This Jonathan Haidt article is four years old, but when it turned up on my Facebook feed today, I agreed with the FB friend that it’s an insightful piece of political and cultural analysis, one worth revisiting. I love anything Haidt writes, but this is especially interesting. He’s trying to explain what motivates the Tea Party — and, he says, it’s not what liberals think it is (greed, racism, etc.), but rather, in Haidt’s word, “karma” — restoring right order. I’m going to quote lengthy excerpts, because the article is so old that I don’t feel I’m robbing the publisher, the Wall Street Journal, of clicks — though you really should read the whole thing, because it’s fascinating. Excerpts:
To understand the anger of the tea-party movement, just imagine how you would feel if you learned that government physicists were building a particle accelerator that might, as a side effect of its experiments, nullify the law of gravity. Everything around us would float away, and the Earth itself would break apart. Now, instead of that scenario, suppose you learned that politicians were devising policies that might, as a side effect of their enactment, nullify the law of karma. Bad deeds would no longer lead to bad outcomes, and the fragile moral order of our nation would break apart. For tea partiers, this scenario is not science fiction. It is the last 80 years of American history.
In the tea partiers’ scheme of things, the federal government got into the business of protecting the American people—from market fluctuations as well as from their own bad decisions—under Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Great Depression, most Americans recognized that capitalism required safety nets here and there. But Lyndon Johnson’s effort to build the Great Society, and particularly welfare programs that reduced the incentives for work and marriage among the poor, went much further.
Liberals in the 1960s and 1970s seemed intent on protecting people from the punitive side of karma. Premarital sex was separated from its consequences (by birth control, abortion and more permissive norms); bearing children out of wedlock was made affordable (by passing costs on to taxpayers); even violent crime was partially shielded from punishment (by liberal reforms that aimed to protect defendants and limit the powers of the police).
Now jump ahead to today’s ongoing financial and economic crisis. Again, those guilty of corruption and irresponsibility have escaped the consequences of their wrongdoing, rescued first by President Bush and then by President Obama. Bailouts and bonuses sent unimaginable sums of the taxpayers’ money to the very people who brought calamity upon the rest of us. Where is punishment for the wicked?
As the tea partiers see it, the positive side of karma has been weakened, too. The Protestant work ethic (karma’s Christian cousin) holds that hard work is a duty and will bring commensurate rewards. Yet here, too, liberals have long been uncomfortable with karma, because even when you create equal opportunity, differences in talent and effort result in unequal outcomes. These inequalities must then be reduced by progressive taxation, affirmative action and other heavy-handed government intervention. Such social engineering violates our liberty, but most of us accept limitations on our liberty when we agree with the goals and motives behind the rules, such as during air travel. For the tea partiers, federal activism has become a moral insult. They believe that, over time, the government has made a concerted effort to subvert the law of karma.
One of the biggest disagreements between the political left and right is their conflicting notions of fairness. Across many surveys and experiments, we find that liberals think about fairness in terms of equality, whereas conservatives think of it in terms of karma. In our survey for YourMorals.org, we asked Americans how much they agreed with a variety of statements about fairness and liberty, including this one: “Ideally, everyone in society would end up with roughly the same amount of money.” Liberals were evenly divided on it, but conservatives and libertarians firmly rejected it.
Boy, that point about fairness is certainly true for me, and it explains why my emotional orientation is profoundly conservative. I don’t mind seeing some people get really rich. When I perceive that they got rich by illicit means, or that they’re using their wealth and privilege to bully or otherwise to take advantage of those with less money and standing, I get hot, fast. It’s the karma thing. Haidt, one more time:
To see the full spectrum of tea party morality in a single case, consider (or better still, Google) a transcript on Glenn Beck’s website titled “Best caller ever?,” which relates one man’s moment of enlightenment. The exchange, which aired live in late September, starts with karmic outrage. A father in Indiana, proud of his daughter’s work ethic and high grades, learned that she would have to retake a social studies test because most of the students—who, he says, run around after school instead of studying—had failed it. The teacher confirmed that yes, the whole class would have to take the test several more times because “we have to wait for the other children to catch up.” The father asked if his daughter could work on new material while the other kids retook the test. The teacher said no, it would “make the other children in the class feel not as equal.” That was the last straw. At that moment, the father says, he rejected “the system” and decided to home-school his daughter.
What makes this call so revealing is the caller’s diagnosis of how America became the land that karma forgot: “It’s time for America to get right, and it all starts in the home. It comes from yes, sir, no, ma’am, thank you, get on your knees and pray to God.” He continues by telling Mr. Beck how, when his daughter’s friends sleep over at his house, he asks them to help with chores. When their parents object, he tells them: “Well, they wanted a meal. See, we’ve all got to row our boat. We’ve all got to be in the boat. We’ve all got to row as one. And if you are not going to row, get the hell out of the way or stop getting in mine.” It’s the perfect fusion of karmic thinking and conservative binding.
