Thursday, October 21, 2010

Implications, Debating Points & Strategies: What Tea Partiers Really Want | By Jonathan Haidt -

In the Saturday/Sunday (10/16-17/2010) edition of the Wall Street Journal [Review section], Johnathan Haidt - professor of psychology at the University of Virginia - lays out a remarkable analysis of the psychological underpinnings of the Tea Party movement. What is truly driving the passion behind this angry, populist insurgency, he claims, "is less about liberty than a particularly American idea of karma."

While I will leave it to Haidt's article to sketch out the why's & wherefore's and otherwise provide the details of this thesis, I wanted to focus on some of the implications of what this may mean. And, in turn, offer up some thoughts as to how best to leverage this psychological foundation to debate specific policy & to posit political strategies for the post-mid term election future.

Important Insight #1:
Focusing on narrow, pejorative explanations of Tea Partiers' motives is a mistake.

While some elements of the movement may indeed be racist (they're all white!), greedy/selfish (they just don't want to pay taxes!), or gullible (they've been hypnotized by charlatans like Glenn Beck), similar things may be said of any number of other movements, including ones on the left. Such explanations are either provably untrue (they're not ALL white, most willingly pay taxes, and they are - perhaps surprisingly, to some - somewhat better educated than you would expect gullible racists to be), or simply unhelpful. How can you expect to dialogue with people when you're calling them greedy, ignorant racists?

I confess: I have been guilty of doing just that.

[Then again, my audience is not comprised of Tea Party activists. And this blog is not so much meant to generate civil discourse amongst opposing viewpoints as it is an outlet for a moderate mind (mine, in particular) that feels threatened by the purging miasma of extremist poison emerging all around it.]

The key is that doing so not only prevents dialogue & understanding, but it misses the point. It allows liberals to disregard the moral claims of Tea Partiers. And if those moral claims are not addressed, we only invite perpetual war.

Important Insight #2:
Tea Partiers conception of karma - i.e., that for every action or deed, there is an equal and commensurate reaction that [eventually] balances the moral books (virtue will be rewarded, vice will be punished) - assumes that no divine [much less human] intervention is required.

As Haidt reports, for Tea Party activists karma is just a universal law, like gravity, that somehow or other, just works. Given the Tea Partiers' predominant religiosity, perhaps they believe it simply God's will ('tho I think the rationalist Libertarian component of the movement might have something else to say about that)? Whatever the mechanism, in their view karma is automatic... albeit delayable.

Accordingly, if it can be demonstrated that this assumed automaticity is not in fact true, Tea Partiers might be more inclined to accept the need for human intervention - in the form of government - to provide moral accountability. Buddhism teaches that karma, ultimately, is an illusion; if Tea Partiers' can be led to a similar understanding, a more reasonable debate about policy might well follow.  [Memo to Rene Weber, my old Professor of Religion at Rutgers: Help me out here!]

For the God-fearing elements who see His hand everywhere, the argument might be framed along these lines:

  • God gave humanity free will.
  • In doing so, He gave mankind resposnibility for balancing his collective affairs, at least during this earthly life.
  • Having sworn off his previous techniques for enforcing karmic justice - global deluge [Noah & the Flood], property damage & schizophasia [Tower of Babel], turning disobedient wives & entire metropolises into pillars of salt [Lot's wife, Sodom & Gomorrha] - God made mankind his designated karmic enforcer.
  • Accordingly, in the American Constitutional system, government - as the embodiment of the collective will of the people - has a responsibility to see justice done.

Important Insight #3:
In the Tea Party world view, only a relatively limited set of human characteristics determine success/failure outcomes, and these can be modeled along a spectrum of three independent axes:
  • Kindness-Cruelty;
  • Honesty-Deceit;
  • Hard Work-Laziness.
Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering.

There is no room, anywhere, for mere Luck.

Simple, random chance has no part in their success equation. In their view, all human outcomes must be entirely controllable by human actions & choices. [Which seems wildly at odds with their religious views... if men are entirely in control of their destinies, whither God?]

Place of birth or genetic constitution, accidents and epidemics: none of these apparently have any influence on individuals' success or failure in life. So sayeth the Tea Party Patriot.

This attitude towards Luck - or, rather, this refusal to even recognize Luck - would seem to explain the large divergence between American and European forms of governance. European cultures tend to give more credence to Luck as a factor in the relative success of individual lives, and have chosen relatively more socialistic forms of governance to compensate for its effects.

