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If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing positive values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in care and fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal weekly The Village Voice, when he wrote in 2004: “Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet.…Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.” One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic—who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living—to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own.
Toward a More Civil Politics
In the ancient Middle East, where monotheism first took root, the third-century prophet Mani preached that the visible world is the battleground between the forces of light (absolute goodness) and the forces of darkness (absolute evil). Human beings are the front line in the battle; we contain both good and evil, and we each must pick one side and fight for it.
Mani’s preaching developed into Manichaeism, a religion that spread throughout the Middle East and influenced Western thinking. If you think about politics in a Manichaean way, compromise is a sin. God and the devil don’t issue many bipartisan proclamations, and neither should you.
America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. What can be done? Many groups and organizations have urged legislators and citizens alike to take “civility pledges,” promising to be “more civil” and to “view everyone in positive terms.” I don’t believe such pledges will work. You can’t just will yourself to be more civil to people you think are evil. If conscious self-control was determinative, New Year’s resolutions wouldn’t have such a wretched track record. Indirect methods are better.
To escape from this political mess, I believe that psychologists must work with political scientists to identify changes that will indirectly undermine Manichaeism. I ran a 2007 conference at Princeton University that tried to do this. We learned that much of the increase in polarization was unavoidable. It was the natural result of the political realignment that took place after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The conservative Southern states, which had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War (because Lincoln was a Republican), then began to leave the Democratic Party, and by the 1990s the South was solidly Republican. Before this realignment there had been liberals and conservatives in both parties, which made it easy to form bipartisan teams that could work together on legislative projects. But after the realignment, there was no longer any overlap, either in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. Nowadays the most liberal Republican is typically more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. And once the two parties became ideologically pure—a liberal party and a conservative party—there was bound to be a rise in Manichaeism.
But we also learned about factors that might possibly be reversed. The most poignant moment of the conference came when Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman from Iowa, described changes that began in 1995. Newt Gingrich, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, encouraged the large group of incoming Republican congressmen to leave their families in their home districts rather than moving their spouses and children to Washington. Before 1995 congressmen from both parties attended many of the same social events on weekends; their spouses became friends; their children played on the same sports teams. But nowadays most congressmen fly to Washington on Monday night, huddle with their teammates and do battle for three days, and then fly home on Thursday night. Cross-party friendships are disappearing; Manichaeism and scorched-earth politics are increasing.
The problem is not limited to politicians. Technology and changing residential patterns have allowed each of us to isolate ourselves within cocoons of likeminded individuals. In 1976 only 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide counties”—counties that voted either Democratic or Republican by a margin of 20 percentage points or more. But the number has risen steadily; in 2008, 48 percent of Americans lived in a landslide county. Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves,” in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned. If you find yourself in a Whole Foods store, there’s an 89 percent chance that the county surrounding you voted for Barack Obama. If you want to find Republicans, go to a county that contains a Cracker Barrel restaurant; 62 percent of these went for McCain.
Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects. Morality binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.
Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a visiting professor of business ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business. This article is adapted, by permission from Pantheon Books, from his new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.