partisan psychology?

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Psychologist Jonathan Haidt's "What the Tea Partiers Really Want" piece in the WSJ mentions this proffered platitude from one of their booklet-manifestos:

"We just want to be free. Free to lead our lives as we please, so long as we do not infringe on the same freedom of others."

Haidt notes that "This claim should cause liberals to do a double-take" as it is virtually "straight out of John Stuart Mill, the patron saint of liberalism." In addition to their pilfering of Utilitarian sentiments, Haidt sees an Eastern influence among Teabaggers' morals: "The notion of karma...that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction." He uses the Rick Santelli "rant heard 'round the world" that kicked off the Teabagger craze ("How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors' mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?") as an example, claiming that "It's a rant about karma, not liberty."

Haidt is giving Santelli and his minions far too much credit--it's a rant about bullshit, because no one was proposing such a thing. The closest thing--Obama's Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan--was even more centrist than "cram-down" legislation that would have spread the burden of real-estate speculation gone awry on both mortgage parties instead of placing it solely on homeowners' shoulders. Keeping families in their homes through loan modifications rather than evicting them and adding to the glut of foreclosed homes is, on balance, a public good. Haidt continues down the karmic path:

The rank-and-file tea partiers think that liberals turned America upside down in the 1960s and 1970s, and they want to reverse many of those changes. They are patriotic and religious, and they want to see those values woven into their children's education. Above all, they want to live in a country in which hard work and personal responsibility pay off and laziness, cheating and irresponsibility bring people to ruin. Give them liberty, sure, but more than that: Give them karma.

The variant of karma for which the Teabaggers clamor is not only punitive, but vindictive as well. They want sexually-active women punished by unwanted pregnancies, gays punished either by the closet or by government-sanctioned discrimination, the middle class punished by economic insecurity both in work and in retirement, and the poor punished by homelessness and starvation (or perhaps debtors' prisons) assumes, though, that rich, straight, white Christian men will fare just fine--as always.

Haidt gave an much more intellectually intriguing talk on "The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology" where he helpfully pointed out that "there are many reasons why conservatives would be underrepresented in social psychology, and most of them have nothing to do with discrimination or hostile climate:"

Research on personality consistently shows that liberals are higher on openness to experience. They're more interested in novel ideas, and in trying to use science to improve society. So of course our field is and always will be mostly liberal. I don't think we should ever strive for exact proportional representation.

Later in the piece, however, Haidt writes "I'd like us to set a goal [to] become 10% conservative by 2020. Yes, I am actually recommending affirmative action for conservatives. Set aside any moral arguments; my claim is that it would be good for us." Media coverage from the NYT was fodder for the Right's persecution-complex chorus, but substantive analysis was generally lacking. Ira Chernus wrote an excellent piece on Haidt's thesis at Religion Dispatches, accusing Haidt of "too little depth" while exploring the contradictions in conservatives' worldview. Noting that "Conservatives' concern for the group is narrower [than that of liberals], expressed in very few channels," Chernus observed that:

Their favored policies tend to assume that American society will do just fine with 20% of our children growing up in poverty and nearly the same percentage of adults without affordable health care, as long as we arm ourselves against some foreign enemy or other (in-group loyalty), live by the same social norms as our grandparents (respect for authority), and keep our zippers firmly zipped until we're married (purity/sanctity). A very selective interpretation of group well-being, to say the least.

These examples point to the crucial difference between the two groups. Liberals see less inherent conflict between individual and group well-being than conservatives do, because liberals, less persuaded by the notion of Original Sin, are less afraid of change. They want to improve the whole society with these changes. Conservatives, more afraid of human nature itself, assume that the only way to improve society is by preventing change.

Paul Krugman observes that "in economics, the obvious bias in things like acceptance of papers at major journals is towards, not against, a doctrinaire free-market view" and notes the following:

Biologists, physicists, and chemists are all predominantly liberal; does this reflect discrimination, or the tendency of people who actually know science to reject a political tendency that denies climate change and is broadly hostile to the theory of evolution?

Jonathan Chait notes at TNR that although "Conservatives like to present this as an issue of Marxist English professors...the reality is that scientists, mathematicians, and people trained in rigorous thinking of all kinds are overwhelmingly rejecting them." Since JS Mill was mentioned earlier, this is as good a time as any to bring up his remark about intelligence and political leanings:

I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it. (John Stuart Mill, letter to John Pakington, March 1866)

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on February 24, 2011 6:00 PM.

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