political history is steeped a screw-you attitude when it comes to governments.

Exhibit A: The Watauga Association, possibly the first attempt at an independent (read: rogue) government on American soil, illegal under British law at the time, was formed in what is now Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1772.

Exhibit B: What is now northeast Tennessee was almost the nation’s 14th state, the state of Franklin, an attempted breakaway from North Carolina, which in the 1700s stretched–in theory, anyway–over the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. A bunch of settlers didn’t like an attempted “land grab” by North Carolina legislators, not to mention the idea of their hard-earned dollars going back east over the mountains to Raleigh. So they petitioned and even shed blood to form a new state.

Underneath these stories is an idea: We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, even if it costs us. We’re independent. (Never mind that Tennesseans receive $1.27 in federal benefits for every $1.00 of federal taxes they pay.)

But Jonathan Haidt puts all this much more neatly and convincingly in an essay last week in the New York Times, “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness” (March 17). He wasn’t talking about Tennessee and taxes; he has in mind a larger stage. But if the shoe fits, as the saying goes. The author’s name might ring a bell from a previous post.

I encourage you to read Haidt’s entire essay. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

This analysis may also explain why GOP voters generally aren’t thrilled with Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate, especially when compared with the followers of Rick Santorum—as well as Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann before him. Romney’s rivals have stirred up more enthusiasm, if not more votes, because they seem to tap into big themes (even at the risk of getting their facts wrong), while Romney tends to sound more like the very capable office executive he has been: steady but not exciting. (Remember the old cliche about “the one you date and the one you marry”?)

Just this week, Santorum said the election isn’t really about the economy, which seems like a crazy statement at first glance. But he’s trying to tap into a deeper well—something more “fundamental,” to use his word. Or maybe something “sacred,” to use Haidt’s.

Top photo: Jaime Dowell (Manifestation Nation)

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Polarized politics, righteous minds, and Dr. Who

6 Feb

Working on a project the other day, I came across this quotation, courtesy of that brilliant British social critic, Dr. Who (circa 1977):

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views—which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”

The quote is out there. When I searched on the Internet to confirm the source, I found it at several other web sites, including this one and this one.

See? The left and right really can find common ground. Except I have a hunch they’ll differ about who exactly are “the very powerful and the very stupid.”

But seriously, folks …

Bill Moyers broadcast a fascinating interview on Sunday with philosopher and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt about why American liberals and conservatives see the world so differently, to the point that our current political polarization seems inevitable. While U.S. politics has always been rough and tumble, the consensus is that we’re witnessing something different in our time, something toxic. It seems that most public debates don’t stop at disagreement these days. Now we push on to personal demonization. I’m not talking only about recent televised debates among professional politicians. I’ve been tempted to cancel my Facebook account a few times in the last six months because of the rancor coming from some amateurs.

Jonathan Haidt, appearing on "Moyers and Co."

“When it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but … the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise,” Haidt told Moyers. “Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

Haidt, who teaches social psychology at the University of Virginia and is a visiting professor of business ethics at NYU-Stern School of Business, traces the roots of our current state of affairs to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Moyers himself was involved in those pieces of legislation, as President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary.) He also offered a couple of realistic suggestions about how we might start reducing the temperature and return to more civil discourse and a more functional public life. To view the Moyers-Haidt interview, go here.

If you’re wondering where Haidt himself stands, he said he began his research as a confirmed liberal but now describes himself as a moderate. In his opinion, he said, conservative intellectuals understand basic human nature better than liberal intellectuals. That statement alone could prompt a good conversation either in a classroom or a dining room. (Go ahead. Don’t let me stop you.)

He has a new book coming out in March that explores the connections between morality and politics, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). I don’t pre-order many books, but after listening to Haidt, I think I’ll make an exception.

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Coming soon: Notes about the new rule from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will require all health-insurance providers–including religion-based organizations–to provide contraceptives to women, even if the religious organization believes it is wrong. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a growing number of other church leaders are calling this an infringement of religious liberty.

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