With the US presidential election coming up, I’ve being thinking a lot about voting. Well, not about my actual vote, as I am not a US citizen and therefore can’t vote anyway. I occupy myself with trying to figure out why other people vote for the candidates they do.
Are our political beliefs really our own? Or are we all following a deeply embedded mental script of some sort? Why do we often think the other candidate is “an idiot,” and the one we support is “always right?” Why are some people Republicans, some Democrats and some undecided? Is this nature, nurture, logic, morality, or neuroscience?
It doesn’t take long in conversation with most people to determine their political lean. In fact, human brains are very good at determining intuitively, with remarkably little conscious thought, where others lie on the political spectrum. Often just a few words or sentences can reveal someone’s beliefs.
In Jonathan Haidt’s fantastic book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, he dives right into this issue. The core of Haidt’s argument is that we are all “intuitive politicians” with our beliefs governed more by the moral standards of our upbringing than by our ability to reason.
Moreover, we often use reason simply to justify what we feel about the issue at hand. We use logic not to decide what we should believe based on facts, but to bring our mind in line with our moral sense of rightness.
This is probably why I’m a liberal, having grown up with parents whose entire careers were in public service, dedicated to supplying services that benefitted society at no financial profit to themselves. But I also have centrist-capitalist tendencies, having seen the downside of the socialistic state, where the freedom to excel is constricted by an overbearing sense of fairness for all. I also saw both the financial gain and social pain when a country decided to dismantle “big government” and reform society into a more open economy.
Haidt also explains very clearly the moral basis of the political parties we have in the United States. He observes that in terms of moral persuasion, the Republican moral argument has a broader variety of moral positions (liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity) to draw on than that of the Democrats (care and social fairness).
Haidt’s book is a gripping read if you really want to understand why you vote the way you do, and why you can’t understand why on earth all those “other people” can’t seem to ever see things your way. If you want to make this election special, read the book before you vote.
The main thing is to get out and exercise your right to vote. That’s the most important part of living in the amazing, complicated, freedom-loving democracy that we do. Happy Democracy Day on Nov 6.