April 14, 2019

60-40 NATION:

Politics and the Practice of Warm-Heartedness: A review of Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt by Arthur C. Brooks (Matthew Lesh, 4/14/19, Quillette)

Brooks blames America's bitter politics on the "outrage industrial complex": the media, politicians and commentators who entice voters, attract television viewers, and sell books and event tickets premised on hatred of the other side. These individuals take advantage of "motive attribution asymmetry": the belief that you are motivated by love and your opponent is motivated by hate. This moral righteousness makes for aggressive conflict. Shockingly, research suggests that Democrats and Republicans in America display similar levels of motive attribution asymmetry to Israelis and Palestinians. In Britain, the conflict between Remainers and Brexiters appears to be reaching similar levels of fury.

The tendency to believe in the righteousness of your own side links closely with New York University professor Jonathan Haidt's "moral foundations theory," which identifies how political views are motivated by divergent moral appetites. Haidt found that progressives exclusively prioritize care and fairness, and while conservatives consider these first two moral foundations important, they also value loyalty, authority and sanctity. So it's not that conservatives don't care about refugees, they just place greater importance on protecting the nation from perceived danger. Meanwhile, it's not that progressives want to steal your money and spend it on useless government, it's that they genuinely care about the poor and believe more government is the solution. In sum, both sides believe they have their views for the morally correct reasons--but those on the Right are marginally better at understanding their opponents because they attach some value to care and fairness, whereas those on the Left often struggle to see the point of loyalty, authority and sanctity altogether.

This sense of righteousness and the associated conflict grows when we only interact with, and therefore only understand, people similar to ourselves. Brooks points to the growing tendency to cocoon ourselves in like-minded social groups and the herding effects of Facebook and Twitter. The lack of exposure to different viewpoints--other than when they are presented in the most negative light--allows us to dehumanise the other side.

Brooks does not just bemoan the state of political debate in America, he explains how to reduce tensions and improve the quality of public debate. The solution, he says, is to remember that your political opponent is not evil and that you and she have quite a lot in common--we are certainly more similar than we are different. 

It's also worth remembering that even the most supposedly divisive issues in our politics--immigration; abortion; universal health; gun control--are 60-40 to 80-20. 

Posted by at April 14, 2019 10:45 AM