From Stuck in the Game, to Liberating Public Wisdom

What’s going on with our politics?

On the one hand, we in the US are watching grotesque income inequality and extreme wealth being used to buy power and more wealth to further control our political and economic systems. On the other hand, we have a grotesque collective failure to formulate and promote a compelling and sustainable moral vision for our country. These two factors go hand in hand, magnifying and enabling each other and driving the US to ruin, at great cost to the international community, to the biosphere, and to future generations.

The 2008 election cycle cost more than 5 billion dollars. This year’s US election costs are estimated to top 6 billion dollars – maybe even $7,000,000,000 or more. Remember that a billion is a thousand million. This is not a problem for the ultrarich. The US has 403 billionaires. Together their net worth exceeds that of half of America’s households combined. In other words, the net worth of almost 60,000,000 households, all added up all together, is less than the net worth of 403 very rich people.

Just as a mind-bending factoid, this is pretty amazing. As a social reality, it is a tsunami wreaking havoc on our capacity to govern ourselves.

Think about all the powerful, manipulative, often negative and misleading advertisements those billions of dollars can and do buy – perhaps even some hacked voting machines to tip the scales. Think about all the passionate activist and professional energies that get invested in America’s electoral campaigns. Think about the results we get, as a nation, from all that money and effort being expended. Meditate on where our country is going and where our political and economic systems channel all our energies and money to move in that direction.

It is high time to think more clearly about this. Did the Left get what it wanted in electing Obama? Did the Tea Party get what it wanted out of electing its candidates to Congress in 2010? I’ve heard bitter protests from both ends of the spectrum. Has the vast majority of the population gotten what it needs and wants from governance at all levels? To what extent is the larger societal game we’re in right now enjoyable or even working very well for more than a few people alive today, to say nothing of those born fifty years from now who will live in the kind of world we’re setting up for them today?

Our political system is not a pretty picture right now – not even a very productive one. At least for the vast majority of us.

What would it take for us to say, “There is something about our system of political economics that makes it so that no matter who we elect, the issues that really matter do not get dealt with wisely”? What would it take for us to say, “Our passionate work on candidates and issues is being wasted in a system that structurally resists wise decisions. Maybe we should put more of our energy into changing the system that is blocking that wisdom”?

Jonathan Haight wrote the article below to wake up liberals to what conservatives are doing right. I think our country would benefit from liberals taking his advice. But I also think the article does not go far enough. We need more than better liberal (and conservative) agendas.

As Haight says in a fascinating interview with Bill Moyers:

[Individual] reasoning is not good at finding the truth. Conscious verbal reasoning is really good at confirming [what we already believe, a dynamic called “the confirmation bias”]…. [In science] we end up being forced to work together, challenging each other’s confirmation biases, and truth emerges…. [So] Individual reasoning is not reliable – because of the confirmation bias. The only cure for the confirmation bias is other people.  So, if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason [and truth can emerge]…. Wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other. That’s what our political institutions used to do, but they don’t do anymore.

So what we need is more powerful “well-constituted” conversations among “people who disagree”.  We need a full-spectrum moral vision, a vision that includes such conversations as core themes – a vision that engages Americans as citizens – not as liberals or conservatives, libertarians or greens, but as diverse members of society who have ideas, longings, and real care to contribute to making things better. We need visions and systems that help us work together to create a society that flourishes into the future. 

There is ample evidence that this can be done. There is ample evidence that constructive conversations can happen across large differences of belief. There is ample evidence that well-financed scientific public relations can move most people to think and act in almost any way – generating hateful holocausts, alienated disengagement, or dynamic healthy communities. There is ample evidence that people can hear each other when they, themselves, are fully heard. There is ample evidence that ordinary people, under the right circumstances, can together weave facts, reason, passion, values and moral sensibilities into shared directions for their community or nation that are far wiser than what we see in today’s public policy debates. And there is ample evidence that people power, well organized, can overwhelm the power of corrupt leaders and institutions.

Ample ideas, initiatives and resources exist that could be part of this profoundly positive possibility.

We just have to break the spell that has us stuck in this old and unproductive game, to free our minds, hearts and shared stories of what is possible so that we can change the game and liberate empowered public wisdom to win, taking all the rest of us with it as part of it.


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By Jonathan Haidt
The Guardian (U.K.), June 5, 2012

Why on Earth would a working-class person ever vote for a conservative candidate? This question has obsessed the American left since Ronald Reagan first captured the votes of so many union members, farmers, urban Catholics and other relatively powerless people – the so-called “Reagan Democrats”. Isn’t the Republican party the party of big business? Don’t the Democrats stand up for the little guy, and try to redistribute the wealth downwards?

