Want to End Rabid Partisanship? Reform American Academia

Want to End Rabid Partisanship? Reform American Academia March 30, 2012

After so much talk of uniting Americans and promoting civility and overcoming our political polarization, why do we still observe such hostility between opposing political camps?  Why, in an era of unprecedented access to other lifestyles and religions and philosophies, do we seem to understand one another less and less?  Why so much road rage on the information superhighway?

The hostility between racial groups in the United States is indisputably much decreased from one or two generations ago.  Yet the hostility between political groups seems greater than ever.  Why?

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion is stirring some helpful conversation (by Nicholas Kristof, among others).  A study Haidt (and others) published a year ago on “The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives” is particularly interesting.  The authors surveyed two thousand people, asking one-third to answer in their own voice, one-third to answer as “a typical liberal,” and one-third to answer as “a typical conservative.”

The results were striking.  As Kristof puts it: “Moderates and conservatives were adept at guessing how liberals would answer questions. Liberals, especially those who described themselves as ‘very liberal,’ were least able to put themselves in the minds of their adversaries and guess how conservatives would answer.”  Tom Chivers at the Telegraph goes on to say that the “very liberal” were “especially bad at guessing what conservatives would say about issues of care or fairness. For example, most thought that conservatives would disagree with statements like ‘One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenceless animal’ or ‘Justice is the most important requirement for a society.'”

Further, Haidt (a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and a former liberal who became a centrist in the process of conducting this research) finds that liberals and conservatives alike form their political beliefs according to three values: caring for the weak, fairness, and liberty.  Yet conservatives also hold to three other values: loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity.  This accounts in part for the liberal failure to understand conservative viewpoints.  As Chivers puts it, “Conservatives can understand the morality of liberals, but much of conservative morality is alien to their opponents.”

This corresponds exactly with my own observations of the educated liberals among whom I lived and worked in academia for many years.  Precisely the social institution that is supposed to encourage Americans to understand both sides of the argument, and precisely those individuals who repeatedly teach that we should enter sympathetically into the worldviews of those who differ from us, have by and large failed to encourage a charitable understanding of conservative beliefs and motives and have conferred a flat, exaggerated sense of what conservatives think.

As I wrote in “Is the Tea Party Racist?” in July of 2010:

Since liberals control the American education establishment and nearly all of the major news organizations, conservatives generally are better educated in liberal ways of thinking than liberals are in conservative ways of thinking. How many of us, in high school or college, heard thorough, eloquent, and charitable defenses of conservative theories of society, economy, and government? The faculties at major universities and the staffs at major news organizations are overwhelmingly liberal. This has not served our country well. Liberals in general get their views of “conservatism” second-hand through liberal caricatures, and this has made them better able to demonize conservatives than understand them.

Even among educated liberals, few have more than a single-layered view of conservatism. They may know the conservative argument superficially, and they are armed with their own objections, but they are ignorant of how conservatives would respond to their objections. This is worse than knowing nothing at all, as it gives liberals the false impression that they have addressed and defeated conservatism. Yet they have only conquered a Potemkin village, where the people are thin and false.

But the problem is not merely ignorance. Liberals are also alienated from core conservative values. Liberals are trained to believe that many of the traditional American ideals and values that conservatives inherit in their families and churches are cruel and intolerant, imperialistic, and implicitly racist, sexist, and classist…Liberals consistently misinterpret what motivates conservatives because they really cannot see the world from the conservative perspective…

Thus, the Theory of the Missing Motive applies. Unable to see a rational and noble motive at the center of the Tea Party movement, liberals supply a darker and more convenient motive instead. Just as ancient cartographers wrote “there be dragons here” beyond the bounds of the world they knew, so liberals write “there be racism here” because the mind of the Tea Partier is undiscovered country in their map of the world.

It’s always churlish to say “I told you so,” but sometimes it’s just unavoidable.

By any measure–self-identification, voting patterns, campaign donations–American academia is overwhelmingly liberal.  From 1999 to the present, 75% of campaign donation money from professors has gone to Democrats and 10% has gone to Republicans.  In some fields, such as law and the humanities, the voting and giving often skews between 90% and 100% toward Democrats or other liberal parties like the Green Party.

