We’re old now, but we know we were right – those of us who are still alive. Imagine coming of age in the sixties – sitting in high school chemistry class and listening to the announcement over the tinny speakers that our young president, Kennedy, had been shot, and then the piped-in news feed that he was dead. These were momentous times – this wasn’t that long ago after that Cuban missile crisis thing, where we all thought we’d all die as the world ended with what seemed sure to be global thermonuclear war. That sort of thing grabs your attention, and now Kennedy was dead. That couldn’t be good – and the civil rights movement was, at the same time, tearing the country apart. Even from afar, and while navigating the agony of adolescence and puzzles of making sense of high school life, you could see the country had been stopped, whether it liked it or not, to redefine itself. The times they were a-changing – and Bob Dylan started singing that.
And then it was off to college – and all hell broke loose – long hair and hippies. And there was that Summer of Love in San Francisco – be sure to wear some flowers in your hair – and the uprisings from Prague to Paris to the riots at that Chicago convention and Woodstock and all, and Martin and Bobby were shot dead. This was amazing. A new world was being born, with stunning events. See 1968: The Year That Rocked the World – Mark Kurlansky reviews just that year alone. Revolution was in the air, revolution of all sorts. And in the background there was that war in Vietnam – a few hated it, and finally most everyone did, or reluctantly admitted it was pointless. Many of us had friends who died there. But our experience in Vietnam changed the nation, for better or worse. And so did the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, along with the invention of Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start and all the other War on Poverty stuff. It was quite a time.
But then it all ended. Lyndon Johnson refused to run for another term, the Beatles broke up, and somehow Richard Nixon was our new president, forever talking about that Silent Majority, who wanted nothing to do with all the protests that had resulted in wrenching change. They just wanted peace and quiet, or more specifically law and order. Maybe those were the same things to them. But the generation that hadn’t been silent – that had a hammer that hammered out justice, and a bell that rang out freedom, and rang out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land and all the rest – had been right. The country had been stopped, whether it liked it or not, to redefine itself. And almost all of what changed was a change for the better. Everyone was a full citizen now, even if they were black, and old folks didn’t die because no insurance company would cover them. And we no longer entered pointless wars for no real reason – until George Bush told us about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and talked of mushroom clouds and we forgot what we had once learned.
But being right is one thing, and being smug and self-righteous another. And many who came of age in the sixties still have that air of smug self-righteousness about them – just as they had in the sixties. They knew better. They knew that those in the heartland, that silent majority Nixon said were the real Americans, were stupid, or they were easily duped. You could be angry at them, or with condescending pity say it was so sad they just didn’t get it. What can you do with such folks? The unthinking sheep will always be with us, confounding the noble plans of the aware and enlightened.
And here we go again. That recall of Wisconsin’s anti-worker pro-business Republican governor, Scott Walker, seemingly out to dismantle all social services in the state and privatize everything in sight, did fail spectacularly – he stays. And the immediate issue was public sector unions, teachers unions mainly, and their right to collective bargaining rights. He took those rights away, saying their pay and pensions were bankrupting the state – and implied all unions were kind of evil that way – a sort of organized extortion racket, ruining the state and probably ruining many a business. And workers of all sorts, who knew they often had to fight tooth and nail for fair pay and a pension system that didn’t fold, erasing all they put in, and for just basic benefits, didn’t like that much. So they gathered signatures and forced a recall vote – and lost.
There has been a lot of analysis of why they lost – perhaps this wasn’t a complete breakdown of our political system and of public trust, although it hinted at that, or the result of a massive historic shift in the norms of our political system due to technology, globalization, too many baby-boomers retiring and just not dying, and scarce resources and little possibility of growth from here on out, making all politics a zero-sum game, although all that may be real enough. Maybe the teachers did have to lose so no one else did. But if you’re one of the sixties folks it was too easy to go for the smug explanation. The unthinking sheep will always be with us, confounding the noble plans of the aware and enlightened.
