Moral psychology and voting right (or left)

Dr. Johnathan Haidt, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, has written an absolutely fascinating article titled “What Makes People Vote Republican?” This isn’t another piece of boilerplate liberal condescension after the manner of Thomas Frank, or another disciple of George Lakoff peddling the idea that if Democrats just wrap liberal ideas in conservative language, people will all vote the way they ought to (i.e., for the Democrat). Rather, it’s a careful analysis using the language and tools of what Dr. Haidt calls “moral psychology” which aims to rebuke and replace those models:

Our diagnosis explains away Republican successes while convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground. Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies, and it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats. To see what Democrats have been missing, it helps to take off the halo, step back for a moment, and think about what morality really is.

The model Dr. Haidt works with here is complex, though not complicated, but I think this paragraph summarizes the results of his research clearly enough:

In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. (You can test yourself at We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.

This produces a result with which many conservatives are familiar: as Dr. Haidt told the New York Times‘ Judith Warner,

Haidt has conducted research in which liberals and conservatives were asked to project themselves into the minds of their opponents and answer questions about their moral reasoning. Conservatives, he said, prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view.

I’d always attributed that to the effects of the liberal echo chamber that is the MSM; it’s interesting to think that there’s something deeper and more significant to it. It’s also interesting, and encouraging and heartening as well, that Dr. Heidt offers hope and a possible way forward to address the problem he’s identified. It’s a remarkable article, and perhaps one which could have as great an effect as the work of Frank and Lakoff—only in, I think, a much more productive direction for our country. My thanks to Mark Hemingway and John Derbyshire for calling attention to it.

Posted in Culture and society, Faith and politics.


  1. Huh. I am more concerned with Harm than anyone (not surprising); about average with Fairness (ditto); an average liberal regarding Loyalty (lower than conservative avg – not surprising); I’m a little less concerned with Authority than anyone (even a little lower than the liberal avg – again, ditto); and, strangely, more concerned with Purity than average for either.

    So that was interesting. Harm and Purity. Something to think about. That actually does sort of fit with my ethics, in a way.

  2. Uh…what? I get the feeling that this is some kind of bot talking to me, and not a person. I’ve gotten similarly incoherent babbling anonymous posts on my own blog.

    In more coherent news, Rob, have you seen this?

    I love it when John lets people devour themselves using their own sound-bytes. The debate between Bush ’00 and Bush ’04 comes to mind as the truly seminal event, but I get this giddy feeling when he does this…

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