American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt struck a cord with the US political class this year when he published The Righteous Mind, an examination, as his subtitle puts it, of Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt, a self-professed liberal until his research led him to the political centre, wondered why liberals seem to treat conservatism like a pathology, smugly convinced of their own enlightenment, open-mindedness and moral superiority. Why, liberals tend to ask of conservatives, won’t they listen to reason?

But reason is not what drives us, Haidt argues. We use reason to defend our intuitive world view and, he contends, our moral foundation is based on a broader set of values than liberals would have us believe. To the left, the only moral arbiters are ”œfairness” and ”œdo no harm.” But across cultures, he says, research shows a more diverse palette of values. People share a stake in preserving the social fabric. We are vested in our families and communities. We respect loyalty and prize order. We have a sense of the sacred, rooted not necessarily in religion but in the idea that people have a noble, spiritual side that should not be sullied.

Citing ethnographies, clinical research and hundreds of interviews, Haidt argues that the conservative political vocabulary taps more into these moral touchstones. Those who respond to conservative messages do so not because they have been duped by slick messaging or because they are backward, but because that brand is often more in tune with human nature.

Policy Options has asked two Canadian political thinkers, Ann McGrath and Stephen Carter, to assess Haidt’s thesis and tell us what resonance it might have for Canadian politics.

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There is more to politics than getting along

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt tries to explain the moral origins of the left-right political divide, arguing that the roots of our partisanship lie in moral philosophy. A self-proclaimed progressive, he tries to explain to liberals that the popularity of conservatism cannot simply be dismissed as the result of poor parenting and a wrong-headed world view. He argues that conservatives, like progressives, have deeply held values that shape their approach to politics and religion. Both conservatives and progressives are good people, he contends, trying to do the right thing.

Although Haidt can be a bit wide-eyed in his naïve distaste for acrimony, there is much merit in his research and argument. He sees the political process as the intersection of diverse forces, meeting with mainly good intentions. Without cynicism, he sees the possibility of these forces combining constructively to achieve not only better political outcomes, but to protect and enhance our democratic processes and institutions.

But Haidt warns that stretching those impulses has led many on each side to pathologize the other, resulting in widespread acrimony that is damaging democracy. The practice of labelling relevant, well-rooted activist groups or individuals in extreme terms undermines the fundamental principles of pluralism, personal conscience and respect for diversity, as well as the public’s confidence in democracy.

Haidt’s plea for us to all ”œjust get along” therefore sounds appealing in these times of harsh, often nasty politics. But we should not forget that increasing polarization can also produce political benefits.

The Occupy Movement, for example, is seen by many as divisive and negative. Yet it has mobilized people to question the structural economic inequality between the richest people in the world and the vast majority of us who have no possibility of achieving such wealth. Occupy’s use of the 1% versus the 99% captured people’s imaginations. It expressed a fundamental unfairness that resonated well beyond those who participated in the protests, illustrating how polarizing actions can draw attention to problems that are being ignored, and perhaps even lead to significant changes.

Haidt’s demand for civility among leaders carries a parallel demand for civility across the board. But to what extent would this blunt some of the most basic processes and democratic principles on which we depend? While people of goodwill can easily relate to the call to ”œjust get along,” drawing a hard line in the sand has time and again brought us forward. Environmentalists, unionists, First Nation Peoples, feminists, and even farmers, have been decried by their opponents as ”œuncivil” when taking actions to improve their lives and those of others in their communities. Their ”œincivility” was crucial to winning new rights to free association, to organize, to protest and even to vote.

Increased civility in political life cannot amount to sanding down our differences.

Increased civility in political life cannot amount to sanding down our differences. Civility is about managing disagreement, not eliminating it. The response of so many Canadians " partisan, cross-partisan and nonpartisan " to the illness and death of Jack Layton last year spoke to a powerful hunger in many to reject acrimony and hostility in our politics. But while Layton’s letter to Canadians was a ”œget along moment,” it still retained partisan messaging. His letter, funeral and public memorials had a political message that was about hope, courage and optimism with an undeniable tone of civility. It was also expressly social democratic.

In many ways, The Righteous Mind describes the story of the federal NDP and its successful provincial cousins. Not content with being the ”œconscience of Parliament,” the NDP have rejected self-righteousness, seeking instead real, practical influence with a focus on winning elections.

So what can Canadian progressives learn from The Righteous Mind?

  1. Partisan anger is blinding and destructive. It is a disservice to us and it does not damage or destroy our opponents’ support. We must reject the knee-jerk demonization of our opponents. Conservatives and their supporters are not the devil incarnate and our supporters and potential supporters deserve principled discussion, not simplistic pejoratives.
  2. Many political decisions are made on the basis of values and are not policy or issue driven. We can remain open to diverse values and opinion in decision-making and in the process create a more open tent and inclusive process. Voters need to know that social democrats care about individuals, families and communities. Authentic personal concern is at the heart of efforts to change the world.
  3. Legitimate and fundamental differences between political parties are productive. They can and should be highlighted without resort to name-calling or personal insults.
  4. Value-driven politics must be more personal.

Partisan politics should not be viewed with distaste but as a way to productively put forward ideas, policies and, yes, that Conservative favourite, values, to build a good society.

Politics is not for the faint-hearted. It is a contact sport, requiring sharp elbows and the ability to take a punch. However, progressives need to remember that those who are not with us won’t be wooed by vicious language. Resorting to nastiness and tit-for-tat invective has the opposite effect. Any party wanting to govern the country must remember that they talk to all Canadians, not just those who support them.


Anne McGrath was chief of staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton and to Opposition leaders Nycole Turmel and Thomas Mulcair. She is currently the managing partner of Ensight Canada in Ottawa.

