By Jason Marsh | November 7, 2012 | 7 comments

How can both parties work together after President Obama’s re-election? Psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers some hard advice for liberals and conservatives.

Obama won. Romney lost. Now what?

Now, of course, begins the hard work of actually tackling the country’s many social and economic problems—a task made even harder by intense partisanship. How can liberals and conservatives respond to climate change and fix the economy when it doesn’t even seem like they can have a civil conversation?

Jonathan HaidtJonathan Haidt

To get at an answer, we turned to moral psychologistJonathan Haidt. For years, Haidt, the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at the New York University Stern School of Business, has studied the psychological bases of our moral and political views. He has been especially interested in why morality varies across cultures—and even within the same country. This interest has led him to consider whether ideological differences between liberals and conservatives in the United States reflect deeper psychological differences between them.

Through studies with tens of thousands of people, Haidt and his colleagues have identified six distinct “moral foundations” that underlie the moral and political judgments people make around the world. And, sure enough, Haidt and his colleagues have concluded that liberals and conservatives build their political views off of these foundations in different ways.

Liberals, studies show, place greater value on the moral foundations of care for others and fairness; conservatives, on the other hand, care more than liberals about the moral foundations of group loyalty, respect for authority, and “sanctity,” meaning an aversion to unpure or disgusting things. (Both groups rely on the foundation of liberty, though in different ways.)

So does this simply mean that liberals are from Mars and conservatives are from Venus, doomed to conflict and misunderstanding? Not necessarily. Along with highlighting our differences, Haidt’s work has also suggested how liberals and conservatives can bridge these differences and learn from each other—ideas he explores in his recent book, The Righteous Mind (and which he also shares in a New York Times op-ed published today).

I spoke with Haidt this morning to get his morning-after-Election-Day analysis of how the country can move forward in the wake of an intensely partisan election year. 

Greater Good: You’ve written extensively about liberals’ and conservatives’ shortcomings in understanding the moral psychology of the other. In light of what you saw this past election year, do you believe liberals and conservatives are getting better or worse at understanding and talking to each other?

Jonathan Haidt: I’d say worse. The survey data on what people think about the other side shows a consistent downward trend. Liberals have always thought negatively about conservatives and vice versa. It wasn’t so bad up to the 1990s, but then it started going down, and it’s actually gotten much worse in the Bush and Obama years. There’s no sign of improvement, and there are plenty of signs that things are getting worse.

GG: Why do you think that is?

JH: It all begins with the purification of the parties. The two political parties were not liberal versus conservative until after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and that started a long process of purification, when the Republican party became all conservative and the Democratic party became all liberals. Once the two parties became pure, then it became much easier to hate the other side because they really were different.

Now, for the first time, the two parties are really different sorts of people with different personalities and different values—it’s not just collections of interest groups, it’s really much more of a clear moral split than it ever was before.

GG: You’ve said before that you think liberals are worse at understanding the moral psychology of conservatives than the other way around. Is there any evidence from this election year that has made you reconsider or feel more certain about that assessment?

More on Jonathan Haidt

Listen to an interview with Haidt as part of Greater Good‘spodcast series.


Learn about your own moral foundations at Haidt’s website,


For more on Haidt‘s work, check out his most recent book, The Righteous Mind.


JH: No, no sign that it was wrong. The reason why I say that is not that liberals are more narrow-minded. They’re not. They’re slightly better at perspective taking than conservatives in general. But in this case, because conservative morality rests on moral foundations of group loyalty, respect for authority, and sense of sancity—these are three moral foundations that many liberals reject, or just cannot simulate in their own minds.

Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, and I ran a study testing this, and we didn’t know how it was going to come out. But it really came out clearly that people on the far left were the worst—they could not pretend to be the other side. Moderates and conservatives were the best at pretending to be the other side.

Now what’s happened is that the culture war used to be about loyalty, authority, and sancity, up until the Tea Party. So this lack of understanding really put liberals at a big disadvantage. Now, the culture war has shifted to more economic issues—issues of fairness—and there the problem is not simply that liberals can’t understand what conservatives mean. Put it this way: Now the liberal difficulty of empathizing with conservatives is less of a problem on economic issues than it was on social issues.

GG: For conservatives waking up today to another Obama administration, what advice do you have about how they can communicate their ideals effectively to liberals—to make themselves understood, feel less culturally and politically marginalized, and try to create a less partisan political climate?

