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Moralty BInds and Blinds, The Partisan Divide, The Political Divide

Why “Compromise” Rankles

It goes without saying, and yet I’ve said it many times, but just to be sure, so the reader knows where I’m coming from, I’ll say it again:

I think  the work of Jonathan Haidt offers a Rosetta Stone for understanding the political divide AND for working to ameliorate it.  I wish that every person with even a passing interest in politics and social behavior could be given a copy of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion so they could read it, learn it, live it.

That said, I have a bone to pick with Haidt.   Within the first 25 minutes or so of a wonderful talk he gave in Poland, after showing pictures of John Wayne and Rush Limbaugh to illustrate how polarized America has become, he uses the word “compromise.”

In the spirit of the guidance Haidt gave to reviewers of the manuscript of The Righteous Mind in preparation for its publication – i.e., to let him know when they experienced a flash of affect, positive or negative, and to try to explain why – I offer the following thoughts for the reader to use, or not (or tell me what I missed or why I’m wrong), as he sees fit.  Whether there’s any merit to my thoughts here or if they make me look like a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist is up to you.

Here’s the thing:  Haidt’s comments elicit two negative flashes from me and I’m sure many other conservatives as well.

The first flash: Compromise

Haidt uses the concept of compromise as if it is an unalloyed good with no downside, and the path to bipartisanship.

But for reasons I explain below, neither of those is true.  The short explanation is this:  Compromise is the path to bipartisanship in the same way that reason is the path to moral truth.  In short, it isn’t.  And the belief that it is could be called “the compromise delusion.”

So what IS the path to bipartisanship?  I propose that it’s a shared sense of common ground.   I propose that this concept is more congruent with fundamental human nature described in The Righteous Mind than is the concept of compromise, and that because of this it’s ALSO a better fit with Haidt’s message that the best way to converse about politics is to talk to the elephant first.  Be like Dr. Doolittle and “talk to the elephant,” or be like Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan and be an elephant whisperer.  Haidt recommends, first and foremost, in conversations about political or moral issues (same thing, really) that the first thing we should do is find something in what the other person is saying that we agree with, and say so.  Paraphrasing one of Ken Blanchard’s lessons in  says in The New One Minute Manager, catch them saying something right.   I think finding common ground, more than compromise, is the first step toward bipartisanship.  In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that in many cases the shared sense of common ground is a prerequisite without which true compromise is not even possible.  If I had to guess, I’d guess that Haidt would agree. 

Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil are famous for many things.  Among them is the fact that they could fight like cats and dogs during the day, but relax as friends in the evening.  I suggest that the reason they got along as well as they did and were able to compromise is that they were both members of The Greatest Generation and therefore had a shared sense common ground.  

So how did we get to where we are today?  Given the absence of a common cause like WWII, during which, according to a graph Haidt shows in his lecture, bipartisanship was at a peak, and given facts of life like human groupishness and like Haidt’s second principle of moral psychology, “morality binds and blinds,” it appears that something like The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart was all but inevitable.   It also appears, and for the same reasons, that probably the first, and possibly the worst, casualty of The Big Sort is the shared sense of common ground.  The unstated, until now, converse of this logic is that bipartisanship peaked because of the World War, and the expectation that something like The Big Sort would NOT happen is not grounded in the reality of human nature.  It’s a delusion.

Given the choice, I’d rather have hyper-partisanship and no World War than bipartisanship and a war.  It doesn’t help us very much to pine for the good ole days of Reagan and O’Neil laughing it up in the Oval Office (or wherever they were in the picture Haidt shows).  And if I were a glib cynic I’d trot out the standard trope that liberals love to throw at conservatives:  All Haidt wants to do is to turn back the clock to an earlier Neanderthal-like time of bigotry and oppression before the great strides of progress we’ve recently made like Obamacare and the legalization of gay marriage.  Haidt would just LOVE to see poor people without medical insurance, and gays back in the closet.

You get my point (I hope).  Hyperpartisanship is what it is.  Given what we know about human nature and how history has unfolded, how could it be otherwise?  It’s delusional to think things could be different, so far.   All we can do now is, with a clear head and a firm grasp of human nature, the best we can to deal with the reality that’s in front of us.

Getting back to my point; To think that compromise is the path to bipartisanship is to put the cart before the horse of shared common ground.   It’s an illusion, a delusion, to think that the cart can go anywhere without the horse.