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What conservatives understand

Jonathan Haidt has exposed a truth most people have known all along: conservatives don’t get liberals and liberals don’t get conservatives.

These differences are not because liberals are smart and conservatives are dumb, as liberals would have us believe. Nor are they because liberals have no moral code by which they govern their lives, as conservatives would testify.

Instead these polar opposites are constructed on a base of moral values that create a framework for voting preferences. Haidt has opened the door to show us how people on the right-left continuum make decisions, which makes The Righteous Mind a must-read for all political professionals.

Few politicians can count on winning elections by appealing only to those who agree with them. Putting together enough votes to win requires wooing at least some people beyond their base to come aboard, and that’s why Haidt’s explanation of how people make their political choices is so vital.

We all claim that we cast our vote based on a rational decision-making process. But Haidt summons clinical evidence from his field of moral psychology to show that, in fact, we make snap political judgments that are far from rational.

Haidt recounts a study by Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov that shows how these intuitive responses can dictate how we vote. Todorov displayed photos of winners and runnersup in elections to a group of subjects. The photos were shown for only onetenth of second, after which the volunteers were asked to judge which candidate was most competent.

Two-thirds chose the winner of the election.

In one-tenth of a second, we reach a conclusion of who is most competent solely based on a photo. And we wonder why campaigns are so focused on creating the perfect photo-op for our candidates?

This is central to Haidt’s thesis that ”œintuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” We make up our minds, then find the justification to support our conclusions.

Politics is increasingly about trying to set the terms by which people make that quick judgment.

Most political professionals know this already, which is why so little of modern campaigns are aimed at trying to change voters’ minds. A big swath of the electorate has already decided what or who they like, and have come up with arguments to justify it and defend it against all attacks. Their beliefs become ingrained, pretty much impervious to the best arguments or advertising to dispel them.

Haidt relates these preconceived conclusions as akin to being a rider on an elephant. The elephant is our unconscious, impulsive self, the rider not really in control of where the elephant is going. When our base instincts lead us to a decision, the rider, our conscious minds, leans with the elephant. That lean is our rationale, our justification for moving where our elephant is taking us.

Of course if riders never changed their minds there would be no voter swings. Politics would be static, and governments would seldom change. We know that’s not true, because there is a subset of voters susceptible to being wooed. To use Haidt’s paradigm of the elephant, these are the riders still standing beside their elephant, waiting to get on.

In politics, we see three groups of people on any issue: the hyper-engaged, the less engaged and the unengaged. Two of these are unappealing to the political pro. The hyper-engaged are on their elephants. They have wellformed opinions and will use post-hoc justifications to defend their position.

These are our core constituencies, unlikely to shift allegiance.

The unengaged are unaware there is even an elephant in the room. These voters have decided they do not care about the issue or the election, and are highly unlikely to participate in debates or even vote. So we ignore them. If you never vote, you have no voice. So we have stopped listening.

Most of the action is aimed at the less engaged. The key is to reach this group before opinions are formed " before they get on that elephant. Politics is increasingly about trying to set the terms by which they make that quick judgment.

Here, the secret to winning is to craft the terms of the debate around the broad set of values by which individuals make decisions.

Too many political professionals try to frame the debate on their own value sets, which usually fall on the conventional ”œleft/right” political continuum.

The right presents their argument as an almost religious commitment to ideals such as low taxes, less government and social conservative principles. The left are equally committed to questions that support public health, public education and societal good.

Both of these traditional frames are too broad, says Haidt. Instead, we are motivated by innate values that are largely shared across society. Loosely summarized:

We look for leadership. We seek fairness, though not equality. We strive to live in a noble way, even if we don’t always succeed. We oppose doing harm. We believe in justice and oppose oppression.

Haidt argues conservatives seek political leadership that addresses all of these moral frames. Conservative voters have created complex fabric of morality to balance six moral constructs with equal weight. Liberals, by contrast, value their moral frames differently. Caring and fairness have a higher value for liberal voters. Liberty is a moral that is valued by both liberals and conservatives, yet for entirely different reasons. Liberals value liberty of oppressed groups while conservatives value liberty of the individual.

Haidt’s theory of voters driven by moral values offers political advisers and campaign managers the route to a more targeted politics, allowing them to tailor their candidate’s or party’s message to specific subgroups.

This politics of micro-targeting, as it is known, works. For almost a decade, politics in the United States has been focused on the acquisition and analysis of more and more data about voters. The more the pros know about you, the easier it is to craft questions for you that drive your voter choice to their candidate.

Canadian politics lags behind our American counterparts, but we are starting to see a shift toward micro-targeting, particularly by the Conservative Party of Canada. Success is dictated by presenting a powerful story to voters in a fashion to move their individual elephant.

The Naheed Nenshi campaign was designed to move the voters of Calgary using simple messaging appealing to core values of voters. Messages were crafted on a variety of issues (14 in all) and then targeted to specific voter groups based on algorithms regarding voter receptiveness to individual messages.

In addition, Nenshi’s central story was that he was a kid who grewup in Marlborough (a lower-income area of Calgary), rode public transit to his public school and studied at the public library.

Regardless of how you personally identify within Haidt’s moral themes, you can find values you agree with within that story. His story signals to our less engaged voters to get up on their elephant. It gets the voters on their elephant, and the messaging pushes their intuitive buttons telling the elephant the direction to lean.

This is campaigning. This is how to win.


Stephen Carter is a political consultant and communications specialist who ran the campaigns of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Alberta Premier Alison Redford. He also served as Premier Redford’s chief of staff. He is currently the national director of campaign strategy for Hill+Knowlton Canada.