But, what would happen if Tea Partiers were confronted, continually & on a large scale, with irrefutable empirical evidence that SHIT HAPPENS? Regardless of whether the shit-or or shit-ee is kind, honest or hard working or otherwise.

You would think that at least some of them would be familiar with the concept of insurance. More than likely, the vast majority of them actually own substantial insurance policies on everything from their private property, their health and even their liability towards others. If they truly believe in moral karma that solely functions along dimensions that are completely a matter of personal responsibility for actions & choices, how do they explain insurance - whether provided via private, commercial markets or through the government?

Hammer home the incongruity of their fundamental belief system - American moral karma - with the reality of this worldly life - shit happens - and slowly, but surely, honest Tea Partiers seeking to reconcile the two will come to a place that will allow for reasonable compromise. 

I hope.

Important Insight #4:
Tea Partiers' commitment to karma does not admit the possibility of collateral damage.

Those guilty of corruption and irresponsibility in creating today's ongoing financial and economic crisis have escaped the consequences of their wrongdoing. First they were rescued by President Bush - e.g., the Bear Stearns & AIG rescues, TARP - and then by President Obama - the Financial Recovery Act a/k/a the stimulus bill. Bailouts sent unimaginable sums of the taxpayers' money to the very people who brought calamity upon the rest of us, and all the while these same scoundrels were pocketing record bonuses [presumably for dealing with the fallout from their prior bad decisions]. The great lament of the Tea Party wails loudly: Where is punishment for the wicked?

In the mind of the Tea Party, karmic punishment MUST be allowed to fall upon the necks of the wicked.

Now, I have to admit, there is an instinctual appeal to this logic. But, the problem with this kind of misanthropic tunnel vision is that it completely ignores the fact that doing so would also punish millions of  innocent victims.

If all of the bad actors were allowed to collapse into utter bankruptcy, the financial system as a whole would also collapse and drag the rest of us along with it into the maw of the maelstrom.

How can we know this? Just look around. Only Lehman Bros. was allowed to fail, and AIG was merely threatened with a similar fate. The result was a global financial panic:
- frozen credit markets;
- a staggering loss of trillions of dollars of wealth as the stock markets plummeted, wiping out years of retirement savings;
- further erosion of the housing market, as millions of home owners saw the equity in their homes evaporate;
- a sharp deceleration of the economy (a 6% drop in annualized GDP in one quarter alone);
- mounting job losses (10% unemployment, monthly new unemployment claims of nearly 800,000).

Moreover, we have a very precise historical parallel that we can draw upon: the Great Depression.

Almost exactly the same set of facts & circumstances occurred leading up the Great Depression of the 1930s - a stunning stock market crash, a tidal wave of bank failures, massive unemployment, etc.

What distinguishes then from now was that the Hoover administration did absolutely nothing about it. Much like our modern day Tea Party, Hoover was the very exemplar of conservatism. Hoover believed unquestioningly that government had absolutely no business in rescuing the economy, for to do so would be to create "moral hazard" (post-Gilded Age code speak for "violating Karma").

In the aftermath of the Great Depression, most Americans recognized that capitalism required safety nets.  FDR was elected to a record four consecutive presidential terms precisely because he embraced this reality. For the most part, the ideological debate was over, and most of America accepted the notion that there needed to be limits placed on allowing karma to run its course. Even Libertarians understood that giving free rein to karmic justice must stop at the point that it was about to punch everyone else in the nose.

Eighty years of subsequent growth and prosperity later, and apparently we have forgotten that lesson.

The lesson needs to be re-learned. If Tea Partiers get their wish, and come into power during these mid-term elections and implement their radical agenda, we are likely to get just that opportunity. The emergence of a double-dip recession stemming from the flawed policy prescription favored by Tea Partiers should give liberals, moderates - and, yes, even Libertarians - the chance to make the point all over again that punishing the wicked makes little sense when doing so also punishes the innocent.

Important Insight #5:
The current make-up of the Tea Party is a shaky coalition of strange political bedfellows: Social Conservatives and Libertarians. This unlikely alliance is unlikely to endure.

Based on extensive studies & surveys that Haidt has conducted over time, on more karmic notions of fairness, conservatives and libertarians begin to split apart.

