Born This Way? Nature, Nurture, Narratives, and the Making of Our Political Personalities

By Haidt, Jonathan | Reason, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Born This Way? Nature, Nurture, Narratives, and the Making of Our Political Personalities


Haidt, Jonathan, Reason


As A NATION, we've made great strides overcoming our differences. North vs. South, Catholic vs. Protestant, black vs. white. These divisions once brought forth extraordinary animosity. Even male vs. female had its day in the sun, for those of us old enough to remember the absurd 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Those differences have not disappeared, but the urgency and rancor has faded.

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There is one difference, however, that is widening into a chasm and threatening to split the nation into two dysfunctional halves: left vs. right. Voters themselves have spread out only a bit in the last 10 years: Gallup reports a decline in the number of people calling themselves centrists or moderates (from 40 percent in 2000 to 36 percent in 2011), a slight rise in the number of conservatives (from 38 percent to 41 percent), and a slight rise in the number of liberals (from 19 percent to 21 percent).

But the political class, the political parties, and the media have completely changed their game since the 1980s. Politics used to be hardball: very competitive, but at the end of the day, Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill could meet for a drink and a private conversation. Congressmen and senators had the sense that they all belonged to a grand institution. They had enough in common, and enough friends across the aisle, that they could work together on solving the nation's biggest challenges, from facing down the Soviets to dismantling Jim Crow.

Not any more. Now it's cage-match wrestling, and there is a lot more blood. As long-serving former congressman Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) put it in September, "This is not a collegial body any more. It is more like gang behavior. Members walk into the chamber full of hatred."

What is going on here? Part of the answer will come from historians who can trace out the events of recent decades and their effects on our political institutions. But part of the answer must come from psychology. In the last 10 years we psychologists have discovered a great deal about the origins of ideology and why ideology makes it so hard for people to understand, respect, and accept each other. This research partly confirms what Gilbert and Sullivan said in the light opera Iolanthe: "Nature always does contrive / That every boy and every gal / That's born into the world alive / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative!" But the story is more interesting than that.

(A note about political diversity: People don't come in just two types. Unfortunately, most research on political psychology has used the left-right dimension with American samples, so in many cases that's all we have to go on. But I should also note that this one dimension is still quite useful. Most people in the United States and in Europe can place themselves somewhere along it--though usually somewhere near the middle. And it is the principal axis of the American culture war and of congressional voting, so even if relatively few people fit perfectly into the extreme types I'm going to describe, understanding the psychology of liberalism and conservatism is vital for understanding a problem that threatens the entire nation.)

What Is Ideology?

Here's a simple definition of ideology: "a set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved." And here's the most basic of all ideological questions: Should we preserve the present order or change it?

Political theorists since Marx had long assumed that people chose ideologies to further their self-interest. The rich and powerful want to preserve and conserve; the peasants and workers want to change things (or at least they would if their consciousness could be raised and they could see their self-interest properly, said the Marxists). But while social class may once have been a good predictor of ideology, that link has been largely broken in modern times, when the rich go both ways (industrialists mostly right, tech billionaires mostly left), and so do the poor (rural poor mostly right, urban poor mostly left). …

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