In yesterday’s post, I touched on a simple and seemingly-obvious matter which is rarely given airplay but which serves as one of the fundamental underpinnings to our divided and polarized political environment: liberals and conservatives are different, and not just in how they deal with political matters and debate their respective ideologies.
Our moral values, the foundation of our beliefs, our notions of family and community, how we process information, and a slew of other personality characteristics and intellectual tools are—independent of political ideologies and issue positions—fundamentally distinct. Those of us who pay more than casual attention to politics enter the fray with these differences already baked into the cake. So not only do we challenge the political motivations of the opposition, we’re also at odds with the types of people we are!
That does add to the mix a complexity or two. So as each political party becomes more entrenched with their like-minded peers, the opportunities for meeting somewhere in the vast middle become that much more challenging because of the distinct differences we carry with us before a word is spoken.
That shouldn’t be a major revelation, but its significance is easily and often overlooked as the rival political camps club each other at every opportunity with their preferred arguments and rationales and explanations, all of which accomplish … well, not much, actually. Where this awareness could make a difference is the simple recognition that we’re equipped with separate qualities and traits at the outset. This suggests that we aren’t necessarily motivated to ridicule the viewpoints of our political opponents as a lark, but because first and foremost we process all of the information at hand in starkly different ways.
Much of our intensely partisan and increasingly harsh, pointless, and ineffectual policy ‘debates’ can find origins and explanations in the Moral Foundations Theory* proposed by Jonathan Haidt [author and currently a professor at New York University Stern School of Business]….As a way to at least open the door to a better/deeper understanding of partisan ideology’s influence in public discourse, the Moral Foundations Theory is a great place to begin….
We propose a simple hypothesis: Political liberals construct their moral systems primarily upon two psychological foundations—Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity—whereas political conservatives construct moral systems more evenly upon five psychological foundations—the same ones as liberals, plus Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity. We call this hypothesis the moral foundations hypothesis, and we present four studies that support it using four different methods….[page 1029]
Across all four studies, liberal morality was primarily concerned with harm and fairness, whereas conservative moral concerns were distributed more evenly across all five foundations. These findings help explain why liberals and conservatives disagree on so many moral issues and often find it hard to understand how an ethical person could hold the beliefs of the other side: Liberals and conservatives base their moral values, judgments, and arguments on different configurations of the five foundations. [page 1040] – 
This doesn’t make one party better or worse than the other. It does suggest that appreciating the differences and (idealist that I am) understanding the motivations and perspectives which define who we are apart from our politics but which nonetheless drive our behaviors in that world might create more than a few opportunities to engage in conversations … like, you know … adults and politicians of generations past have done. Seemed to work okay for a few centuries, so there’s that….
Moral Foundations Theory suggests that liberals may have a harder time understanding conservatives than vice-versa. It may be easier to imagine a change in worldview that removes three familiar foundations (for conservatives answering as a typical liberal) than a change that adds three unfamiliar foundations (for liberals answering as a typical conservative). If liberals can’t intuitively grasp what could be considered moral about ingroup (racism?), authority (hierarchy and oppression?), and purity (sexual Puritanism?), then they may be forced to conclude that … conservatives simply do not care about morality. Or, more specifically, they’d be forced to conclude that conservatives do not care about harm and fairness, because conservatives support policies that seem to hurt and cheat people for no good (moral) reason. 
Opportunities exist for us to move past and beyond the partisanship and pointless skirmishes which define much of our political conversations these days. Not easy, of course, and some wounds take longer to heal than others.
But I’d like to believe that at some point sooner rather than later, enough of us are going to decide that a prosperous and mutually beneficial world left to our children is worth at least the effort to engage in dialogue with, listen to, and learn from those who at this moment might just as well be from Jupiter for all that we have in common.
Worth considering … at least.
~ My Photo: rafting on the Colorado River near Moab, UT – 08.22.07
Looking Left and Right:
Inspiring Different Ideas, Envisioning Better Tomorrows
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Life Will Answer – Thought-provoking inquiries & observations about how (and why) Life does … and does not, work for everyone. [Inspired by my book of the same name]
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The Middle Age Follies – A columnoffering a slightly skewed look at life for those of us on the north side of 50
Be the change you want in the world – Gandhi
This blog is offered to encourage more enlightened public discourse—by sharing observations about the ideologies which motivate our political, economic, and cultural debates. The simple hope: shedding light on current “strategies” will prompt more of us to realize a different approach is at least worth considering … assuming a better future is worth pursuing. (It is!)
The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because
of those who look at it without doing anything – Albert Einstein
 http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mft/GHN.final.JPSP.2008.12.09.pdf; Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations [p. 2] by
Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek [University of Virginia], 12.09.08
 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0050092; The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives: Exaggeration of Differences across the Political Spectrum by Jesse Graham, Brian A. Nosek, Jonathan Haidt [PLoS ONE 7(12): e50092. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050092 – Dec 2012]