Many commentators on the left have embraced some version of the duping hypothesis: the Republican party dupes people into voting against their economic interests by triggering outrage on cultural issues. “Vote for us and we’ll protect the American flag!” say the Republicans. “We’ll make English the official language of the United States! And most importantly, we’ll prevent gay people from threatening your marriage when they … marry! Along the way we’ll cut taxes on the rich, cut benefits for the poor, and allow industries to dump their waste into your drinking water, but never mind that. Only we can protect you from gay, Spanish-speaking flag-burners!”

One of the most robust findings in social psychology is that people find ways to believe whatever they want to believe. And the left really want to believe the duping hypothesis. It absolves them from blame and protects them
from the need to look in the mirror or figure out what they stand for in the 21st century.

Here’s a more painful but ultimately constructive diagnosis, from the point of view of moral psychology: politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It’s more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets) and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programmes.

The Democrats, in contrast, have tried to win voters’ hearts by promising to protect or expand programmes for elderly people, young people, students, poor people and the middle class. Vote for us and we’ll use government to take care of everyone! But most Americans don’t want to live in a nation based primarily on caring. That’s what families are for.

One reason the left has such difficulty forging a lasting connection with voters is that the right has a built-in advantage – conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals (as we call leftists in the US). Think about it this way: our tongues have taste buds that are responsive to five classes of chemicals, which we perceive as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savoury. Sweetness is generally the most appealing of the five tastes, but when it comes to a serious meal, most people want more than that.

In the same way, you can think of the moral mind as being like a tongue that is sensitive to a variety of moral flavours. In my research with colleagues at, we have identified six moral concerns as the best candidates for being the innate “taste buds” of the moral sense: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Across many kinds of surveys, in the UK as well as in the USA, we find that people who self-identify as being on the left score higher on questions about care/harm. For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.

But on matters relating to group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (treating things as sacred and untouchable, not only in the context of religion), it sometimes seems that liberals lack the moral taste buds, or at least, their moral “cuisine” makes less use of them. For example, according to our data, if you want to hire someone to criticise your nation on a radio show in another nation (loyalty), give the finger to his boss (authority), or sign a piece of paper stating one’s willingness to sell his soul (sanctity), you can save a lot of money by posting a sign: “Conservatives need not apply.”

In America, it is these three moral foundations that underlie most of the “cultural” issues that, according to duping theorists, are used to distract voters from their self-interest. But are voters really voting against their self-interest when they vote for candidates who share their values? Loyalty, respect for authority and some degree of sanctification create a more binding social order that places some limits on individualism and egoism. As marriage rates plummet, and globalisation and rising diversity erodes the sense of common heritage within each nation, a lot of voters in many western nations find themselves hungering for conservative moral cuisine.

Despite being in the wake of a financial crisis that – if the duping theorists were correct – should have buried the cultural issues and pulled most voters to the left, we are finding in America and many European nations a stronger shift to the right. When people fear the collapse of their society, they want order and national greatness, not a more nurturing government.

Even on the two moral taste buds that both sides claim – fairness and liberty – the right can often outcook the left. The left typically thinks of equality as being central to fairness, and leftists are extremely sensitive about gross inequalities of outcome – particularly when they correspond along racial or ethnic lines. But the broader meaning of fairness is really proportionality – are people getting rewarded in proportion to the work they put into a common project? Equality of outcomes is only seen as fair by most people in the special case in which everyone has made equal contributions. The conservative media (such as the Daily Mail, or Fox News in the US) is much more sensitive to the presence of slackers and benefit cheats. They are very effective at stirring up outrage at the government for condoning cheating.

Similarly for liberty. Americans and Britons all love liberty, yet when liberty and care conflict, the left is more likely to choose care. This is the crux of the US’s monumental battle over Obama’s healthcare plan. Can the federal government compel some people to buy a product (health insurance) in order to make a plan work that extends care to 30 million other people? The derogatory term “nanny state” is rarely used against the right (pastygate being perhaps an exception). Conservatives are more cautious about infringing on individual liberties (e.g., of gun owners in the US and small businessmen) in order to protect vulnerable populations (such as children, animals and immigrants).

In sum, the left has a tendency to place caring for the weak, sick and vulnerable above all other moral concerns. It is admirable and necessary that some political party stands up for victims of injustice, racism or bad luck. But in focusing so much on the needy, the left often fails to address – and sometimes violates – other moral needs, hopes and concerns. When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest. They are voting for the party that serves to them a more satisfying moral cuisine. The left in the UK and USA should think hard about their recipe for success in the 21st century.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. To take the survey described in this essay, visit

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