Other reasons compromise is NOT an unalloyed good include:

  • It doesn’t always work. Just ask the British how Neville Chamberlain’s compromise with Hitler worked out for them.
  • Compromise, rightly understood, is a win-win, but these days…
  • …that’s not how it’s actually used. When people use the word compromise, what they often really mean, even if they’re unaware of it themselves, is appeasement or acquiescence on the part of the other person.   It works kinda the same way “I’m offended” works.  It’s a trump card with which the user hopes to forego the need for any sort of actual argument and skip straight to getting what he wants.
  • Why compromise when you know the other person is wrong?

I’m sure you can gather the meaning of the first three bullets so I won’t belabor them.  The fourth one is a bit more nuanced than the others so I’ll talk about it a little bit more, but I’ll try to just briefly sketch the outline of my rationale and hope you can fill in the blanks.

The obvious answer to the question posed by the fourth bullet is that the other person believes with equal conviction that I am wrong, and since we all live in moral matrices actual ground truth is hard to come by, and therefore compromise, meeting in the middle, becoming “purple,” is the only logical solution.

But ground truths about human nature do indeed exist.  For example, Haidt’s three principles of moral psychology:

  1. Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second,
  2. Morality is about more than care and fairness, and
  3. Morality binds and blinds.

And yet, many policies and positions are based on value systems that deny, defy, or contradict one or more of these truths.   And in many cases those policies and positions, precisely because they’re based on falsehoods, are mutually exclusive with policies and positions that reflect the truths.   And what that mutual exclusivity means is that there’s practically no possibility of finding common ground without sacrificing truth for falsehood.

Examples of concepts based on the denial of one or more of the three truths are listed below, paired with their mutually exclusive counterparts that are based on the reality of those truths:

  • freedom to vs. freedom from
  • fairness as equality vs. fairness as equity
  • equality of outcome vs. equality under the law
  • justice as redistribution, reparation, and punishment (i.e., retribution and/or vengeance) vs. justice as a process

(For a full discussion of the above list, see the post Liberty, Equality, Justice, and Fairness Mean Different Things In Different Moral Matrices.)

Given the ground truths of the three principles of moral psychology, it’s not a stretch to say the following about these four pairings of concepts that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that given current knowledge of human nature, the first half of each pair is not practically possible, and the latter half likely is.”  A fair and honest reading of The Federalist Papers, I propose, reveals it to be an extensive and thorough argument for precisely this statement.

Why in the world would a person who understands the ground truths of the three principles of moral psychology, and who therefore grasps the practically self-evident truths of the latter half of each pair of concepts, ever compromise them with the former halves?  For the sake of bipartisanship, or for any other reason?

But there’s more to it than just that.    History is rife with empirical evidence which demonstrates that policies and positions based on the first half of the concept pairs, in the long run, do more harm in the aggregate than good, and policies and positions based on the second half of the concept pairs do more good than harm.  See, for example The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, by Thomas Sowell.  And so again, why would a person appease or acquiesce to the former at the cost of the latter?

Why compromise with the cult of reason and its persecution of non-believers – which is almost as strong today as it was in late eighteenth century France – and the resulting pathological altruism that inevitably occurs when that cult embraces only one moral foundation?  It makes no sense.  There’s no upside to it.  At all.

Should school kids “compromise” with bullies, so they take only half their lunch money?  Or, if we’re grownups who happen to be, say,  bakers or photographers, should we “compromise” by acquiescing to the grownup bullies who want to shove down our throats their own personal ideology with the threat that they’ll take away our livelihoods, our lunch money, if we don’t?  Should we “compromise” in this way in spite of the fact that our objections to their ideology are (supposedly) constitutionally protected?  

The First Amendment mandates that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free practice of religion.  It mandates “freedom from” exactly the kind of oppression that bakers and photographers and even high tech CEOs are now being force to endure in the name of “equality.”  And the reason it does this, again, if The Federalist is any measure, is that, like Haidt says about David Hume in the talk he gave in Poland, the Founders were excellent social psychologists.  

The people who refuse to participate in gay marriage are today’s religious conscientious objectors.  In the 1960s and 1970s when religious conscientious objectors refused to go to war they were heroes to liberals.  Today they’re pariahs.  The difference?  In the 1960s and ’70s the objectors’ views were congruent with mainstream liberalism.  Today they’re not.  

