Why Good People Drive You Crazy with Bad Politics

If you’ve been bothered by what other people post about concerning politics and religion you’re not alone. “How could they like him?” “What does this matter?” “Why are they persuaded by such stupid stuff?” I might have a way to explain it to you and help you change their mind.

I’ve just read “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. It’s a secular book on moral psychology. He doesn’t attempt to explain how you can be “righteous” but instead explains HOW people make moral decisions. I highly recommend you read it on your own. But I’m going to offer a book report with a few highlights for those too busy for it.

The first thing you need to know is that moral judgments are like this picture of a man on an elephant. The elephant represents your intuitions. The rider is your moral reasoning. Notice the size, weight and strength difference between the two. If the elephant leans left the rider looks left to see what’s causing the elephant to lean. If the elephant leans right the rider looks right. The rider despite his superior intelligence has almost no control over the elephant. He might find a way occasionally to persuade the elephant but almost always he goes where the elephant goes. The most important thing to know about the rider is that he makes up his reasoning after the elephant moves. Some people have better reasons than others but regardless of their intellect the elephant always makes the first move.

happy tourist rides on an elephant and waving with hand

Intuition is the elephant. Reasoning is the rider.

I’m friends with a father and a son on Facebook. They are on opposite sides of the political aisle, but I’m astounded that the things they post almost always have the same quality in their moral reasoning (let’s just use a word like “weak” to describe it). In my view, no one should be persuaded by what they are posting and no one should find cause to repost almost anything they share; but they continue and the reason is clear to me now. Despite being ideologically opposite both the father and son are equally persuaded by intuition. Most of their postings actually have more to do with signalling to other people what group they belong to and hoisting their allegiances rather than persuading anyone (you can see this with MLMs, holistic treatments, religion, conspiracy theories, food and climate debates too).

It doesn’t matter if the reasoning is good. People only care about two things when it comes to reasoning; if it’s something their intuition doesn’t want to believe they want to know if the MUST believe it. Only one counter argument, no matter how strong, is all they need to defeat a MUST. If it’s something their intuition wants to believe they search for a CAN. One reason is all they need to justify the decision to accept their unpopular opinion. Remarkably even when you thoroughly defeat their one reason (even about an inconsequential or made-up situation) most people will stick with their gut. I think most people have no problem going it alone if they at least think other people somewhere in the world agree with them, and they’re happy to continue living it out personally even if no one else is persuaded (“It’s a good decision for me and my family”).

Why Do They Support Immoral Policies?

Haidt explores a well established theory that every person is predisposed, at birth, to 6 different concerns when it comes to morality. Parenting, experience and cultural influence shape how strongly we hold each of those concerns in our gut.
Often when it comes to morality and public policy you will here people suggest “If it doesn’t hurt anyone else the government should stay out of it.” This turns out to be something only Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) people are prone to think is self-evident (There is SO much more I want to say about the intellectual origins of this position). In fact Western Liberals place the Care/Harm principle as the height of morality, to the point that they denigrate and demean the other principles (with the exception of Fairness through equality of outcomes). It’s not that they have no capacity or sympathy for the other moral concerns, it’s just that they diminish the other concerns for the sake of Care and Equality.

Check out this chart:


The more a person is likely to value other moral concerns, the more likely they are to be politically Conservative. Conservative voters actually value all six concerns fairly equally. I would guess that “very conservative” voters diminish Care as a backlash to Liberal over-emphasis.

This doesn’t mean that Conservatives are more righteous than Liberals, it means that Conservatives value a broader range of moral concerns and attempt to balance their policy positions in that context. I would suggest actually living out those moral concerns is what makes someone righteous. The author explains that because intuition plays such a large part in how people make moral judgments and because their ability to apply moral reasoning is excellent at making justifications, the only way to actually get people to behave morally is to put a large burden on public accountability and reputation.

The Conservative Advantage

You’ll notice that after Donald Trump was elected most of your liberal friends doubled down on their statements in support of the oppressed. They felt morally threatened and they retreated further into their own understanding of morality. THIS explains why both Liberals and Conservatives frequently accuse the other side of being immoral. Both are living out different visions of morality. It’s in their gut and you can’t reason them out of it.

Currently 25% of the population is Liberal, 35% is Conservative. Elections are all about the fight for the other 40%. Because Conservative candidates talk about all six concerns they have a natural advantage to gaining voters. Agree or disagree with flag burning laws, the act of burning Ole Glory sets off people’s instincts for loyalty; so a candidate better make sure her message of Patriotism is louder than her views about protecting free expression. Want to point out police abuse? Great, but wrap it in a thick coat of respect and solidarity for police officers. If you can’t even make a passing attempt at it you’ll see people turning your catch phrase into “Only Black Lives Matter.”

Can you name a politician on the liberal spectrum who did a great job connecting with voters on all aspects of morality? I bet Bill Clinton came to mind. Guess what, if we didn’t have term limits he’d still be winning elections even though his own personal morality was frequently in question. He spoke to people’s moral intuition, once that was in place, his own potential moral disqualifications could be covered over by voters’ moral reasoning skills after the fact.

Here are three charts that explain how Liberals, Libertarians and Conservatives weight the six moral concerns. (None of this is speculation, it’s all backed up by reams of scientific research.) The key to winning friends and influencing people on social media is to speak to their moral concerns. This is why when someone asks why I’m a Conservative (though not a Republican) my first answer is always “Because I believe, like Bono, that nothing permanently helps the poor out of economic poverty as quickly and efficiently as free market capitalism.” Don’t make your arguments from your own intuitions, make them from other people’s intuitions.




There’s a ton more to the book, so I hope you ‘ll get a chance to read it, but if not, I hope this helps you understand your crazy Uncle Joe and his wacky Facebook posts a little better.

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About Tim

Evangelical Christian living in Southern California. I live with my wife and whatever foster children happen to be in our home at this moment. I love photography, baseball, movies and I'm fascinated by Mormonism.

11 thoughts on “Why Good People Drive You Crazy with Bad Politics

  1. Yes, there’s the added complication of how best to achieve the goals. Liberal methods may not actually meeting liberal goals and same for conservatives.

  2. I have not read the Righteous Mind, but I’m familiar with the Moral Foundations Theory Haidt uses. I think of myself as a social conservative, but I have a hard time feeling like loyalty (at least how it is presented in this framework, which is more unilateral than reciprocal), authority and sanctity are valuable in and of themselves the way that care and fairness are. But when you start asking questions about what care means, what makes humans and their societies flourish, and what constitutes the good life, I wind up coming up with pretty classically small-c conservative answers (not necessarily GOP party line answers, which–including free market capitalism–are often not really very conservative).

  3. There are a lot of surveys! I suppose I consider myself a quirky liberal, so it’ll be interesting to see how I fit in.

  4. I scored on the liberal end for harm, loyalty and authority, but on the conservative end for fairness and purity.

    I get somewhat frustrated with surveys such as this one because I sometimes feel I’m not parsing the words in the way that the authors intended. In any case, I think that in some ways my “conservative” scores reflect my idealism (high purity score) and my respect for free will (low fairness score).

  5. Interesting concepts. Would love to hear a liberal’s reaction…

    Took the quizzes. Pretty darn conservative, apart from rules, which I think questions such as these lend themselves to too many assumptions within the question to get a fair response as to the reality of what should be broken. Ideally, no rule should be broken, as all rules should be fair and realistic, and applied correctly. Of course, that is not possible, and the degree to which they should be broken, if at all, depends on so many circumstances.

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