Getting to the Source of Conflict between Liberals and Conservatives

The proposition—presented in my earlier post—is that people with a liberal mindset base much of what they think and do mostly on only two of five moral imperatives as defined by researchers at the University of Virginia.

For a liberal, matters of fairness and the well-being of others have high moral value, much higher that matters of group loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity (e.g., cleanliness is next to godliness).

For a conservative, these three things (loyalty, respect, and sanctity), together with the other two (fairness and protection from harm), also have high moral value and form a solid foundation of morality.

A careful look at the five moral foundations reveals that the first two are directed toward others—even to those outside the group. Loyalty to the group, authority, and purity are directed inwardly, toward the group itself. They keep the group strong. Although in many respects values derived from these areas are positive and good (who would argue that loyalty, respect, and cleanliness are inherently bad?) they may effectively build a wall around the group, separating the group from others. Under this condition, the in-group is pure and righteous, and the out-group can easily be viewed as evil and the enemy. There is no reason to care for the harm an enemy may endure, nor can there be any but one kind of justice for the enemy. To care for and insist on fairness for an enemy would be unpatriotic. Morality, instead of being a universal good, becomes relative only to the group. We are moral. They are not. Therefore…

To a liberal person, the three “conservative” values are often taken to extremes that harm the greater society: walling off and oppressing outsiders, autocratically dictating the way things should be, enforcing racial and sexual purity.

Because liberals may instinctively reach out to the oppressed, conservatives may see liberals as disloyal and unpatriotic, disrespectful of authority, and supportive of “abominations” like homosexuality and desegregation.

Liberals fume when people who talk about how moral they are (e.g., “moral majority,” “party of family values”) will support a war started under false pretenses, overlook the lies told to get us there, condone the torture of prisoners and the exposure of a CIA operative, shrug off the outright stealing of an election, and overlook a long list of sexual and marital transgressions by conservative politicians and clergy alike.

For a conservative, events like these are easy to condone or overlook because they take place within the group. (The same can be said about a liberal’s acceptance of Bill Clinton’s transgressions.) But to a liberal, the harm created by such unfairness is nearly unbearable.

Remember, though, that fairness and justice are also part of the conservative make-up. And this gets closer to the core of the problem, because each group has its own idea of what “fair” means and as a result will act accordingly.

Once again, I turn to researcher Jonathan Haidt, who in “What the Tea Partiers Really Want,” published in the Wall Street Journal in October 2010, points to the Roosevelt era and the establishment of “social programs” to help the disadvantaged as the root of the current political divide. On the one hand are the conservatives who believe that hard work yields reward, and hard work is all that’s necessary for society to thrive. Fairness means, “I get what I work hard for, and if you don’t get ahead it’s only because you’re lazy. Each of us gets what we deserve.”

On the other hand are liberals who see fairness as equality. Liberals use phrases like “level playing field” and “safety net” to express concepts that are supportive of the disadvantaged. Safety nets and level fields come in the form of social programs that cost money, “my money!”

It is unconscionable, to a conservative, that someone else would 1) get rewarded for doing nothing, and 2) that he, the conservative, would have to pay for it.

My father is a conservative, and we sometimes get into discussions around these topics. They go nowhere, of course, because each of us is a product of our own moral intuitions. But one day, while over at his house, I got a jolt of understanding about just how strong the current political impasse is. Sitting on a table was a copy of Michael Savage’s Liberalism is a Mental Disorder. Instead of asking what it was about, when I got home I did a Google search for “liberalism is a disease.” Try it yourself to see how pervasive this idea is (if you’re a conservative, you already know).

But it explains a lot: If liberalism is a disease which must be eradicated then there is no way forward if it involves compromise. Imagine, after being diagnosed with cancer, your doctor suggests compromise instead of surgery.

It also explains why, during the Republican debates, there is little substance other than who’s the best candidate to get Obama out of the White House. Because not only is Barack Obama the consummate liberal who represents all that is bad with this country, he’s the consummate outsider. Only when he’s gone will we “get our America back.”

Next, I will explore a different perspective on morality, one that has to do with action rather than political persuasion. It will focus on a much different concept of “hard work.”

Meanwhile, why not explore your own morals and even contribute to the research?

9 thoughts on “Getting to the Source of Conflict between Liberals and Conservatives”

  1. I think you miss-typify the “Tea Party” — but then most people miss-typify their enemies. Unfortunately without really understanding our enemies at a deep level, addressing their influences can be frustratingly difficult.