Yes, that’s exactly it. While I see hospitality in more generous terms than this caller, the gist of his worldview resonates deeply with me. My child being treated that way in a classroom would have sent me around the bend. I did, in fact, Google that Glenn Beck transcript, and while the caller, apparently a working-class guy who lives in a trailer park, is about five ticks more to the populist right than I am, I’m with him for the most part. Excerpt from that call:
CALLER: She comes home from school and instead of running out into the trailer park for two hours playing with the other kids, I make sure she pounds the books and gets everything right. The other day she comes home and I said, how did you do on your social studies test? She goes, Dad, I did wonderful, I got an A plus again. And I go congratulations. She goes, but Daddy, we’re going to have to take the test again. I go, excuse me? She goes, yes, Mrs. Brown says we have to take the test again. She’s in fifth grade. I go, that can’t be right, honey, why? Now, this is out of my daughter’s mouth. She takes a breath and she sighs and she looks at me: Daddy, all of the other children in the class except for two of us did terrible because they don’t study much. So the teacher said, quote, we’re going to have to retake this test over and over again until the scores for our classroom come up. Well, that was it. I seen enough, you know? We talk about separation, you got to separate, you got to do your own thing, you’ve got to live by these basic rules. I went stomping over to the classroom and I asked the teacher, I said, is this really possible? She looks and me like inquisitive, well, why wouldn’t it be? Quote Glenn, I can’t even make this up: We have to wait for the other children to catch up. And I said, no, we’re not going to waste time with my daughter. Can’t for the 15 or 20 minutes while all of the other children are, quote, catching up? Can’t you give us some other stuff to push her forward? And this is what she said to me, Glenn: It will make the other children in the class feel not as equal.
GLENN: Oh, gosh.
CALLER: That was it, Glenn. I’ve tried as hard as I can to be in the system. That was it. I took her out of class. I said, we’re done. I’m scared to death, but I’m as excited as I can be. I’m going to get all of the old school Constitution, the declaration, George Washington, Ben Franklin and I’m going to teach her about a great history of our people and our ancestry. And I’m tired of this country accepting mediocrity. I’m tired of these people lowering the bar saying we’re all equal. Glenn, when we were born out of our mothers, we’re all equal. But when we start walking and talking and doing all these other things, there’s a big disparity. And when I spend my two hours making sure my teacher, my child is reading and writing and these kids are out there running around like hoodlums not paying attention, my child has to suffer? It’s time for America to get right and it all starts in the home. It comes from yes, sir, no, ma’am, thank you, get on your knees and pray to God. And I want to hail you and I want to thank you guys for waking people up and standing there and just telling the truth. And that’s about it.
GLENN: Walter, I’ve got to tell you something. I think you’re amazing. I think this is fantastic. Make sure that you teach your child, as I’m sure you will, charity, love, respect, and
GLENN: You keep going. You’re darn right, honor.
CALLER: When my daughter has her friends over to the house, I know I don’t want to take too much time. And then the parents that see when the kids that stay for the day or sleep over and then come home, the next day I’d get a phone call and the parents will say, Wally, can I ask you a question? Sure, why? Well, when our children were over to the house, is it true that they got on their hands and knees and scrubbed the kitchen floors with rags? And I go, well, sure. And I go, well, why did they have to do that? I said, well, they wanted a meal. See, we’ve all got to row our boat. We’ve all got to be in the boat. We’ve all got to row as one. And if you are not going to row, get the hell out of the way or stop getting in mine. And I want to thank you because you’re just like the highlight of our day. We laugh and joke. Because we’ve felt this way our whole lives. And it’s great for somebody to have a light bulb on and to say, look, the truth is the truth. And you can dress it up, you can do it, but the truth is going to set you free. And you think it’s an accident in this country when you go to St. Louis and you see these great, great monuments but then you step outside of the monument and our inner cities and our cities are falling apart with decadence and slums? We used to be champions. We used to be heroes. We were these great pioneers with a dream. And our head to the sky and our knees in the ground thanking our Good Lord. And look what we’ve turned into.
Beck then uses that to launch into praise for Ayn Rand, whose work is radically incompatible with Christianity. So no, I’m not going to praise this 100 percent. I don’t consider myself a Tea Partier. But generally, it resonates.
Read the whole Haidt piece. Seriously, do. It’s not an argument for why we should all be Tea Partiers, but as a piece of analysis explaining why the Tea Party appeals to people, it’s very, very good. The Tea Party folks may be wrong on certain particulars, but in responding to the idea that things are disordered in our society, they’re on target.