And scanning the scattered emails here from random sixties folks it was easy to see that:
I am very disappointed about Wisconsin. I like the state. It’s our own fault – 38% of union household voted for retaining Walker. That’s too high. It’s not enough to make the struggle about unions. People don’t care enough about them. Will the Occupy movement be back for the election? As an alienating force or a galvanizing one as it was last fall?
That’s a call for enlightenment, as is this:
That; plus we have a deadly combination of a lazy press and an uninformed as well as lazy citizenry. The press has not wanted to do the “hard” work of actually calling out Republicans (and some Democrats) about their lies, evasions and obstructionism. They have been willing to take the easy story of a president who has been getting nothing done without reporting the reasons why that go beyond the “cool and distant, cerebral” president. They have also failed to call out Democrats who have been generally missing in action in support of their president – in terms of party labels one would think Bush was still in the White House with the way the Democrats treat Obama.
The citizenry really doesn’t want to take the time to be informed; too busy being entertained. What was that about Bread, Blood and Circuses? Yes, 38% of union households voting to retain Walker is too high; I agree and that number should have been less than 10%. And, with the connivance of the press the citizenry continues to receive the re-packaged Republican program without question and ignores the hypocrisy, mendacity, greed, etc.
And another mentions the Thomas Frank book – What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America – all about how social conservatives continue to vote for Republicans, even though they are voting against their best interests. They’ve been duped. It’s a bait-and-switch job. And the task is still enlightenment of the masses.
But there’s Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He wrote a counterargument of sorts in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion – arguing that no one is being duped. And you will find his own summary of his key points in this item in the Guardian:
Why on Earth would a working-class person ever vote for a conservative candidate? This question has obsessed the American left since Ronald Reagan first captured the votes of so many union members, farmers, urban Catholics and other relatively powerless people – the so-called “Reagan Democrats”. Isn’t the Republican Party the party of big business? Don’t the Democrats stand up for the little guy, and try to redistribute the wealth downwards?
And he considers what he calls the now widespread Duping Hypothesis:
The Republican Party dupes people into voting against their economic interests by triggering outrage on cultural issues. “Vote for us and we’ll protect the American flag!” say the Republicans. “We’ll make English the official language of the United States! And most importantly, we’ll prevent gay people from threatening your marriage when they … marry! Along the way we’ll cut taxes on the rich, cut benefits for the poor, and allow industries to dump their waste into your drinking water, but never mind that. Only we can protect you from gay, Spanish-speaking flag-burners!”
That’s a pretty cruel summary of the Thomas Frank hypothesis. But it’s close enough, and Haidt suggests it’s rather self-serving:
One of the most robust findings in social psychology is that people find ways to believe whatever they want to believe. And the left really wants to believe the duping hypothesis. It absolves them from blame and protects them from the need to look in the mirror or figure out what they stand for in the 21st century.
And the left seems to have misunderstood what really does matter to people:
Here’s a more painful but ultimately constructive diagnosis, from the point of view of moral psychology: politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It’s more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets) and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programs.
The Democrats, in contrast, have tried to win voters’ hearts by promising to protect or expand programs for elderly people, young people, students, poor people and the middle class. Vote for us and we’ll use government to take care of everyone! But most Americans don’t want to live in a nation based primarily on caring. That’s what families are for.
Another way to say that is to note that the sixties are over, but Haidt argues that Republicans have always had a built-in advantage in these matters:
Conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals (as we call leftists in the US). Think about it this way: our tongues have taste buds that are responsive to five classes of chemicals, which we perceive as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Sweetness is generally the most appealing of the five tastes, but when it comes to a serious meal, most people want more than that.
In the same way, you can think of the moral mind as being like a tongue that is sensitive to a variety of moral flavors.
And he gets specific about that:
In my research with colleagues at YourMorals.org, we have identified six moral concerns as the best candidates for being the innate “taste buds” of the moral sense: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Across many kinds of surveys, in the UK as well as in the USA, we find that people who self-identify as being on the left score higher on questions about care/harm. For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.