The liberalization of the American educational establishment has been a colossal failure.  Liberals overtook the universities because (reasonably) they saw them as the way to shape a more progressive society in the long term.  They insisted that they could set aside their own partisan beliefs and teach in ways that are fair to both sides.  It is abundantly clear, however, that a progressive political mindset prevails in the American university system, especially at the elite levels.  It’s more difficult for conservative professors to be hired or receive tenure, it’s more difficult for conservative students to speak up without fear of the consequences, and liberal students emerge from the universities with a terrifically superficial understanding of the conservative mindset — and American society is the poorer for it.

When you look at the three values that conservatives (according to Haidt) honor but liberals do not — loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity — these are precisely the values that are flouted in the precincts of American academe.  The result is a more impoverished moral imagination amongst students, a stubborn inability to understand the beliefs and the motives of conservatives, and thus the imputation of nefarious motives to those irrational conservatives who do not see things in the ways the illuminati do.  If you don’t believe that this has contributed to the partisanship we’ve observed in recent years — particularly the exceedingly nasty way in which liberals in general have responded to the Tea Party movement, to social conservatives and generally to anyone who refers too much to moral sanctity and loyalty to American traditions and institutions, then I think you’re wearing exactly the kind of blinders Haidt talks about.

There will be more to say on this in coming weeks.  We need a better understanding of how political beliefs are actually formed, and how they change over time.  But for the moment, you can enjoy seeing Haidt’s thesis beautifully illustrated in this now-famous interview of Froma Harrop, interviewed by John Oliver of The Daily Show (the fact that it comes from The Daily Show demonstrates that there are blessed exceptions):

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  • John

    The premise is compelling, but I think the problem is deeper: loyalty, respect for authority, sanctity… the Progressive “conventional wisdom” does seem to have a disordered version of each.

    Loyalty is typically to a party, a race or more generally, to Progressivism itself. Apostates are treated quite harshly.

    Authority is prominent in their world, albeit in the unprincipled, strong-man variety. Consider how their regard for the “living constitution” differs from their regard for the ratified one. They do believe in authority: their own.

    As for sanctity, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the trappings of sacrament and ritual in so much of their social, economic and environmental… catechism.

    These are cheap imitations of actual values, so in that sense, yes, we can say the Left cares little for them. But it is interesting how they need these flimsy substitutes as props to furnish their power-hungry worldview.

  • J

    I think it’s more complicated than you state. My experience is that leftists (let’s be honest and stop calling them liberal or progressive) are quite loyal to their cause(s), and persistently argue from authority, particularly that of educational attainment. I’ve noted this in cases where someone with a postgrad degree is cited, or ponitificates themselves, on some subject they don’t know any more about than your cat does, as though their degree makes them an expert on all subjects. As to sanctity, again you may be oversimplifying. The best example I can think of there is environmentalism, which has become the religion of the left. In essence, they’ve taken the values you mention and altered them to accomodate their mindset.

    I agree the takeover of higher education by the left has been a collossal failure, but in one way I never see mentioned. According to GSS data, a plurality of college graduates identify as Republican, college graduates are far more likely to identify as Republican than groups with lower levels of education, and Republicans have a higher average level of education than Democrats. There may be some self selection there, but it would appear that, notwithstanding the left’s takeover of higher education, if going to college is going to have an effect on your political views, it’s going to shift them to the right, not the left. I certainly came out of college more conservative than I went in after four years of exposure to leftist academics who had no idea how ignorant they were about areas outside their field of expertise. I note the same effect in media consumption; in the one area I have considerable expertise, there is an almost comical level of ignorance amongst reporters. I have to assume that ignorance extends to other areas I know little or nothing about.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for these comments.

      I didn’t go much into the 3/6 values, but I would have some of the same concerns you stated. I’m guessing Haidt addresses these questions in his book.

  • lee

    Don’t you mean raBid partisanship, not raPid?
    Great post.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I do, yes.

  • YT

    “When you look at the three values that conservatives (according to Haidt) honor but liberals do not — loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity”

    Oh I dunno. I find my respect for authority lacking lately.

  • Bill Woods

    “Want to End Rapid Partisanship?”

    Shouldn’t that be ra_b_id, not ra_p_id?

    • Timothy Dalrymple


  • Peter

    Rapid or Rabid partisanship? or a rapid end to partisanship?
    (Thanks for the article)

  • “Haidt … finds that liberals and conservatives alike form their political beliefs according to three values: caring for the weak, fairness, and liberty. Yet conservatives also hold to three other values: loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity.”

    I find that fascinating, Professor. As a conservative, I find that description made real in every conversation I have with someone who isn’t conservative. An amazing insight that I hadn’t considered before.

