why your conservative uncle votes differently than you

I’m not writing this post for everyone. I’m writing it for a very specific kind of person. I’m writing this post for the people in my life who are (typically) young, passionate for their politics, and confused. They are confused because they can’t understand why anyone could ever vote differently than they do. In particular, they are terribly frustrated that people close to them – a parent, a grand parent, an uncle – insist on voting for conservative candidates year after year. They are especially frustrated to the point of obsession this year. They see it as a moral and intellectual failure for someone to “vote red.” This post is for you.

I’ve got to apologize in advance for sounding pedantic. My goal in this post is not to change anyone’s mind about politics or this election. My aim is not to show that one side is right and the other is wrong. I also happily recognize that politics are personal and complicated, so what I offer here will not be entirely satisfactory. My only goal in this post is a bit of understanding. I think we would all be helped if we attempted to understand why people think differently than us (rather than lazily turning them into deplorables). Before you object that your conservative uncle needs to understand you better too, let me say that I agree with you. He does. But this post isn’t for him. It’s for you.

One of the most helpful books I’ve read on politics and moral reasoning is Jonathan Haidt’s best-selling book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt is an expert in social psychology. He is agnostic although he very much respects religious belief. He describes himself as classically liberal in his politics. Haidt consistently challenges me and makes me think. I find him to be remarkably level-headed and fair in his analysis in a time when those characteristics have ceased to be virtues to far too many people.

The whole book is worth a read, but for the purpose of this post, I want to summarize what Haidt calls a “moral foundations theory” (MFT). This theory helps to explain why people make certain political and ethical decisions. It may really help you to understand why your uncle is going to vote for conservative candidates this year. MFT identifies five moral foundations that inform our positions, attitudes, and actions.

  1. The care/harm foundation. This foundation is about our sensitivity towards suffering or those in need. It makes us despise cruelty and care for those suffering.
  2. The fairness/cheating foundation. This foundation is about justice. We want to shun or punish cheaters. On the other hand, we are drawn to those practice altruism.
  3. The loyalty/betrayal foundation. This foundation is about group identity. We don’t trust whose who betray us or our group. This foundation makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player.
  4. The authority/subversion foundation. This foundation is about social hierarchies. We are sensitive to rank or status and are suspicious of those who undermine this order.
  5. The sanctity/degradation foundation. This foundation is about purity. According to Haidt, “It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats.” In other words this foundation makes us sensitive to those sacred people, things, and institutions which bind us together.

Haidt and his associates conducted research to determine how these foundations inform our politics. Here is what they discovered:

Do you notice how the foundations converge among strongly conservative people? It turns out that strongly conservative people have a much more complex moral framework than strongly liberal people. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing. It is simply the results of their research. Strongly liberal people put a great deal of weight on the harm and fairness foundations. The other three foundations are more of an afterthought. As you can see, strongly conservative people still care about harm and fairness (although at a slightly lower level). The difference is that they also place much more weight on the other three foundations. This makes their political and moral decision making more complicated.

Let me give you two examples of what this looks like in practice.

Racial Justice

Liberals care a great deal about the harm done to people because of the color of their skin. They equally care about unjust individuals and systems that keep some people from succeeding. Conservatives also care about harm and injustice. But their care is tempered by other factors that liberals are not typically as concerned about. Conservatives also care a great deal about social hierarchies and authority. A person who subverts authority causes instability in a community. Therefore, a conservative may be alarmed by racial injustice, but they tend to be enraged by rioters and protesters. They will also tend to impulsively take the side of the police in a dispute. They will certainly not judge all police or even many police to be corrupt. They will have no patience whatsoever for a person (especially a white liberal) who wants to “abolish the police” in an effort to bring about justice. This is morally incoherent to a conservative. How can a society have justice without order? This is why Donald Trump’s “law and order” routine works.

The “build the wall” narrative provides another example. This taps into a conservatives desire for order in a society. A properly ordered society cannot have people just flouting the law without penalty. A conservative’s drive for in-group loyalty may also lead him to want to keep undocumented workers out of the country. This in-group loyalty does have the risk of turning toxic. It’s fair to call some conservatives “xenophobic” or even racist, but Haidt points out it may also be an example of that ancient impulse of wanting to protect the “tribe” from uninvited outsiders. This in-group foundation also affects the fairness foundation. A liberal who isn’t as concerned about the in-group foundation might say that a wall causes harm and is cruel towards undocumented immigrants. A conservative might say that building a wall is about fairness because it will help to protect jobs and opportunities for those who are in this country legally. All of this is very controversial of course. All I’m trying to get you to see is that it is lazy to simply conclude that because a conservative disagrees with you, he must be a racist. It is almost never that simple.

Same-Sex Marriage

A strongly liberal person tends to see same-sex marriage (SSM) as a matter of justice and fairness. It isn’t right that two adults in love are not given the same rights as everyone else simply because they are the same sex. Further, not allowing them to get married is just cruel and causes harm. They may further argue that it’s no one’s business who someone chooses to marry. Two men getting married doesn’t affect your life at all, so get over it.

A strongly conservative person may object to SSM, but not simply because he is a bigot. He has a more complex way of understanding the issue. All five of the foundations come into play. First, conservatives tend to believe in the sanctity of institutions. Marriage is sacred. Therefore, it matters that it be kept pure and not be redefined. Because of the in-group foundation, they would also argue that SSM does affect everyone in a society. We are not isolated individuals who happen to live in proximity to each other. No, we live in a complex, interconnected society. When an institution like marriage is undermined or changed we all feel the effects. Because of the authority foundation, a conservative will fear that the effects of changing an important institution like marriage will be destabilizing. Many conservatives are torn on this issue because they also find themselves caring about fairness and potential harm. It is true that some conservatives may hate gay people, but the overwhelming majority do not. They care that people are able to live free and fulfilled lives. But because they are reasoning from all five foundations, they struggle with the complexities of this issue more than a liberal.

We could give all sorts of other examples where MFT comes into play, but I don’t want you to miss the point of this post. Our political discourse is always better when we attempt to understand each other. Your uncle votes differently than you not necessarily because he’s simple, but because his moral framework is complex.

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