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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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