In their responses to Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (Policy Options October, 2012), Anne McGrath and Stephen Carter overlook the political differences between Americans and Canadians (indeed much of the developed world) that should call into question the author’s prescription that people on different sides of deep ideological divides must simply try harder to get along. American liberals (and perhaps even a few unctuous Canadians) may well deserve the scolding Haidt dishes out. Still, my own emotional response hesitates in the face of Haidt’s claim that it is mainly incumbent on liberals to try to understand the moral richness of conservatives’ positions and reform their own views accordingly. Haidt has a good deal less to say about the moral blind spots of conservatives, which he acknowledges only in passing.

Who really believes that a little more empathy and a little more civility will achieve his ultimate goal — bringing wisdom back into politics? In a world of Super PACs, tendentious media coverage, balkanized approaches to education, politicized judicial appointments, an endless stream of inscrutable initiatives and referenda, and gerrymandered congressional districts, it is not at all clear that getting ordinary people to speak to each other more thoughtfully is sufficient to heal American politics. The things that cushion us from the excesses of our cultural disagreements, that guide us in the moments when we are tempted to invest our moral capital in the wrong enterprises, are our institutions. Americans’ declining faith in nearly all of theirs (the military excepted) is a creeping problem that makes less noise than polarized politics but may require more urgent attention.

Reforming public institutions in a society so famously wary of government is a tall order — and this brings us to the question of American exceptionalism. Haidt acknowledges that America differs from other societies in important ways. America was exceptional at its founding and remains so today. Pew Center polls show most American adults (57 percent) believe you cannot be a good person unless you believe in God; less than one third of Canadians believe this (30 percent). About half of Americans in Environics social values research agree with the statement “the father of the family must be master in his own house” (48 percent) while only one in five Canadians (20 percent) agrees.

At the same time, Haidt sometimes comes close to generalizing about humanity based on the American experience. For instance his conclusion that “liberalism…is not sufficient as a governing philosophy” seems heavily influenced by the fact that most Americans currently find it insufficient. Yet it strikes me that liberals offer roughly the same limited morality menu in other developed societies, often with far better results.

For instance, six in ten Canadians chose centre-left options in our most recent election. Vote-splitting led to a Conservative victory, but the majority nevertheless chose the meagre fairness menu over the moral six-pack on offer from the right. The French have recently elected a Socialist candidate who has essentially pledged generous state benefits and retirement at 60 as a national purpose — not exactly the stuff of soul-stirring sacredness: more old-time socialism than old-time religion. In Scandinavia, it is not clear that fairness and care can even be extricated from a concept like loyalty, so firmly embedded are solidarity and egalitarianism in the collective identities of those societies.

Haidt has a good deal less to say about the moral blind spots of conservatives, which he acknowledges only in passing.

Haidt resolves this contradiction in rather an unusual way. In a sense Haidt turns American exceptionalism on its head, arguing that the traditional and religious strains of US culture — those preoccupied with loyalty, authority and sanctity — are precisely unexceptional: aligned with the moral outlooks of the great preponderance of humanity and out of step only with a handful of eccentric countries in Western Europe. (To describe these countries he relies on the acronym WEIRD: Western, educated industrialized, rich and democratic.) It’s a catchy mnemonic and, to be fair, Haidt did not invent it. But in Haidt’s book it does sometimes serve as a rather convenient and off-handed way to avoid fully reckoning with those societies that do seem to find liberalism more or less sufficient.

WEIRD nations may well be exceptional when one considers them against all human societies across time, but that seems almost beside the point when comparing the United States and Europe. Developed societies are, by definition, exceptional. Few nations anywhere in the world, and anywhere throughout history, have achieved the levels of wealth, education, industrialization and self-governance that have been achieved in these societies.

Given the present members of the WEIRD club, the United States does indeed appear exceptional. Why should functioning social programs, decent laws, a flag and a few sports teams satisfy Danes but not Delawareans? Why did Republicans, throughout the entirety of the postwar era, mostly support an expansive role for government and an expanding social safety net that they today see as anathema?

All this is to say that Haidt’s moral foundations are illuminating but do not explain political priorities in a straightforwardly universal way. Other Western countries are populated by self-deluded, self-righteous human brains; other countries have obnoxious bloggers and mouthy talk-show hosts; other countries have massive deficits and diverse populations and major economic problems. And yet American political groupishness seems to take on exceptionally bitter tones, and American moral tastebuds seem to demand a unique diet. The righteous brains of Americans may operate like brains the world over but the political climate in America sure looks different to those observing the American experience from a distance.

I suggest that Americans (and others, but perhaps with less pain and surprise) are facing a kind of dumbfounding on a massive scale. The forces by which people are buffeted today — notably wild economic swings, radical technological change, and sci-fi-like ecological scenarios — are well beyond the full understanding let alone the firm control of most politicians and experts. Some Americans sense that the world has become too complex and interdependent for one authority — even the United States — to assert itself successfully.

Americans do not like what they hear on the news. For a nation accustomed to winning wars and making the world safe for democracy, coming to terms with its own impotence in the face of a world that it is increasingly unsure how to navigate can only be unsettling. The most honest souls are at pains to say what exactly is wrong or what to do about it. In this dumbfounding context of fear and vulnerability, perhaps Americans give their emotions and their rhetoric freer rein than they otherwise might.

The terms liberalism and conservatism don’t even mean the same things in different places. “American conservatism is now very different from the British kind,” noted the Economist’s Bagehot column, after a recent visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron to the US. Meanwhile, when many Europeans speak of liberalism, or liberalization, they are actually speaking of laissez-faire, market-based economic policies that are more identified with conservatism in the United States than liberalism. At the same time, the far right in France and elsewhere have become vigorous defenders of a generous social safety net, at least for the native born.

Haidt may be right that American liberals are fighting an uphill battle because they do not activate enough moral tastebuds. And liberals should certainly not dismiss the values of their conservative countrymen. But neither should they assume that their own ideals, which achieved so much and resonated so strongly with the public during much of the 20th century, are now hopelessly and permanently incompatible with the hard-wired appetites of the electorate.

Photo: Shutterstock by Alexander Supertramp

Michael Adams
Michael Adams is founder and president of the Environics Institute for Survey Research, and the author of seven books, including Could it Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit. In 2016, he was named to the Order of Canada for his work in helping Canadians understand who they are as a country and a people.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License