    Thank you for the article, and the additions to my knowledge base, Professor!

  • John Haas

    “loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity”

    One could raise some questions about any of these, but the real howler is “respect for authority.” The Tea Party? Are you serious? Well, I guess if I believed the president had to be manhandled into acquiescing to the Abottabad raid I might swallow that, too.

    • werewife

      Thanks for proving Mr. Dalrymple’s point so neatly.

    • J.M. Heinrichs

      That puts you at 0 for 2; next?


    • CBDenver

      I was reading at Volokh about the SC healthcare hearings and found several liberals basically saying that the Constitution is outdated and besides the founders were a bunch of racist, sexist, genocidal maniacs so we shouldn’t worry about whether laws conform to the Constitution because that document is of no value anymore. I think that sums up liberal’s contempt for authority fairly well.

      The only time liberals ever show any respect for authority is when their side is in power. Then suddenly it is just horrible to disrespect the office of the presidency. When some hated conservative like GWB is in office — respect for authority is not required.

      • John Haas

        That’s a heck of an argument.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Re: “loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity”
    Loyalty to what? Sanctity of what? Respect for whose authority? This traditional conservative and constitutionalist has never had less respect for institutional authority figures and our so-called “leadership elites” than he does now. Haidt does not speak for me, and his characterization of conservativism is thereby suspect.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      You’d have to read Haidt’s book for a fuller exposition. But loyalty to America, for instance, respect for the authority of the Constitution or also for religious authorities (“respect” need not mean slavish obedience, of course), and the sanctity of life and marriage — those are the first ones that come to mind for me.

      • CBDenver

        So basically you are saying respect for traditional values that the liberals have spent the last 50 years trying to overthrow?

  • Amazingly enough, connected to an article with a six minute comedy piece about how disconnected liberals are from understanding conservatives, two liberals comment that the Tea Party has no respect for authority.

    This is a movement whose public protests did not even leave litter behind, and a movement named after the Boston Tea Party, whose main point is to keep federal spending within Constitutional limits.

    Wow. It boggles the mind. I can only assume the liberals think there is no authority outside their party leadership. “Authority” does not mean George Washington, it means Saul Alinsky.

    The irony here could not be greater. An article about liberals being disconnected from their loyal opposition party is followed by liberals displaying the disconnectedness in a painfully unselfconscious way, making the comedy routine seen above seem like a documentary.

  • “It’s more difficult for conservative professors to be hired or receive tenure, it’s more difficult for conservative students to speak up without fear of the consequences…”

    — I am a second generation conservative academic, and I have not observed either of these things. What I have observed is that for conservatives, who put family first, the academic life is not very appealing. But for conservatives who stick it out and are willing to speak up, it is possible to make one’s way even in the liberal-dominated academy.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      There’s no question that “it is possible.” The question is whether it’s more difficult. There are other reasons why conservatives are not well represented in the upper precincts of American academia, self-selection included, but I do believe that those who are politically conservative will encounter more friction as they try to establish themselves and ascend the hierarchy.

      One of my favorite academics is the dearly departed Bill Stuntz. A conservative legal theorist and an evangelical Christian, he prospered at Virginia and then at Harvard. His scholarship was impeccable and he demonstrated a willingness to follow the research, wherever it led, whether or not it confirmed his preconceptions. His colleagues had great, great respect for him. So there are some excellent examples of conservative professors flourishing in liberal atmospheres. And I don’t, by any stretch, recommend a kind of entrenchment into a bunker warfare mentality. But honestly, given the overwhelming liberalism (which, again, is a demonstrable fact) of the American professoriate, it’s almost inevitable that the conservative academic will encounter more friction. This is especially so, I think, because so many liberal professors not only disagree with conservative political positions, but find those positions irrational or even immoral.

  • Civilis

    The “Respect for Authority” shown by the Tea Party is in their respect for law, not their respect for lawmakers. Although protesting against the government, they got the permits they needed, obeyed the laws regarding their protests, treated the police with respect and cleaned up after themselves.

    With the exception of some anti-abortion activists, the right really doesn’t practice ‘civil disobedience’ style protests (ie getting yourself arrested to show your devotion to the cause). Whether this benefits the right or the left remains to be seen…

  • John Haas

    Btw: “rapid partisanship”?

    Rabid? Rampant? Or, “rabbit” perhaps? 😉

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Prompted by this comment, I did a search on “rabid partisanship” to see whether it was a common term or not. It appears to be fairly common. But “rabbit partisanship” is probably more enjoyable nonetheless.

