Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Culture War, Part II

Jonathan Haidt sees one culture war ending, but another one beginning. Excerpts: From the 1980s until the birth of the Tea Party, most of the action was in the Social Theater, in which the religious right and the secular left waged an existential struggle for the soul of American society. Issues related to sexuality, drugs, […]

Jonathan Haidt sees one culture war ending, but another one beginning. Excerpts:

From the 1980s until the birth of the Tea Party, most of the action was in the Social Theater, in which the religious right and the secular left waged an existential struggle for the soul of American society. Issues related to sexuality, drugs, religion, family life, and patriotism were particularly vexing, and many people over 40 can recall the names of battlefields such as Mapplethorpe, needle exchange, 2 Live Crew, and the flag-burning amendment. But the left won a smashing victory in the 2012 elections, including the first victories at the ballot box for gay marriage. These triumphs, combined with polling data showing the tolerant attitudes of younger voters, give the left confidence that it will ultimately prevail on most issues in the Social Theater. The power base of the religious right is older, white, rural Protestants, a group that immigration, demography, and urban renewal have consigned to play an ever-shrinking role in American presidential elections.

Both sides are now likely to shift several divisions and carrier task forces over to the Economic Theater of the culture war, where the single most important battle of 2012 was fought—the battle over marginal tax rates for the rich. The left won that battle on January 1, when the House of Representatives voted to raise tax rates for the rich, but victory in the overall war is far less certain. Economic issues such as taxation are moral issues—no less so than social issues like gay marriage—and neither side has full control of the key moral foundations that underlie economic morality: fairness and liberty. Both sides are vulnerable to being outflanked and outgunned. Both sides could use a detailed map of the moral ground on which economic battles are waged.

Some background: In Haidt’s celebrated theory of moral foundations, morality is constructed atop six pillars:

1. Care/Harm

2. Fairness/Cheating

3. Liberty/Oppression

4. Loyalty/Betrayal

5. Authority/Subversion

6. Sanctity/Degradation.

Many Westerners stand apart from the rest of humanity in that they reject moral condemnation of actions that may be distasteful, but don’t harm others. In other words, Haidt found, the West generally stands alone in the world in basing its morality on the first three foundations, but rejecting the last three. Obviously this is not strictly true, because there are Westernized elites in other societies, and social conservatives in the West affirm all six. But generally, this is the pattern.

But when Haidt focused more tightly on the data, an interesting sub-pattern emerged:

I had predicted those cross-national differences. What I hadn’t predicted was that differences across social classes within each nation would be larger than differences across nations. In other words, college students at the University of Pennsylvania were more similar to college students in Recife, Brazil, than they were to the working-class adults I interviewed in West Philadelphia, a few blocks from campus. There’s something about the process of becoming comparatively well-off and educated that seems to shrink the moral domain down to its bare minimum—I won’t hurt you, you don’t hurt me, and beyond that, to each her own.

In general, liberals support a moral code that protects individuals, and conservatives (aside from libertarians) support a moral code that protects a binding order. Haidt says when you understand this, it’s easy to see why liberals often accuse conservatives of being bigots, and conservatives often accuse liberals of being anarchic libertines.

Anyway, it’s now obvious that liberals won the culture war over sex and sexuality. Now, says Haidt, a new culture war is emerging: over economics and fairness. Read Haidt’s scouting report for his take on where the battle lines are being drawn. The piece, in the journal Democracy, includes a map, which Haidt describes like this:

The map above shows the lay of the land. The three kinds of fairness are the lands west of the river; the two kinds of liberty lie to the east. Democrats have undisputed control over the northern provinces of equality and positive liberty, which are related concepts supporting notions of social justice. Republican forces are massed in the south—they control most of proportionality and negative liberty, and a portion of procedural fairness. So what would it take to shift the border? What would it take for each side to capture more territory?

Haidt’s essay made me think of a conversation I had the other day with my 13 year old son. We were in the car listening to NPR, and somebody said something about affirmative action. My son asked me what that was, and I gave him as neutral an explanation as I could manage, before planning to give him my opinion of it. Before I could offer my take, my son instantly said, “That’s really unfair!”

Well, yes, I agree. But reading Haidt this morning, I realized that my son and I might also have a conversation about same-sex marriage, and in it, he could easily conclude that prohibitions on gay marriage are unfair. I would hope not, given the moral understanding with which he has been raised, but I could see the logic (and in any case, if he held to the traditional Christian understanding of marriage, he would almost certainly be a minority in his generation). And while being resentful of Democrat-backed, government-supported racial discrimination as unjust, there’s no reason to believe that he would have no problem with the way Republicans seem to favor policies that stack the deck in favor of the wealthiest Americans, at the expense of the hard-working middle and working classes.

So, I think Jon Haidt is onto something. Steve Sailer’s post about how the GOP is throwing away what ought to be its advantage on fairness is an important shot  in the emerging culture war Haidt identifies. Ross Douthat’s criticism of the RNC’s self-autopsy (in which the party calls for liberalization on same-sex marriage and immigration, but otherwise sticking to its economic guns) is another. Here’s Ross:

In a democracy, it isn’t enough to move toward the public on issues of your own choosing; you have to show the voters that you’re interested in what they most care about as well. And on health care, education, jobs, you name it, the current G.O.P. is simply not equipped to meet that challenge.

So long as that remains the case, a Republican Party that takes the direction its elites seem to want to chart could easily find itself in an extremely perilous political position. It would have sidelined the concerns of many millions of voters, effectively shutting their views out of the political process, without necessarily gaining the kind of support in the center that would make that sidelining a net plus. There are plenty of social conservatives, evangelical and Catholic and Mormon, who would be happy to have an excuse to vote for centrist Democrats on economics or foreign policy, plenty of working class voters who would see a pro-immigration, pro-amnesty G.O.P. as yet another reason to stay home. For Republicans to thrive despite these losses, they would need to make substantial gains with other cohorts … and again, it’s awfully hard to see that happening so long as the party’s economic policy conversation mostly consists of office-holders attacking the Ryan budget from the right.

A side note: here in Louisiana, nearly everybody I talk to about state politics is a conservative Republican who voted for Bobby Jindal. And nobody — not one single person — I’ve spoken with in the last month has anything good to say about Gov. Bobby Jindal. The thing that upsets them the most is what they believe he’s done to eviscerate the state’s higher education system. Whether this is a fair criticism or not is beside the point I wish to make. The point is that the governor’s heavy budget cutting has hugely antagonized the people who make up his base. What I’m picking up anecdotally is borne out in polling data: Jindal’s popularity rating has plunged, with even 59 percent of Republicans disapproving of the job he’s doing.

Now, governors have to govern, and to govern means to choose. Often the public will not like the choices responsible governors have to make. I have not been paying enough attention to Louisiana budget politics to say one way or the other whether Jindal is right or wrong. But it’s striking, in light of what Douthat, Sailer, and Haidt have written here, how the man tapped by national pundits as one of the top GOP presidential contenders in 2016 has become so unpopular in his own deeply red state, because of his budget and economic policies and priorities.