Tea Partiers Aren’t Crazy

As writer Nancy Jane Moore and I continue to tussle over the fine art of debating people who look to us to be whacked-out politically crazy, Virginia Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt argues that we’re missing the point. Tea Partiers are not insane, he says; they simply view the world through a vastly different moral lens than we do.

At Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Haidt argues, among many other interesting points, that:

Moral judgments, like aesthetic judgments, are best understood as quick gut feelings, not as products of reasoning. We have feelings about people and ideas within the first second of encountering them. We engage in reasoning too, but reasoning is slow, spread over many seconds or minutes, and it takes place within a mental workspace that has already been pre-structured by feelings. So if one third of Americans had negative feelings toward Obama on election day, and if many independents developed negative feelings as talk of tax increases and Wall Street bailouts escalated, then, by the summer of 2009, more than 40% of Americans were emotionally ready to receive the narrative about socialism and statism being formulated by conservative talk radio hosts such as Glenn Beck and Mark Levin.

In the Wall Street Journal, Haidt argues that all tea partiers really want is karma.

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.

My off-the-cuff response to these articles is that Haidt makes a certain amount of sense, especially when it comes to understanding the moral goggles through which these furious people view the world. In terms of finding a way to reach them, Haidt may well be providing a useful road map to speaking Tea Party as a second language.

But how do we find common ground if we don’t agree on whether a piece of information is a fact and when it’s not? Whether you love him or hate him, Barack Obama is an American citizen, despite what birthers claim. How can we even begin to talk to birthers about this? You might disapprove, fear, or spit nails over environmentalists’ proposals for limiting climate change, but that doesn’t mean that climate change doesn’t exist. It’s as real as a stomach ache. How do we talk to tea partiers when they claim science isn’t science?

In the post at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Haidt makes one statement that I think is spot-on brilliant.

(P)olitical movements … are always moral movements, whether left-wing, right-wing, or something else.

I agree, which is why my search for goodness is as much a political quest as a personal one.

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5 Responses to Tea Partiers Aren’t Crazy

  1. 204 says:

    People perceive the Tea Partiers as crazy because the majority of them think Obama’s a Muslim, he was born in Kenya, he raised taxes; as well as they believe in creationism, demon possession, and any number of conspiracy theories.

  2. Haidt’s comment about political movements being moral movements is spot on.

    I don’t think the Tea Partiers are crazy. I think it’s a movement funded by some very clever and wealthy people who managed to manipulate an angry and scared American public by using rhetoric that tapped into their fears.

    The real irony is the Tea Party and the rest of the Republicans are only interested in protecting the short term financial interest of the very wealthy. Nicholas Kristoff has an excellent op-ed in the NY Times today on just how unequal our society has become: 1 percent of the population has 27 percent of the income and 34 percent of the wealth. Given the rhetoric of the Tea Party — who mostly just oppose taxes — they’re not going to do anything to help the rest of us who don’t have that kind of money. Yet it’s the people suffering financially who have a right to be angry.

    Which brings me to another thought: Why is it that all the proposed deficit reduction plans are so unwilling to advocate increasing the tax rate on the wealthy? Instead, they all seem to call for sacrifices from the people just getting by: reductions in social security, a national sales tax. The balance between rich and poor in our society is seriously out of whack, and the obvious solution is taxation. But everyone appears to be intimidated by the fear of taxes. Worst of all, the people who would most benefit from significant tax increases on the wealthy are as afraid of taxes as everyone else, even though their federal taxes have gone down.

    Bringing this back to the point about morality: by using moral rhetoric to disguise fundamental economic unfairness, the Tea Party has managed to mislead people about the true issues. People who buy into the rhetoric end up voting against their own best interests.

  3. dianesilver says:

    I believe that Haidt brings some key insights into the political fray: the fact that political movements are moral movements and the idea that conservatives view morality through a different lens than liberals.

    But as both of you note, I’m still struggling with what to me appears to be a complete disconnect from reality, at least among some tea partiers and conservatives. Last night I saw Jon Stewart’s brilliant take down of Glenn Beck’s Nov. 8 attack on George Soros and was blown away by Beck’s disconnect from fact. Stewart didn’t have to do much to mock Beck. Stewart just has to show the tape.

    On the other hand, I wonder what I’m missing because moral psychologists like Haidt argue rather convincingly and disturbingly that we all cherry pick information. As Haidt notes in what I quoted in this post, we have a gut moral reaction, and then we cherry pick information to rationalize our reaction. So, once again I wonder: How am I doing that? What am I not seeing in the real world? And how the heck do we come together in any way if everyone is distorting reality to suit their guts?

    Nancy, I think the Tea Party and other Republicans before them are able to mislead people because the narrative the Tea Party tells fits in with the stories people tell themselves. I wonder if Haidt’s findings can help us better understand that conservative/Tea Party narrative, and thus, better craft our narratives in such a way that these folks can actually hear what we’re saying.

  4. Pingback: The Tea Party, Karma and Torture | In Search of Goodness

  5. I think you’re right about how the narrative fits stories people tell themselves. Unfortunately, the willingness of people to believe ridiculous lies about President Obama makes me think some of that narrative is rooted in racism.

    As for “cherry picking” facts: One thing I notice a lot is that people on our side of this debate are much more willing to question their own motives and give other people the benefit of the doubt. I think maybe we lean over too far backwards in this regard. It’s one thing to do it when discussing which of many policies will be the most effective; it’s quite another to do it when countering out-and-out lies.

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