In some of his talks Haidt shows a picture of a coffee mug sold by the liberal magazine The Nation.  Printed on the side of the mug is the word (insubordi)Nation.  Liberals are usually proud when people refuse to go along with the satus quo.  It’s a badge of honor.  Except, apparently, when one objects to liberal sacred cows like gay marriage.  In that case one should be removed as CEO, or have his business taken away, or be fined. Contrary to the liberal narrative, it’s not insubordination that liberals sacralize, it’s liberal ideology. Just try being insubordinate to that and see what happens.  And yet, in a pot calling the kettle black sort of way, they’re the first to yell hypocrite! when a conservative slips up.

I suggest a better way.

Why don’t we accept the world as it is rather than pine for a past that we see only through rose-colored glasses?  Why don’t we forsake the false god of “compromise,” and instead till the soil and plant the seeds of REAL COMMON GROUND?  For example, by correctly citing it, rather than “compromise” as the reason The Gipper and The Tipper got along so famously; and the lack of it as the reason we’re Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010?  Why don’t we myth bust the false presumptions about human nature that we labor under, and that exacerbate the Coming Apart, and that prevent us from finding common ground?  Why don’t we replace them with real, actual, truths?  Why don’t we work toward efforts like the education program recommended here and like The Village Square?

The Second Flash: John Wayne and Rush Limbaugh

There’s an old saying: “Nobody is completely useless.  At the very least a person can be used as the horrible example that makes a point.”

It’s true that Haidt is harder on liberals in his book and in his academic papers, but his criticisms in those cases are preceded by tuning up the reader’s mind to be open to the preponderance of empirical evidence he present.

But, for the purposes of a lecture, when he needs a horrible example of how bad the polarization is, it seems to like there’s little if any such tuning up, and he simply cuts to the chase, saying “See?  Republicans!”

And, besides.  Limbaugh was right.  Yes, I just said that, and here’s why:  The hope that Obama would fail was expressed in reference to Obamacare, and/or more generally to Obama’s stated desire to  “fundamentally transform” America into a more statist, more redistributionist, more collectivist, more “freedom to,” more “fairness as equality,”  more “justice as outcome” nation than it already is.  The real question is, how could anyone who understands the fundamental truths of the three principles of moral psychology and the self-evident truths they yield in the latter half of the concept pairs I listed above, NOT hope that Obama fails?   You can see Limbaugh’s explanation of his comment, in his own words, on his own web site, in a transcript from his own radio show, here, and on a different occasion here.  Those are just two of many links that explain what Limbaugh meant and why, and it took me about five seconds to find them.  Literally.  Which makes one wonder, did Haidt bother to look up what Limbaugh actually meant and try to understand it?  Did he think, “must I believe it” and look for evidence? Or did he just think “can I believe it,” find evidence that yes, Limbaugh said it, which he did, and stop?

And finally, Haidt could have just as easily used Obama and Reid and Pelosi as horrible examples of the hyper partisanship, and had he done that he’d have been more factually and conceptually correct, as is the left leaning Brookings Institute found, described herehere, and here.  And it’s not just Brookings.  On August 4 of 2014 The Washington Post ran a story entitled Harry Reid’s Reign of Paralysis.  On April 25 of 2015 The New York Post reported It Turns Out The Gridlock Was All About Harry Reid. On July 31 of 2014 The Desert Sun newspaper in California reported that:

In the past year alone, Senate Democrats proposed 676 amendments but were only permitted to vote on seven. And Senate Republicans proposed 812 amendments but were only allowed to vote on 11. In addition to that, Emperor Reid has blocked votes on 330 House-passed bills that could create jobs, improve our health care system, make our government more efficient, and increase energy production. Harry Reid and his lockstep liberals have caused the gridlock in Washington. They are the real obstructionists.  


If one steps back and looks at the major steps in the argument Haidt presents, they go something like this:

  • we used to get along
  • we used to compromise
  • and that was good
  • but now we don’t
  • and that’s bad
  • why does this bad thing happen?
  • Republicans!

Haidt’s use of compromise and his use of Limbaugh both fall neatly in line with the standard one-foundation style of thought:  over simplification to the point of misrepresentation followed by criticism based on that oversimplification, and compromise as a sacred value.

His implicit message seems to echo what seems to be the standard liberal thought process about conservatives:

Liberalism is the morality of getting along through compromise, conservatives don’t want to compromise with us, therefore they don’t want to get along, therefore they’re immoral and they’re to blame for the Coming Apart.

Liberalism is the morality of care via the “fundamental transformation” of America, Limbaugh and conservatives oppose this sort of care, therefore they’re immoral and they’re to blame for the Coming Apart.


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