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Philosophy and Tea Party politics

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Bryce Draper pointed out a NYT opinion piece that tries to explain the anger behind the Tea Party movement through Hegelian analysis. It makes for an interesting application of Hegelian thought.

It’s a little fancy for my tastes. I think the most insightful diagnosis of the deep divide in U.S. politics has been brought forward in this essay by Jonathan Haidt. The divide results from two different but equally-dominant mindsets: basically, those who favor social order vs. those who favor personal liberties. Here’s a relevant section of Haidt’s essay:

“My recent research shows that social conservatives do indeed rely upon those two foundations, but they also value virtues related to three additional psychological systems: ingroup/loyalty (involving mechanisms that evolved during the long human history of tribalism), authority/respect (involving ancient primate mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates), and purity/sanctity (a relatively new part of the moral mind, related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble). These three systems support moralities that bind people into intensely interdependent groups that work together to reach common goals. Such moralities make it easier for individuals to forget themselves and coalesce temporarily into hives, a process that is thrilling, as anyone who has ever “lost” him or herself in a choir, protest march, or religious ritual can attest.

“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 http://www.YourMorals.org.) 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.”

If this is so, then I think the Tea Partiers are angry simply because Obama represents to them a very different mindset, expressed through a different set of values. It is not a matter of intellectual disagreement with any particular policy; reading Tea Party screeds reveals that there isn’t any penetrating analysis going on. It’s more like when you are in a meeting, and someone stands up to speak, and their manner of speech and word choice immediately makes you feel like throttling them, regardless of the content of their speech. They’re just different, in a vaguely loathsome way. Adults are supposed to suppress these feelings, set them aside, and get on with rational public discourse, but the American political scene isn’t animated by adults, for the most part. A basic pre-rational prejudice fuels the animosity, and then catch phrases are employed to provide a veneer of political justification. And it works both ways; I saw plenty of the same phenomenon in the incredible public anger aimed at G. W. Bush, often without any well-conceived rationale or argument based on information.

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7 Comments

  1. Rob says:

    Interestingly, Haidt and company are investigating a possible sixth foundation: Liberty/constraint/a>. I wonder how Kleiner would score on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, given both his religiosity, which might find expression in a higher-than-typical-liberal “purity” figure, and his, to my mind, rather liberal views related to “harm/care”.

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  2. Kleiner says:

    I only had a short time to do the test because of some other obligations tonight. So mine was really gut reaction, and I might have changed some answers on the “final view” had I had more time to think about it. But maybe the absolute immediacy of my answers is good for a test like this.

    Anyway, here were my scores compared with the averages of conservatives and liberals:
    Harm
    Kleiner: 4.5
    Liberals: 3.6
    Conservatives: 3.1

    Fairness
    Kleiner: 4.0
    Liberals: 3.7
    Conservatives: 3.0

    Loyalty
    Kleiner: 3.3
    Liberals: 2.1
    Conservatives: 3.0

    Authority
    Kleiner: 3.8 (would have been higher had they asked about Church and not country!)
    Liberals: 1.9
    Conservatives: 3.3

    Purity
    Kleiner: 4.0
    Liberals: 1.2
    Conservatives: 2.9

    Not sure why my scores are so high across the board. Maybe, in a rush, I tended to the “strongly agrees”.

    What to conclude here? I am more conservative than conservatives and more liberal than liberals? :) That is actually not a bad description of my politics, frankly. I am guessing my purity score was elevated by my strong response to the “some acts are wrong because they are unnatural” question, because the questions related to the “disgusting” only drew “slightly” answers from me. I am not big into the renunciation of the body, being a Theology of the Body Catholic.

    Rob, care to offer an interpretation of my scores?

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  3. Huenemann says:

    Harm
    Huenemann: 3.5
    Liberal: 3.6
    Conservative: 3.2

    Fairness
    Huenemann:4.2
    Liberal: 3.6
    Conservative: 3.3

    Loyalty
    Huenemann:2.3
    Liberal: 2.0
    Conservative: 3.0

    Authority
    Huenemann: 3.0
    Liberal: 1.8
    Conservative: 3.4

    Purity
    Huenemann: 2.3
    Liberal: 1.2
    Conservative: 2.9

    So, except when it comes to Fairness, I’m pretty moderate.

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  4. Rob says:

    Kleiner, I’m not surprised that you scored so high across the board. Your outlook, it seems to me, reflect a pretty high responsiveness to all the foundations; and so your interpretation seems pretty apt: “more conservative than conservatives and more liberal than liberals”.

    I took it several years ago, and I think it may reflect the combination of a Nietzschean irritation with affiliation (low loyalty), and an affinity for the honor culture ethos of Saga Iceland, as articulated and celebrated in the work of WI Miller, which does not, as say Islamic honor cultures do, put a premium on female chastity (which accords with my low purity score).

    Harm: 2.6 (liberals: 3.7; conservatives: 3.1)
    Fairness: 4.2 (3.1; 2.8)
    Loyalty: 0.8 (2.0; 3.2)
    Authority: 2.1 (1.8; 3.1)
    Purity: 0.6 (1.6; 3.0)

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  5. Hunt says:

    They’re just different, in a vaguely loathsome way. Adults are supposed to suppress these feelings, set them aside, and get on with rational public discourse, but the American political scene isn’t animated by adults, for the most part.

    For a lot of the “tea party” continent this basically boils down to racism. He’s black; he’s an outsider; he’s not one of us; he’s an imposture, etc. I really don’t think you can explain the birthers, etc. without this component, and it’s integral to the “tea party” astro-turf “movement,” if you want to call it that. As you might surmise, I have absolute contempt for it.

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  6. Siler says:

    Harm
    Siler: 2.8
    Liberal: 3.6
    Conservative: 3.2

    Fairness
    Siler:2.0
    Liberal: 3.6
    Conservative: 3.3

    Loyalty
    Siler:2.3
    Liberal: 2.0
    Conservative: 3.0

    Authority
    Siler: 1.8
    Liberal: 1.8
    Conservative: 3.4

    Purity
    Siler: 1.0
    Liberal: 1.2
    Conservative: 2.9

    I found it hard to come up with an accurate gut reaction for the questions. I expected the survey to present narratives rather than propositions.

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  7. Clay says:

    Harm
    Clay:3.5
    Liberals: 3.6
    Conservatives: 3.0

    Fairness
    Clay: 3.2
    Liberals: 3.7
    Conservatives: 3.2

    Loyalty
    Clay: 2.8
    Liberals: 2.0
    Conservatives: 2.9

    Authority
    Clay: 2.6
    Liberals: 2.0
    Conservatives: 3.2

    Purity
    Clay: 2.3
    Liberals: 1.3
    Conservatives: 2.8

    I don’t know what to make of my scores. The survey is on a person’s opinion of themselves. I wonder that if this poll was conducted 30 years ago would any of the scores be significantly higher? I have been reading that my generation may be dubbed Generation: Me

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