Jonathan Haidt’s research and writings have received ample notice in recent months, including this profile in The Chronicle, this upcoming panel at American Enterprise Institute, and this article by Haidt in Reason Magazine. One reason is that Haidt and colleagues have designed studies that attempt to measure differences between conservatives and liberals, and the results have been newsworthy.
Among his premises is the identification of six pairings of “moral concerns,” namely, care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. One of the applications of those pairings is a study that Haidt describes in Reason this way:
“In a study I conducted with colleagues Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than 2,000 American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a ‘typical liberal’ would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a ‘typical conservative’ would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about ‘typical’ partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right. Who was best able to pretend to be the other?
“The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as ‘very liberal.’ The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the care and fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with statements such as ‘one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal’ or ‘justice is the most important requirement for a society,’ liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.”
In other words, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives. More precisely, conservatives’ version of liberals matches liberals’ version of themselves better than liberals’ version of conservatives matches conservatives’ vision of themselves.
This is an important finding for many commentators on the Right because it gainsays one of the central claims of liberals, that is, that liberals are more open-minded, empathetic, imaginative, and tolerant than conservatives are. The study indicates, rather, that when it comes to facing the other side, liberals lean toward caricatures and extreme cases, and this tendency rises the more liberal they are.
Why might this be so? My speculation is that it has nothing to do with intelligence or moral condition. Instead, it is because of an outcome of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s. In broad outlines, what happened was that in politics we ended up with more polarized but still dynamic debates, controversies, struggles, elections, etc., but in areas of culture, the liberal side won. It was a firm and sound defeat for conservatism in public schools, the art world, entertainment media, higher education, journalism, and every other sphere of cultural activity.
The triumph was so pronounced and widespread that the natural thing happened. People who occupied those spheres came to believe that their ideological stance was the natural and right and just one. They had so much dominance and so many like-minded people around them that, after a few years, they simply took the liberal position as ordinary and proper, and at the same time regarded those remnants of conservatism as feeble holdovers of a benighted time. After a few years, they believed, those remnants would disappear.
This is a formula for complacency and self-regard. It explains, too, the results of the study above. Why bother to pay attention to an outlook that is so discredited, obsolete, and outrageous? Why grant any respect to a position that nobody with any respectability holds?