    The Tea Party folks I have met have very different motivations — some social, some political, some economic, some religious, and perhaps some racial (though I have never met one). If you can not see any of their concerns as slightly valid, they you can be almost sure that you misunderstand them. When someone writes generalizations of the sort you have, you expose your hatred and the blindness it can cause. “Hate” can motivate and blind — it is a dangerous tool.

  2. You’re right, emotions are difficult to discuss. Perhaps because they are so difficult to define. A lack of defining terms (conversely, an assumption that all terms mean the same thing to everyone)leads to argument and war. I think the hatred you describe in your example is based in fear (as I think most negative emotions are). But I see what you mean that hatred—in this case an elevated state of anger—will spur positive action. But then we get into that sticky situation trying to determine what is beneficial and what is harmful. Beneficial and harmful to whom? Who is right and who is wrong is relative. A good current example is the Keystone pipeline. And, of course, we have the whole Occupy movement (which did not, as I predicted, shrivel and die as soon as the weather turned bad).

    You said: “Sometimes people will not take necessary action without a strong emotion.” That’s exactly what put the Tea Party in motion. There was no such thing as the Tea Party until Obama was elected, even though the economy (and a lot of other things) was a mess beforehand. In my view, the Tea Party is a result of pure hatred, not of “one of our own,” but of Obama.

    Have I gone off on enough tangents here, or what? Anyway, thanks for your response. I appreciate your taking the time with my query.

  3. Sometimes people will not take necessary action without a strong emotion. “Hate” may finally motivate you to fight a company dumping poison in your water. For example. It may just be frustration or anger prior to the hate but that may not motivate. Heart pounding rage may get the right thing done. I think that is why we have the emotion — for better or for worse.

  4. Sabio, this morning I got what I read as a hate-filled response from a personal friend about something I posted on facebook. It got me thinking again about your comment that “hatred can be a friend at the right time.” Could you say more about that? It’s a topic I want write about (assuming I can make the time for it), but I’d like to hear your reasoning behind your view that hatred (as opposed to fear) can be a friend.

  5. Emotions are hard to discuss.
    We agree that you can fear something without hatred.
    But hatred can turn fear into determined, strong action which can destroy evil.

  6. @Sabio: “Haidt’s mistake here is a common one: observe modern or relatively recent cultural formations and then uncritically project them back into the ancestral or evolutionary past.” I’ll take that. History isn’t what we think it is because we can see things only from the present. The challenge is to put history into perspective. Not easy.

    I wonder about your view of hatred, though, as being a friend. I suggest fear as being the more powerful motivator. Of course, fear is at the root of hatred, but one can fear something and still not hate it.

  7. Yeah, I am not up enough either way to defend or attack well. I liked his early stuff but this morality, politics and religious stuff seems way over extended and shows his intent, I think.
    Interestingly, one of my favorite religious scholars just wrote a post criticizing him for similar reasons I have.
    You have ‘enjoy’:

    Yes, I think many on the ‘right’ analyze why liberals feel the way they do. I would have to search to see if any have embraced Haidt to do so, though — that is a fun question!

    Yes, ‘hatred’ is not a virtue, but hatred can be a friend at the right time. That is why it evolved — to motivate and stir to action. Ideally, we control it and it does not control us — which is very hard.

  8. Sabio, I’m not up on the arguments, either. But I did read the critiques you sent. I don’t feel compelled to defend Haidt and the others anymore than I feel compelled to find fault in their studies. But I do like that his stated goal is to try to understand what makes people do and think what they do. Isn’t that the role of a psychologist?

    As I was going through all this, I wondered if anyone on the so-called right would even consider trying to understand why liberals think they way they do. I have my doubts.

    And as I wrote these pieces I was aware that I may have oversimplified things by putting people into neat little boxes. We are all complex, and much of what we do is inexplicable. (Sometimes my wife will ask me why I did such and such a thing. My only response is, “I have no idea.”) Yet, when I think of people I’ve known over the years, many of them do fit these categories.

    One thing is for sure, there are people out there who are filled with hatred for Obama. But hatred is not at all virtuous.

  9. A few years ago when I first read Haidt, I found him enticing — almost with the same enticement found for Myers-Briggs Testing. But now I am suspicious of both, no matter how they help simplify the world.

    Have you read critiques? I am not up on the arguments, but I looked around for a few for you:

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