The founders, notably Washington, warned strenuously against partisanship. A significant portion of Washington’s farewell address is a warning against partisanship, and to read it today is chilling. Washington called the spirit of partisanship the republic’s “worst enemy”. Jefferson said that, “Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”
The ideal of the founders was a republic without parties. It’s a great irony then to know that Jefferson himself, declaring so strongly against party, promptly created one of the first political parties. His hatred of Hamilton and the Federalists was so strong that he created the Democratic Republican party, planting the seeds for the present day Democratic party. What are we to make of this? Washington speculated that political factionalism “is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind.” The best we can do is try to contain and control our passions, lest in a purely elective government like our own we are overwhelmed by them.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, confirms Washington’s assertion that our moral passions are inseparable from our nature. In his book, “The Righteous Mind: How Good People Are Separated by Religion and Politics” Haidt articulates what he calls “Moral Foundations Theory”. Haidt asserts that the vast majority of humans are controlled by our emotions and intuitions. Research indicates that while it may be possible to change our mind based on facts and rational processes, the reality is that we have certain predispositions that guide our everyday actions. Most of our thinking is post facto rationalization. In other words, we do what we do, and then we very cleverly rationalize our behavior. Haidt’s central metaphor for this is the Elephant and Rider where the elephant is the sum of our feelings and intuitions and the rider is our rational, thinking mind. The elephant goes where it wants to go. At best the rider can exert a small amount of influence to get the elephant to lean one way or the other. Sharp turns do not happen.
Based on studies done throughout the world Haidt identifies five moral foundations that all humans share: Care/Harm, Fairness/Reciprocity, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. Measuring people along these spectrums he finds that in the US there is a distinct difference between the way self identified liberals and conservatives sort out along these foundations. Liberals score emphatically high on the Care and Fairness foundations, whereas conservatives are more evenly distributed along all five foundations. Some interesting conclusions follow. It’s easy to see how liberals, due to their emphasis of the care and fairness foundations, more easily identify and defend the downtrodden–however you want to define them. But while liberals more easily identify injustice and harm, conservatives are better at understanding group cohesion and (loyalty, authority and sanctity). Thus the emphasis on the flag, hostility to immigration without assimilation, a strong military, veneration of tradition and so forth.
This is a brutal oversimplification. No individual except the most cartoonish extreme will completely fit such generalizations, because any particular conservative can provide examples of defending victims, just as particular liberals may love tradition, or any other contradiction you care to point out. The point is this–science confirms that we’re blinkered by our values, we don’t see what we don’t care to see, and facts are not more compelling than our values. Facts are appeals to the rider. Voters don’t vote their interest, they vote for who speaks to their values. Appeals across the political divide are most effective when they are made to the elephant, not the rider. Our moral foundations blind us.
We’re ignorant. We ignore what we don’t agree with. We ignore what might offend us. We live in bubbles created by the media, which are now flooded with a profit model reliant on outrage. Outrage feels good–it makes us feel angry and superior. It triggers our moral foundations, and it’s addictive. We know that people that only consume political information of one flavor become more extreme. Not only do facts matter less to our elephants, they matter far less when they are lost in a sea of outrage. Ignorance is even automated in our digital age, with our social media and browsing patterns analyzed and programs in place to serve us the content we prefer. This has had a far larger impact than we realize, and we’re only now trying to get our arms around what digital segregation means, how to measure it, and how to deal with it. Never have we seen such levels of polarization and vitriol. And ignorance.
Ignorance follows a predictable trajectory. Once we’ve ideologically purified ourselves by ignoring the fact that issues and human beings are complex, we reach the point that we pivot in our national dialogue from good policy vs. bad policy (which can be heated) to good people vs. bad people. We all know that this is too far. Without intervention this will lead to political violence in America.
The centrist mantra is “problems are complex, people are complex”. Dialogue (not debate) requires curiosity and humility. Curiosity and humility acknowledge that I don’t have the full answer and that I value your opinion. This doesn’t mean I’ll agree with you. The idea that compromise and a lack of certainty is weakness is a corruption of our democratic values. It’s easy to be seduced by ideologically purified and oversimplified arguments, but certainty and purity are dead ends. That’s the path of least resistance. In fact compromise takes strength and courage, and lack of certainty is the beginning of wisdom. Certainty goes straight to the pleasure zone, it’s difficult to resist. Absolutely certain people are the most uninteresting, and often most dangerously ignorant people, to meet.
How do we take back our discourse? Crusade against your personal bubble. Exposure is the first place to start. It’s a fact that continued exposure to opposing viewpoints reduces polarization. Look for the smart centrists on either side, not the loud mouths you’ve heard of. Recognize that The Daily Kos and Rush Limbaugh are the fried foods of your media diet. By themselves they are unhealthy. Developing healthy media diets and not over consuming may be the most important digital skill of the 21st century. Taking complete breaks from media in our digitally saturated lives is another way to maintain sanity. Few things are as refreshing as media fasts.
But nothing is better than face to face conversations. At no other time in our recent history has it been more important to respectfully engage people we don’t agree with. We’re all in this together. Anyone that tells you different is selling fear of one kind or another. We’ll disagree about many things. I don’t want to sing kumbaya with you, but I’ll sing the national anthem. As long as we hold to the principle that the only way we make an unum out of a pluribus is by listening, respecting, and working together we’ll make it. Washington warned us at the dawn of our nation about the passions of party politics, he called it our worst enemy. The great conversation of our democracy must be maintained at all costs. We can’t get our elephants to make sharp turns, but we can get them to lean towards each other. Throw yourself into democracy. I’ll meet you in the middle.
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