JH: Well, I think that the polarization in Washington, at least, has been very asymmetrical. The Democrats went through a period in the 70s and into the 80s where they spun out into left field in a moralistic spiral that made them more blind to reality. But they came back to earth in the 90s.

And now it’s the Republicans turn. The Republicans have spun out into a moralistic spirial that puts them at a disadvantage in understanding reality. And I think they’re going to have to stop that. They’re going to have to have some kind of reform movement. There are vey few Republican moderates left, but until they’re given a voice, I think the Republicans are going to be marginalized, and will deserve their marginalization.

GG: When you refer to a moralistic spiral, what are you referring to specifically?

JH: So a basic principle of morality is that morality “binds and blinds,” and the more a group circles around its sacred value, the blinder it goes. So when the left was circling around civil rights and women’s rights, that made them unable to think about empirical findings—for instance, about sex differences.

The Republicans are now in that kind of crazy moralistic spiral. For example, they’ve got certain economic assumptions that are just false—like, if you give tax breaks to the rich, they will stimulate the economy. That simply is false. But they’re circling around it, and until they give that up, they will neither have their ideas heard nor deserve to have their ideas heard.

GG: You’ve said before that “our righteous minds were designed by evolution to unite us into teams, to divide us against other teams, and then to blind us to the truth.” But of course, who we see as being a member of our “team” can shift over time. What would you like to see the Obama administration do to reduce the divisive feelings between the liberal and conservative teams in the United States today?

JH: First, you have to distinguish between “elite polarization”—what’s happening in Washington and the media—versus “mass polarization,” what’s happening among the people.

Our problem is really elite polarization. Congress is really broken, and it’s in part because the Republicans are so deep into this moralistic circling. Until the Republican party is reformed, it’ll be hard to deal with them.

So what Obama can do is encourage moderates—many in the Republican party are more moderate than they appear. The forces on Congress are such that they have to do things that they don’t really have their heart in.

My advice would be that Obama try bipartisanship once more, but this time, with a very clear, explicit message that this is a time-limited offer—one or two months. If Republicans are willing to join him and contribute some ideas—and they do have some good ideas—and reach a bipartisan compromise, they’re welcome, and he’ll take their ideas seriously. But if they have not done it within the next two months, then he will blame them for the next three-and-three-quarters years for being hyperpartisan when our country needs statesmen.

In other words, what Obama did not do last time was attend to the other side’s BATNA, which stands for Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement. If you have a good alternative to a negotiated agreement, then you have no need to make a deal. You can hold out for a lock. And last time the Republicans calculated that if they don’t deal, if they don’t compromise, they could make Obama fail. And it did work—they took the House in 2010.

So Obama was a very poor negotiator last time around. But he’s a very smart guy who learns from his mistakes, and I hope he will, this time around, to reduce the Republicans’ BATNA. Then try bipartisanship.

GG: So what about the rest of us, who aren’t the elites? Do you feel that mass polarization is not as pronounced as elite polarization?

JH: It’s not as pronounced. It is pronounced. Some political scientists say it doesn’t exist, but most say it does, and I think they’re right. The public is getting more polarized, but only by a little. So if you look at who calls themselves liberals, conservatives, or moderates, moderates are shrinking, but only by a few percentage points. The general public is getting a little more polarized.

The general public takes its cues in part from the elites. So because the Republicans have been spinning out into this moralistic spiral, the Republican public has as well. But if the Republican party goes through a reformation, as Bill Clinton did with the Democrats, it will go down to the common people, and I think we’ll see some moderation in the people as well.

GG: And do you think it probably will be that kind of top down process? For those who feel like they are sick of polarization and recognize, to a certain extent, that we have common threats that we should collectively act against, is there a way these individuals can bind together or work on their own to have some kind of impact on the political conversation?

JH: In general, many people are sick of the polarization, many people are moderates. But moderates tend to have little influence. They don’t have much political action. So in general, there’s not much moderates can do.

There’s a very good group now called All moderates, people of the center-right and center-left in particular, should be flocking to and joining and supporting it, because I think that’s a real voice for moderation.

It’s not that they’re after moderation, per se. They’re trying to fix Congress, trying to reform Congress. Congress is broken, there are a number of simple fixes that will make it work much better. So I think that’s the best route that people have, is to join

NoLabels is at least applying public pressure. Until individual legislators feel pressure to work for solutions rather than partisan advantage, nothing will change.