The politics of righteousness

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

First published in The Australian, June 22, 2012

WHEN Labor’s battlers swung to the Coalition in the 1996 election, the Left assumed it was all a dreadful mistake. It would only be a matter of time before the sleepwalking suburban voters discovered that John Howard cared less about the price of a loaf than he did about the big end of town.

Redemption took longer than the party imagined, but Kevin Rudd’s 2007 victory on a platform of improving workplace rights seemed to demonstrate that, when the chips were down, the prodigal workers would return.

Five years later, there is a plausible case that 2007, not 1996, was the electoral outlier and that the Coalition has become the natural home for working families. Perhaps, as Howard wrote in his autobiography, Labor’s rusted-on voters are now found among white-collar public servants and the welfare class. Theories abound as to why the less well-heeled have abandoned the wealth-distribution party in favour of the party of the billionaire miners.

The Left accuses the Right of confusing the masses with a mixture of fear and populism; Labor strategists blame changing demographics and occupations; true believers say it is a failure of communication made worse by the savagery of shock jocks or the hostility of the press.

A more convincing explanation is provided by American psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his new book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt explores the intersection between morality and politics and, if he is right, Labor, like the US Democrats, is losing touch with human nature, and divisive class-war tactics will only make matters worse.

Haidt concludes we are born to be righteous and that political and moral choices are closely linked. The progressive Left’s failure is that it has not learnt what it needs to be righteous about, or how to appeal to the righteous instinct. As Labor is discovering as it struggles to contain the damage from Craig Thomson’s indiscretions, virtue is not an optional extra in politics and vice is not easily forgiven.

Morality is an emotional issue, not a rational one; it comes from the heart, not the head, and in a contest between what we think is reasonable and what we feel in our guts, emotion always wins, says Haidt. The reasonable part of the mind becomes our inner press secretary, justifying our heartfelt decisions. Haidt identifies six moral virtues touched by politics, the “taste buds of the righteous mind”: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty. The dish served up by the progressive Left satisfies three of these instincts at most, leaving the other half for conservatives to feast on.

Care is the progressives’ strong point, driven by their concern for the vulnerable and their desire to alleviate universal suffering. The conservatives’ caring instinct is more parochial, focusing on people down on their luck close to home, while remaining seemingly (though not actually) indifferent to national and international social injustice.

Left and Right are evenly matched on fairness, the Left appealing to social justice and the Right to proportionality, the belief that reward should reflect contribution, and that cheats should not prosper. Honours are shared on liberty, interpreted by the Left as the liberation of underdogs everywhere and by the Right as justification for small government, less regulation, lower taxation and a broader libertarian agenda.

However, on the three virtues that contribute most to binding society together – loyalty, authority and sanctity – the conservatives have the field to themselves. By emphasising respect for parents, teachers, elders, the police and tradition, “Republicans since Nixon have had a near monopoly on appeals to loyalty and authority,” says Haidt. Democrats, on the other hand, reinvented themselves as the party of pluribus in the 1960s, celebrating diversity, supporting immigration without assimilation, spurning overt displays of patriotism and declaring themselves citizens of the world, leading Haidt to ask: “Is it any wonder that they have done so poorly in presidential elections since 1968?”

Intellectually, the progressives have made the mistake of neglecting the social dimensions of morality and, by extension, religion. In exercising reform, they take little notice of the value of moral capital, a communal set of values, virtues, norms and practices that help a community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make co-operation possible.

If Haidt is correct, it explains how some debates cannot be won by a simple majority on the floor of parliament; popular moral sensitivities need to be addressed if the community is to be persuaded. Issues such as republicanism or same-sex marriage spring to mind.

The social disruption caused by the Left’s reforms, and the erosion of moral capital, is never assessed, explaining why they often backfire. “This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the Left,” writes Haidt.

“It is the reason I believe that liberalism – which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity – is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly.”

In Australia, as in the US, the Left’s surrender of parts of the moral high ground to the Right is a post-1960s phenomenon. Ben Chifley’s post-World War II nation-building speeches, for example, are thickened by appeals to loyalty, mutual obligation and the immorality of cheating.

“Every slacker throws a greater burden on a fellow worker and it is a great injustice,” Chifley told the NSW ALP conference in 1946. A year later he appealed “to every individual Australian to give of his best; to do less is a denial of the needs of his fellow Australians”.

By contrast, Julia Gillard uses the rhetoric of workplace rights, not workplace responsibility, touching the emotions of compassion and fairness. “Having fairness and decency at work is the foundation stone for fairness and decency throughout our society,” she told the ACTU Congress last month. “If you take away rights at work, then you are taking away so much from working people.”

The virtue of loyalty, which Chifley applied with a thick brush, is virtually untouched on Gillard’s moral palette. If Haidt is right, Labor’s threadbare moral narrative cannot win the hearts and minds of middle Australia.

Progressives have fallen for Plato’s “rationalist delusion”, distrusting passion and assuming that morality follows reason. Instead they should listen to David Hume, the philosophical patriarch of the Scottish Enlightenment, who wrote that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”.

Haidt concedes that his list of six moral virtues is by no means exhaustive, and were we to add a seventh, truth, it becomes clear why the contradiction between Labor’s pre-election rhetoric on carbon pricing and its subsequent actions became such a stumbling block. A carbon tax may make sense within the detached world of professional politics; it is a rational and pragmatic response to a hung parliament. For outsiders, however, truth is not a debating matter; lies break political allegiances as surely as they destroy marriages.

The moral contrivances relied on to justify action on climate change may be intellectually convincing but fail to win the heart. Reasoned morality requires victims, those who will suffer if the immoral actions continue.

The imagined victims of carbon dioxide, climate-change refugees, those whose homes will be consumed by rising waters, and those ubiquitous sufferers, our children and our children’s children, are too remote to change behaviour.

A politician who wants to win the argument should think of the mind as an elephant and its rider, the rider representing reasoning and the elephant representing emotion. If you ask people to believe something that violates intuition, they will find a reason to doubt. “If you want to change someone’s mind about a moral or political issue,” says Haidt, “talk to the elephant first.”

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, is published by Pantheon Books, New York. Nick Cater’s book on the Australian cultural divide will be published next year.