  • Jo

    Long time reader, first time commenting (I think). So first off, thanks for sharing your writing here on this blog. I really appreciate the insight you offer on current events and life matters, along with the gracious way you write about others. That tone is seriously a breath of fresh air in an often toxic online environment.

    This post reminds me of something I recently observed in a 30-student education class at UC Berkeley–after reading the lyrics to Krista Branch’s “I am America,” many of my fellow students were shocked to learn that the song is the (unofficial or official?) Tea Party anthem. When asked, most had initially guessed that the song was written from a “liberal” perspective. (I suppose arguments can be made about what “liberal” here meant, but suffice it to say that Tea Party was faaaar from what they had in mind.)

  • richard40

    This leftist blindness to conservative arguments may be one reason why they were so surprised by the supreme court rejection of Obamacare. As one who read conservative/libertarian legal blogs, like the Voloch conspiricy, I knew quite well that the conservative arguments were well thought out, and had been well honed in constant debate for months. But the leftists didn’t seem to even realize those arguments existed, and just thought they had it in the bag, and any conservatives arguments must be stupid.

    Another aside. I am not a straight conservative, I have a far more libertarian bent, and often disagree with socons. But since I do agree with conservatives on fiscal policy, I am used to working with them, and thus respect and understand socon arguments far more than any leftist would.

    I think one way this devide will be bridged is to first get more libertarians in academia. They do not antagonize the left on social issues, where the leftist meme that conservatives are dumb is most pronounced, and might get them to rethink on fiscal policy. I have also noticed that young people have a more libertarian bent. They are going toward fiscal conservatism, because they realize that they are the ones that will get stuck with the bill when leftist fiscal policy breaks the bank. But they also tend to be moderate/liberal on gay issues, and beleif in evolution.

    I think the best way to end the partisan devide would be to have a 3 party system, with a libertarian/centrist party of near equal size to the dem and repub party. Then it would always be possible to form a 2 party majority coalition on most issues, with the libertarians siding with repubs on fiscal policies, and with dems on some social issues. You might also have a 4 party system, with a socially conservative fiscally leftist party. The main obstacle to this is the 2 party system is now very firmly entrenched, with huge barriers to 3rd party entry.

  • Tim Seitz-Brown

    The path to healing is to listen and love the ones with whom we disagree. Typically, it is easier for us to see the speck in Their Eyes than to see the log in Our Eyes. At least, that is true for me. To end rabid partisanship Jesus might suggest that Everyone worry about and own up to the logs in their own eyes.

    Also, I wish to hear occasionally, “hey, the Other Side has a point” or hear a politician tell a story where someone from the Other Side is the hero, like a story about a “good” Samaritan.

    For a group actually trying to deal with this, please refer to No Labels, a multi perspective political group that is really working to find common ground solutions.

    As always, I note the temptation towards mimetic rivalry (Girard)

    Love to all this Holy Week!

  • DLS

    Good piece. Glad to see you back writing blog entries again.

  • nnmns

    Just another occasion made up so conservatives can pat themselves on the back and try to break academia.

    The simplest explanation for the Haidt study you mention is that more of the conservatives lied about their answers, likely because they saw how greedy they sound, so the liberals’ mimicry was better than it looked because the target had been moved.

    In any case the claims conservatives are concerned for the weak and fair are belied by the health care debates where conservatives say it would be bad for people’s morals to have access to the health care they need and clearly demonstrate they don’t care that a lot of us don’t have such access.

    And their concern for the weak seems to begin and end with the “unborn”, a category that didn’t exist until it was invented by the Catholic clergy to justify the Church’s abortion policy.

    As for authority, that does seem to be a real difference between us. And since authority is almost always exercised by the powerful, be it in religion or government or business, it’s not surprising the greedy and frightened would cowtow to it. I’m proud as many people as do question authority; it’s so often wrong.

  • David H

    Although I agree that liberal academicians “have by and large failed to encourage a charitable understanding of conservative beliefs and motives and have conferred a flat, exaggerated sense of what conservatives think”, as I read further, I encountered the claim that “liberals” don’t understand “loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity”? Many religious people in the US who are “liberal” on a variety of issues often come down on that side because of deep loyalty to centuries-old teachings of faith. In other words, their beef with conservatives often comes from the latter not being “conservative” enough.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Your argument is with the study from Jonathan Haidt. I’d check out his book!