But on matters relating to group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (treating things as sacred and untouchable, not only in the context of religion), it sometimes seems that liberals lack the moral taste buds, or at least, their moral “cuisine” makes less use of them. For example, according to our data, if you want to hire someone to criticize your nation on a radio show in another nation (loyalty), give the finger to his boss (authority), or sign a piece of paper stating one’s willingness to sell his soul (sanctity), you can save a lot of money by posting a sign: “Conservatives need not apply.”
And there’s this that might apply to Wisconsin:
Are voters really voting against their self-interest when they vote for candidates who share their values? Loyalty, respect for authority and some degree of sanctification create a more binding social order that places some limits on individualism and egoism. As marriage rates plummet, and globalization and rising diversity erodes the sense of common heritage within each nation, a lot of voters in many western nations find themselves hungering for conservative moral cuisine.
Despite being in the wake of a financial crisis that – if the duping theorists were correct – should have buried the cultural issues and pulled most voters to the left, we are finding in America and many European nations a stronger shift to the right. When people fear the collapse of their society, they want order and national greatness, not a more nurturing government.
And then there’s fairness and liberty:
The left typically thinks of equality as being central to fairness, and leftists are extremely sensitive about gross inequalities of outcome – particularly when they correspond along racial or ethnic lines. But the broader meaning of fairness is really proportionality – are people getting rewarded in proportion to the work they put into a common project? Equality of outcomes is only seen as fair by most people in the special case in which everyone has made equal contributions. The conservative media (such as the Daily Mail or Fox News in the US) is much more sensitive to the presence of slackers and benefit cheats. They are very effective at stirring up outrage at the government for condoning cheating.
And everyone loves liberty, but that’s a problem too:
When liberty and care conflict the left is more likely to choose care. This is the crux of the US’s monumental battle over Obama’s healthcare plan. Can the federal government compel some people to buy a product (health insurance) in order to make a plan work that extends care to 30 million other people? The derogatory term “nanny state” is rarely used against the right… Conservatives are more cautious about infringing on individual liberties (e.g. of gun owners in the US and small businessmen) in order to protect vulnerable populations (such as children, animals and immigrants).
Those of us from the sixties do know we were right all along, but Haidt suggests we were only ever partially right:
In sum, the left has a tendency to place caring for the weak, sick and vulnerable above all other moral concerns. It is admirable and necessary that some political party stands up for victims of injustice, racism or bad luck. But in focusing so much on the needy, the left often fails to address – and sometimes violates – other moral needs, hopes and concerns. When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest.
So, who needs to be enlightened?
But there’s Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, arguing there’s still a whole lot of duping going on:
I generally agree with Haidt’s analysis, but find both his argument and the “working class dupe” theory lacking in one respect: Why does so much effort go into analyzing this phenomenon as if it were unique to the working class? There are millionaires and billionaires, such as Warren Buffett, who advocated for higher taxes on themselves. There are legions of middle and upper-middle class people who favour expanded funding of welfare programs upon which they themselves do not rely, but which are in keeping with their values.
In short, middle and upper class voters also often prioritize their moral interests over their economic interests. Such political behavior is not a “working class thing”. It’s a human thing.
No one is being economically logical at any level. Enlightening any of them as to where real their real economic interests lie is fine, but it’s largely beside the point. It seems there are self-interests which transcend the economic. And people don’t really agree on justice and freedom either. They use those terms differently, to apply to different things.
And that makes all the discussion from the sixties folks – here too – of what went wrong in Wisconsin, and what went wrong with the voters this time or that, again – too often smug and narrow, and rather mean. Too much time in the sixties was spent pointing to this group or that and saying they were stupid, or that they had been duped and needed our pity, and then our selfless and generous help, to understand their real interests. Maybe we’d organize a teach-in or something. No wonder so many found us really irritating.
But maybe you had to be there. We were often right, in spite of ourselves.