For example:
In response to propositions about the positive, rewarding aspects of karma - e.g., "Employees who work the hardest should be paid the most" - everyone agrees, but conservatives agree more enthusiastically than liberals and libertarians, whose responses were identical.

Similar divergences occur about the negative side of karma. When asked whether they conur with the proposition that "Whenever possible, a criminal should be made to suffer in the same way that his victim suffered", liberals reject this harsh notion, and libertarians mildly reject it. But conservatives are slightly positive about it.

In a study of 152,000 people who filled out surveys at, led by colleague Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California, Haidt & Co. found that libertarians are morally a bit more similar to liberals than to conservatives.

Quoting Haidt's article directly now:
"Libertarians are closer to conservatives on two of the five main psychological "foundations" of morality that we study—concerns about care and fairness (as described above). [note: refer to the article for further explanation]

But on the other three psychological foundations - group loyalty, respect for authority and spiritual sanctity - libertarians are indistinguishable from liberals and far apart from conservatives.

We call these the three "binding" foundations because they are the psychological systems used by groups—including religious groups, the military and even college fraternities—to bind people together into tight communities of trust, cooperation and shared identity. When you think about morality as a way of binding individuals together, it's no wonder that libertarians (who prize individual liberty above all else) part company with conservatives."

My advice?  Focus on wedge arguments that should split off libertarians from their current conservative comrades.  There is already an innate tension between the wings of the movement, which perhaps explains a large part of the inchoatenes of their message to date. Apply a little nudge, and their cohesiveness should fly apart.

Haidt already points out some obvious pain points. Demonstrate clearly how some conservative ideals - American Exceptionalism, for one, championing the idea of America as a Christian nation, for another (not to mention Creationism as science equal to Evolution, or their anti-Constitutional defense of 'traditional' marriage) - are incompatible with libertarian ideals of fairness & liberty, and surely the coalition will begin to unravel faster than a ball of yarn rolling down a hill.

The economic justice argument I make in Insight #4 above should work particularly well on Libertarians:  The desire to punish the wicked on Wall Street (or irresponsible home buyers) should not be allowed to impact all the rest of us by damaging the economy. Conservatives' right to extend their fist towards these evil-doers ends at a point before it reaches everyone else's noses.

As Haidt summarizes:
"The tea-party movement is a blend of libertarians and conservatives, but it is far from an equal blend, and it's not clear how long it can stay blended. The movement is partially funded and trained by libertarian and pro-business groups—such as FreedomWorks, the organization run by Messrs. Armey and Kibbe—whose main concern is increasing economic liberty. They may indeed "just want to be free," particularly from regulation and taxes, but the social conservatives who make up the great bulk of the movement have much broader aims."

Amen, brother.

What Tea Partiers Really Want By Jonathan Haidt -


  1. An apt quote that both underscores my own views, AND explains why I tend to invoke ignorance so often as a primary defect of the far right:

    "The ground for taking ignorance to be restrictive of freedom is that it causes people to make choices which they would not have made if they had seen what the realization of their choices involved."
    - Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (1910–1989), British philosopher, from "The Concept of Freedom," The Meaning of Life and Other Essays (1990).

  2. Also, note how nicely this quote takes direct aim at exploiting Libertarians' deeply held convictions about individual liberty.

    Get Libertarians to admit the verity that ignorance is restrictive of freedom, and then show them how conservatives' positions flowing from their karmic beliefs ignore what their choices would entail, and you're more than halfway home to bringing them onto our side.

  3. Not to mention the fact that these "new" party lines that have been drawn across in ever more acerbic, fundamental ways as a means to skip over true discourse. Most talking heads call foul when someone on the other side of the fence says something mean, but they always seem to forget that discourse is not something that innately exists in government (and never really has), but is in fact something that is continually in need of being strived for. The pundits get louder, the game gets more contrived, and at the end of the day, it's still the same snake oil.

    The only reason there is more to worry about is that all issues being trumpeted by either side are being stamped with a "Homeric Epic Battle" that lends itself to an overblown, self-absorbed sense of direness that harkens back to more masturbatorial Manifest Destiny fantasies.

    Like the aforementioned, Tea Partiers in general can't seem to be able to acquiesce to the idea that self-determination and "God-given" are not in the same philosophical camp, except when it comes to the fact that we're taught from birth that "I/he/she/we deserve this," in any given situation as a matter of the above mentioned American Karma.

  4. I see Fandango pssed his Advanced Polemics 202 course with an A+ LOL