Pop quiz:

Do you favor variety, novelty, diversity, new ideas, travel? Or do you prefer sticking to things that are familiar, safe, and dependable?

If you answered yes to the first question, then you are higher on a major personality trait called Openness To Experience (OTE). As psychologist Jonathan Haidt says in his TED talk, “If you know about this trait, you can understand a lot of puzzles about human behavior. You can understand why artists are so different from accountants. You can actually predict what kinds of books they like to read, what kinds of places they like to travel to, and what kinds of foods they like to eat.” Based on this trait you can also predict people’s political leanings. Robert McCrae, the main researcher of this trait, writes, “Open individuals have an affinity for liberal, progressive, left-wing political views, whereas closed individuals prefer conservative, traditional, right wing views.” If you cross check this information with your answers to the questions at the top, no doubt you’ll find that this holds true for you.

I think it’s a popular perspective among the liberal folk to assume that people who vote for republicans are “blinded,” or “asleep” or something. If only they could just “wake up,” then they’d realize the errors of their ways. (Much like many conservatives think about liberals as well.) Haidt refers to this kind of thinking as a “moral matrix.” A kind of group-psychology framework that makes it hard for either side to really be able to understand why the people over there are making the decisions they are. According to Haidt, what it inevitably comes down to is morals.

Haidt has been studying morality from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, investigating common denominators in what cultures all across the world value as right and wrong in order to uncomver what may be the innate moral predispositions “built in” to the the human exeprience. Thus, his definition of morality is “Any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.” According to his research, there are five distinct moral predispositions, which Haidt calls the Foundations of Morality:

1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundaiton underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

Haidt’s analogy for how these five foundations work to create our personal moral frameworks is that of an audio equalizer. Each foundation is like a kind of “channel” that we can adjust to our own personal levels, according to how meaningful each one is for us. Both liberals and conservatives agree that the first two foundations are critical components of morality, and they set those channels way up high, with liberals tending to set them a little bit higher than conservatives. However, the big divergence point where liberal and conservative viewpoints drastically split apart is on the last three moral channels. Namely, conservatives value Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity as significant foundations of morality, bringing  the levels up, and liberals view these three aspects as having nothing to do with morality, and bring them way down.

This phenomenon, by the way, is not specific just to the U.S. It applies to liberals and conservatives in regions that Haidt and his team studied all across the world, Canada, The UK, Australia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, East Asia, South Asia–this split is not a national phenomenon, it’s a human phenomenon. “Liberals,” as Haidt says, “Speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice even at the risk of chaos. If you’re high on openness to experience, revolution is good, it’s change, it’s fun. Conservatives, on the other hand, speak for institutions and traditions. They want order even at some cost to those at the bottom. The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve. It’s really precious. And it’s really easy to lose.”

The reality here, then, is that people who vote for republicans are not “asleep” or “unconscious,” and can potentially be “woken up,” or something, as liberals are fond of saying, but that they actually have a totally different sense of morality, and vision of society. In both metaphoric and demographic terms, liberals and conservatives want to listen to different music. Which poses a bit of a problem. Since they can only elect one DJ at a time.

In a 2006 Salon article, Andrew O’Heir wrote:

“It’s a striking fact of modern American life that rural white conservatives have become smarter, better organized and more militant, and that they now largely vote as a bloc. But the notion that there is some sort of equivalent or larger political grouping that opposes them in some coherent way is pure fiction. (See also: Democratic Party, recent history of.) Mann’s supposed metro majority simply does not exist — it’s a welter of races, social classes and economic strata, from the urban poor to the bicoastal intelligentsia to the security-obsessed suburban moms of demographic lore. Being non-rural, non-born-again and non-right-wing does not constitute an identity.”

This lack of a “unified liberal identity”–a concept that’s practically an oxymoron–has left them at a disadvantage, which has been expertly exploited by the united conservative front in recent years. As O’Heir writes, “These days, [conservatives] will support, with impressive solidarity, political leaders and public figures who share their backgrounds and their values, and whom they trust to reverse, or at least slow down, the pace of social change.”

Which makes me wonder–considering what Haidt and McCrae’s findings have revealed about the common affinity for change that liberal, Open-To-Experience personality types possess, perhaps Change itself is the one constant that could finally unite all their disparate identities.



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